Today is the 174th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, the great Texas victory near what is now Houston that was the pivotal battle of the Texas War of Independence. General Sam Houston’s 900 or so Texans surprised and routed Mexican President-General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s 1,350 Mexicans in just 18 minutes.
Despite the vanishingly small numbers engaged, San Jacinto turned out to be decisive, chiefly because, on the morning following the battle Texan scouts captured Santa Anna himself, and Texas was able to subsequently extort enough of a settlement from the captive Mexican leader to make independence stick. For Mexico, San Jacinto turned out to be the first major blow in a process that lost that country not only Texas, but its entire north – today the American west. San Jacinto, the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War are obscure subjects to most Americans today. Not so in Mexico, which has not forgotten its lost northern territories.
As a military campaign, the Mexican side of the Texas Revolution has always been of great interest to me. The 1,350 Mexican soldiers the Texans defeated at San Jacinto were only a portion of the Mexican forces available in Texas. The Mexican Navy had total control of the Gulf of Mexico and free movement up and down the Texas coast all during this period, and Santa Anna’s “Army of Operations” had almost 6,500 troops in Texas. The Texans had lost nearly 500 men at Goliad, in addition to the 183 killed at the Alamo (which also held most of the available Texan artillery). Houston’s 900-odd half-trained recruits with two guns were the sum total of rebel forces available. How, then, did Mexico lose this war?
Remembering the Alamo and Goliad sometimes obscures the fact that up through the fall of the Alamo, Santa Anna ran a pretty good campaign. Just getting an army from central Mexico to Texas was a massive military accomplishment before railroads and the internal combustion engine. The Mexicans had to bring their army across the northern Mexican desert and keep it in food and water, and haul along a big enough margin of supplies for operations such as the Alamo siege. (Food and fodder would normally be bought or “requisitioned” locally, but armies needed extra supplies for periods when they were largely stationary, such as a siege, when local food supplies would quickly be exhausted).
The massacre of the Alamo defenders, as well as Texan prisoners at Goliad and other places in early March probably appeared to Santa Anna to have cleared the boards as far as his campaign was concerned. The rage and fear his actions generated among Texans for a time seemed to work in his favor, as colonists packed up their possessions and fled east, in headlong flight for the US/Texas border. Clearing the majority of the Anglo colonists out of Texas (and no doubt replacing them with military colonies of settlers from his armies) was no small part of Santa Anna’s plans to secure Texas for Mexico – which probably explains his ruthless policy towards Texan prisoners.
In retrospect, the Battle of San Jacinto was lost for Mexico before its first shot was fired, sometime between the fall of the Alamo on 6 March 1836, and San Jacinto, on 21 April, that is, during the period of the so-called “Runaway Scrape.” After the Alamo and Goliad, the last major Texan military force was Houston’s army, which hovered near Gonzales all during the Alamo siege. Upon hearing of the fall of the Alamo, Houston realized that he could not hope to meet Santa Anna’s concentrated forces in the field, and he moved his army east, towards the US border. Settlers fled too, and they were encouraged to destroy their property (particularly food) before leaving.
The US border. . .Santa Anna no doubt desired to close out his war quickly, primarily to forestall US intervention, and he moved out rapidly in pursuit of Houston. Santa Anna, in his capacity as President of Mexico, had already addressed letters to US President Jackson, warning Jackson against interference in Texas, and stating that Americans captured in arms in Texas would be treated as pirates. Santa Anna was probably aware of the personal and political connections between Jackson and Sam Houston, and he would have wanted to finish the war quickly, before the US could decide to intervene.
The Mexican military and political situation the morning after the Alamo fell was not unlike the US/UN situation in Korea in 1950, after MacArthur’s lighting reconquest of South Korea from the invading North Koreans. Much like Santa Anna in Texas, MacArthur was in a hurry to end the war with the complete conquest of North Korea before China could interfere. Consequently, MacArthur (as his armies moved into North Korea) threw prudent military planning out the window in the name of haste. Just as Santa Anna probably considered the Texans, MacArthur thought the North Koreans beaten, and his primary concern was getting his forces to the Chinese border at the Yalu to block Chinese intervention, not caring if in the process his troops got scattered all over the map. . .
For somewhat similar reasons, Santa Anna made haste for the US border, following Houston, wearing his jaded troops out with forced marches trying to bring him to battle and get on to the border. Wikipedia’s article on the Texas Revolution speculates that Sam Houston might have intended to retreat clear across the US border and possibly trigger American intervention (a US army was assembling on the border). We cannot know if Houston actually had this possibility in mind, and in retrospect it seems politically unlikely, but Santa Anna had to take it seriously, and try to catch Houston before he got there.
Whenever I drive to San Antonio, I imagine the barefoot Mexican conscripts, cheap shoes long disintegrated, marching day after day in either hot sun or torrential rains, fording swollen rivers, mainly concerned with foraging for food. The siege of the Alamo had probably consumed much of Santa Anna’s initial stockpile of supplies. The forced marches, the scorched-earth Runaway Scrape of the settlers (burning food needed by the Mexican Army), and Santa Anna’s own uncertainty as to Houston’s precise whereabouts and intentions led Santa Anna to allow his army (fairly concentrated after the Alamo) to become increasingly dispersed as the pursuit wore on. As Santa Anna closed in on the US border, near what would be the battlefield of San Jacinto, only 850 or so men were with him. The rest of his army was scattered.
Santa Anna deeply admired Napoleon, and is said to have called himself the “Napoleon of the West.” I wonder if Santa Anna knew anything about Napoleon’s Battle of Marengo in 1800? Napoleon, trying to pin down an Austrian army in northern Italy, was concerned the Austrians would slip by him, and avoid battle. Napoleon was uncertain of the Austrians’ location, and dispersed his troops to block possible routes of escape. . .but on the morning of 14 June 1800, near the village of Marengo …he stumbled into the whole “missing” Austrian army, with a only a fraction of his own forces present, and was nearly destroyed. In the event, reinforcements arrived, and Napoleon prevailed.
On his own day of surprises, Santa Anna was not as lucky as Napoleon, nor as bright. 500 last minute reinforcements, led by Santa Anna’s brother in law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, gave Santa Anna a bit of a numerical advantage, but Santa Anna squandered it by failing to post sufficient pickets. On the morning of 21 April 1836, the Texans attacked Santa Anna, surprising his force in camp, with the bulk of his army scattered behind him all over the Texas coastal plain like MacArthur’s on the Yalu when China came into the war, or Napoleon’s on the morning of Marengo.
In just eighteen minutes Houston and his Texans swept all Santa Anna’s campaign plans and greater geopolitical concerns about American intervention, Anglo colonization of Texas and a Mexican empire in the west right into the dust bin. The next morning, 22 April 1836, Texan scouts found Santa Anna near a burned bridge, hiding in tall grass, having doffed his splendid uniform for that of an infantry private. Mexico would now have its cup of bitterness filled to the dregs, and the captive President-General would soon put his name to the Treaties of Velasco, which gave Texas a viable legal claim to independence.
More battles, a Texas-Mexico cold war and a much bigger hot war with the US in 1846 would follow, but for Mexico, San Jacinto, was the real disaster that lost an empire.