Texas’ War of Independence won the republic its freedom.
Unable to attract large numbers of colonists from Europe, Spain in the early 19th century found its settlements in the region known as Texas (from tayshas, as Caddo Indians called the Spanish) restricted to tiny enclaves around scattered missions, presidios and pueblos beset by hostile Apaches and Comanches. Excluding approximately 4,000 indigenous Indians living there, the population of Spanish Texas in 1820 was barely 4,000, the majority living in La Bahia, Nacogdoches and San Antonio de Bexar (adjacent to the San Antonio de Valero mission established in 1716 known as the Alamo). Spain, in an effort to keep interlopers and Indians at bay during what turned out to be its last years of colonial rule in North and Central America, agreed to allow Anglo-Americans from the neighboring United States to settle in Texas.
Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821 and continued the Anglo settlement program, desiring to have sufficient population in its northern province in case of a return of Spanish armies. Generous land grants were offered to “responsible” Anglo settlers who promised to convert to Roman Catholicism and become Mexican citizens. These empresarios not only could hold the ground against any potential Spanish invasion but also could act as a buffer against hostile Indian incursions for the region’s long-established 4,000 Mexican settlers, called Tejanos.
The first of the American empresarios, Moses Austin, was given permission to distribute 20,000 acres of pristine Texan land among 300 families. From 1823-35, almost 30,000 American settlers arrived, some of whom brought along African slaves. (This would become a contentious issue when Mexico abolished slavery in 1829. By 1835, some 4,000 black slaves lived in Texas.)
In 1822, Mexican rebel leader General Agustin de Iturbide established a constitutional monarchy and began ruling Mexico as an emperor – after which the country spiraled into profound political and fiscal turmoil that lasted for generations. In 1823, he was overthrown by Federalist forces ostensibly led by Antonio López de Santa Anna, an ambitious army officer who went on to dominate Mexico’s political and military affairs for four decades. Mexico then became a republic; the liberal 1824 Mexican Constitution, modeled after that of the United States, granted a great deal of autonomy to regional governments in Mexico’s states (and made Texas a territory, part of Coahuila state).
The Federalists championed the rights of individual citizens and those of Mexico’s states, pushed for land reform and a reduced role for the church, and believed the cotton produced by the slave-owning Anglo settlers would spur economic development. There remained in Mexico, however, strong royalist sentiments – the conservative Centralist Party. This active movement was determined to restore the monarchy in some form and was supported by both the church and the military. The Centralists were hostile to the Texans in the north and opposed the Federalist-sponsored 1824 constitution.
As Anglo settlements in Texas thrived and immigrants from the United States continued to pour in, the Mexican government, swayed by the Centralists, began to fear its expansionist neighbor’s possible designs on the region. To keep Texas firmly part of Mexico and to erect a barrier against further Anglo expansionism, the Mexican government in the late 1820s radically changed its policies: it would halt Anglo immigration, beef up the Mexican military presence in Texas, and send thousands of Mexican colonists north into Texas to keep it truly “Mexican.” An April 1831 law suspended all empresario contracts, importation of slaves into Texas was prohibited, and further Anglo-American immigration was forbidden. Coming after the events of 1829 – when the Centralists displaced the Federalists in Mexico City and voided much of the 1824 constitution – the Texans were alarmed at the arbitrary nature of the new measures.
In 1831, an incident in the port city of Anahuac introduced a young advocate of Texan independence, William Barret Travis, to the unfolding drama when the Mexican government decided to begin collecting customs duties. The belligerent Mexican garrison commander at Anahuac had alienated the colonists by imposing martial law and by attempting to enforce the ban on slavery. When the 7-year exemption on paying duties expired in Stephen Austin’s colony (Moses Austin had died in 1821, leaving his son as director), the settlers chafed at the idea of paying taxes. After merchants and settlers turned to smuggling to avoid payment, Mexican authorities responded by seizing ships and cargoes. When Travis was arrested for inciting trouble, 200 armed colonists marched to Anahuac to free him. Following several skirmishes, Mexican authorities relented, tensions eased and the previously unknown Travis emerged from jail a hero to the Texans.
The troubles of 1831 spread the next year to Nacogdoches when the Mexican commander there foolishly ordered the town’s settlers to surrender their firearms. The continuing political turmoil in Mexico allowed the Texan militiamen to wrap their resistance in the philosophy of federalism, and a tiny force led by Jim Bowie captured, and later released, the local commander and a regiment of Mexican troops. As tensions mounted, the colonists convened a convention to discuss their grievances and to petition the Mexican government for redress, a move that Mexican authorities considered seditious.
Some 50 delegates gathered at San Felipe in April 1833, among them Stephen Austin and Sam Houston, the latter representing the Nacogdoches settlers. The delegates agreed to petition Mexico City to repeal the anti-immigration clause of the hated 1831 law, restore the tariff exemption, and allow Texas to separate from Coahuila and form its own Mexican state. Many delegates, Austin among them, believed Texas should remain within the Mexican federation, while Houston and others were already looking forward to Texas’ independence from Mexico.
When Austin traveled to Mexico City in spring 1833 to deliver the convention’s statehood petition, some resentful government members, like Vice President Valentin Gomez Farias, doubted his sincerity and considered the petition an ultimatum. After Mexican officials gained possession of a letter Austin wrote home, suggesting Texas organize a local government independent of Coahuila with or without Mexico City’s approval, Austin was arrested and imprisoned February 4, 1834. The government, however, did relent and agreed to repeal the anti-immigration statute.
In March 1834, Santa Anna was elected president but remained at his opulent home near Veracruz, claiming illness (he was actually evaluating which way the political winds would blow before assuming office) while the progressive Gomez Farias and Congress enacted liberal reforms. Soon the army, clergy and wealthy landowners, who stood to lose the most, called on Santa Anna to assume his post and act on their behalf.
Santa Anna, who had become a national hero in 1829 commanding forces that defeated a halfhearted Spanish attempt to recapture Mexico (Battle of Tampico) and who had earlier expressed unwavering support for the 1824 constitution, in the spring of 1834 turned to naked despotism. Believing he alone held the key to Mexico’s salvation, the vainglorious soon-to-be dictator dissolved the Congress and unilaterally repealed most of the liberal reforms then in place. The self-styled “Napoleon of the West” (who would rule the republic on 11 different occasions between 1834 and 1855) was an indifferent military commander, an incompetent administrator, and a cynical opportunist motivated purely by vanity and hunger for the political power that would support his lavish lifestyle.
Santa Anna now tightened his grip on the government by dissolving the state legislatures and ordering all state militias disbanded. When Federalists in Zacatecas state refused to disband their large militia, Santa Anna personally led an army against the insurgents, brutally crushing the uprising and allowing his troops two days of rape and pillage, during which 2,000 Zacatecans perished. He then dispatched another force led by his brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos, to Texas to accomplish there what had been done in Zacatecas. A third contingent marched to Anahuac to again collect customs duties, a crackdown that led to renewed strife. After Travis led a band of volunteers to Anahuac and ordered the Mexican commander to surrender his post, the Mexicans evacuated Anahuac and rode off toward the Rio Grande River.
Austin, after his release from prison in 1835, returned to a changed Texas, where by now a thousand immigrants a month were arriving from New Orleans, in most cases asking no leave of either empresarios or the Mexican government. Alarmed at the intermittent resistance to Mexican authority he witnessed, Austin decided Texas – due to the anarchic condition of Mexican politics – should become part of the United States. The ever-cautious Austin felt another convention (or “consultation”) was called for, but events overtook him. General Cos landed on the Texas coast with 500 troops, demanding the citizens of Texas submit unconditionally to governmental authority. “War is upon us,” lamented Austin. “There is no remedy.”
Texan self-confidence soared after the first outbreak of hostilities – hardly more than a skirmish – at Gonzales in October 1835. Mexican civil authorities in San Antonio had loaned the Gonzales settlers a small cannon for self-defense against hostile Indians and demanded its return. The townspeople not only refused to return the cannon but also seized the Mexican detachment sent to retrieve it. A force of 100 dragoons was dispatched from San Antonio to restore order and retrieve the cannon, but after a larger force of attacking Texan volunteers engaged the dragoons in a confusing, almost bloodless melee, the Mexicans withdrew. For the Texans, a threshold had been crossed at Gonzales: shots had been fired and their war for independence had begun.
Unable to gather enough delegates to call a convention, the Texans now reacted in their typical ad hoc fashion: the various communities raised companies of volunteers, which then elected their own commanders. Austin was chosen commander in chief of the coalition of communities. Although the Americans in Texas outnumbered Tejanos by about 10-to-1, Austin astutely hoped to bring aboard as many Mexican Texans as possible. Juan Seguin, a staunch Federalist, soon arrived at Austin’s colony leading a company of Tejanos from a district near San Antonio.
As Cos marched toward San Antonio, a company of 70 Texans and 30 Tejanos attempted to capture him and the rumored thousands of dollars he carried. They failed to take Cos; but rather than retire emptyhanded, they captured the presidio La Bahia fort at Goliad on October 10. Lying astride the main route from San Antonio to the sea, the position held strategic importance. Cos had traveled up the San Antonio River without a fight, but now he couldn’t return without one. Worse, he could not be reinforced except by overland routes, across the hundreds of empty miles that made travel from Mexico south of the Rio Grande to San Antonio a daunting challenge.
In late October, Jim Bowie and James Fannin led 90 Texan insurgents along the San Antonio River to a position outside the Concepcion mission, barely a mile from San Antonio. In a stunning defensive victory, the Texans repulsed several attacks by an enemy force four times their size, killing 60 Mexican troops at a loss of just one Texan. In the heady aftermath of the battle, the longawaited consultation took place.
After 55 delegates from 12 municipalities convened at San Felipe, the consultation leaned toward prosecuting the war under the banner of the 1824 Mexican Constitution. If conditions deteriorated, Texas could then declare for independence. A provisional state government was created with Henry Smith as governor, while Sam Houston replaced the ailing Austin as military commander in chief. Houston tried without success to persuade the volunteers camped outside San Antonio to withdraw; he was convinced San Antonio (and the nearby fortified Alamo mission complex) wasn’t essential to the Texan cause, was too far from the Anglo settlements, and too hard to defend. But Houston would never succeed in shaping his men into a disciplined regular army. From the beginning of the revolution to its end, Texan rebels were irredeemably democratic and far too egalitarian to act like professional soldiers.
Upon hearing that a Mexican relief column – rumored to be carrying a large quantity of silver – was approaching San Antonio from the Rio Grande, Jim Bowie and a small group intercepted the column. After the Mexicans abandoned their wagons and withdrew, the Texans inspected their plunder: only fodder, grass to feed horses and mules. This farcical affair, dubbed the “Grass Fight,” made Texans restive. Many returned to their homes, while others decided to carry the fight to Mexico via an attack upon the city of Matamoros.
Although Texan General Edward Burleson decided to follow Houston’s advice and withdraw his force from the San Antonio region to east of the Guadalupe River, 300 insurgents, including a newly arrived volunteer company known as the New Orleans Greys, instead opted to follow Ben Milam in an attack upon San Antonio’s Mexican garrison on December 5. After three days of houseto-house fighting ended with Mexican forces thinned by desertion and almost out of food and ammunition, Cos surrendered. The Mexicans, the last of Santa Anna’s forces remaining in Texas, were paroled and allowed to retreat south of the Rio Grande. Many of the Texans, underestimating Santa Anna’s vengeful nature and believing the war was won, returned to their farms and settlements in eastern Texas.
Santa Anna, meanwhile, viewed the insurgency as another opportunity for him to demonstrate his indispensability to his country. As was his wont, he would leave the chores of governing to someone else while he marched off and crushed the insurrection. Santa Anna needed a quick, decisive campaign to conserve his army and supplies before the Texan rebels could be reinforced from the United States, but his army faced a daunting 800-mile winter trek through the desolate Chihuahuan desert to San Antonio. There would be little forage or water, while hundreds of camp followers (soldaderas) would strain the army’s weak logistical services. Lieutenant Jose Enrique de la Pena lamented Santa Anna’s woeful preparations: no surgeons or field hospitals to treat the wounded and ill, no tents to provide for the sick or to keep weapons and powder dry, and little or no reconnaissance or military intelligence.
Houston faced a huge task as well, without the proper tools to carry it out. The provisional government was of little help, politicians meddled in military affairs, and lack of funds was a constant problem. Many of Houston’s soldiers were recent arrivals – volunteers from the United States, not citizens of Texas. Attracted by the lure of cheap, bountiful land, they had taken no oath of allegiance to Houston’s army or the Texan government. Houston opposed the proposed (later aborted) Matamoros expedition but lacked the authority to stop it. Henry Smith opposed it as well but couldn’t control the general council, which overruled him and Houston.
After the Matamoros expedition stripped the Alamo of most of its garrison, arms, powder and food, Houston decided the crumbling fort should be evacuated. He sent Bowie to demolish the mission and remove its cannon and other munitions of war. When Bowie arrived at the Alamo, however, he decided it could, and should, be defended. The small remaining garrison of fewer than 200 members – a few regular army troops, some organized militia and quite a few unorganized volunteers – were overconfident in their abilities, ignorant of the size and proficiency of the enemy they faced, and believed they would certainly be reinforced.
Events now unfolded at a rapid pace: a convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos declared independence in early March 1836 while General Jose de Urrea, commanding a force of 1,500 soldiers on Santa Anna’s right flank, won victories over much smaller Texan forces at San Patricio, Agua Dulce and Refugio. Travis, now a lieutenant colonel and in dual command with Bowie of the Alamo’s approximately 200 defenders, saw little hope of reinforcement and was considering surrender or a fighting retreat. The sad truth was that the Texan government that might have been able to organize and send reinforcements to the Alamo had fallen apart in dissension and discord. Meanwhile, Santa Anna was determined to gain a bloody victory that would enhance his reputation and terrorize the Texan populace.
When Santa Anna arrived at San Antonio in late February 1836 with 4,000 to 6,000 troops, including some excellent cavalry and lancer units fresh from quashing insurgencies within Mexico proper, the resulting 13-day siege and ensuing massacre was a forgone conclusion (the Alamo fell March 6). Supremely confident, El Presidente pushed east in three columns, pursuing Houston’s army and terrorizing the countryside in the process. A second force of Mexican troops surrounded, captured and executed almost all of the 400-man command of Colonel James Fannin outside the Goliad mission.
When Houston heard news of the atrocity, he withdrew his last remaining forces eastward, trading space for time, building and training his army as best he could. Thousands of panicked settlers packed their belongings and followed Houston and the Texan government eastward across the rain-swept countryside in a mad scramble for survival in what became known as “The Runaway Scrape.” Throughout March and early April, Santa Anna followed but was unable to corner the Texans, although he once came perilously close to capturing several top Texan governmental leaders, including President David Burnet.
In mid-April, however, the strategic situation changed. Houston learned Santa Anna had unwisely detached himself from his main body with a contingent of about 1,000 men to range ahead, looking for opportunities. When Houston then learned Santa Anna’s actual whereabouts, he placed himself in a position to fight; the hunted had become the hunter. On April 19, Houston left his ailing men and baggage behind and moved out with about 900 troops, crossing swollen Vince’s Bayou and marching east along the southern bank of a flooded tributary of the San Jacinto River called Buffalo Bayou. The next day, Houston and Santa Anna found each other and exchanged artillery fire on a spot of open prairie in a bend of the fast-flowing San Jacinto. The skirmish was inconclusive. Because Houston seemed trapped between two raging rivers and the Mexican force, Santa Anna was content to retire about a mile, hastily construct a semi-fortified camp of brush, packs and saddlebags, and await reinforcements.
Santa Anna was careful to place his camp beyond a slight rise in the prairie so it was protected from Houston’s two 6-pounder cannon, the “Twin Sisters.” He ordered his men to sleep on their weapons and keep a keen watch. Satisfied with his dispositions, the dictator retired for the evening. The next morning, April 21, almost 500 reinforcements arrived, bringing Mexican strength to about 1,450. The Mexican president’s optimism soared; his force outnumbered Houston’s ill-disciplined “rabble” and was in what he believed an easily defensible position. This day he would rest his men, and the next he would conclude his most satisfying campaign ever. Santa Anna ordered his troops to stand down and retired to his tent for an afternoon siesta. His officers and men lounged under the trees, and by 4 p.m. the Mexican camp was silent.
By contrast, the Texan camp was alive with furious activity. At 3 p.m., Houston, convinced his foe wasn’t going to attack, ordered his troops assembled. One Texan wrote, “The announcement of the decision to fight acted like electricity.” Houston dispatched Erastus “Deaf” Smith and six scouts to destroy Vince’s bridge, the only access to his present location. This prevented any further reinforcements from reaching Santa Anna, but also cut off any avenue of retreat for the Texans. At 4 p.m. the dirty, cold, hungry soldiers of the Army of Texas, all 930 of them with Houston and the “Twin Sisters” in the center, emerged from the timber and quickly advanced over the ridge just 500 yards from the enemy’s camp, where, incredibly, no pickets were deployed. (See Battle of San Jacinto map, p. 50.)
Mexican resistance, once the surprised defenders finally responded, was stoutest around their only cannon, a 12-pounder in the center of the breastworks, where General Manuel Castrillon made a courageous stand. Santa Anna’s secretary, Ramon Caro, placed the blame squarely upon his superior: “The principal movement of the enemy was a complete surprise. The rest of the engagement developed with lightning rapidity, so that by the time [Santa Anna] reached our front line it had already been completely routed.”
Organized Mexican resistance ceased within 18 minutes, but at least an hour of indiscriminate killing continued, during which Santa Anna made his escape in the chaos of battle. Once the slaughter was finally halted and Houston’s men had a chance to calm down, a wave of elation swept over the Texans as they realized what they had accomplished. Houston reported 630 Mexican soldiers killed and another 730 captured, of which 208 were wounded. Eleven Texans were slain and 30 wounded.
The Mexican force had literally been erased, but the one man Houston wanted most had eluded death or capture. Unless Santa Anna could be caught, the victory would be meaningless because the Mexican army in Texas still outnumbered Houston’s by 4-to-1. Fortunately, Houston’s luck held, as the haughty dictator was captured the next day. Within a month, Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco. It ended hostilities, withdrew the remaining Mexican forces south of the Rio Grande, and contained a clause under which Santa Anna, in exchange for safe conduct back to Mexico, would lobby for recognition of the new Republic of Texas.
Predictably, the national government in Mexico City refused to recognize the treaty. However, although intermittent ground and naval fighting continued for several years, Texas had won its de facto independence and the men of the Alamo and Goliad had been avenged. Mexico finally officially recognized Texan independence at the close of the 1846-48 U.S.-Mexican War.
In a matter of minutes at San Jacinto, Mexico lost an area of land larger than either of the nations of Germany or France, and events were put in motion that within 12 years would cost Mexico one-third of its sovereign territory – nearly a million square miles – and push the United States “from sea to shining sea.” Seldom in all of military history has more been accomplished in less time.
John Walker is a freelance writer, former paratrooper, and Vietnam veteran from San Diego. Between projects he plans to begin working toward a master’s degree in American history from his alma mater, San Diego State University, as well as a book project on the U.S. Army at the Chosin Reservoir.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Armchair General.