- James Houser
April 21, 1836 - Battle of San Jacinto
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 21, 1836. A force of 783 men creep up on an army twice their size, ready to launch a do-or-die attack. Their leader, Sam Houston, knows that he is gambling the fate of the Republic of Texas on a throw of the dice. “Remember the Alamo!” is their battle cry. The Battle of San Jacinto is on.
This marks the second Texas War of Independence post I’ve done so far. I’ll still give a background in this post, but if you want a more thorough explanation of the backstory you can scroll back on the website and find March 7’s post on the Alamo. Let me know when you’re back. (Sooner or later I'll link it here).
You’re back? Good. You didn’t go back for a refresher? That’s ok, I’ll keep it short.
Since the 1820s, Mexico had allowed American pioneers to settle in their northern border province of Texas. Despite attempts to limit the numbers of settlers, and official Mexican disapproval of slavery, mostly Southern Americans poured into the province. By 1835, most residents of Texas were English-speaking American Protestants. In that year, an Army revolt overthrew Mexico’s old liberal government and established a new conservative autocracy headed by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The Texans (as they were then known) responded by launching an open revolt in October 1835 and expelling the small numbers of Mexican troops in the province.
The Texans knew that retribution was coming. They had elected a provisional government and installed Sam Houston as the commander of their army. Houston was born in Virginia but settled in Tennessee as a teenager. He had fought in the War of 1812, served Tennessee as a House Representative and as Governor, and lived among the Cherokee in Arkansas for three years. He was a strong supporter and close friend of President Andrew Jackson. Houston, then, was already quite a character long before he was made commander of the army; this prestige and his great charisma bought him the post. Plus, who else was there?
The Texans had left a small force of about 150 men in an old mission fortress called the Alamo in San Antonio. Houston was concerned that the Alamo was too exposed and the forces there too small to defend it. He sent Texan officer William Travis to pull the troops out so they could join the army Houston was trying to assemble to the east. Travis, on the advice of local commander Jim Bowie, made the fateful decision to defend the Alamo instead. Even when volunteers arrived to help, the position was indefensible.
In mid-February, Santa Anna’s army appeared like a thunderbolt from the desert and split into two groups. Santa Anna’s force of about 3100 men marched from Laredo northwards to San Antonio to reduce the Alamo, and began their siege on February 19. Despite a valiant resistance from the Texan garrison, the fortress fell on March 6, 1836, after which any survivors of its garrison were executed.
Santa Anna’s second column to the south, under General Jose Urrea, moved along the coast, passing through modern Brownsville. Houston tried to withdraw the troops from Urrea’s path, recognizing that in small detachments they could be picked off and easily destroyed, but many local leaders made the foolhardy decision to stay and fight. Urrea smashed these detachments, assembling a large number of prisoners, but soon received instructions from Santa Anna to execute them all. Urrea protested, but orders were orders. On March 27, Urrea’s forces killed around 425 Texan prisoners, including their leader, Colonel James Fannin.
Santa Anna’s and Urrea’s forces marched deeper into Texas, pursuing Houston’s small army. Houston’s strategy was to conduct a careful retreat, trading land for time – time to build his force, collect volunteers from the United States, and find an opportunity to launch his counterstrike. He had received news of the defeats at the Alamo and Goliad, including the massacre of the prisoners. He knew that whichever battle happened next would decide the struggle, as well as the lives of most of the men under his command. There could be no defeat.
Throughout March and well into April, Santa Anna pursued Houston’s smaller army, but never managed to pin the Texans down. Despite the Texan defeats, Houston’s force was still intact and growing. One good blow might do it in. Santa Anna was impatient and eager to end the campaign since he was facing multiple political problems back in Mexico itself. This is one of the problems when you send your head of state out on military campaign: he can’t do head-of-state things. Anxious that the longer the campaign dragged on, the more political issues would spiral out of his control, Santa Anna led an advance guard of 1000 men forward to push Houston into a fight.
Houston was ready. When he learned that Santa Anna was isolated with a smaller force than before, he realized that this might be his only chance to win a decisive victory. He only had 783 men, but gambled that a surprise attack could overwhelm Santa Anna’s army. This was a major risk: Houston was gambling the entire Texan army that he could win a major battle. In his defense, it was the only option he had. He had to win a victory, and fast, while Santa Anna was weak.
On April 19, Houston left his sick and wounded in a camp and headed out for an engagement with Santa Anna. On the 20th, the two armies met in a sharp little skirmish which ended with Houston’s Texans trapped between Buffalo Bayou and the larger San Jacinto river. With these two fast-flowing rivers to his back, Houston was cut off from escape.
Here Santa Anna made a critical mistake: rather than pressing his advantage, he drew off about a mile to make camp and wait for the rest of his army to come up. He hastily fortified his camp with packs and saddlebags, but took very few precautions. He placed the camp just over a hill from Houston’s force to avoid the fire from Houston’s two small cannon, then ordered his men to keep a good watch and went to sleep.
On April 21, Santa Anna received reinforcements of 500 men, and when the morning saw no activity from Houston decided that he could relax. He settled down for an afternoon siesta, and his dismissive attitude spread across his force. His men were given orders to stand down, and the officers sipped on champagne and tequila until they began to doze. At 1600 on April 21, the Mexican camp was silent.
The Texan camp was not. Houston had his men furious with activity, readying for a fight. He had sent a handful of men to burn the one bridge across the bayou – Vince’s Bridge - that morning. This meant no escape for the Mexicans – or the Texans. Men can say “victory or death” all they want, but Houston made sure it would be their destiny. At 1500, he gave the order to his Army of Texas to move out. He formed them up on the prairie, just below the ridge that separated the two armies. No Mexican sentries spotted them; they were still unnoticed.
Houston made no speech. He stared a long time at the ridge, the great burden on his mind. There was only one choice: win or die. His troops watched in anticipation, but their leader made no speech. He simply drew his sword and pointed the way. The time was 1600. The Texans moved out.
They came closer, and closer, and still no sentries challenged the Texan approach. Houston realized that there *were* no sentries: in one of the worst and most fateful mistakes of military history, Santa Anna had neglected to post them. The Mexicans only noticed the Texans when they were 200 yards away, and by then it was too late.
As the Texans charged, their officers yelled two different messages. The first was that Vince’s Bridge was burned. For most of the soldiers, this was the first they had heard of it, and realized the implication: there was no hope of retreat. The second was the famous cry that started when the few survivors of the Goliad massacre bellowed, “Remember Goliad!” As this cry caught on, it was answered with the one that has gone down in history: “Remember the Alamo!”
The Mexicans never stood a chance. They tried to form up, but there was no time to get into their ranks before the Texans were upon them. The officers could not reassert control of their men, and Santa Anna ran around wringing his hands in anguish. The Texans stormed into the camp, shooting and stabbing, all with that terrible, justifying cry “Remember the Alamo!” The Mexicans shattered. Those who tried to surrender died; those who fled were run down by cavalry. When they got to Vince’s Bridge and found it destroyed, they tried to swim the river and were ripped away by its currents. Only after the initial fury of vengeance had passed did the Texans accept surrender. The battle had lasted 18 minutes.
When the Battle of San Jacinto ended, the Texans had lost 9 dead and 23 wounded, including Sam Houston with a bullet in his ankle. The Mexicans had been virtually wiped out: 630 dead, 208 wounded, and 730 prisoners. Santa Anna himself had fled just before the camp was overrun, but on April 22 his luck ran out. A Texan patrol brought in a scruffy-looking soldier who they thought was just another private, but his idiot soldiers yelled “Esta el Presidente!” and the jig was up. Although most of the Texans started measuring the Mexican President for a noose, Houston realized he needed the Mexican alive. He forced Santa Anna to sign a treaty recognizing the Republic of Texas, and only then released him to the tender mercies of the Mexican government.
The fallout from the Battle of San Jacinto was tremendous. Texas was for all intents and purposes independent, and the next nine years encompassed agonizing guerrilla warfare between Texans and Mexicans across the Rio Grande. In 1845, the United States would accept Texas’s application for statehood, which also awarded America all of Texas’s problems. The question of Texas’s border caused trouble, however. Santa Anna’s treaty had set the Texan border at the Rio Grande, but the Mexican government rejected the treaty as invalid. They set the border at the Nueces River to the north. This treaty dispute would lead to war between the United States and Mexico a year later.
The annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War inflamed already heated passions about slavery in the United States, which would of course lead to the Civil War. 18 minutes on the San Jacinto river on a cold April morning in Texas set both America and Mexico on a collision with destiny.