HOUSTON – With an afternoon to kill recently wife Ellie and I were torn between two local choices: Should we visit the Van Gogh exhibit at the museum? Or the San Jacinto Battlefield?
You may be aware the battlefield is where an outnumbered but enraged group of Texans led by Sam Houston crushed a regiment of Mexican regulars commanded by Mexican President and dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The battle put Texas on the road to becoming an independent nation.
Ellie and I opted for the latter, and from talking with life-long Texans I gather details of the battle are not well known to many and the site not often visited. Maybe that’s because the location is not exactly convenient. The 1,200-acre, slightly overgrown state park is on the ship channel, down a row of refineries, about 22 miles southeast of Houston.
And while the Texas victory is a source of pride for many, what happened in the hour following the 18-minute battle should not be.
To understand what happened, consider how the Texan and Mexican forces came to face each other and why the Texas volunteers were so steamed. The short version is that people in Texas, American and Mexican alike, were chafing under diktat rule from Mexico City.
Santa Anna had suspended the Mexican constitution of 1824, modeled after the U.S. document, declared a hard line against all dissident Texas residents, and marched north to personally eliminate troublemakers. Operating under a decree that rebel Texans were “pirates,” he literally killed or ordered executed every one he could find.
Everybody knows the story of the Alamo, but the second major battle in the fight for Texas independence occurred three weeks later near Goliad, about 90 miles east of the Alamo. There, more than 400 Texans were executed after surrendering under a reported promise they would be treated well and repatriated to the United States.
Santa Anna overrode his officer’s pleadings to spare their lives and when the executions were over, he took part of his army and set out to finish off the rest of the rebels. While he struck out after Houston and the main force of the Army of Texas, he ordered one command to mop up along the coast while sending others north of his line of march.
Much to the dismay of Houston’s officers, spoiling for a fight after the Alamo and Goliad, the Texas commander refused to engage and insisted on falling back to the east again and again. Grumbling about the continued retreats got so bad that at one point Houston threatened to shoot complainers. Bolstered by word of Santa Anna’s executions of prisoners, Houston had no trouble recruiting volunteer fighters, including Mexican residents of Texas, along his lines of retreat. Tired Mexican regulars marched trying to find Houston while stretching their supply lines ever thinner.
Eventually, the two armies came close together in a marshy area between Buffalo Bayou (now the ship channel) and the San Jacinto River. Against advice from his own officers, Santa Anna ordered his 1,200 men to pitch camp in a low lying grassy area behind a ridge and with their backs to the river.
The Mexican soldiers, some of whom were dog tired and hungry from a forced 24-hour march, believed they greatly outnumbered the Texans, by then numbering about 900. Houston, meanwhile, camped his men in a wooded area that partially obscured their numbers less than a mile from the Mexican camp. The Mexican troops set up a primitive barricade but did little else to prepare for battle. They never posted a guard and settled down for a nap, thinking they would finish off the rebels once rested.
Historians also say the Mexican troops were dispirited, undersupplied and not used to operating in a humid coastal swamp so far from home. Too, some accounts say his own officers were ashamed and discouraged at Santa Anna’s treatment of prisoners.
At 4:30 p.m. on April 21, 1836, less than six weeks after the fall of the Alamo, Houston would retreat no more. He ordered cavalry detachments to charge left and right around the hasty Mexican army barricade while he led his main force straight up the center, his “twin sister” cannons belching grapeshot. The battle lasted about 18 minutes but for the next hour, maybe more, angry Texans continued to rain hellfire on the routed Mexican soldiers. Some surrendered and begged for mercy to no avail, pleading “mi no Alamo.”
Another reason for the rout was the Mexican troops were trained in the European style of warfare with defined lines firing intermittent volleys from single shot muskets. Caught by surprise, they were overrun before they could form up and never got off a single volley. As individual fighters, they were no match for the Texans.
When the black powder smoke finally cleared 11 Texans had been killed while 650 Mexicans were dead and as many taken prisoner.
Santa Anna, when he realized what was happening, dressed in an enlisted man’s uniform and tried to hide in the brush along the San Jacinto River. He was caught the following day, identified by his well-meaning and respectful surviving troops who saluted and called out “Sr. Presidente.” Or maybe they weren’t so well intentioned. Although many Texans wanted to shoot him on the spot, Houston prevailed and instead accepted Santa Anna’s offer to order Mexican soldiers to withdraw from Texas.
At one point before splitting his forces, Santa Anna had an army of some 6,000 men. The Texans knew they could not stand against the balance of Santa Anna’s army, but the reinforcements they feared never arrived. In fact, when they received Santa Anna’s order to withdraw from Texas, many of the Mexican troops were only too happy to comply. Though it was discussed for years, the Mexican army never did get around to reconquering Texas.
Texas, of course, joined the union in 1845, and in the following two years the United States went to war with Mexico, gaining all or parts of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming under the Treaty of Guadalupe.
An interesting footnote to the San Jacinto battle: Houston was worried his Mexican volunteers might be mistaken for Mexican soldiers in battle. Houston tried to get them to stay behind as a rear guard but they would have none of it. So he had them put a piece of cardboard in their hatbands in hopes of being distinguished from the Mexican soldiers.
The battleground site is marked by a 570-foot obelisk with the Texas star atop. If you think that must be nearly as big as the Washington Monument, you would be wrong. In typical Texas fashion, the San Jacinto Battleground Monument is 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument.
The base of the monument houses a museum, store and theater, while the surrounding and somewhat overgrown grasslands have a reflecting pool and granite markers, some explaining who fell where and when. Even replicas of the “twin sisters” cannons are on display.
There is one other nearby attraction to enhance a visit – the Battleship Texas. Commissioned in 1914, the 573-foot dreadnought class warship saw action in both world wars and is a floating museum docked in an inlet off the ship channel a few hundred yards from the monument.
The ship is floating but in need of constant repair. Plans have been drawn to permanently ground the ship but so far money to finance that project has not been available. The effort is spearheaded by the Battleship Texas Foundation in partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The battleground and the battleship Texas are separate entities.