It’s April again. In Texas that means bluebonnets and San Jacinto Day. Today is the 180th anniversary of that momentous event. The Battle of San Jacinto is one of those stories that almost sounds made up. It is an improbable chain of events that resulted in the birth of a nation.
There are many fine accounts and histories of that event. There are plenty of sources in the library or bookstore that will tell you anything you want to know about this decisive battle. My purpose here is getting you to reflect a moment on how fortunate we are as Texans. At face value, Sam Houston didn’t have a chance of winning this battle. Think about it.
In the 51 days between the battle at the Alamo and the confrontation at San Jacinto, an interesting set of circumstances began working toward an unlikely climax. After his crushing victory at the Alamo, Santa Ana set his sights on handing Sam Houston and his ragtag army the same fate. As Santa Ana moved north to catch Houston, fear and panic spread throughout the general population. Men, women and children were picking up everything they could carry and left their homes to stay one step ahead of the invading Mexican army. This was known as the ‘Runaway Scrape.’ The Texas government abandoned Washington-0n-the-Brazos and made their way to Galveston.
Sam Houston and his army appeared to be on the run. Houston was at times accused of being a coward because he wouldn’t stop and take Santa Ana head on. President Burnet was about to bust a vein over his frustration with Houston’s apparent refusal to fight. Houston managed to keep Santa Ana at arm’s length—never directly engaging the main force. Santa Ana made some tactical mistakes. He split up his forces into several smaller units each going to other places. One force was under General José de Urrea, who defeated the Texan force near Goliad on March 27th, Palm Sunday. Santa Anna ordered the captured men put to death, resulting in the executing almost 350 Texans. Only 28 men survived the massacre, three of whom would later fight at San Jacinto.
Sam Houston was dumb like a fox. He knew his army only had one battle in it. He could not afford to go head to head with the self proclaimed ‘Napoleon of the West.’ He had to maneuver Santa Ana into a position of weakness. The situation presented itself at San Jacinto. First analysis would indicate the Mexican general had the high ground—but it prevented a clear view of the prairie between himself and the Texas army. Both armies were in place on April 20th. Houston was outnumbered by almost two to one. Houston himself said his army numbered about 750. Other accounts say 900. It’s widely recognized that Santa Ana had 1,400.
What is amazing is that Santa Ana knew that Houston was just 1,000 yards away but never figured on the possibility that Houston might attack him. Santa Ana had already made up his mind to finish Houston’s army off on April 22nd. Houston was familiar with the Mexican custom of the siesta—the mid afternoon nap time. After discussing his battle plan in the morning with his council, he found most wanted to wait for Santa Ana’s attack. Houston had another idea. Houston ordered the burning of Vince’s bridge. It was the only means of escape for both armies. The question of Texas and the Texas revolution was going to be settled once and for all on the battlefield of San Jacinto.
It would appear that Santa Ana was so confident or arrogant that he didn’t order the posting of sentries. As a result, when the Texas army crossed the open field about 4:30 in the afternoon, they were able to get within a few yards of the Mexican army before they opened fire. They caught the Mexican army by surprise during their siesta. To the cries of “Remember the Alamo and Remember Goliad,” the Texas army cut a swath through the Mexican ranks. Chaos and confusion ruled the hour. The carnage was overwhelming. Over 650 Mexicans were killed or drowned as they tried to escape through the surrounding marsh. The actual battle lasted for 17 minutes, although the killing went on long after that. Only nine Texans died as a result their injuries.
In the end, Santa was captured, signed the Treaties of Velasco, in which he agreed to withdraw his troops from Texan soil and, in exchange for safe conduct back to Mexico. He agreed to lobby for the recognition of Texas in the Mexican government. He would renege on the agreements. Mexico never did officially recognize the Republic of Texas.
The Republic of Texas would not have happened without some remarkable and improbable circumstances coming together at a precise moment in time. What if Houston had been forced to go up against the Mexican army before he wanted to? What if he had decided to go and support the Alamo? What if the Mexicans had posted the sentries at San Jacinto? The fact remains; some remarkable, courageous men made a charge against all odds and created a nation. Texas was forged out of a steely resolve—a trait that exist in Texans to this day. For that we should forever be grateful. Texas Forever!