by Paul D. Perry
On the afternoon of April 21, 1836, at San Jacinto, an army of outnumbered frontiersmen charged the most experienced professional army in the Western Hemisphere.
The professional soldiers, with the afternoon sun in their eyes, panicked. Their commander had been out-positioned. Superbly led, the frontiersmen were partially shielded by a gentle rise in the landscape until they were almost among the sun-blinded professionals. The battle lasted only about 20 minutes, the rout for about another hour. The professionals - the vanguard of Mexico - were annihilated.
On the following day, the general and dictator Santa Anna was in Gen. Sam Houston's custody. The war for Texas independence was over.
In our time, most in positions of leadership wish to avoid controversy at all costs. If a stand must be taken on any issue, that position usually will be the easiest for that political leader to make. Decisions made by modern leaders often favor security over liberty. Our rights and liberties - the very foundations of our freedoms - are forgotten in the rush to make the most insecure in our society, comfortable.
In contrast, I think we should cherish the memory of those leaders who understood that we are a people whose heritage and values demand liberty and who understood that ordered liberty fosters the strongest of peoples. On April 21, 1836, one leader risked all his security and comfort and his very life for liberty. In honor of San Jacinto Day, let's take a look at this leader: Sam Houston.
The fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, left Col. James Walker Fannin's force of about 300 men at Goliad as the only army worthy of the name in the Mexican state of Texas. These troops were defeated and then executed by March 20, 1836. The army that routed the Mexican army at San Jacinto was largely gathered and trained by Sam Houston in less than one month.
In gathering and training his army, Houston overcame the panic of the countryside, the episode known as the "runaway scrape." Entire families left their homes in anticipation of a bloody advance by Santa Anna.
Able-bodied men - many more boy than man - joined Houston's army ready to fight to defend their homes. Their families fled east in what was reported as deep Texas mud and "rivers swollen with spring rain." In Lone Star, T.R. Fehrenbach reports that watching the civilians' miserable exodus, one of Houston's captains, "Moseley Barker, broke down and cried." Houston's frontiersmen begged him to face Santa Anna and fight. Houston retreated.
At one point Houston's army had grown to 1,400 men. Near mutiny, many frontiersmen returned to their families, tired of the army's retreat. By the day of the battle, Houston's army had dwindled down to about 900.
This army of settlers was obviously not a disciplined force, but the opportunity to prove itself was to be made by two men. Sam Houston had the credentials to lead an army of hard, tough, individualistic and freedom-loving men. He had served with distinction during the War of 1812, facing the Creek Indian Nation, which had allied itself with the British. He knew how to fight a frontier war. He was also a former Tennessee governor and congressman. He had risen to the rank of Major General in the Tennessee militia, and he knew how to motivate the frontiersmen; many of his Texas command he knew by family reputation in Tennessee.
Santa Anna was the prototype of the modern Strong Man Dictator. Although he was elected to the position of President of Mexico by the legislature, he broke a political promise to all of Mexico and Texas and refused to resurrect the Mexican Constitution of 1824. When the Mexican state of Zacatecas rose in revolt to the evolving dictatorship, Santa Anna, who eventually styled himself as the "Napoleon of the West," moved in with troops and crushed the revolt and in effect established a police state. Santa Anna conducted a similar operation in the Yucatan. The Texians chafed at these events, having been promised the protections of the now-abolished Mexican Constitution by Santa Anna and attempted to form a separate state within Mexico.
After the Alamo, Texas sought total independence. Perhaps to underline that desire, Lorenzo de Zavala, a former resistance leader who had opposed Santa Anna's forces in the Yucatan, was made Texas' first Vice-President.
True to his own arrogance, after the defeat of Texas forces at Goliad, Santa Anna indicated in his notes that he regarded the rest of the Texas campaign as a mopping-up operation or "little more than a military parade." He needed a bigger mop and less ego.
He regarded his adversaries as inept. Indeed, Texas scout Erastus "Deaf" Smith captured a Mexican army courier on April 18 who said, according to Fehrenbach's Lone Star, that Santa Anna believed Houston let himself be trapped.
Houston had marched his 918-man army into a corner at San Jacinto, but ironically, Santa Anna commanding his now-isolated 1,200-odd troops marched into General Houston's trap. Houston then had Deaf Smith and his scout contingent destroy the best escape route for both armies, Vince's Bridge, setting the stage much like George Washington had in a climactic battle in an earlier war for independence. Both armies were then surrounded on two sides by water, on a third by swamp.
After a month of retreat, Houston was able to control his men well enough to time the attack. The ferocity of Houston's army had been cultivated by memories of the Alamo and Goliad, not to mention concern for their own families. In Texian vernacular, they were chomping at the bit.
Sam Houston's men were described in Mexican army reports to be large, strong and sure shots, the same reports issued from Mexican officers at the Alamo. The Texas troops at San Jacinto were still feral and barely under the control of a man who, through his kinship and experience, understood them. The Mexican army had lost artillery, supplies and its edge marching through deep mud born of an exceptionally wet spring.
A little known part of the story is a how a small Texas Navy fought heroically to prevent the Mexican army from being re-supplied by sea.
Like at the Alamo, a significant minority of the Texas troops were Texian settlers of Mexican and/or Spanish descent, often referred to as Tejanos. For instance, on the Texas left at San Jacinto, more than 150 Hispanic men were commanded by Juan Seguin. Ironically, a cousin of Juan Seguin was to figure in another victory by Mexican constitutionalists over Santa Anna as well as a defeat of French occupiers a few decades later.
Positioned to make the best of their native strengths, the Texans advanced under Massachusetts native Col. Sidney Sherman on the left, while Georgian Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar's cavalry cut off any possible exit on the right. The Mexican army, conditioned by following a dictator, was dependent upon the tactical orders of superiors and upon fighting in formation. The Mexican army with the sun in its eyes awaited organized command; they were forced into a disorganized cluster. They were defeated in many simultaneous small group and individual actions that maximized individual initiative, a Texian strength. Once the battle started, the Texians didn't wait for orders.
As we remember April 21, 1836, I think we should reflect on those who cherished constitutional liberty enough to sacrifice for it and those leaders like Sam Houston who are wise enough to help us who cherish liberty find and use the best in ourselves. Happy San Jacinto Day.