Monday, April 21, 2008


Texas, 1836

The Alamo, under Travis and Bowie, had fallen. The defenders of Goliad had been massacred, after what their commander, Fannin, had thought was an honorable surrender.

The provisional government of Texas had met and declared independence from Mexico, after General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had refuted the Constitution of 1824 and set himself up as dictator. The Texas forces under Sam Houston, were in full retreat. Houston desperately tried to consolidate his resources and train his men into a semblance of an army. Santa Anna was in hot pursuit, determined to destroy those dedicated to a free Texas. Most of these were of Anglo descent, but many were Tejanos, of Spanish and Mexican Indian stock, some of whom had been in the area since the 1500s.

Santa Anna considered the fate of Mexico and his own personal fortunes inextricably bound together. The dictator, called "Tyrant" and "The Bastard," by Mexican and Anglo alike, could ill afford to allow any showing of independence on the part of the Texians, fearing that if he granted any requests, he would lose his iron-fisted control. To this end, he had ordered the disarmament of the Texas settlers in the fall of 1835. This resulted in the unthinkable act of defiance by inhabitants of Gonzales: They refused to turn in a small, antique Spanish field piece held to impress hostile Indians. They were likewise determined to hold their powder, shot and small arms. The settlers took a bed sheet and black paint and made a banner: A cannon tube, a single, five-pointed star, and the words, "COME AND TAKE IT." It may have been the first use of the Lone Star symbol on a Texas flag, and under this crude device, these recalcitrant individuals successfully repelled a Mexican force sent to confiscate the munitions.
Gonzales Battle Flag
The largely symbolic victory at Gonzales was the prologue to armed conflict between the settlers in Texas and the Tyrant's forces. It presaged the Texians' truly significant expulsion of the Mexican garrison from San Antonio de Bexar in December. Santa Anna's reprisal took the form of the complete annihilation of the Texians defending the Alamo and San Antonio the following March.

Houston knew his enemy. He realized that he needed to capture Santa Anna and compel him to order Mexican forces out of Texas, because, in the long run, the larger, better disciplined armies would inevitably overcome the willing but unorganized Texians. Houston's awareness of the situation may have lacked strategic coherence, but at some point it became clear to him that tactically, he would have the upper hand if he could constrict the portion of the Mexican forces personally led by Santa Anna before they could join with other, stronger columns coming overland from Mexico.

To this end, Houston led his rag-tag army to the area bounded by the confluence of the Brazos and San Jacinto Rivers, and Buffalo Bayou. On 20 April 1836, both forces arrived upon the plain of San Jacinto. The low, marshy area became an island when Houston sent Deaf Smith and his scouts to destroy Vince's Bridge. Some say the wood was too green or too wet to burn properly. Others say Smith decided to chop down the bridge, to keep from alerting the nearby Mexican forces by the smoke. In any case, this robbed Santa Anna's forces of a valuable withdrawal route.

Houston had planned to allow his little army, probably numbering fewer than 800, but certainly well under one thousand, a period of rest and "organization," after the lengthy chase. The battle plans called for an attack on the 22nd, but sentiment was for immediate attack, and Houston determined to strike while morale and the blood lust were high. It mattered not that they were seriously outnumbered. The actual numbers of the enemy are in dispute, even today. Probably 1,500 Mexican troops. Possibly as many as 2,500 had arrived. But if they were as few as 800, these were organized, blooded, veteran troops. Few were recruits. Most had been blooded at Zacatecas and at Bexar and at dozens of battles in the internal strife of Mexico. Say what you will about the Tyrant or the government of Mexico, the typical veteran Mexican soldado was tough, a good fighter, and, by the standards of the day, pretty well equipped and organized. Even had the numbers been equal, the Texians would have faced a daunting task.

The Texian settlers, whatever their origins, seem to have been long on guitars, banjos and mandolins, and quite short on instruments of martial music. There was no bugle, no trumpet, and not a bagpipe in the crowd. There was a German with a fife, and a Negro freeman had a drum. Two other musicians came forward, probably with flutes or fifes. The four knew no military or patriotic music in common. Houston soon had them practicing a popular air of the day, an off-color little ditty called, "Come to the Bower."

San Jacinto Battle Flag

The small army had no field artillery for support, save for two small tubes donated by Ohioans, and which had been shipped through Galveston, lacking any sort of mounts. Makeshift carriages had been cobbled together while on the march, and these two little four-pounders, christened "The Twin Sisters," were ready for action that afternoon.

The history books tell the tale very eloquently: T. R. Fehrenbach, in his work, LONE STAR, gives the order of battle, and the commanders of the various units. There have been entire tomes written about The Battle (The capitalization is intentional) and the preceding events and the aftermath and the long term results. Read and learn of Lamar's sixty cavalry and Burleson's First Regiment and Hockley with the two little field pieces. And the rest . . . .

It was 4:00 p.m. In the bright sunlight, there was still some mist rising off the sluggish bayou. Houston, up on Saracen, made no memorable speech. Those nearby said he merely told them to hold their fire and make it count. He drew his sword and yelled, "Forward--Texas!”

The music screeched out, "Won't you come to the bow'r I have shaded for you?" The line surged forward and men bent their backs to moving the Twin Sisters over the moist, soft, soil. They went up the gentle rise and came into full view of the Mexican camp. There were shouts and a few musket shots by sentries, still hundreds of yards distant. At about this point, someone, probably Colonel Sidney Sherman, first screamed out, "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" Those around him took up the cry, and it swept the line, and seemed to overwhelm the gunfire.

The twenty-first of April, 1836. Four o'clock in the afternoon. The rag-tag, poorly outfitted, nearly unorganized Army of the new Republic of Texas, eight hundred strong, charged headlong into a fortified position held by twice their number of the finest military force in the Western Hemisphere - - - and whipped them to a fare-thee-well!

It is said the battle lasted eighteen minutes, but the slaughter went on for hours. Every Texian present had lost a relative or close friend or lodge brother in the past few months. Frustration and privation, fatigue and hunger, dedication and blood lust - - - All were vented for hours, until individuals began reckoning, "There's been enough killing for one day."

The butcher's bill:

Mexican dead 630

Wounded and prisoner 200

Unwounded prisoners 430

Texian killed or later died of wounds: 9

Wounded but surviving 25

The many prisoners taken, thankfully, included the Emperor-General, His Excellency Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Brought before Sam Houston, who was grievously wounded in the leg, Santa Anna readily agreed to sign orders that all Mexican military forces immediately withdraw from combat and return to Mexico, pending a formal treaty. The following month, at the Treaty of Velasco, the war ended, and Mexico, at least temporarily, recognized the Republic of Texas.

And the remainder of the story? In February, 1846, Texas was annexed by the United States, bringing in parts of present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado.

Texas after San Jacinto

Mexico, while disputing the border, had been grudgingly tolerant of the Texas Republic, but protested when the U. S. A. moved troops to the Rio Grande. The Mexican-American War ensued, a war indeed a story unto itself, and one which would not have been fought but for the Texian victory at San Jacinto. The Mexican War formally ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ratified in July, 1848. This resulted in the U. S. purchase of California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming. In short, The Battle gave substance to the Manifest Destiny of the United States of America.

Territory ceded by Mexico to the USA

The Battle of San Jacinto has been described as one of the ten watershed battles of history, in long term results. Waterloo, Agincourt, Tours, Lepanto, Yorktown, Gettysburg, Stalingrad, Kursk-- Never to belittle the sacrifice of life or the suffering at any of these—— San Jacinto, with under nine hundred casualties total, ranks in significance with them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

One must always wonder: At what point has a course of conduct inexorably begun? At what point might it have been stopped? Just ponder - -

If General Gage had decided NOT to seize the munitions at Lexington - - - -

If Santa Anna had NOT demanded that little gun at Gonzales - - - -

And, mainly, if either place had not been populated by FREE PEOPLE who cared more about their freedom than possibly getting hurt.

GOD BLESS TEXAS! GOD BLESS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! And may The Almighty forever bless and protect freedom-loving people everywhere.

--With due acknowledgment to T. R. Fehrenbach, Allen Damron, Tim Henderson, and others. - - - JPG


Old NFO said...

Great Post!!!! Thanks for sharing this piece of history with us.

JT said...

Outstanding, sir! Since moving to the Former Republic 2 years ago (I'm one of those "wasn't born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could"), I've been saying I'm going to read up on my Texas history, and bought Fehrenbach's Lone Star with that intention. Your post gave me goose bumps and will be the catalyst to me putting down the book I'm reading now and getting into Lone Star.

Thank you, and keep up the good work.

HollyB said...

He DOES make history come alive, doesn't he? I just love that about him! He woulda made a great teacher, but then Law Enforcement would have lost a shining example of honesty and diligence.

Anonymous said...

The town of Frelsburg is named after one "Captain" Frels. He brought settlers into Texas from Germany. He was at the Battle of San Jacinto.

His sister married my g/g/grandfather. Every time I see the monument above the horizon when I drive along I-10, I sorta nod to the old folks...


Jay Stout said...

Absolutely, I believe that the importance of San Jacinto is not appreciated by historians who tend to focus on "bigger" events.

I recently went through a similar exercise with Goliad ("Slaughter at Goliad--The Mexican Massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers," Naval Institute Press, April 2008). Mostly, the massacre created terror and fear--and a greater rush of refugees. It also horrified Americans and completely turned public sentiment against Mexico. Too, among some, it created the desire for revenge.

But what if Fannin and his men at Goliad had survived and caught up with Houston? Would they have fought at San Jacinto or somewhere else with similar results? I doubt it. Would Santa Anna have been captured? I doubt that as well. Would Houston and Fannin have quarreled? Perhaps.

It's interesting. Goliad was a tragedy...but the train of events that followed ended with San Jacinto and independence for Texas.

Jay A. Stout, Author: "Slaughter at Goliad"

J.R.Shirley said...

Thanks. Stirring and informative.

SpeakerTweaker said...

Absolutely brilliant. Well written, sir. Quite well.

It's a little funny (a little) that stuff like this often begins with, or otherwise involves, disarmament of free peoples.

Anyhoo, Holly, being a teacher is a fine profession, no doubt. But, there is something tremendous to be said for leading by example. Mr. JPG embodies this, methinks.


Anonymous said...

I concur with JT, the hair on the back of my neck stood up when reading Houstons instructions to his men. I could almost see Him standing in the stirrups, waving his sword and hollering at the top of his lungs. History come alive indeed. Well Done.

JPG said...

Thank you all for the very kind words. As Tamara noted, you can usually tell when a writer is fond of the topic.

Desertrat - - I'll keep an eye out for that monument next time I breeze along I-10, Art.

JT - -
I am inappropriately proud of my Native Texan status. It is, after all, just a matter of choosing one's parents carefully. * Grin * I have long held that naturalized Texans should be accorded equal respect and perks, the only qualification being that they really WANT to be Texans. We're proud to have you here, JT. Belonging here is more a matter of attitude and love than a birthplace. Two observations, and I wish I could claim either as my own: Texas is a State of Mind. And from the early days, Texians ain't nothin' but ordinary people, stuck 'way out on a limb.

I am especially flattered that my effort drew remarks from Lt. Colonel Jay A. Stout, USMC Ret. This veteran aerial warrior is also an author of some note, with several historical books to his credit. (See ) After reading his comments above, I Googled up Slaughter at Goliad. I immediately placed an on-line order for that book and his Hammer From Above as well.

Indeed, it pays to advertise. I appreciate your observations, Colonel, and will look forward to reading your books.


Bag Blog said...

That was a wonderfully told story! When I was teaching in Questa, NM, my Hispanic students oftened teased me about my "Texas accent." I posted a map of the origional Texas boundaries and reminded them that could be considered Texans, too.

Jay Stout said...

Thanks for your kind comments jpg--and your insightful writing.

It is with a great deal of fondness that I look back on my time in South Texas as a naval aviator. I really enjoyed visiting the presidio at Goliad but could never find much information on the massacre other than a few paragraphs here and there. It really deserved a focused, full-length book.

Well, it's been 20 years--but better late than never. And although aviation is my chief passion, Texas history has moved right up there! So much I never knew.

Thanks again for the opportunity to post here--and for your patronage.

All best,

TexasFred said...

Excellent piece Sir, I feel that we may have to repeat some of those great acts of history before too long though...

God Bless Texas!!

Assrot said...

Nice little History lesson there JPG. I've alway's loved to read and history (especially of anything to do with the USA) is one of my favorite topics.

You know I think that's why I like your blog more than most.

1. You don't say a lot but you always have something good to say.

2. I always learn something from what I read here.

3. You remind me so much of my own dad that it is uncanny.

Keep up the excellent blogging and good evening to you sir.


Grandpa-Old Soldier said...

I really enjoyed this piece, it is like being there and the admiration fatctor is off of the scale. Like Texas Fred says, we may be repeating this if things keep going like they are. Hope not, but who knows,we are being overran.