TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Sam Houston needed a miracle.
Thousands of troops were charging into Texas from Mexico, threatening all that Texas settlers had built and all that they attempted to defend. Heartbreaking defeats at the Alamo and Goliad had severely damaged the army and morale. Now on the run in the spring of 1836, the hopes of Texas lay with him.
Mexico was in the midst of its own civil war by 1835, with the Texas Revolution being just a part of it. Government after government had been overthrown in a series of upheavals as one faction after another tried to lay claim to the country. In fact, the nations of Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador had initially been a part of Mexico when it won its independence from Spain in 1821. After yet another revolution in 1823, those nations split away. At this point, states across Mexico rose in rebellion against the latest government in Mexico City.
Texas settlers had risen up as well and declared their independence on March 2, 1836. Sam Houston, a hero from the War of 1812 and former governor of Tennessee, had been chosen to command the Texas Army. While he accepted the command without hesitation, Houston realized that in spite of the fighting spirit of the troops, they were outmanned and outgunned.
Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the current president of Mexico, had gathered thousands of troops and swore that Texas troops would receive no quarter or mercy. As defeats mounted, Houston pulled back toward East Texas to assemble his army and prepare for a final stand. He wrote his troops on April 7, “The victims of the Alamo and the names of those who were murdered at Goliad, call for cool, deliberate vengeance. Strict order, discipline, and subordination will insure us the victory.” By April 19, they arrived at Buffalo Bayou near the San Jacinto River in what is now Harris County with Santa Anna arriving the next day.
On the afternoon of April 21, while Santa Anna and his troops rested, Houston took his 800 troops and charged at the Mexican force of nearly 1,450. Houston himself was shot in the ankle, but the army quickly overwhelmed Santa Anna’s forces, taking very light casualties.
In one glorious moment, Houston and the Texas Army triumphed over Santa Anna. The battle was a rout. About 630 of Santa Anna’s troops died and 730 taken prisoner. In the chaos of the battle, many Mexican troops had fled the scene, and Santa Anna himself seemed to have slipped away as well. Houston ordered that his troops redouble their efforts to find him, for if he managed to escape and redirect his remaining forces, the battle at San Jacinto would have been for nothing.
The next day, Santa Anna was found, disguised as a private and hiding among his troops. His own troops had given him away by loudly addressing him as “El Presidente.” He was brought before Houston where he formally surrendered his army.
Houston’s victory secured the independence of Texas from Mexico. Within months, a jubilant Texas public elected Houston as the first elected president of the Republic of Texas with 79% of the vote. Harrisburg was incorporated as the City of Houston in 1837, named in his honor. Though Houston had won the great victory he needed, many new and complex challenges still faced Texas.
The importance of the Battle of San Jacinto and the role of Sam Houston was never lost in the imagination of the Texas public. The State of Texas officially purchased the battle site in the 1890s, while a 570-foot obelisk was completed in 1939 in memory of the battle.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.