The Battle of San Jacinto

The Battle of San Jacinto, fought on April 21, 1836, in present-day Harris County, Texas, was the decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Led by General Sam Houston, the Texas Army engaged and defeated General Antonio López de Santa Anna's Mexican forces in a fight that lasted less than twenty minutes. Hundreds of Mexican soldiers were killed or captured, while there were relatively few Texan casualties.

Santa Anna, the President of Mexico, was captured the following day and held as a prisoner of war. Not long afterwards, he signed the peace treaties that dictated that the Mexican army leave the region, paving the way for the Republic of Texas to become an independent country. These treaties did not specifically recognize Texas as a sovereign nation but stipulated that Santa Anna was to lobby for such recognition in Mexico City. Sam Houston became a national celebrity, and the Texans' rallying cry, "Remember Goliad!" and "Remember the Alamo!," became etched into the American history and legend.

Background

During the early years of Mexican independence, numerous Anglo-American immigrants had settled in Mexican Texas, then a part of the state of Coahuila y Tejas. In 1835, they rebelled against the Mexican government of General Santa Anna after he rescinded the Constitution of 1824 and asserted dictatorial control over Mexico. Besides capturing a few small outposts and defeating the Mexican army garrisons in the area, the Texans formed a provisional government and drafted a Declaration of Independence.

Hundreds of volunteers from the United States of America headed into the fledgling Republic of Texas to assist the colonists in their quest for independence. Two full regiments of these volunteers were soon organized to augment the Regular Texas Army. Other volunteers (including Tejano and Texian colonists) also organized into companies to defend various places that might be targets of Mexican intervention. Examples at San Jacinto included the Kentucky Rifles, a uniformed company raised in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky by Sidney Sherman, which were the only troops in the Texian army that wore formal uniforms. The New Orleans Greys, another company raised in America, had fought and died at the Battle of the Alamo while serving under a regular Texas army officer.

In 1836, Santa Anna personally led a force of several thousand Mexican troops into Texas to put down the insurrection. First, he entered San Antonio de Béjar and defeated a Texan force at the Battle of the Alamo, and then the right wing of his offensive, under General José de Urrea, defeated a second Texan force near Goliad. Santa Anna had most of the captured men, whom he considered to be pirates, put to death, resulting in the deaths of over 350 Texans.

Sam Houston, in command of the main Texan army, slowly retreated eastward. To President David G. Burnet, no fan of Houston's, the general appeared unwilling to turn and fight his pursuer, despite Burnet's frequent dispatches that Houston do so. Concerned that the Mexicans were rapidly approaching unchecked, Burnet and the Texas government abandoned the capital at Washington-on-the-Brazos and hastily crossed the prairie towards the Gulf of Mexico, reestablishing key governmental functions in Galveston. In their wake, thousands of panicked colonists (both Texian and Tejano) fled in what became popularly known as the "Runaway Scrape."

Houston at first headed towards the Sabine River, the border with the United States, where a Federal army under General Pendleton Gaines had assembled to protect Louisiana in case Santa Anna tried to invade the U.S. after dealing with the rebelling Texans. However, Houston soon turned to the southeast towards Harrisburg.

Santa Anna pursued Houston and devised a trap in which three columns of Mexican troops would converge on Houston's force and destroy it. However, he diverted one column to attempt to capture the provisional government, and a second one to protect his supply lines. Meanwhile, he personally led the remaining column against Houston. Santa Anna caught up to Houston on April 19 near Lynch's Ferry. He established positions near the confluence of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou. Meanwhile, Houston set up his camp across a grassy field 1,000 yards away.


The San Jacinto battle flag.  

Prelude to battle

Believing Houston to be cornered, Santa Anna decided to rest his army on April 20 and attack on April 22. He received roughly 500 reinforcements under General Martín Perfecto de Cos, bringing his total strength up to roughly 1,400 men. Santa Anna posted Cos to his right, near the river, and posted his single remaining artillery piece, a 12 pound brass gun, in the center, erecting a five-foot (1.5 m) high barricade of packs and baggage as hastily constructed protection for his infantry. He placed his veteran cavalry on his left flank and settled back to plan the following day's attack.

On the morning of April 21, Houston held a council of war, and the majority of his officers favored waiting for Santa Anna's eventual assault. Houston, however, decided in favor of his own surprise attack that afternoon, concerned that Santa Anna might use the extra time to concentrate his scattered army. With his army of roughly 800 men, he decided to attack Santa Anna, whose immediate command now numbered about 1,400. Most of the assault would come over open ground, where the Texan infantry would be vulnerable to Mexican gunfire. Even riskier, Houston decided to outflank the Mexicans with his cavalry, stretching his troops even thinner. However, Santa Anna made a crucial mistake—during his army's afternoon siesta, he failed to post sentries or skirmishers around his camp.

Houston soon gained approval for his daring plan from Texas Secretary of War Thomas J. Rusk, who had caught up with the army to consult with Houston at the insistence of President Burnet. By 3:30 p.m., Houston had formed his men into battle lines for the impending assault, screened from Mexican view by trees and by a slight ridge that ran across the open prairie between the opposing armies. Santa Anna's failure to properly post lookouts proved fatal to his chances of victory.


The Battle of San Jacinto

Battle

At 4:30 p.m. on April 21, after scout Deaf Smith announced the burning of Vince's Bridge (cutting off the primary avenue of retreat for both armies), the main Texan battle line moved forward. A fifer played the popular tune "Will you come to the bower I have shaded for you?" General Houston personally led the infantry, posting the 2nd Volunteer Regiment of Colonel Sidney Sherman on his far left, with Colonel Edward Burleson's 1st Volunteer Regiment next in line. In the center, two small brass smoothbore artillery pieces (donated by citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, and known as the "Twin Sisters," pictured right) were wheeled forward under the command of Major George W. Hockley. They were supported by four companies of infantry under Captain Henry Wax Karnes. Colonel Henry Millard's regiment of Texas regulars made up the right wing. To the extreme far right, 61 Texas cavalrymen under newly promoted Colonel Mirabeau B. Lamar planned to circle into the Mexicans' left flank. Lamar had the day before been a private in the cavalry, but his daring and resourcefulness in a brief skirmish with the Mexicans on April 20 had led to his immediate promotion to colonel.

The Texan army moved quickly and silently across the high-grass plain, and then, when they were only a few dozen yards away, charged Santa Anna's camp shouting "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!," only stopping a few yards from the Mexicans to open fire. Confusion ensued. Santa Anna's army primarily consisted of professional soldiers, but they were trained to fight in ranks, exchanging volleys with their opponents. Many were also ill-prepared and unarmed at the time of the sudden attack. General Manuel Fernández Castrillón desperately tried to mount a semblance of an organized resistance, but was soon shot down and killed. His panicked men fled, and Santa Anna's defensive line quickly collapsed.

Hundreds of the demoralized and confused Mexican soldiers routed, and many ran into the marshes along the river. Some of the Mexican army rallied and attempted to push the Texans back, but their training had left them ill-equipped to fight well-armed American frontiermen in hand-to-hand combat. General Juan Almonte, commanding what was left of the organized Mexican resistance, soon formally surrendered his 400 remaining men to Rusk. The rest of Santa Anna's once-proud army had disintegrated into chaos.

During the short but furious fighting, Houston was wounded in the left ankle and Santa Anna escaped. In 18 minutes of combat, the Texan army had won, killing about 630 Mexican soldiers, wounding 208 and taking 730 prisoners. This battle is an important one, though not remembered by many Americans.

The battle only took 18 minutes.


The surrender of Santa Anna

Aftermath

During the battle, Santa Anna disappeared and a search party consisting of James A. Sylvester, Washington H. Secrest, Sion R. Bostick, and a Mr. Cole was sent out the next morning. When discovered, he had shed his ornate general's uniform, and when surrounded and compelled to surrender, he was initially thought to be a common soldier. However, when grouped with other captured soldiers, he was enthusiastically saluted as "El Presidente," revealing his true identity to the Texans. Houston spared his life, preferring to negotiate an end to the overall hostilities and the withdrawal from Texas of Santa Anna's remaining columns.

On May 14, Santa Anna 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, lobby there for recognition of the new republic. However, the safe passage never materialized; Santa Anna was held for six months as a prisoner of war (during which time his government disowned him and any agreement he might enter into) and finally taken to Washington, D.C. There he met with President Andrew Jackson, before finally returning in disgrace to Mexico in early 1837. By then, however, Texan independence was a fait accompli, although Mexico did not officially recognize it until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.


The San Jacinto Monument

Memorialization

Today, the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site commemorates the battle and includes the San Jacinto Monument, the world’s tallest memorial column. The park is located in Deer Park, about 25 miles (40 km) east of Houston. The monument contains the inscription:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas (not part of the United States at the time) from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican-American War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American Nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.

An annual San Jacinto Day festival and battle reenactment is held in the month of April at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site. 

Alfonso Steele, to whom a roadside park is dedicated in Limestone County, Texas, is generally credited as being the last remaining Texan survivor of the battle.

In the 20th century, the state of Texas erected various monuments and historical wayside markers to mark the path and campsites of Houston's army as it marched to San Jacinto.