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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

The Battle of
San Jacinto

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

Although the Battle of San Jacinto lasted a mere eighteen minutes, it was the culmination of six years of struggle. The struggle had its roots in the oppressive Mexican Law of 1830 that banned American immigration, in the disturbances at Anahuac and Velasco, in the arrest and imprisonment of Stephen F. Austin, and in the fighting that began at Gonzales and the siege of San Antonio and led to the slaughter of the defenders at the Alamo and Goliad.

On March 2, 1836, the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos declared Texas independence. Four days after the declaration, word arrived from Colonel William Barrett Travis of the Alamo’s plight. Unaware that the Alamo had already fallen, Sam Houston, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Texas army, immediately left the convention for Gonzales to take command of the troops there and go to Travis’s aid.

Houston rode into Gonzales on March 11, and that evening heard from two Tejanos recently arrived from San Antonio that the Alamo had fallen and that its gallant defenders had died fighting to the last man. The tragic news was confirmed two days later by Susannah Dickinson, wife of one of the defenders, who had been released by General Santa Anna to spread fear and panic across Texas. The dictator’s plan worked to perfection. Reports of the slaughter at the Alamo terrified the people of Gonzales and settlers throughout the area.

Panic stricken, the colonists believed Santa Anna would sweep eastward with his well-trained army and kill every Texan in his path. Thus began the frightened exodus known to Texas history as the “Runaway Scrape.” The people hurriedly packed what possessions they could carry in wagons, in carts, on horseback, and even on their backs, and fled for their lives toward the safety of the Sabine River and refuge in the United States. Knowing full well that his few green troops were no match for Santa Anna’s veterans, Houston evacuated Gonzales and burned the town to the ground in the wake of his retreat.

Benjamin Beason's Crossing TX Centennial Marker in Columbus TX
Benjamin Beason's Crossing Centennial Marker in Columbus, Texas
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, February 2009
More Texas Centennial Markers

The Texans crossed the Colorado River and marched 20 miles down the east bank to Benjamin Beason’s crossing near present-day Columbus, where they pitched camp on March 20. Had they been a few miles further south, the troops may well have heard the distant rumble of gunfire. On March 19, Colonel James Walker Fannin was defeated at Coleto Creek by the forces of General Jose Urrea. Fannin surrendered, and on Palm Sunday, March 27, 352 Texans were marched out of the Presidio La Bahia at Goliad and cruelly executed at the order of Santa Anna.

With the news of the massacre, Houston’s men rose as one and demanded an immediate attack on the Mexican army. How else could they hope to avenge the loss of so many good friends and family at the Alamo and now Goliad? Refusing to justify his decision, Houston ignored their demands and ordered a withdrawal to the Brazos. On March 28, the army arrived at San Felipe de Austin on the west bank of the river, then crossed over and marched to the plantation of Jared Groce where they set up camp and drilled for two weeks.

Sam Houston’s men were not alone when it came to urging him to fight. In mid-March, the ad interim Texas government fled to Harrisburg from Washington-on-the-Brazos when they learned of the Mexican army's approach. Interim President David G. Burnet sent Houston a letter demanding that he stop his retreat and fight. Burnet also sent the Secretary of War, Thomas J. Rusk, to try and convince Houston to take a more aggressive course. Houston, however, much to the frustration of his army and the government, also refused this request and stuck to his original plan, which he continued to keep to himself.

Since Houston appeared unwilling to put up a fight, Santa Anna decided to go after the Texas government. After crossing the Brazos River at Fort Bend, near present-day Richmond, on April 11, he headed down the road for Harrisburg with 700 men, unwisely dividing the remainder of his forces so that he might move more rapidly. General Urrea was at Matagorda with 700 men, Colonel Gaona was between Bastrop and San Felipe with 725 men, Colonel Sesma had 100 men at Fort Bend, and Colonel Filisola, with nearly 1800 men, was somewhere between San Felipe and Fort Bend.

When Santa Anna arrived at Harrisburg on April 15, he learned that the Burnet government had fled down Buffalo Bayou to New Washington (now Morgan’s Point). Burning Harrisburg to the ground in anger and frustration, the dictator hurriedly followed, but when he reached New Washington on April 19, he discovered the government had once again fled, this time toward Galveston. Santa Anna then set out for Anahuac by way of Lynchburg, but his advance elements got there just in time to see the government officials sail away.

Meanwhile, Sam Houston was determined he would not fight a battle until he reached ground of his own choosing. He moved his army across the Brazos and headed east, burning farms and crops as he went. There were few towns and supply centers between San Antonio and the eastern settlements, and when the Mexicans’ food and ammunition ran low, Houston intended to make sure it would be impossible for them to secure more. This strategy failed to satisfy the Texans, and they continued to grumble their displeasure as the army marched eastward.

On April 17, the Texas army reached a settlement known as “New Kentucky” where two wagon trails crossed; one trail led to Harrisburg and the other toward the Sabine River. Most of Houston’s officers and men had come to think of him as too timid to fight, and they believed he would lead the army toward the Sabine, where United States troops under the command of General Pendelton Gaines waited to hopefully bail the Texans out if it became necessary. However, much to the satisfaction of these non-believers, Houston moved the column down the Harrisburg road.

From two prisoners captured by scout Deaf Smith on April 18, Houston learned that the Mexicans had burned Harrisburg and were following the west bank of the San Jacinto River. He also heard that Santa Anna himself commanded the column, and more importantly, that the Mexicans had been forced by high water to cross the bridge over Vince’s Bayou and would have to cross the same bridge on their return. After considering the situation, Houston told the Texans they would soon see action and to “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!"

San Jacinto Battle Ground Map

San Jacinto Battle Ground Map
Wikimedia Commons

At dawn on April 20, the Texans resumed their march, hoping to arrive at Lynch’s Ferry before Santa Anna. Houston sent an advance party to the ferry, and they found it guarded by only a few Mexican soldiers. The Mexicans fled at the sight of the Texans and left behind a flatboat loaded with provisions that were most likely taken as plunder from Harrisburg. Capturing the provisions was fortunate because the Texans had little supply of their own.

The Texans set up camp along a stretch of rising ground that ran parallel to the bayou and was protected by a skirt of timber. The “Twin Sisters”, two cannons that were a gift from the citizens of Cincinnati, were placed in the center under Colonel Neill. The first regiment of riflemen commanded by Colonel Burleson camped on the right, and the second regiment under Colonel Sherman set up on the left. The cavalry was camped in the center at the rear of the infantry. The Mexican camp stood less than a mile from the Texas camp. A marsh spread out to the Mexicans' rear, and a temporary breastwork of trunks, baggage, and other equipment protected their front.

That afternoon, a small detachment of cavalry commanded by Colonel Sidney Sherman skirmished with some Mexican infantry. In the clash, which almost brought the opponents to open battle, two Texans were wounded, one severely and one mortally, and several horses were killed. Mexican casualties were much heavier. Mirabeau Lamar, a private from Georgia and later President of the Republic of Texas, distinguished himself in the fighting and was placed in command of the Texas cavalry on the eve of the battle.

Battle of San Jacinto 1895 Painting
Battle of San Jacinto Painting 1895 by Henry Arthur McArdle
Courtesy Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Wikimedia Commons

The morning of Thursday, April 21, dawned bright and clear. Refreshed from a good night’s rest and a breakfast of bread made with flour captured from the Mexicans and meat from freshly slaughtered cattle, the Texans were more than eager to launch an attack. They could see the Mexican flags waving in the freshening morning breeze and hear the mournful notes of the enemy’s bugle calls.

About 9 A.M., Deaf Smith and his scouts discovered that, during the early morning, General Cos had crossed Vince’s bridge with nearly 600 troops, increasing Santa Anna’s strength to more than 1200. In response, Houston ordered Smith to destroy the bridge. The bridge’s destruction would not only prevent Santa Anna from receiving further reinforcements, but also make it impossible for either the Texans or the Mexicans to retreat toward Harrisburg. Normally, Vince’s Bayou was about 50 feet wide and ten feet deep, but heavy April rains had swollen it to a much more daunting obstacle.

After his battle plan was approved by Secretary of War Rusk, Houston formed the Texas army for battle around 3:30 in the afternoon. The Texans’ movements were screened from the Mexican position by trees and the rising ground that stretched between the positions. All was quiet on the Mexican side during the afternoon siesta, and Santa Anna had neglected to post any lookouts. The Texans formed their line of battle with Burleson’s regiment in the center, Sherman’s regiment on the left, the artillery, including the “Twin Sisters,” under George Hockley on the right, and the infantry under Henry Millard to the right of the artillery. The cavalry under the command of Mirabeau Lamar formed on the extreme right.

At General Sam Houston’s command, a battle line 910 strong advanced silently out of the woods and swept up and over the long rise. Bearded, dirty, and ragged the Texans may have been, but their long rifles were clean and well oiled, and their features were set with grim determination. The few musicians piped “Will you come to the Bower,” a popular love ballad of the day, the men bending low as if preparing to face a strong wind. As the troops advanced, Deaf Smith galloped up and informed Houston that Vince’s Bridge had been destroyed. The word spread quickly. There would be no retreat. It was victory or death.

Battle of San Jacinto  cannons "Twin Sisters"
“Twin Sisters”
Wikimedia Commons

As the range to the Mexican lines closed, the “Twin Sisters” moved up and opened fire, sending a blistering load of grapeshot boiling into the enemy barricade. With the roaring blast of the cannons, the Texans surged forward as one man, screaming “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” Blazing away with their long rifles at nearly point blank range, they stormed over the makeshift Mexican barricade, emptied their pistols, and then went at the Mexicans hand-to-hand, using their rifles as clubs and slashing right and left with their deadly long knives. The terrified Mexicans either fell where they stood or ran in panic from the savage fury of the Texas assault.

Hysterical pleas of “Me no Alamo!” and “Me no Goliad!” echoed across the battlefield, but there would be no mercy tendered this day. The enraged Texans quickly reloaded their long rifles and went after the fleeing Mexicans, shooting, clubbing, or stabbing to death any man they could catch. The terrorized Mexicans fled into the boggy marshes at the rear of their position, but the bloodthirsty Texans followed them even there, determined to kill every last man. The water ran red with the blood of the slain. General Houston, his ankle shattered by a Mexican musket ball, did his best to call a halt to the senseless killing, but the fury of the Texans knew no bounds and the massacre continued.

Sheer exhaustion finally brought an end to the slaughter, and Sam Houston rode slowly from the field of victory. At the foot of the oak tree where he had slept the previous night, the commander of the Texas army slid off his horse and collapsed into the arms of his chief of staff, Major Hockley. According to the official report of the battle, 630 Mexican soldiers were killed, 208 wounded, and 730 taken prisoner. Balanced against this terrible toll, the Texans suffered only nine killed, most of them in the initial Mexican volley, and thirty wounded. In addition, the Texans captured a large supply of weapons, ample stocks of supplies, and $12,000 in silver.

Surrender Of San Jacinto 1886 painting by William Huddle
"Surrender of Santa Anna” 1886 painting by William Huddle
Wikimedia Commons

Much to Sam Houston’s disgust, General Santa Anna had disappeared during the battle. The following morning Houston ordered a search of the surrounding area. That afternoon, Sergeant J. A. Sylvester took note of a Mexican running toward Vince’s Bayou. He caught the man hiding in some high grass. The prisoner was dressed in a common soldier’s uniform, but when Sylvester took him to the camp, the other prisoners recognized him and cried, “El Presidente!”

Santa Anna was brought to General Houston, who was still lying under the same oak tree nursing his wounded ankle. Houston made it plain that he held no like for the dictator, and the Texas soldiers crowded around him growling angry threats. Terrified, Santa Anna whined, “You can afford to be generous, you have captured the Napoleon of the West.” Houston retorted angrily, “What claim have you to mercy, when you showed none at the Alamo or at Goliad?” The two men sparred verbally for nearly two hours, but in the end Santa Anna agreed to write an order commanding all Mexican troops to evacuate Texas.

Later, Santa Anna signed the treaties of Velasco, one open to public scrutiny and one executed in secret, which recognized Texas independence. In eighteen glorious minutes, Sam Houston and his fellow Texans won a remarkable victory, establishing Texas as an independent republic and opening the door for United States expansion southwest to the Rio Grande and all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. Few battles in history have been more decisive or have had more far-reaching consequences than the Battle of San Jacinto.

© Jeffery Robenalt April 1, 2012 Column
References for "The Battle of San Jacinto" >

Battle of San Jacinto - Related Articles

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

Battle of San Jacinto - Related Articles

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    References for "The Battle of San Jacinto"

  • Davis, William C. (2004), Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic, Free Press, ISBN 0-684-86510-6.
  • Fehrenbach, T.R. (2000), Lone Star: A History of Texas and Texans, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, ISBN 306-80942-7.
  • Groneman, Bill (1998), Battlefields of Texas, Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press, ISBN 97815566225110.
  • Hardin, Stephen L. (1994), Texian Illiad - A Military History of the Texas Revolution, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, ISBN 0292730861.
  • Kemp, L.W. "San Jacinto, Battle of," Handbook of Texas Online, (http//www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qes03), January 8, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
  • Maher, Ramona; Gammell, Stephen; Rohr, John A. (1974), The Glory Horse: The Battle of San Jacinto and Texas in 1836, Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, ISBN 9780698202945.
  • Moore, Stephen L. (2004), Eighteen Minutes: The Battle of San Jacinto and the Texas Independence Campaign, Rowan & Littlefield, ISBN 9781589070097.
  • Todish, Timothy J. ; Todish, Terry; Spring, Ted (1998), Alamo Sourcebook, 1836: A Comprehensive Guide to the Battle of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, Austin, TX, Eakin Press, ISBN 9781571681522.

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