Texas History Series by Texas Historian, Len Kubiak of Rockdale, Texas.
BATTLE OF SAN JACINTO(1836)
The actual battle of San Jacinto lasted less than twenty minutes, but events leading to the battle had long been in the making since the oppressive Mexican edict of April 6, 1830, prohibiting further emigration of Anglo-Americans from the United States to Texas. Next came the disturbance at Anahuac and the battle of Velasco, in 1832. Then the imprisonment of Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," in Mexico in 1834.
Prior to San Jacinto, the Texans and the Mexicans skirmished at Gonzales over a cannon; then again with the Mexican army capturing and excuting the Texans at Goliad; the "Grass Fight," and the siege and capture of San Antonio . . . all in 1836.
The Texas Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos on March 2, 1836, officially marked the beginning of the Texas revolution.
On April 21, 1836, General Sam Houston and his valiant Texas Army attacked Santa Anna's superior force and won a glorious victory for the Republic of Texas. This is the story of that great battle and the gallant Texian army.
SAM HOUSTON LEARNS OF THE SIEGE AT THE ALAMO
Four days after the Declaration of Independence, a rider brought the news to the convention on the Brazos that Colonel William Barret Travis, and his men were under siege at the Alamo in San Antonio.
Sam Houston, commander-in-chief of the Texas Army, left Washington for Gonzales to take command of the Texian troops there and go to the aid of Travis. Houston arrived arrived at Gonzales on the 11th, and at about dark learned from two Mexicans who had just arrived from San Antonio that the Alamo had fallen and its 183 brave defenders massacred.
The shocking news of the fall of the Alamo was confirmed two days later by Mrs. Almeron Dickinson who had been released by the Mexicans after seeing her lieutenant husband killed in the old mission. She was trudging toward Gonzales with her baby in her arms when the Texas army scouts found her.
THE RUNAWAY SCRAPE
The reports of the Alamo slaughter terrified the people of Gonzales. They were panic-stricken at the thought that Santa Anna was sweeping eastward with a well-trained army to kill all Texans. The frantic settlers packed what belongings they could take in wagons and carts, on horseback, or on their own backs, and fled their homes racing for the Louisiana border to escape the wrath of the blood-thirsty Santa Anna.
General Houston, realizing that his few hundred green troops were no match for the well-drilled hordes from Mexico, evacuated Gonzales and had the rear guard put the town to the torch.
The Texans crossed the Colorado River on the 17th at Jesse Burnam's, and camped there for two days. Then the army resumed its march down the east bank to Benjamin Beason's crossing, some twenty miles below, near the present town of Columbus. Camp was pitched at Beason's on the 20th. Had the retreating column been fifty miles farther south, the troops might have heard the distant rumble and crackle of gunfire. On March 19, Colonel James Walker Fannin Jr., commanding about 450 volunteers withdrawing from Goliad toward Victoria, was defeated in battle on Coleto Creek by General José Urrea's forces (photo at left) of 1200 infantry and 700 cavalry. Fannin surrendered. On Palm Sunday, March 27, he and 352 of his men were marched out on the roads near Goliad and brutally shot down, by order of Santa Anna.
MEXICAN ARMY PURSUIT UNDER GEN. SANTA ANNA
After their victory at the Alamo, the Mexican forces continued to follow the colonists. Houston's scouts reported that General Ramirez Sesma and General Adrian Woll (left) were on the west side of the Colorado with approximately 725 troops and General Eugenio Tolso with 600.
By this time, recruits and reinforcements had increased Houston's army to a strength estimated as high as 1200. The chilling news of Fannin's defeat reached the Texas forces on March 25 causing many Texians to leave the ranks, to remove their families beyond the Sabine. The remaining soldiers remaining clamored for action, but Houston decided to continue his retreat. On the 26th, Houston marched his army five miles. By the 27th of March, Houston's army reached the Brazos River bottoms, and at San Felipe de Austin, on the west bank of the Brazos on the 28th of March. On the 29th the army marched six miles up the river in a driving rain, and camped on Mill Creek. On the 30th after a fatiguing tramp of nine miles, the army reached a place across the river from "Bernardo," on one of the plantations of the wealthy Jared E. Groce, and there camped and drilled for nearly two weeks.
When the interim Texas government members at Washington-on-the-Brazos learned of the approaching Mexican army in mid-March, they fled to Harrisburg. President David G. Burnet sent the General Houston a caustic note, prodding him to stop his retreat and fight.
Secretary of War Thomas J. Rusk arrived at the camp April 4 at Burnet's direction, to urge Houston to a more aggressive course.
SANTA ANNA SPLITS OUP HIS ARMY TO STOP THE RETREATING SAM HOUSTON
Since General Houston was showing a disposition to run, Santa Anna decided to take possession of the coast and seaports, as a step in his plan to round up the revolutionists. Crossing the Brazos at Fort Bend (now called Richmond) on the 11th, the Mexican general proceeded on April 14 on the road to Harrisburg, taking with him about 700 men and one twelve-pounder cannon. Urrea was at Matagorda with 1200 men: Gaona was somewhere between Bastrop and San Felipe, with 725; Sesma, at Fort Bend, with about 1,000, and Vicente Filisola between San Felipe and Fort Bend, with nearly 1800 men.
Santa Anna arrived at Harrisburg on the 15th. There he learned that the Burnet government had gone down Buffalo Bayou to New Washington (now Morgan's Point), about 18 miles southeast. Burning Harrisburg, Santa Anna and his army set out after them. On the 19th when he arrived at New Washington he learned that the new Texas government had fled to Galveston. Santa Anna then set out for Anahuac via Lynchburg.
THE ROAD TO SAN JACINTO
Meanwhile, on April 11th, the Texans at Groce's received two cannon(the "Twin Sisters"), a gift from the citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio. Fortified with the cannon, General Houston decided to move on to the east side of the Brazos. Since the spring rains had swollen the Brazos River, the steamboat "Yellow Stone" and a yawl were used to ferry the army, horses, cattle and baggage across the river. The movement began on the 12th and was completed at 1 p.m. on the 13th.
On the 13th Houston ordered Major Wyly Martin, Captain Mosely Baker, and other commanders of detachments assigned to delaying actions, to rejoin the main army at the house of Charles Donoho, about three miles from Groce's. At Donoho's the road from San Felipe to eastern Texas crossed the road south from Groce's.
On April 16 the army marched twelve miles to the home of Samuel McCurley on Spring Creek, in present Harris county. The creeks formed the boundary line between Harris and Montgomery counties. Three miles beyond McCurley's was the home of Abram Roberts, at a settlement known as "New Kentucky." At Roberts' two wagon trails crossed, one leading to Harrisburg and the other Robbins' Ferry on the Trinity and on to the Sabine.
Many of his officers and men, as well as government officials, believed that Houston's strategy was to lead the pursuing Mexicans to the Sabine River, the eastern border of Texas. There, it was known, were camped United States troops under General Pendelton Gaines, with whose help the Texans might turn on their foes and destroy them. However, on April 17, when Roberts' place was reached, Houston took the Harrisburg road instead of the one toward the Louisiana line, much to the gratification of his men. They spent the night of the 17th near the home of Matthew Burnett on Cypress Creek, twenty miles from McCurley's. On April 18 the army marched twenty miles to White Oak Bayou in the Heights District of the present city of Houston, and only about eight miles from Harrisburg, now a part of Houston.
From two prisoners, captured by Erasmus "Deaf" Smith, the famous Texas spy (left), Houston first learned that the Mexicans had burned Harrisburg and had gone down the west side of the bayou and of San Jacinto River, and that Santa Anna in person was in command. In his march downstream Santa Anna had been forced to cross the bridge over Vince's Bayou, a tributary of Buffalo Bayou, then out of its banks. He would have to cross the same bridge to return. Viewing this strategic situation on the morning of the 19th, Houston told his troops it looked as if they would soon get action. And he admonished them to remember the massacres at San Antonio and at Goliad. "Remember the Alamo!" The soldiers took up the cry. "Remember Goliad!" [Thomas J. Rusk, Secretary of War, and other Texans who were in the battle said the battle cry was 'Remember the Alamo' 'Remember La Bahia!']
In a letter to Henry Raguet he said:
"This morning we are in preparation to meet Santa Anna. It is the only chance for saving Texas." In an address "To the People of Texas" he wrote: "We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish…We must act now or abandon all hope."
Houston's force crossed Buffalo Bayou to the west side, near the home of Isaac Batterson, two and a half miles below Harrisburg, on the evening of the 19th. Some 248 men, mostly sick and non-effective, were left with the baggage at the camp opposite Harrisburg. The march was continued until midnight.
ON THE EVE OF BATTLE
At dawn April 20 the Texans resumed their trek down the bayou, to intercept the Mexicans. At Lynch's ferry, near the juncture of Buffalo Bayou and San Jacinto River, they captured a boat laden with supplies for Santa Anna. This probably was some of the plunder of Harrisburg or New Washington. Ascertaining that none of the enemy forces had crossed, the Texans drew back about a mile on the Harrisburg road, and encamped in a skirt of timber protected by a rising ground.
That afternoon, Colonel Sidney Sherman (left) with a small detachment of cavalry engaged the enemy infantry, almost bringing on a general action. In the clash two Texans were wounded---one of them, Olwyn J. Trask, mortally---and several horses were killed. In this preliminary skirmish Mirabeau B. Lamar, a private from Georgia (later President of the Republic of Texas), so distinguished himself that on the next day he was placed in command of the cavalry.
Santa Anna's blue-uniformed army made camp under the high ground overlooking a marsh, about three-fourths of a mile from the Texas camp. They threw up breastworks of trunks, baggage, pack-saddles and other equipment. Both sides prepared for the expected conflict. The Texans awoke to find Thursday, April 21, a clear fine day. Refreshed by a breakfast of bread made with flour from the captured supplies and meat from beeves slaughtered the day before, they were eager to attack the enemy. They could see Santa Anna's flags floating over the enemy camp, and heard the Mexican bugle calls on the crisp morning air.
It was discovered at about nine o'clock that General Martín Perfecto de Cos had crossed Vince's bridge, about eight miles behind the Texans' camp, with some 540 picked troops, swelling the enemy forces to about 1265.
General Houston ordered "Deaf" Smith and a detail to destroy the bridge and prevent further enemy reinforcements. This also would prevent the retreat of either the Texans or the Mexicans toward Harrisburg. In dry weather Vince's Bayou was about fifty feet wide and ten feet deep, but the excessive April rains bad made it several times wider and deeper. [With "Deaf" Smith in the detail that destroyed the bridge were Young P. Alsbury, John Coker, John Garner, Moses Lapham, Edwin R. Rainwater and Dimer W. Reaves.]
Shortly before noon, General Houston held a council of war with Colonels Edward Burleson and Sidney Sherman, Lieutenant Colonels Henry Millard, Alexander Somervell and Joseph L. Bennett, and Major Lysander Wells. Two of the officers suggested attacking the enemy in his position, while the others favored awaiting Santa Anna's attack. Houston withheld his own views, but later, after having formed his plan of battle, submitted it to Secretary of War Rusk, who approved it.
THE BATTLE OF SAN JACINTO
General Houston disposed his forces in battle order at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Over on the Mexican side all was quiet; many of the foemen were enjoying their customary siesta. The Texans' movements were screened by the trees and the rising ground, and evidently Santa Anna had no lookouts posted.
Big, shaggy and commanding in his mud-stained unmilitary garb, the chieftain rode his horse up and down the line. "Now hold your fire, men," he warned in his deep voice, "until you get the order!"
At the command, "Advance," the patriots, 910 strong, moved quickly out of the woods and over the rise, deploying. Bearded and ragged from forty days in the field, they were a fierce-looking band. But their long rifles were clean and well oiled. Only one company, Captain William Wood's "Kentucky Rifles," originally recruited by Sidney Sherman, wore uniforms. [In his official report of the battle, April 25, 1836, Houston said 783 Texans took part. Yet in a roster published later he listed 845 officers and men at San Jacinto, and by oversight omitted Captain Alfred H. Wyly's Company. In a Senate speech February 28, 1859, Houston said his effective force never exceeded 700 at any point. Conclusive evidence in official records brings the total number at San Jacinto up to 910.]
The battle line was formed with Edward Burleson's regiment in the center; Sherman's on the left wing; the artillery, under George W. Hockley, on Burleson's right; the infantry, under Henry Millard, on the right of the artillery; and the cavalry, led by Lamar, on the extreme right
Some of the officers of the Texian Army present at San Jacinto; General Sam Houston, Col. Sidney Sherman, Col. Edward Burleson, General and Secretary of War, Thomas J. Rusk (shown left to right).
The main groups of the Texas army included
the cavalry on the right, commanded by Mirabeau B. Lamar; next, the Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel Henry Millard and the "Twin Sisters" cannon under Colonel George W. Hockley; the 1st Regiment in the center under Colonel Edward Burleson; the 2nd Regiment, the left wing, under Colonel Sidney Sherman.
Silently and tensely the Texas battle line swept across the prairie and swale that was No Man's land, the men bending low. A soldier's fife piped up with "Will You Come to the Bower,"' a popular tune of the day. That was the only music of the battle. [Several veterans of the battle said the tune played was "Yankee Doodle."]
As the, troops advanced, "Deaf" Smith galloped up and told Houston, "Vince's bridge has been cut down." The General announced it to the men. Now both armies were cut off from retreat in all directions but one, by a roughly circular moat formed by Vince's and Buffalo Bayous to the west and north, San Jacinto River to the north and cast, and by the marshes and the bay to the east and southeast.
At close range, the two little cannon, drawn by rawhide thongs, were wheeled into position and belched their charges of iron slugs into the enemy barricade. Then the whole line, led by Sherman's men, sprang forward on the run, yelling, "Remember the Alamo!" "Remember Goliad!" All together they opened fire, blazing away practically point-blank at the surprised and panic-stricken Mexicans. They stormed over the breastworks, seized the enemy's artillery, and joined in hand-to-hand combat, emptying their pistols, swinging their guns as clubs, slashing right and left with their knives. Mexicans fell by the scores under the impact of the savage assault.
General Manuel Fernández Castrillón, a brave Mexican, tried to rally the swarthy Latins, but he was killed and his men became crazed with fright. Many threw down their guns and ran; many wailed, "Me no Alamo!" "Me no Goliad!" But their pleas won no mercy. The enraged revolutionists reloaded and chased after the stampeding enemy, shooting them, stabbing them, clubbing them to death.
From the moment of the first collision the battle was a slaughter, frightful to behold. The fugitives ran in wild terror over the prairie and into the boggy marshes, but the avengers of the Alamo and Goliad followed and slew them, or drove them into the waters to drown. Men and horses, dead and dying, in the morass in the rear and right of the Mexican camp, formed a bridge for the pursuing Texans. Blood reddened the water. General Houston tried to check the execution but the fury of his men was beyond restraint.
Some of the Mexican cavalry tried to escape over Vince's bridge, only to find that the bridge was gone. In desperation, some of the flying horsemen spurred their mounts down the steep bank; some dismounted and plunged into the swollen stream. The Texans came up and poured a deadly fire into the welter of Mexicans struggling with the flood. Escape was virtually impossible. General Houston rode slowly from the field of victory, his ankle shattered by a rifle ball. At the foot of the oak where he bad slept the previous night be fainted and slid from his horse into the arms of Major Hockley, his chief of staff.
As the crowning stroke of a glorious day, General Rusk presented to General Houston as a prisoner the Mexican general Don Juan Almonte, who had surrendered formally with about 400 men.
The casualties, according to Houston's official report, numbered 630 Mexicans killed, 208 wounded, and 730 taken prisoner. As against this heavy score, only nine Texans were killed or mortally wounded, and thirty wounded less seriously. Most of their injuries came from the first scattered Mexican volley when the attackers stormed their barricade. The Texans captured a large supply of muskets, pistols, sabers, mules, horses, provisions, clothing, tents and paraphernalia, and $12,000 in silver.
THE CAPTURE OF SANTA ANNA
Santa Anna had disappeared during the battle, and next day General Houston ordered a thorough search of the surrounding territory for him. In the afternoon Sergeant J. A. Sylvester spotted a Mexican slipping through the woods toward Vince's Bayou. Sylvester and his comrades caught the fugitive trying to hide in the high grass. He wore a common soldier's apparel round jacket, blue cotton pantaloons, skin cap and soldier's shoes. [With Sylvester in the capture of Santa Anna were Joel W. Robison, Joseph D. Vermillion, Alfred H. Miles and David Cole.] They took the captive to camp, and on the way, Mexican prisoners recognized him and cried, "El Presidente!" Thus his identity was betrayed; it was indeed the dictator from below the Rio Grande.
He was brought to General Houston, who lay under the headquarters oak, nursing his wounded foot. The Mexican President pompously announced, "I am General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and a prisoner of war at your disposition." General Houston, suffering with pain, received him coldly. He sent for young Moses Austin Bryan and Lorenzo de Zavala Jr. to act as interpreters.
Santa Anna cringed with fright as the excited Texas soldiers pressed around him, fearing mob violence. He pleaded for the treatment due a prisoner of war. "You can afford to be generous," he whined; "you have captured the Napoleon of the 'West."
General Houston responded,
"What claim have you to mercy when you showed none at the Alamo or at Goliad?"
They talked for nearly two hours, using Bryan, de Zavala and Almonte as interpreters. In the end Santa Anna agreed to write an order commanding all Mexican troops to evacuate Texas. Later, treaties were signed at Velasco, looking to the adjustment of all differences and the recognition of Texas independence. Thus ended the revolution of 1836, with an eighteen-minute battle which established Texas as a free republic and opened the way for the United States to extend its boundaries to the Rio Grande on the southwest and to the Pacific on the west. Few military engagements in history have been more decisive or of more far-reaching ultimate influence than the battle of San Jacinto.
According to Mirabeau Lamar's account of the battle:
"Colonel Sherman, with his regiment, having commenced the action upon our left wing, the whole line, at the center and on the right, advancing in double quick time, rung the warcry, 'Remember the Alamo!' received the enemy's fire, and advanced within point blank shot, before a piece was discharged from our lines. Our lines advanced without a halt, until they were in possession of the woodland and the enemy's breastwork, the right wing of Burleson's and the left of Millard's taking possession of the breastwork; our artillery having gallantly charged up within seventy yards of the enemy's cannon, when it was taken by our troops. The conflict lasted about eighteen minutes from the time of close action until we were in possession of the enemy's encampment, taking one piece of cannon (loaded), four stand of colors, all their camp equipage, stores and baggage.
Our cavalry had charged and routed that of the enemy upon the right, and given pursuit to the fugitives, which did not cease until they arrived at the bridge which I have mentioned before---Captain Karnes, always among the foremost in danger, commanding the pursuers. The conflict in the breastwork lasted but a few moments; many of the troops encountered band to hand, and, not having the advantage of bayonets on our side, our riflemen used their pieces as war clubs, breaking many of them off at the breech.
The rout commenced at half past four, and the pursuit by the main army continued until twilight. A guard was then left in charge of the enemy's encampment, and our army returned with our killed and wounded. In the battle, our loss was two killed, and twenty-three wounded, six of them mortally. The enemy's loss was 630 killed….wounded 208 . . . prisoners 730."
ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE FROM THE MEXICAN ARMY'S PERSPECTIVE
Colonel Pedro Delgado, of Santa Anna's staff, gave a detailed and accurate Mexican version of the battle. He told how Santa Anna, his staff and most of the men were asleep when the bugler sounded the alarm of the Texan advance. Some of the men were out gathering boughs for shelter; cavalrymen were riding bareback, to and from water.
"I stepped upon some ammunition boxes the better to observe the movements of the enemy. I saw that their formation was a mere line of one rank, and very extended. In their center was the Texas flag; on both wings, they had two light cannons, well manned. Their cavalry was opposite our front, overlapping our left. In this disposition yelling furiously, with a brisk fire of grape, muskets and rifles, they advanced resolutely upon our camp. There the utmost confusion prevailed.
General Castrillon shouted on one side; on another Colonel Almonte was giving orders; some cried out to commence firing; others to lie down and avoid the grape shot. Among the latter was His Excellency. Then already, I saw our men flying in small groups, terrified, and sheltering themselves behind large trees. I endeavored to force some of them to fight, but all efforts were in vain---the evil was beyond remedy; they were a bewildered and panic-stricken herd. The enemy kept up a brisk cross-fire of grape on the woods. Presently we heard, in close proximity, the unpleasant noise of their clamor. Meeting no resistance they dashed, lightning-like upon our deserted camp.
Then I saw His Excellency running about in the utmost excitement, wringing his hands, and unable to give an order. General Castrillon was stretched on the ground, wounded in the leg. Colonel Trevino was killed, and Colonel Marcial Aguirre was severely injured. I saw also, the enemy reaching the ordnance train, and killing a corporal and two gunners who had been detailed to repair cartridges which had been damaged on the previous evening. "
In a grove on the bayshore, Colonel Delgado said, the Texans wrought the worst carnage of the battle.
"There they killed Colonel Batres; and it would have been all over with us had not providence placed us in the hands of the noble and generous captain of cavalry, Allen, who by great exertion, saved us repeatedly from being slaughtered by the drunken and infuriated volunteers."
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