APRIL 21, 1836
One of the most decisive and important battles in American history was the Battle of San Jacinto.
This decisive battle is historically significant because a small Texan military force defeated a larger and more experienced Mexican army which resulted in the ultimate independence of Texas from Mexico.
The Battle of San Jacinto was fought near present day Houston, Texas in 1836.
The Collapse of New Spain
The Spanish Empire in America, New Spain, covered areas throughout two continents, North and South America, contained millions of acres of land and existed for over 300 years.
By the early 1800s however, the Empire was weak and crumbling. Independence movements across the empire were spreading and forcing Spanish forces to exert almost all their resources to contain the growing revolts against Spanish power.
A serious problem that New Spain endured was the simple fact that she did not have enough people and resources to populate and control such a vast Empire. Constant violations of the Empire’s territory and borders were incurred constantly by Native American raiders, revolutionary Spanish independence forces and outside forces such as American squatters and various foreign traders.
After many years of fighting independence revolution movements across the Empire, New Spain broke up completely into numerous new independent nations.
One of the largest new independent nations was Mexico, achieving independence from Spain on September 27, 1821.
A large and significant part of the new state of Mexico was Texas. This huge land tract was large enough to contain the mother country, Spain and another former part of the Spanish Empire, Florida.
However, this huge area contained fewer than 10,000 people, scattered over thousands of miles of land. This disparity would play a major part of the conflicts coming to the Mexican government.
The Beginning of Anglo Texas
The new state of Mexico acknowledged the need to grow the population of their new country and to increase farming and industry thereby increasing overall productivity, wealth and tax revenue.
The Mexican government granted land grants to land agents, empresarios, ranchers and farmers. Many of these land grants were substantial, many in the hundreds or thousands of acres.
A consequence of these grants was the influx of large numbers of Americans or to the Mexicans, Anglos. These Anglos were enticed to come to Mexico for the inexpensive or free land and the opportunity to make a comfortable living.
Most Anglos settled in Mexican Texas which was the closest to the United States. The Anglo immigrants grew over the years and more came to join them upon hearing of the wonderful Texan country and seemingly unlimited opportunities.
Known today as the Father of Texas, Stephen Fuller Austin (November 3, 1793 – December 27, 1836) was responsible for leading the most successful immigrations into Texas.
The confident and adventuresome Austin established early positive relationships with Mexican officials and was granted rights of an empresario. As an empresario, Austin was granted land settlement rights in exchange for bringing new immigrants into the territory, providing aid and becoming responsible for them. Austin was to transfer ownership of 67,000 acres of land for every two hundred families he recruited to Texas.
In 1825 Austin brought 300 families from the United States into Texas. More Americans flowed into Texas and formed distinct Texan American colonies which continued to grow.
Mexican and Anglo Texan Tension
As the number of American immigrants in Texas grew, Mexican authorities became increasingly alarmed. A ban on new immigration was ordered but it could not be successfully enforced.
By 1835 Anglos vastly outnumbered the native Mexicans in Texas by over nine to one. Tensions between Mexicans and Anglos or Texians, increased due to differences in language, religion, culture, taxes, governmental regulations and the issue of slavery.
Many, if not the majority of the immigrant Anglos arrived from the southern United States. Many owned slaves and many had prejudices against other peoples and races.
Moreover, the majority of the Anglos were Protestants in religion and the Mexicans Catholics. The ages old mistrust and hatred between the two Christian religions exacerbated tensions. Many Mexicans resented the arrogance and rude behavior of the Anglo Texans.
Tensions grew until outright conflict started.
The Texas Revolution
After a decade of cultural, religious and political tension between the Mexican government and the immigrant Anglo Texans, rebellion exploded.
The Texas Revolution (October 2, 1835 – April 21, 1836) pitted the Central Government of Mexico, headed by President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, against Texan American immigrants and Tejanos (Texas Mexicans) for independence and control over the state of Texas.
The spark that started the Texas Revolution happened on October 2, 1835 near Gonzales, Texas.
Earlier, in an effort to help local Texians defend themselves from Comanche Indian raids, Mexican authorities gave them a small cannon.
As tensions between Mexican authorities and the Texians grew over the years, Mexican military officials decided to take the cannon away from the potentially rebellious Texians.
The commander of all Mexican military forces in Texas, Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, ordered a small force of dragoons to confiscate the cannon. The Texians refused the release the cannon and forced the retreat of the dragoons.
Fearing that an armed attack by the Mexicans, the Texians gathered reinforcements from other Anglo communities and on October 2, they attacked the Mexican forces.
The ensuing battle was in reality a small skirmish that resulted in 2 Mexican deaths and one injured Texian. However, the news quickly spread throughout Mexico and the United States that an armed rebellion in Texas had started. Many in America called this tiny battle the “Lexington of Texas”, a reference to the first battle of the American Revolution. *
Thereafter, Texians, aided by numerous volunteers from the United States, fought and won several small battles against various Mexican garrisons. Meanwhile, Texian representatives to the newly formed Consultation (provisional Texan government) debated on how to proceed with this new war, it’s motives and and strategies.
Texian militia and volunteers invaded Matamoras, Bexar and soon controlled the Texan Gulf coast. A second political convention declared independence of Texas from Mexico in March of 1836.
Outraged by the defeat of his forces in Texas and determined to restore Mexico’s honor in Texas, President Santa Anna, took control of all military forces and prepared to defeat the rebellion.
Santa Anna’s forces soon routed unprepared Texian troops along the coast in the Goliad area and revengefully killed most Texians who had surrendered.
Mexican forces then entered the San Antonio de Bexar area and quickly defeated Texian forces hold up in a fort converted from the Alamo Mission in the Battle of the Alamo. Famous men who died in the Alamo included William Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett.
Mexican Victories and Sam Houston
Sam Houston (1793 – 1863), a popular and experienced military leader who fought under President Andrew Jackson, was appointed commander-in-chief of all volunteer, militia and regular army forces in Texas. He was to form, train and lead a new Texan army and prepare to engage and defeat the Mexican Army.
After the total defeat of Texian forces at the Battle of the Alamo, the Mexican Army gave chase to all known rebel Texan forces. Houston’s new army was constantly moving to escape the oncoming Mexicans intent to eliminate all Texian rebels after their success in defeating the Texans at the battles of the Alamo, Refugio, Coleto, Goliad and other battles and skirmishes.
Houston knew that his army was but in name only and he needed time to train and prepare his men for battle. The Texian army grew along their retreat as volunteers flocked to join the army. Civilian Texians often followed the army for protection especially after a deadly engagement with Mexican forces know as Runaway Scrape.
Houston continued to move away from Mexican forces while taking precious time for training his army. Captured Mexican scouts revealed that Santa Anna was moving his army closely behind the Texians.
The Battle of San Jacinto
Houston’s army marched to an area near present day Houston, called Lynch’s Ferry on April 20, 1836. This area was along Buffalo Bayou, a scenic location populated by thick oak tree groves separated by marshes and streams.
The Texian army of 900 men made camp along the Buffalo Bayou. This heavily wooded area allowed the Texans to hide their true number of soldiers. However, this area did not allow access to any retreat. The Texans had no intention of retreating.
Santa Anna’s army, composed of 700 men soon arrived and made camp on a plain along the nearby San Jacinto River. The two armies were now close to each other, only about 500 yards apart.
The Mexican Army received reinforcements of 540 men the morning of April 21st, raising their total strength to approximately 1,200 men. However, the reinforcements, marching for miles with no food were exhausted and barely able to stay awake. The original army was also tired after marching and building wood walls and breastworks to defend their new camp.
Experiencing no attack from the Texians for hours, Santa Anna allowed many of his men to sleep, eat and even bathe. This would prove to be a fatal mistake for the Mexican forces.
At 4:40 pm on the 21st, the Texans began the Battle of San Jacinto by firing their cannons into the Mexican camp. Texians rushed toward the Mexican camp, jumping over the breastworks and wood fortifications and savagely fighting the surprised and unprepared Mexicans in hand to hand combat.
Santa Anna and his generals shouted different and conflicting orders to their army in a vain effort to stop the Texan onslaught. Hundreds of Texans attacked from all sides, shooting, knifing and even clubbing the Mexicans. Frightened Mexican soldiers began deserting their defenses and fled. Texians fought with fury, shouting “remember the Alamo!” and “remember Goliad!”.
The battle was basically over in less than 30 minutes but the slaughter and killing lasted for hours. Texans continued shooting and killing any Mexicans they encountered and chased after the retreating Mexicans as they tried to escape.
The Texan victory was total and astonishing. Over 630 Mexicans were killed and around 300 captured, including Santa Anna himself. Texan losses were 11 dead and about 30 wounded, including Sam Houston who suffered a terrible and painful ankle wound.
After the battle, Santa Anna agreed to treaties that allowed for Santa Anna to return to Vera Cruz, Mexico, all Mexican troops would retreat to Mexico, south of the Rio Grande river, all prisoners of the two opposing armies were to be released and all Texan property would be restored.
There was still pressure within the Mexican government to invade Texas and General Jose de Urrea was prepared to launch his 6,000-man army into Texas from a base in Matamoros.
However, federalist rebellions scattered throughout Mexico forced Urrea to send his army to subdue these uprisings. The war was effectively over but it took until June of 1843 for Mexican and Texan leaders to sign an armistice.
Sam Houston was named the first President of Texas and the United States officially recognized the new Republic of Texas.
The Battle of San Jacinto was the key event in the Texas Revolution. Overwhelming victory by the Texians over the larger Mexican Army lead by the preeminent Mexican leader became the turning point in the war.
*See the Battles of Lexington and Concord on this website.