Texas: San Jacinto

This is the site of the battle in which General Sam Houston defeated the Mexicans under President Antonio López de Santa Anna and won independence for the Republic of Texas. Today the site is a one thousand-acre State Historic Park marked by the San Jacinto Monument, a 570-foot reinforced concrete tower constructed between 1936 and 1939. The park is also home to the battleship Texas, which was active in both world wars.

Site Office

San Jacinto Battleground State Historical Park

3523 Battleground Road

Le Port, TX 77571

ph.: (713) 479-2421

Web site: www.sanjacinto-museum.org

Since its admission into the United States, Texas has been known for things done on a grand scale. Ironically, a tiny plot of land is the place that Texans hold most dear in their history. This plot is the battlefield of San Jacinto, where, in 1836, a band of men led by Sam Houston defeated Mexican president and general Antonio López de Santa Anna’s men, thereby winning independence for the upstart Republic of Texas.

Texan Independence Movement

After Texas declared its secession from Mexico in 1835, Santa Anna led troops into the area to quell the uprising. His men were superior both in training and number to the Texans, and this became increasingly apparent in early 1836. Texan forces under William B. Travis were slaughtered at the Alamo in San Antonio on March 6 by invading forces sixteen times their number. On March 20, about four hundred Texans led by James Walker Fannin were surrounded, captured, and later massacred (along with Fannin himself) at Goliad by order of Santa Anna. The message that followed from Santa Anna to the Texas residents urged them to return to the Mexican fold or face complete destruction.

Meanwhile, Texas general Sam Houston had been desperately trying to assemble troops east of San Antonio at Gonzales to come to Travis’s aid. With the fall of San Antonio and a report that Santa Anna was near with perhaps as many as two thousand troops, Houston felt there was no choice but to abandon Gonzales and begin a retreat across eastern Texas that would come to be known as the “Runaway Scrape.” He forced the town’s residents to set fire to their homes; they joined Houston’s 375 men for protection, as soldiers and citizens alike moved away from the burning city. With the Alamo captured and Houston’s comparatively tiny army on the run, an overconfident Santa Anna believed it would only be a matter of time before the revolution was over.

Provisional Government

Texas’s provisional government was elected on March 17 and led by President David G. Burnet, who publicly castigated Houston for fleeing from confrontation. Oddly enough, Burnet offered this public censure as he himself fled east to Harrisburg (present-day Houston), trying to find someplace safe from which to rule. Houston understood from the disaster at the Alamo that his force was undermanned and untrained–it needed seasoning and reinforcements. So for a month, Houston’s soldiers would retreat eastward, all the while picking up more civilians seeking protection from the Mexican troops. Santa Anna’s men were pillaging and burning anything of value they found. They were also freeing enslaved blacks as they tracked Houston’s men to the north.

The Texans were hampered by the increasing numbers of tagalongs and by their lack of adequate supplies and wagons; although Santa Anna was moving toward them at a rate of twenty-five miles per day, they were finally about to get some good news. An unusually dry spring had slowed the growth of prairie grass; the subsequent lack of grazing lands for the Mexicans’ horses slowed Santa Anna’s pursuit and allowed the Texans to retain their small lead in the race for the Louisiana border. A rainy period came shortly afterward, flooding the lands and making a muddy mess of the marching territory.

The good news was short-lived; just a few days later, after passing the Navidad River, the Texans received word of the outcome at Goliad. Though the news was tragic, Houston used both the Goliad and Alamo Massacres throughout their march to stoke the emotions of his men; when some of the survivors of Goliad joined the other soldiers, they spoke of horrors that served only to incense their counterparts. For one reason or another, every man in Houston’s army hated Santa Anna with a burning passion.

Destructiveness of the Mexican Army

As Houston moved east picking up more men, the Mexicans moved from town to town, destroying everything in their path. One of Santa Anna’s field generals, José Urrea, was having particular success as he moved to the south of the Mexican president. Not wanting to be shown up by one in his command, Santa Anna quickly swung his own men toward Harrisburg and the provisional government. His plan was to capture Burnet and then head northward to destroy Houston, who was rumored to be in the area.

It was now April, and Houston had increased the size of his army to nearly one thousand. After crossing the Brazos River on April 12, Houston had a decision to make. Would he turn north toward Nacogdoches and keep fleeing, or head south to finally have a showdown with Santa Anna? To the cheers of his troops and the disdain of the civilians, Houston decided it was time for battle. The civilians, who were to continue on toward Nacogdoches, demanded protection, however, and when three hundred men volunteered, Houston had no choice but to let them go. The defections left him with a fighting force of somewhere between seven hundred and eight hundred.

Santa Anna entered Harrisburg on the night of April 15, only to find most of the city burning and Burnet nowhere to be found. Not only were the city’s two newspaper buildings still standing, the editors were still putting out newspapers; when Santa Anna questioned them, they told him that Burnet and his government had fled further east to New Washington, a city on Galveston Bay. Wanting the glory of capturing the rebel president, Santa Anna took a five hundred-man contingent and pursued them. As Santa Anna arrived in New Washington, Burnet, his wife, and his cabinet members were caught trying to row across the bay to safety. Santa Anna refused to fire on a boat that carried a woman, thereby letting Burnet slip through his fingers once again.

While the Mexicans were spending their time on futile pursuits, Houston was marching his men through burned-out Harrisburg on April 19 to keep emotions at a high level. There the Texans received word that Santa Anna had moved toward New Washington and that his next goal was to control Lynch’s Ferry at the San Jacinto River in an effort to trap the rebels. Houston also was informed that Santa Anna had left most of his force behind in the hope of a hasty capture of Burnet.

Houston’s Strategy

Houston knew that his best chance at victory was to meet the smaller Mexican force at the ferry; indeed, getting there first and controlling it would be his best chance at escape should the battle not go in his favor. It would also be important to engage the Mexicans quickly, before their one thousand reinforcements waiting at the Brazos River arrived. So, for the rest of the day of April 19, the Texans moved toward the ferry at the confluence of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou, a forty-five-mile-long stream. The tone of the conflict had changed–it was Houston who was now on the offensive.

Houston won the foot race to the ferry, arriving on the morning of April 20 just three hours before the Mexicans. Though the Texans had control of the ferry, it would not be long before Santa Anna’s troops arrived in battle formation. Immediately, the Mexicans moved toward the Texans, firing the one cannon they had in their possession. The Texans responded with two cannon of their own, sending the Mexicans retreating into a grove of trees at the south end of the battlefield.

Santa Anna certainly was in no hurry to attack again; he had Houston’s back pinned against the fifteen-foot-deep Buffalo Bayou, and his own right covered by the San Jacinto River. He expected five hundred more troops led by General Martín Perfecto de Cós by morning, which would give him a nearly two-to-one advantage over the Texans. The confident Mexican general ordered his troops to set up camp and build barriers, in case Houston tried to launch an attack early the next morning. Around sunset, eighty-five Texan calvalrymen tried to capture the Mexican cannon, but were quickly driven back at the cost of two minor injuries and several downed horses. This incident and some sporadic rifle fire ended a relatively uneventful first day of fighting.

Houston’s men set up camp in their own grove of trees on the bank of the Buffalo Bayou, awaiting orders to attack, but Houston would not let them engage, even as April 21 dawned. Cós arrived with reinforcements from the west via Vince’s Ferry at 9:00 a.m.; Houston sent one of his best men, Erastus Smith, to destroy Vince’s Ferry before any more Mexicans could cross. Smith succeeded, and by doing so effectively trapped the two armies between the waters. Conflict at San Jacinto was then inevitable.

At noon, Houston met with his field generals and debated whether or not to launch an offensive; his two junior officers voted to attack, while his four senior officers voted to lie in wait. The final decision was to wait, though Houston knew he would attack that afternoon. Meanwhile, Santa Anna and Cós waited in their camp, unable to understand why the Texans had not attacked. With their soldiers tired from a long night of marching and building entrenchments, and believing that no man would dare attack in broad daylight over an open field, the Mexican generals allowed their men to take an afternoon nap. Santa Anna himself was still supremely confident that the conflict would begin and end as soon as he decided to launch his own attack.

Throughout the early afternoon, as the Mexicans either meandered around their camp or slept, Houston finally began to prepare his men for an advance. To create an illusion of inactivity, he made sure all movements took place within a clump of covering trees. This secrecy was not needed, however; the Texans’ lookouts posted in the trees could not even locate any Mexican sentries in the camp across the plain; Santa Anna’s men were not suspecting a thing.

The Battle Begins

With only seven hundred men to organize, Houston was ready within an hour. He placed himself at the center of his men; to the left were two infantry regiments and to the right the two cannon and four more infantry companies. The cavalrymen, led by Mirabeau Lamar, were sent to the far right to cut off the only easy escape route for the Mexicans. At four o’clock, Houston gave the order, and his men advanced in unison toward Santa Anna’s troops.

With cries of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” the Texans swarmed furiously toward the Mexican line. When they were within six hundred feet of the barricades, they opened fire with the two cannon, sending grapeshot into the camp of the bewildered Mexicans. After softening up the defenses, Houston’s men opened with musket fire as they mounted and surged over the barriers. While driving across the field, Houston was wounded in the ankle by a musket shot.

After only eighteen minutes, the Texans were in total control of the Mexican camp. The battle was over in a heartbeat, but the senseless slaughter of surrendering Mexican troops would continue for the next several hours. Houston’s generals tried to control their men, but the soldiers were resolved to make Santa Anna’s men pay for the Texans’ months of hardship. The atrocities were particularly brutal: A Mexican drummer boy with two broken legs who begged a Texan to spare his life was shot in the head. Many other Mexican soldiers who jumped into Peggy Lake, a bog off the river, were picked off by sharpshooters as they surfaced for air. Finally, nearly four hundred Mexican troops banded together to surrender en masse in the hope that they would escape the fate of their compatriots who were captured individually. The strategy worked; they were spared and were taken prisoner.

Santa Anna’s Escape

Santa Anna realized early in the battle what its outcome would be, and he managed to slip away as the commotion raged around him. He trekked south toward Fort Bend where General Antonio Gaona and reinforcements waited, in the hope of regrouping and launching another assault on San Jacinto. The general evaded the search parties for a while, but was picked up the next morning by scouts who did not know who he was. When they marched him back into the camp at San Jacinto, his own men identified him by calling out “El Presidente!” as he walked by. He finally revealed his identity and asked to be brought to Houston, who was then recovering from his wound.

The Texans wanted Santa Anna executed for his war crimes, but Houston knew he was more valuable alive than dead. Two more Mexican generals, Vincente Filisola and José Urrea, were reported to be nearby with more than seven thousand troops at their disposal; killing their leader would only provoke them to attack and continue a war that, if prolonged, would be certain disaster for the Texans. In exchange for his life, Santa Anna agreed to order all his troops to retreat beyond the Rio Grande. When this retreat had ended, Texas was finally free from Mexican rule. Houston and Stephen F. Austin would be nominated for the presidency of the republic the following November, with Houston riding the tide of San Jacinto to a landslide victory.

When the dust at San Jacinto finally settled, the disparity in casualties was astonishing. Only nine of Houston’s men were killed or mortally wounded, as compared to more than six hundred dead and seven hundred prisoners on the other side. Though his men were greatly outnumbered, Houston effectively used surprise to defeat his overconfident enemy. However, the massacre that ensued has been branded one of the worst U.S. war atrocities ever, a blight on what is otherwise regarded by Texans as the greatest day in their history.

Visiting the Site

Visitors to the battlefield site can walk across the battlegrounds, and they can browse in the San Jacinto Museum of History at the base of the San Jacinto Monument, a 570-foot concrete tower with an observation floor at the top that offers views of the battlefield and nearby Houston. One other attraction of note to the west of the site in the Houston Ship Channel is the battleship Texas, which in 1948 was given to the people of the state after it had seen action in both World War I and World War II.

For Further Information

  • Bruhl, Marshall de. Sword of San Jacinto: A Life of Sam Houston. New York: Random House, 1993. A complete biography of the general who led Texas to freedom, and then became the republic’s first president.
  • Haley, James L. Texas: From the Frontier to the Spindletop. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Gives an overview of the main events in the state’s history until roughly 1910.
  • Long, Jeff. Duel of Eagles. New York: William Morrow, 1990. Chronicles the Texas-Mexico conflict, with particular emphasis on the siege at the Alamo.
  • San Jacinto Museum. www.sanjacinto-mueum.org. This site contains information for the State Historical Park, the museum, and the battleship Texas.