21 April, 1836 (exactly 170 years ago) the predator was upon the prey. Or something like that…
Five Mexican armies were well across the Rio Grande into what has declared itself the independent Republic of Texas. The thousands of drilled Mexican uniforms engage pockets of Tejano irregulars generally numbering in the low hundreds. Three hundred and forty-two surrendered men have been murdered less than a month ago at Goliad. Shortly before that the famous and foolhardy defenders of the Alamo Mission had been eradicated by a sheer overrun of numbers.
It was all so easy. And another such conquest sat squarely on the calendar for tomorrow.
What no one realized was that the prey had chosen itself. Out of the five heavily built Mexican armies in Texas, General Sam Houston had picked this one specifically for it’s commanding officer: the ‘Napoleon of the West,’ Mexico’s military dictator himself.
Houston, who had arrived in Texas mere months before, was the country’s last hope for a victory. He was increasingly regarded as no hope at all. But he had made his army Santa Anna’s target intentionally, and his exceedingly unpopular retreat was well-designed to place the imminent battle on the field of his own choosing, while allowing time for the training of his volunteer force.
The Republic’s government (which Sam himself had managed to patch back together when it had already fallen apart) was making vehement threats to remove Houston; his own officer’s and men believed he was a coward. The virtually universal conviction that the retreat was a bad one seemed validated when Santa Anna was suddenly reinforced by a force of six hundred. Things were only getting worse.
But it was then that Sam Houston had found his ground. He stopped, and watched as Santa Anna prepared to attack. Apparently the former Tennessee Governor, now Texan General, let only his scouts in on the plan in his head. The Mexican generals believed the twenty-second would be the day remembered as the Battle of San Jacinto, but Houston’s scouts had already destroyed the bridge that would give Santa Anna’s foolishly chosen camp ground a retreat.
The morning of the twenty-first Houston informed his officers that today was the stand they had asked for. Overwhelmingly, the same men who had grumbled over Houston’s lack of offensive action voted now that they should entrench and defend their own location. The General overruled them, telling them to assemble their men.
That afternoon, during the hour of siesta diligently observed by Santa Anna’s troops, a line of Texans two-deep crouched low as they ascended the hill atop which the enemy lay sleeping. As they neared the crest a sentry saw them, but the slope didn’t give the Mexican volleys much chance to hit the shallow line in its approach. Houston, on horseback, was the easiest mark on the field. Even as shot severed both bones of one leg he repeated the order that his men hold fire from their muzzle-loading arms.
At almost point-blank range the order was finally given and a single burst dropped the few platoons that had managed to drowsily form up. From here, as dictated by the technology of the day, it was an action of bladed weapons, to which the frontier fighters were much better suited than trained soldiers.
“Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” Houston’s cry was echoed across the entire field.
The sleeping enemy hadn’t time to prime its guns, and Mexican regulars dropped to their knees at every yard, disavowing Santa Anna’s slaughters and denying their presence at them. The battle lasted a full eighteen minutes.
Twenty-nine years later, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper would claim that Federal troops caught Jefferson Davis on the run in Georgia dressed as a woman. In more recent years it was claimed that Osama bin Ladin fled Afghanistan in a disguise of more severe personal humiliation.
But Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico and General of the Operative Army, really was brought in dressed as a lowly soldier. Despite Sam Houston’s vigorous warning to check all prisoners against the face of Santa Anna, regardless of apparent rank, Antonio López slipped past his capturer’s notice. Until the real privates of his army saluted and shouted “El Presidente!” en masse.
The captive was taken to parley with General Houston, lying in the shade of a tree and attempting to disguise the severity of his wounds. (Good old Sam had gotten used to being shot apart years before, being essentially the flip side of the George Washington quarter every time he saw battle.)
Santa Anna hastily agreed that, given his safe passage to Mexico, he would order all military operations in Texas to return across the Rio Grande preceding a probable official recognition of the Republic.
It didn’t happen. Houston’s painstaking steps to keep the zealous volunteers (many of whom had lost relatives to Santa Anna’s murderous commands) from exterminating El Presidente proved a waste when Mexico decided she was better off with their bloodthirsty and unconstitutional (Texas only proclaimed independence when Santa Anna destroyed the lawful constitution) dictator in Texas chains.
But Santa Anna would soon return home anyway, minus his titles. Over the remaining decades of his life he would reclaim those titles, make war, make peace, deny his own treaties, etc, and generally make life miserable.
But even he gets a happy ending: In New York, during one of his several exiles, Santa Anna would help make Chiclets (and with them, chewing gum itself) a reality.
Sam Houston’s story also remained essentially the same for the rest of his life. Having won Texas’ independence for her, he was to become her first President and her first U.S. senator. His career was to be brilliant, and like the rest of his life alternated between wildly popular and violently condemned.
In 1859 he was elected governor, but was kicked out as “disloyal” for his dim view of secession. (“Loyalty” can seem to mean whatever the user wishes, if you didn’t notice.)
Two years into civil war he died in Tennessee, still an example of everything good that can be given to the term “Texan.”
(O.K, so that’s a tad sappy. True, but sappy.)