Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Battle of San Jacinto

Commander K. at Santa Anna's Camp
Photo Courtesy: Jim Hooper


Even though no American Army participated, the Battle of San Jacinto proved to be one of the most decisive and consequential in American history.  On April 21, 1836 a band of Texians led by Sam Houston met  Antonio L√≥pez de Santa Anna's Mexican forces near the town of San Jacinto.

It is misleading to view this conflict as a simple race war between "white" Americans and "brown" Mexicans.  First off, the Texians were not all Americans -- many had European origins.  There were also the Tejanos -- men of Mexican descent who joined the Texians in opposition to the perceived tyranny of Santa Anna's government.  Lorenzo de Zavala, a Tejano, became the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas.

Mexican Uniform, The Alamo,  San Antonio, TX
The Mexicans had several advantages in the battle.  First, they outnumbered the Texians by about 1,300 to 900 combatants.  Second, they were a professionally equipped and trained Army.  Third, they were being led by the self-styled "Napoleon of the West" -- Santa Anna.  Fourth, their uniforms were sharper than the rag tag Texians.

Santa Anna, however, had violated two of the cardinal rules of military science; he had divided his forces and camped his Army with their backs to a swampy river.  No means of retreat was available to his forces.  This is the rule that makes all amphibious landing so very problematic and gives the military heartburn.  When I paid a recent visit to the battleground this summer I saw signs warning of alligators near the empty picnic benches that grace the site of the Mexican camp today!

Why did they fight?
By most standards the battle was a skirmish rather than a Battle.  There were 1,360 Mexicans pitted against 960 Texians.  The Battle only lasted for 18 minutes.  There were 630 Mexican killed and only nine Texians.  Nevertheless, the Battle was one of great significance for North American history.  It was, like the battles of Lepanto and Waterloo, one of the turning points in world history.

Sam Houston
San Jacinto Monument Museum, TX
Sam Houston was a hard-drinking politician with limited military experience.  He had failed to come to the relief of William Travis and the defenders of the Alamo. Santa Anna had given no quarter, creating martyrs of the Texian defenders.  Santa Anna also ordered the massacre a further 342 unarmed Texian prisoners at  Goliad.

On April 21, 1836 the outnumbered Texian Army was fired up for revenge on behalf of their comrades.  The Cries of "Remember the Alamo" and "Remember Goliad" filled the air.

The battle lasted only 18 minutes, but was to have far reaching effects.  The Mexican were decisively defeated and Santa Anna was captured.  He would exchange his liberty in return for the creation of a new independent country -- the Republic of Texas.

In 1845, during the Tyler administration, Texas was annexed to the United States forming the 28th state in the Union (see    President Polk, a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, would lead the country into a war against Mexico from 1846-1848.  The treaty of  Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican-American war would result in the annexation of California, Arizona, and New Mexico to the United States.

Is it not abundantly clear that those who live in these states, imperfect though they may be, are far better off than if this area had remained a part of Mexico?

The Recipe for Prosperity
The economic historian William Bernstein suggests that four things are requisite for a "Birth of Plenty" to occur: 1) Property Rights, 2) Scientific Rationalism, 3) Capital Markets and 4) Fast and Efficient Communications and Transportation.  A contra-factual Mexican victory at the battle of San Jacinto would have denied Texas and the Western United States the opportunity to enjoy all four factors and condemned its residents to grinding poverty under a corrupt regime.

William Bernstein writes, "Populist rhetoric in Latin America contributes to the poisonous economic atmosphere.  Where the avenging specter of 'the people'; hangs heavy in the air, improving a property or a business serves only to make it a fatter target for confiscation...The corruption of Latin politics originated in Hapsburg Spain and was perpetuated by political instability.  A heritage rife with conquest, plunder, exploitation and forced extraction of mineral wealth does not greatly value efficient capital markets.  The modern scourge of the Andean nations-- the drug industry--and the lawlessness that accompanies it -- is a symptom, not the disease."  (Source: Birth of Plenty, William Bernstein, 2004

The eventual American sovereignty over this territory, made possible by the Battle of San Jacinto, brought the rule of law and ignited a "birth of plenty" throughout the region.

Moreover, consider how very different, and likely worse, world history would have been had America remained a stunted state hemmed in to the south by a much larger Mexico.  The Kaiser's Imperial Germany attempted to play the Mexico card during the First World War.  The Zimmerman telegram was one of the principle  reasons for Wilson's decision to join the Allied side in that war.  Just imagine how much more dangerous the German overture would have been if Mexico had retained Texas and the Southwestern United States. Later, a truncated and weakened Untied States would likely have been unable to help win World War II or the Cold War.  The cascading events that might have followed a Mexican victory at San Jacinto would have impoverished not merely the region, but, arguably, the world as a whole.

Today a visitor to Houston can easily tour the San Jacinto Monument ( which is about twenty five miles away from downtown.  You can take the elevator up to the top to get a view of the battleground.  Atop the Monument you will find a huge granite Lone Star -- everything really is bigger in Texas!

Commander Kelly says, "Remember San Jacinto!"

Special thanks to my friend Jim Hooper for showing me the battleground on my recent trip to Houston.

You can now purchase Commander Kelly's first book, America Invades or on


James Hooper said...

Good article Chris. I'm surprised no one has commented on Texas the slave state. To paraphrase Condoleezza Rice, the new Republic was born with a birth defect.

In a further twist to your "contra-factual" example, what if The Republic of Texas had upheld the Mexican prohibition on slavery and entered the union as a 'free state'? Makes one wonder whether the southern states, faced with an immediate 3 front war, might have reconsidered secession. Not that a free Texas would have made any difference to the slavery question; indeed, absent the civil war, Lincoln may not have had the political clout to issue the emancipation proclamation. Slavery may well have persisted in the south long past 1865.

I still say, had President Lincoln employed Mr. Obama's 'executive waver' philosophy with regard to large slave holders (plantations and the like), the civil war might never have happened. Alas, unlike Mr. Obama, President Lincoln was more an equal rights under the law kind of statesman - all emancipated or nothing.

Interesting times are ahead for Texas. The field of candidates to replace Rick Perry is growing. The contenders include San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. Mayor Castro's mother Maria "Rosie" Castro was a Chicano political activist who helped establish the Chicano political party La Raza Unida. Mayor Castro credits his mother for his interest in politics.

Elected in 2009, Mayor Castro has refused to attend any Texas Independence commemoration events in San Antonio or around the state. I suspect 'Governor Castro' would prefer Alamo be converted into a national Mexican holocaust museum.

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

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