04. August 2010 · Comments Off on 18 Minutes – Part 1 of 3 · Categories: Uncategorized

Sam Houston – Victor of San Jacinto, and Much Else

Eighteen minutes, by the clock – in that furious eighteen minutes, a strategic battle was won. Eventually it would prove that more than just an errant and rebellious state had been lost to a central governing authority – and worse yet, lost under the personal supervision of a charismatic and able leader. In an open meadow with a slight rise across the middle of it, fringed with tall trees, bounded on two sides by a river and a third by a swampy lake (or a lakey swamp – descriptions are elastic) the dreams of one nation-state died and another was born.

The dreams of one of those nation-states died along with a fair number of its soldiers; ironically, the long-term political career of the man who had led them there was not one of them. He was the prototypical general on a white horse, following a willow-the-wisp of his enemy. He would not die in the swamp around Peggy’s Lake, or in the waters where Vince’s Bridge had been cut down. He would – like his adversary – die of old age, in bed of more or less natural causes, after a lifetime of scheming, treachery and showmanship. This probably came as a great surprise to everyone who had taken part on either side of the 1835-36 Texas War of Independence; that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna would live a long life and erratically prosperous life –and his cause of death did not involve a hangman’s rope,  a firing squad or an outraged husband. Which, given his career of double-cross, astounding brutality and corruption, should give confidence and inspiration to prospective caudillos everywhere. That is the end of the story, however – the beginning was in Texas, in the mid 1830s.

Lopez de Santa Anna

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – A Man of Good Taste but Little Judgement

Which beginning is more tangled than anyone could imagine, from just knowing of it through the medium of pop-culture. For most people, Americans and foreigners alike, that is pretty well limited to movies about the Alamo, and the Disney version of Davy Crockett. Act One – American settlers take over Texas; Act Two – many of them hole up in the Alamo; Act Three – a lot of swarthy and nattily-dressed Mexican soldiers kill them all; Act Four – somehow, the Americans win Texas after all, and in spite of that. Garnish with any number of fashionable intellectual flourishes, conceits and concepts and salt to taste.

The story is of course, much more interesting and nuanced than that – and I have had a great deal of fun in exploring some of the elements, especially now that I have come to the real final act; what happened after the farcical fight over a little spiked and repaired cannon – how that event led the men of Gonzales coming to the aid of those who had similarly aided them, certain musings about the characters of three men who took it onto themselves to defend an old mission half tumbled down.  Then there was the massacre of the Goliad garrison, and how the American settlers in Texas took flight from their homes and scrambled east – women fending for themselves and their children, as husbands and fathers went to join Sam Houston’s army. I’ve even mused upon Houston’s character – for he was certainly that; flamboyant, contradictory, self-taught everything, drunkard and dissembler  . . .  and possibly the one man who held everything together in Texas for the space of six weeks in the spring of 1836.

One way and another, in late March of 1936, Sam Houston had gotten himself put in command of what passed for the Army of Texas, an army made up from a mix of eager volunteers and local militiamen – many of whom were absolutely confident they knew just about as much about the profession of arms as their commander. Many did not – exhibit A, James Fannin, West Point drop-out, timid, indecisive, and the last to be executed of his command, save for a few who were spared because of their profession, by sympathetic Mexican officers, or through having escaped in the confusion when the guns were turned upon them.

This army, to use a cheerful modern expression was making it up as they went along; everything was scratch, volunteer, on the fly – which had been well enough, when they were facing a few disorganized, unsupplied and demoralized Mexican commands in late 1835. But when the self-styled Napoleon of the West came roaring up from Mexico, determined to restore centralist sovereignty – that was a game changer. He came with a large army at his back, not just infantrymen, but also with well-trained and expert cavalry, and artillery, commanded by experienced officers. Against this, the scratch companies of local militia, and eager volunteers fresh from the eastern US had no chance at all, although learning this was a painful and often fatal lesson.

Sam Houston seems to have been the only Texan leader with an effective strategy in mind to counter Lopez de Santa Anna. His own army was short of everything but determination – and as they retreated into East Texas – a slow-burning fury which very often was directed at Sam Houston rather than the enemy, because it seemed to many that he had no wish to stand  and fight.

(To be continued … of course.)

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