20. August 2010 · Comments Off on 18 Minutes – Part 2 of 3 · Categories: Uncategorized

san jacinto flag

(Yes, I know – this started as a two parter, but the set up is complicated, lots of issues, events and personalities involved. The above is the San Jacinto Flag)

Sam Houston had originally come to Gonzales, seventy miles east and south of San Antonio, at the end of March, with the intention of lifting the siege of the Alamo – although with the body of men at his command, one doubts if that was ever a serious possibility. Within a few hours of arrival, he had received word that the Alamo had fallen. Almost immediately, Sam Houston announced that his army would retreat to the line of the Colorado River, generally held to be a defensible boundary, on the edge of the American settlements in Texas. The spring was a rainy one, and the rivers and creeks were running high. As the Texans retreated, they burned Gonzales, and destroyed the river ferry at Burnham’s Crossing. Houston had sent messages to the citadel at La Bahia, commanding Colonel Fannin and his garrison to abandon La Bahia and to meet up with him as they fell back to defending along the line of the Colorado River. More and more volunteers were gathering to Houston – but Fannin’s men would more than double the number at Houston’s command, once their forces were joined.


(First page of a hand-written list of Fannin’s garrison, compiled by survivor, Dr. Joseph Barnard – image lifted from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission website.Original list is 17 pages long.)

But Fannin left it too late – by the time he and his had packed up their wagons, their cannon, supplies and abandoned the old Spanish presidio, a striking force of Mexican troops under General Jose de Urrea caught up with them. Urrea was an able and enterprising officer, given the task of sweeping up settler resistance along the coastal lowlands. Within a very short time he had mopped up several other small Texian fighting companies, surrounded the retreating Fannin’s company, defeated them at Coleto Creek, and forced them to surrender. News of this surrender reached Houston within days – along with the knowledge that Urrea’s cavalry was already striking east. He ordered a retreat – this time to the line of the Brazos River and San Felipe – the town founded by Stephen Austin. Houston set up camp on the Brazos, in what had been considered the heart of the American settlements,  near the plantation of Jared Groce, reputed to be the wealthiest settler in that part of Texas. There he rested for nearly a week, gathering volunteers, waiting for supplies from farther east to catch up to him – and for word from his scouting parties. The standing government of Texas fled to Harrisburg, now a suburb of Houston. And Houston waited, listening to the words of his officers – but saying very little of his own thoughts. Like General Washington and his ragged Continental Army, seventy years before, as long as the army of Texas existed in a meaningful way – that was what counted.

A battle was a chancy thing; Washington could afford to (and did) loose many a battle on the way to Yorktown. Houston did not have that luxury; he had allies, in the Americans (including the Regular Army, lurking meaningfully but neutrally just across the border) and American volunteers coming to join him every day, singly or in companies; but the Mexican Army was pressing hard. Santa Anna’s men did not have the sea-voyage from half the world away as the British forces had during the Revolution, merely an Indian-haunted desert, just a few hundred miles of hostile wilderness, or a short coastal voyage. No, I am fairly certain that Sam Houston reckoned that his army had only one good fight in them, so he had best make certain that fight would count, and that all the advantages of ground, time and hasty training of his volunteers would be with him. The country east of the Brazos was where he could count on at least one advantage; it was where the tall oak and pine woods began. The American settlers tended to be riflemen, preferred fighting from cover – not in disciplined ranks, and definitely not out in the open plains and scrub brush country, where Mexican cavalrymen had the advantage of speed and long spears. Texians were not quite yet the peerless horsemen they would become within another two decades.

While Houston drew a breath at Groce’s plantation, he took delivery of a pair of 6-pound cannon, purchased and sent to Texas as the gift of citizens of Cincinnati – and doubly precious for they were the only cannon his army possessed. During that period Houston also received news of the fate of James Fannin and his men, defeated at Coleto Creek and held prisoner in the old citadel of La Bahia. Lopez de Santa Anna ordered that all the prisoners be executed forthwith. Urrea’s officers obeyed – reluctantly, but they obeyed. Nearly three hundred and fifty survivors of Coleto were led out of the citadel on various pretenses, but before they were very far away, their guards turned upon them. A few managed to escape in the confusion. This was horrific, an unspeakable atrocity in the eyes of the Texians, for it had been understood that Fannin had surrendered under honorable circumstances. His men were volunteers, soldiers – and many of them had family, friends and comrades now serving among the Texian ranks. The cold-blooded mass-murder of Fannin’s command raised the anger among Sam Houston’s army to a white-hot pitch – not least because they would expect the same treatment meted, should they be defeated.

deaf smith

(Sam Houston’s chief scout and spy – Erastus “Deaf” Smith)

But the news received was not all discouraging – the rainy spring kept the rivers flowing high. While it made a misery for his Army, and the civilian refugees fleeing east, it also created even more misery for the Mexican columns. Houston’s spies and scouts spent tireless days in the saddle; his chief of scouts was a long-time resident in San Antonio, Erastus Smith. Known as “Deaf” Smith, for he was terribly hard of hearing, Erastus Smith had made a reputation as a breeder of fine cattle, married a Tejana lady, and fathered a large family. At the beginning of the unrest in Texas he had been more or less neutral – as many long-established settlers had been – but during the siege of General Cos’s troops in San Antonio late in 1835, he had thrown his support to the rebellious Texians. “Deaf” Smith and his men brought rumors of hardship and want among the Mexican Army, even as they approached San Felipe and the various defended river-crossings on the Brazos. Many of Houstons’ officers began wondering openly if Houston would give the orders to engage, to turn and fight – instead, he ordered the Texian Army to fall back, once more, abandoning the line of the Brazos River. Dissatisfaction with Houston’s leadership reached a furious pitch, almost open mutiny; he was blamed for abandoning the Brazos, for the burning of San Felipe, and resented for his insistence upon drill and discipline. The secretary of war in the nascent Texas government, Thomas Jefferson Rush arrived bearing a stern message – stand and fight. Very likely, at this point, Houston and Rusk conferred together and Houston convinced Rusk of the difficult wisdom of pursuing a strategy; a Fabian strategy, like that of George Washington – carefully falling back, while watching for the perfect moment and waiting for the enemy to exhaust resources and men, nibbling at the edge, a small engagement here and there. Houston must have convinced Rusk, for the latter stayed with the Army, even as they fell back one more time.

And then, Erastus Smith captured a Mexican courier, one bearing a particularly important dispatch. And when he read it, Houston knew the time was indeed, almost right.

(To be continued. Yes, this is going to be three parts – explaining the set-up took another page.)

Comments closed.