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


The Mexican forces in hot pursuit of Houston’s army had split into several columns over the weeks and days of their efforts to quash the rebellious Texians; from the start of operations, General Urrea had been coming fast and hard along the coastal plain, and General Gaona had been sweeping the north, along the fringe of Texian settlements on the frontier, while Santa Anna himself and General Ramirez y Sesma driving up the center – all given orders to scour the Anglo settlements, and execute all those Texians who had taken up arms in rebellion, and force all those who had not to leave.  Santa Anna’s original plan seems to have been to have all three columns converge on Houston’s force and smash the rebels for once and for all. But at the last moment, Santa Anna detached part of his force to protect his tenuously lengthening supply line, and  personally led a force of about 500 soldiers in an attempt to capture those cabinet members of the independent Texan government, who had fled to Harrisburg. Alas, only two of them were still to be found, and they hopped it immediately for Galveston by boat, escaping by the skin of their teeth. But doubtless, Santa Anna was cheered, first by burning Harrisburg to the ground, and then upon hearing from his own scouts that Houston was retreating towards the Trinity River, seemingly with the intent of taking his ragged army to Galveston and continuing the insurgency from there.  The projected line of Houston’s retreat would take his ragged army by the river-ferry at Lynchburg on Buffalo Bayou – and if Santa Anna’s forces could beat Houston’s men to the ferry – well, then, the rebellion in Texas would be finished, for once and all. The two forces – Santa Anna’s detached column, and Houston’s underfed, under-equipped and hastily-formed army were on a collision-course.

But who was actually chasing who? While Houston’s army was resting near the ruins of Harrisburg after a brutal forced march, Erastus Smith’s scouts captured a Mexican courier. And when Houston and his staff read the messages, they discovered that General Santa Anna, the President and Generalissimo of Mexico, the so-called Napoleon of the West, the butcher of the Alamo and the murderer of Goliad – was separated from the main force of his own army – and that in fact, Houston had inadvertently cut off Santa Anna from the main part of his army! This was perhaps the crucial moment that Sam Houston had been waiting for. For this he had been gathering an army, desperately holding it together, keeping his own counsel all the while, leading his increasingly resentful officers and men back, and back and back into East Texas, to the oak woods, to the thickly forested bayou country that the Anglo settlers had made their own, waiting for Santa Anna to make that climactic mistake.

On the 19th of April, Houston addressed his army, telling them that they were going in pursuit of Santa Anna. They were going to travel light and fast, taking only the cavalry’s horses, a single ammunition wagon, and the precious cannons, the so-called ‘Twin Sisters.’  Two days later, the Texians and Santa Anna’s column faced each other on a wood-edged grassland, embraced by a loop of Buffalo Bayou, where a tangle of rivers, slow-moving bayous, streamlets, and bogs all intersected – each one swollen with the runoff of a particularly rainy spring. Santa Anna had been reinforced by about 500 hundred men, brought post-haste by General Martin Perfecto de Cos, his hapless brother-in-law, the general who had been defeated by the rambunctious Texans in San Antonio barely six months before. Erastus Smith and a party of men had burned Vince’s Bridge – preventing any more reinforcements from Santa Anna’s other forces. Each commander no doubt thought that they had the other force cornered, and bided their time, each waiting for the other to make his move on the morning of the 21st. Houston with his ragged army of approximately 900 men, with two small 6-pound cannon anchoring his center, Santa Anna with about 1,400 and one 12-pound cannon, all of his camp secured behind a hastily-assembled barricade of packs and assorted baggage. Secure in his conviction that he would be able to overpower the Texians at his leisure, midday passed and Santa Anna had his troops stand down for a siesta. Cos’ s troops had moved fast and were exhausted, so were his own, from building the scratch barricade. The day stretched into late afternoon. From what Santa Anna could see, nothing was going to happen with the Texians today. His soldiers rested in the shade of the trees, while some went to fetch wood, and water.

The Texians were tired also – but they were not resting. They were hungry, frustrated, and very, very angry. At about half-past three, they formed a thin battle line, among the trees that sheltered their camp, the trees that American riflemen were accustomed to fight from; a small company of sixty cavalry on the right, the two cannon, the Twin Sisters anchoring the middle. Captain Juan Seguin’s company of Tejanos from San Antonio was among them, having forcefully declined a request to stay behind for their own safety in the camp in Harrisburg with the sick and the baggage wagons. They had put pieces of cardboard in their hatbands, to distinguish themselves from the enemy.  At 4:30, General Houston gave the order to advance across the five hundred yards between their camp, and the Mexican defense-work; he led from the front, on a huge white horse, the thin line of riflemen spreading out to either side. The die was cast – they must win or die, here on this island of high ground, among the bogs and bayous, either that or slink ignominiously back over the Sabine River to the United States. They had a scratch band; some accounts say a fife or a penny-whistle, or even a pair of fiddlers, playing a somewhat suggestive ditty called “Come to the Bower,” intending to deceive whatever Mexican sentries watching into assuming that they were only goofing around. A slight rise ran across the middle of the field, masked the advancing Texians for some critical minutes, stalking through the tall grass prairie towards the somnolent Mexican camp.

At almost point-blank range, the Twin Sisters began firing, and on the right flank, the Texian cavalry began to circle in. Houston impatiently halted and dressed the ranks of the riflemen, having spent much time all during the withdrawal from Gonzales, in drilling them to fire and fire again in organized volleys. After that first wicked volley, crashing up and down the line in a storm of black powder smoke, Houston had probably meant for the infantry to reload, advance and volley again. At that very moment control snapped, the line of men rushing forward as individual skirmishers, as implacable as a tidal wave. Secretary of War Thomas Rusk, serving as an officer in the field, shouted, “If we stop, we are cut to pieces – go ahead – give ‘em Hell!”

Over an open field, in broad daylight, and against experienced professional soldiers, almost total surprise was achieved – a matter which now and even then seemed passing miraculous. The wave of vengeful Texians simply flooded over the Mexican barricade, howling “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember Goliad!” pausing neither to re-load, using their musket and rifle stocks as clubs. They fought in a rage, like berserkers, like Cuchulainn, hand to hand and with their knives or pistol-butts; for they were proud men and powered by unappeasable fury. They had been made by circumstances and Sam Houston’s orders to fall back and back again, to abandon their lands, lives and families, to see their life’s work – their houses, businesses and towns ruined and burnt, to know that friends and kin had been murdered after Goliad, or given no quarter at the Alamo, and now chance had turned their way at last. “Santa Anna quarter!” they shouted, and save for a brief moment when old General Castrillon organized a defense around the single Mexican cannon, all resistance to that terrible fury collapsed. Santa Anna’s army utterly dissolved in the space of eighteen minutes. They were hemmed in by the bayou, by the muddy waters of Peggy’s Lake, where they were shot down from the bank as if they were some strange kind of waterfowl. Remember the Alamo. Remember the Goliad. Santa Anna quarter. The Texians returned with interest the treatment which had been meted out to their friends, kin and comrades; if there might be a defense made of what happened on the field of San Jacinto, let it be noted that what happened there happened in hot blood. This is nothing like the cold, post-battle and command-ordered murder of the handful of Alamo survivors or that of Fannin’s men at the Goliad.

And Santa Anna, the chief architect of all this bloodshed was nowhere to be found, in the immediate aftermath. The Napoleon of the West had simply – and temporarily vanished. Perhaps it was lucky for him that he did.

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