Houston was now ready to assume the offensive. Several mutinous and recalcitrant companies, which had withdrawn from him during the retreat, perceiving, before it was too late, the wisdom of Houston's course, now rejoined him. His total force was at this time about seven hundred and fifty men. Santa Anna was within the heart of Texas with perhaps fifteen hundred men, far from his base of supplies, and without the possibility of succor or reenforcement, should he need either. He was utterly unsuspicious that Houston had at last assumed the offensive. He made the not uncommon mistake of the successful commander of despising his enemies. His detachment of a regiment to pursue the President was a fatal blunder.
Houston reached Harrisburg, which Santa Anna had destroyed, on the 18th of April, 1836. Leaving its baggage wagons, the army crossed Buffalo Bayou in a leaky scow and a timber raft. The cavalry horses were forced to swim the river. At dawn on the twentieth, receiving intelligence that the Mexican army was at hand, Houston marched to the junction of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. Santa Anna, with twelve hundred men, was at New Washington. He immediately marched to attack Houston.
The armies came in contact that same afternoon. There was some skirmishing, but no decisive engagement. The Mexicans went into camp and threw up a flimsy entrenchment. On the morning of the 21st Santa Anna was joined by five hundred cavalrymen under General Cos. The total force of the Texans was seven hundred and eighty-two. There were only two hundred bayonets in the Texan army. As the Mexicans outnumbered them more than two to one, the Texans expected to be attacked. The day wore away, however, without any movement being made by the Mexicans, and Houston decided at last to begin the engagement himself.
At four o'clock in the afternoon he ordered his small cavalry squadron and his two-gun battery to advance, the infantry following with their guns at a trail. The army band, which consisted of a solitary drum and fife, played a popular air, "Will you come to the bower?" The movement was screened from the enemy by two little islands or clumps of trees between the Texans and the Mexicans. Houston, wearing an old black coat, a black velvet vest, a pair of snuff-colored pantaloons, and dilapidated boots, with his pantaloons tucked into them, and carying an old sword, led the advance. Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar was captain of the cavalry. Thomas J. Rusk, Secretary of War, commanded the left; Burleson, the center; and Sherman, the right. As the Texans passed the islands and came in full view of the Mexican lines, Houston galloped up and down the line on a white horse shouting profanely, "Gd dn you, hold your fire!"
The place where the ensuing battle was fought was enclosed by marshes. There was only one safe way of retreat from it. That was by a road which led across the bayou, called the Vince's Bridge Road. When the army, now on a run, had come within a few hundred feet of the Mexican lines, Deaf Smith, a celebrated scout, dashed up, shouting that he had cut down Vince's Bridge, and that there was no retreat. Like Cortez, Houston had burned his boats behind him. It was to be a case of conquer or die. The men did not think of retreating. Shouting, "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad! Remember La Bahia!" they broke from the timber and rushed upon the Mexican camp.
The surprize was complete. It had never occurred to the Mexicans that the Texans would have the temerity to attack so overwhelming a force. When the Americans burst upon them, Santa Anna was asleep, the cavalry were watering their horses, the cooks were preparing the evening meal, and the soldiers had laid aside their arms and were playing games. The Mexicans ran to their arms, but were driven from their breastworks by a well-aimed volley at close range. They actually had no time to discharge their guns. The "Twin Sisters" did valiant service. In a few minutes the whole Mexican line was in hopeless retreat. Lamar, by a gallant dash with his eighty horses, drove the five hundred cavalrymen, struggling with their horses, in great confusion. Some of the Mexican officers bravely strove to rally and form their men, and put up a stout resistance, notably General Castrillon and Colonel Almonte, but in vain.
The battle was over in fifteen minutes. The Mexicans scattered in every direction; some, hotly pursued by the Americans, ran toward the bayou; others fled into the marshes back of their camp, only to be shot as they stood enmired. Colonel Almonte rallied five hundred men under the trees, but they were panic-stricken and he could do nothing with them. They were surrendered in a body. Six hundred and thirty men, including thirty-three officers, were killed on the field. Two hundred and eight, of whom eighteen were officers, were seriously wounded. Seven hundred and thirty were made prisoners. There were a few who escaped, and many who were not accounted for who perished in the marshes and rivers. The total Mexican loss was about seventeen hundred. There were eight Texans killed and twenty-three wounded. Santa Anna himself was captured the day after the battle. With him in Houston's possession, the war was over.
The battle of San Jacinto was a small engagement, but one of great importance, for it assured the independence of Texas. Nothing could have exceeded the dash and courage of the Texan force. Houston's maneuvering, his strategy before the battle, his tactics during it, were worthy of the highest praise.
Flushed with its astonishing victory, the army was inclined to exact bloody revenge for the Mexican treatment of Travis and Fannin, and their men. It was with difficulty that Houston preserved Santa Anna from the fury of the soldiers, who recalled the massacres and murders of which he had been guilty. Santa Anna was fearful for his life, naturally, and the more willing to recognize the Texan Republic, or to do anything which would insure his own safety, on that account. Houston carefully guarded the person of the Mexican dictator, realizing the decisive importance of his capture in determining the future of Texas.
On May 14th, at Velasco, Santa Anna signed two treaties, a public and a private one, in which he agreed to the independence of Texas, and the withdrawal of all the Mexican troops in the territory.
The treaties were ratified by General Filisola, upon whom the command of the Mexican troops devolved after Santa Anna's capture, and Texas was immediately evacuated. The Texans released Santa Anna. So soon as he reached Mexico, he disavowed the treaties, claiming that they were extorted from him under duress. As to that, it is certain that his desire for freedom and his fear for his personal safety induced him to sign the treaties. Paying no attention to this attitude of the Mexican Government, the Texans at once assumed a place among the nations of the world. This place they maintained for ten years.
An election for President was held in September, 1836, and Sam Houston was chosen by an overwhelming majority over his competitors, Austin and Smith. Really, no man had done so much for Texas as Stephen F. Austin,2 but the glamour of Houston's decisive military success at San Jacinto was sufficient to give him the election by over five thousand votes. Austin and Smith receiving less than one thousand in the aggregate. Houston, wisely desirous of uniting all parties, made Austin Secretary of State, and Smith Secretary of the Treasury.
1 From Brady's "Conquest of the Southwest." By permission of the publishers, D. Appleton & Company. Copyright, 1905.
2 Austin was a native of Virginia, born in 1793, and is usually called the founder of the State of Texas. He established an American colony there in 1821, the year in which Mexico achieved her independence of Spain. In 1833 he was sent to Mexico as Commissioner to urge the admission of Texas as a separate State of the Mexican union and was arrested and imprisoned for four months. Later he was sent to Washington as a commissioner seeking the recognition of Texas as an independent State.
The General2 proceeded on his way and met many fugitives. The day on which he left Washington, the 6th of March, the Alamo had fallen. He anticipated it; and marching to Gonzales as soon as practicable, tho his health was infirm, he arrived there on the 11th of March. He found at Gonzales three hundred and seventy-four men, half fed, half clad, and half armed, and without organization That was the nucleus on which he had to form an army and defend the country. No sooner did he arrive than he sent a dispatch to Colonel Fannin, fifty-eight miles, which would reach him in thirty hours, to fall back. He was satisfied that the Alamo had fallen. Colonel Fannin was ordered to fall back from Goliad, twenty-five miles to Victoria, on the Guadalupe, thus placing him within striking distance of Gonzales, for he had only to march twenty-five miles to Victoria to be on the east side of the Colorado, with the only succor hoped for by the General. He received an answer from Colonel Fannin, stating that he had received his order; had held a council of war; and that he had determined to defend the place, and called it Fort Defiance, and had taken the responsibility to disobey the order. . . .
Fannin, after disobeying orders, attempted, on the 19th, to retreat; and had only twenty-five miles to reach Victoria. His opinions of chivalry and honor were such that he would not avail himself of the night to do it in, altho he had been admonished by the smoke of the enemies' encampment for eight days previous to attempting a retreat. He then attempted to retreat in open day. The Mexican cavalry surrounded him. He halted in a prairie, without water; commenced a fortification, and there was surrounded by the enemy, who, from the hill tops, shot down upon him. Tho the most gallant spirits were there with him, he remained in that situation all that night, and the next day, when a flag of truce was presented; he entered into a capitulation, and was taken to Goliad, on a promise to be returned to the United States with all associated with him. In less than eight days, the attempt was made to massacre him and every man with him. I believe some few did escape, most of whom came afterward and joined the army.
The remarkable march brought the army in a little time to Harrisburg, opposite which it halted. Orders were given by the General immediately to prepare rations for three days, and to be at an early hour in readiness to cross the bayou. . . .
The line of march was taken up for San Jacinto, for the purpose of cutting off Santa Anna below the junction of the San Jacinto and Buffalo bayou. . . . In the morning the sun had risen brightly, and he determined with this omen, "to-day the battle shall take place." . . . After the council was dismissed, the General sent for Deaf Smith and his comrade, Reeves, who came mounted, when he gave them the axes so as not to attract the attention of the troops. They placed them in their saddles, as Mexicans carry swords and weapons, and started briskly for the scene of action. The General announced to them: "You will be speedy if you return in time for the scenes that are to be enacted here."
They executed the order, and when the troops with the General were within sixty yards of the enemy's front, when charging, Deaf Smith returned and announced that the bridge was cut down. It had been preconcerted to announce that the enemy had received no reenforcement. It was announced to the army for the first time; for the idea that the bridge would be cut down was never thought of by any one but the General himself, until he ordered it to be done, and then only known to Smith and his comrade. It would have made the army polemics if it had been known that Vince's bridge was to be destroyed, for it cut off all means of escape for either army. There was no alternative but victory or death. . . .
With the exception of the Commander-in-Chief, no gentleman in the army had ever been in a general action, or even witnessed one; no one had been drilled in a regular army, or had been accustomed to the evolutions necessary to the maneuvering of troops. So soon as the disposition of the troops was made, according to his judgment, he announced to the Secretary of War the plan of battle. It was concurred in instantly. The Commander-in-Chief requested the Secretary of War to take command of the left wing, so as to possess him of the timber, and enable him to turn the right wing of the enemy. The General's plan of battle was carried out.
1 Houston made his report to Congress in the third person. It was printed in the Congressional Globe. Houston was a native of Virginia, born in 1793, and died in Texas in 1863. He served in the war of 1812, was a member of Congress from Tennessee from 1823 to 1827; Governor of Tennessee from 1827 to 1829; and Commander-in-Chief of the army of Texas, which defeated the Mexicans under Santa Anna at San Jacinto. He was chosen President of Texas in 1836, 1841, and 1844, and from 1845 to 1859 served as United States Senator from Texas. On retiring from the Senate he was again elected Governor of Texas, and served until 1861.
2 That is, Houston himself.