By Stephen L. Moore
“REMEMBER THE ALAMO!” That was the battle cry on the lips of 930 angry Texans as they charged into battle against the army of Mexican generalissimo Antonio Lopez Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
Although the Texans were outnumbered, the members of their ad hoc brigade of soldiers, settlers and rangers were spoiling for a fight. More than 180 of their comrades had been slaughtered just six weeks ago at the Alamo and now the Texans wanted blood. And their leader, General Sam Houston was going to deliver.
The two-hour battle that followed was largely decided in the first eighteen minutes of combat. The Texans completely surprised their enemies and achieved one of the most lopsided victories in American history. More than 600 Mexican soldiers were killed — another 700 were taken prisoners. In return, only seven Texans were killed, although four more would later die of their wounds.
Since that fateful battle, legend and controversy have clouded the story of the Texas Revolution. Some sources would say that everyone present at the Alamo perished, while others maintain that some managed to escape the massacre. Years after the battle of San Jacinto, a story emerged that Santa Anna lost the decisive battle because he was in his tent preoccupied with a young female indentured servant that his troops had captured. Many have even argued Houston was branded a coward by his soldiers; one tale holds that he was shot by one of his own men at San Jacinto.
Now, nearly 180 years later, let’s explore eight little-known facts regarding the Texas Revolution.
1. Santa Anna’s fear of water led to his own capture
General Santa Anna fled the San Jacinto battleground on April 21 as his forces were being overrun. He and his secretary Ramon Caro rode to the boggy marshes near Vince’s Bridge and abandoned their horses.
Caro knew that “His Excellency” had a profound fear of water. On April 14, as the Mexican army was crossing the Brazos River en route to Harrisburg, Santa Anna refused to ride his horse through the swollen stream. Instead, the self-styled “Napoleon of the West” dismounted and cautiously inched along a log while a soldier swam his horse across. Once safely on the opposite bank, Santa Anna was seen to laugh as some of his troops slipped and floundered in the fast-flowing water.
After San Jacinto, Santa Anna was similarly afraid to swim through creeks and bayous to escape. While some of his officers splashed to freedom, Santa Anna hid overnight in the thickets near the creek. He later disguised himself in the uniform of a Mexican private and was fleeing on foot near Sims Bayou on April 22 when a patrol of Texans captured him. Had he conquered his fears, Santa Anna might have speedily made his was to a nearby column of reinforcements led by General Vicente Filisola and the Texas Revolution might have played out differently.
2. The Alamo tragedy could have been avoided
As commander in chief of the nascent Texas army, Houston sent orders to militia colonel Jim Bowie on Jan. 17, telling him to remove the cannon and “blow up the Alamo.” The general felt it wiser to abandon San Antonio and make a stand elsewhere in force. Bowie and William Travis, a colonel in the republic’s regular army, ultimately decided to fortify the Alamo and hold fast. Governor Henry Smith also vetoed Houston’s plans. On Feb. 2, 1836, Bowie wrote Smith that his men had resolved to “die in these ditches [rather] than give it up to the enemy.” The rest is history.
3. There were survivors of the Alamo
The nearly 20 women and children present at the Alamo during the March 6 Mexican assault were spared. The survivors also included Travis’s former slave, Joe, as well as the wife and daughter of Captain Almeron Dickinson. At least one man of Mexican ancestry, Brigido Guerrero, managed to talk his way to freedom by claiming to be a prisoner of the Texans.
4. Twenty-eight men also lived through Goliad Massacre
Far bloodier than the slaughter at the Alamo (but less famous) was the massacre of prisoners at Golidad in southern Texas. On March 27, some 370 Texans were marched out of the town’s old La Bahia Mission to be executed. Four large groups of unarmed men were halted near the San Antonio River, at which point Mexican soldiers opened fire on them at point-blank range. Many of the prisoners dove into the river to escape, but the soldiers gave chase dispatching many of the fugitives with their bayonets. Yet at least 28 Texans, some seriously wounded, got away. Of the survivors, six would make their way to Houston’s army over the next two weeks. Their testimony of the grisly massacre would create a new war cry of “Remember Goliad!” to go along with the more famous “Remember the Alamo!”
5. Was Sam Houston really shot by his own men?
Texas President Mirabeau Lamar’s private papers include the assertion that Houston was shot in the leg by a member of Captain William S. Fisher’s company to prevent him from stopping the battle. Few historians give this rumor much credit. One of the earliest paintings of the wounded Houston—William Henry Huddle’s 1890 canvas “The Surrender of Santa Anna”—shows the general lying on a blanket with a bandaged right leg. Since Houston was riding across the battlefield from left side to right, this painting suggests he took a bullet on the side of his body that would have been facing his own troops.
In reality, letters written by Houston himself and his own son more accurately report that he was shot in the left ankle—which would have been facing the Mexican camp as he rode across the battlefield at San Jacinto.
6. The fabled Texas Rangers played an important role in the revolution
While they had been operating in the territory for a number of years, the famous Texas Rangers were legally established during the revolution. All told, there were at least 16 ranger companies totaling between 350 and 400 men. The unit served sometime between October 1835 and April 1836. There were an estimated 80 rangers present for the Battle of San Jacinto or stationed at nearby Harrisburg guarding the army’s supplies and sick.
7. Who was the ‘Yellow Rose of Texas’?
The beloved minstrel song from the 1850s is believed to have been inspired by the revolution. It tells story of an indentured servant girl who caught Santa Anna’s eye as the Texas Army overran his camp at the Battle of San Jacinto. Emily West, described as a young mulatto girl, contracted with Colonel James Morgan to work as a servant on his plantation. She was reportedly among those captured at Morgan’s plantation days before the historic battle.
The memoirs of William Bollaert include stories of his visit to Texas in 1842–1844. In his original narrative, Bollaert penciled in a “private” footnote, allegedly told to him by Sam Houston. Historian James Lutzweiler’s research indicates that Houston heard the story from Captain Isaac Moreland, an artillery officer who had talked with Miss Emily shortly after San Jacinto. According to the Bollaert book footnote: “The Battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mulatto girl (Emily) belonging to Col. Morgan who was closeted in the tent with G’l Santana <sic>, at the time the cry was made, ‘The enemy! They come!’ & detained Santana so long that order could not be restor’d again.”
8. Sam Houston had reasons to continue retreating during the revolution
Houston’s men became increasing critical of their commander’s reluctance to engage the Mexican army after the fall of the Alamo. The general held no formal councils of war with his officers as his soldiers continued to fall back from Gonzales to Groce’s Plantation. Houston shared his thoughts with only a select few, including his aide George Hockley. President David Burnet sent messages saying that the enemy was laughing the Texans to scorn because Houston would not fight.
But Texas secretary of state Samuel Carson urged Houston to avoid a battle with Santa Anna. The republic’s top diplomat was in Louisiana meeting U.S. Army general Edmund Gaines at Fort Jessup and had called upon governors of adjoining states to furnish troops to aid the Texans. All the while, Carson urged Houston to delay any confrontation until he could gather reinforcements: “You must fall back, and hold out, and let nothing goad or provoke you to a battle, unless you can, without doubt, whip them, or unless you are compelled to fight.” The secretary of state advised Houston to keep moving toward the Sabine River to join with volunteers from the United States. Ultimately, the risk Houston faced during the San Jacinto campaign was two-fold. Would the promised U.S. volunteers show up in sufficient numbers? Would his rag-tag Texas Army completely disintegrate during his continual retreating across Texas?
About Stephen L. Moore
Stephen L. Moore, a sixth generation Texan and part Cherokee. He is the author of 16 books on World War II and Texas history. His latest release from William Morrow/Harper Collins is Texas Rising, the non-fiction companion book to the History Channel mini-series of the same name. Two of his great-great-grandfathers fought at San Jacinto and helped the Republic of Texas secure its independence. His other works include Eighteen Minutes, extensive history of the San Jacinto campaign, and a four-volume series on the republic-era Texas Rangers entitled Savage Frontier: Rangers, Riflemen, and Indian Wars in Texas.