This Day in History: Texans win their independence at San Jacinto
On this day in 1836, Texans win the Battle of San Jacinto. The battle was won in only 18 minutes! The decisive victory would ultimately ensure independence for the Republic of Texas.
It also avenged the blood that had been shed at the Alamo and at Goliad.
The Texans (then “Texians”) had accomplished their goal with a swiftness that would surely make George Washington’s Continental Army a bit jealous. Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836. Within a matter of days, Sam Houston had been appointed “Commander in Chief of all the land forces of the Texian Army, both regulars, volunteers and militia,” and he joined the Texian forces then gathered near Gonzales.
It wasn’t long before he received word that the Alamo had fallen. Mexican forces were headed his way. Houston knew that the Texians weren’t ready for a clash with a large Mexican force—at least not yet. An immediate retreat was imperative if the cause for independence was to survive.
Some Texian families had already been fleeing from the Mexican Army. Now the Texian forces fled, too.
Perhaps retreat doesn’t come naturally to Texans!? Volunteers began flocking to join Houston. They’d heard about the Alamo, and they were ready to fight! By March 19, the size of the army had roughly tripled, and the army was starting to get antsy. Why were they retreating so far? When would they turn and fight?
Some Texians got so disgusted with the inaction that they left, but Houston was determined to pick his spot.
In the meantime, Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna had decided to personally join the pursuit of Houston. There was no way he was going to let some other Mexican general take credit for ending the Texian uprising!
Perhaps Santa Anna should have stayed behind. When the two sides finally met near San Jacinto in mid-April, Santa Anna made a few rookie mistakes. Houston chose to camp in a wooded area that hid his army’s full strength of about 900 men. By contrast, Santa Anna’s larger army made camp in a more vulnerable position. The choice was criticized by Colonel Pedro Delgado who noted that the spot chosen “was in all respects, against military rules. Any youngster would have done better.”
On the night of April 20, the Mexican Army built breastworks and fortified its position. In the meantime, Houston had already issued an appeal for a final round of volunteers. “We view ourselves on the eve of battle,” he’d written. “We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. . . . Be men, be freemen, that your children may bless their fathers’ names.”
How strange it must have been when the next morning dawned—and nothing happened! The Mexican Army received reinforcements, but still didn’t attack. The Texians destroyed a bridge to prevent more Mexican reinforcements from arriving, but Houston didn’t order an attack, either.
Santa Anna’s soldiers relaxed their vigilance, just for a bit. They even took a siesta!
At 3:30 p.m., the Texians made their move. Shielded by high grasses and a rise in the land, they covertly approached the Mexican position. When they were about 200 yards away, they fired the first cannon. Texians were soon swarming over the Mexican breastworks. Within about 18 minutes, Houston later reported, “we were in possession of the enemy’s encampment.” The battle was over, but Texians continued to pursue the fleeing Mexicans for hours afterwards.
Chants of “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” echoed among the victorious Texians. It was basically a slaughter. Hundreds of Mexicans were cut down.
Santa Anna would be captured the next day. A little over three weeks later, a treaty was signed, requiring all Mexican forces to leave the Republic of Texas.
Edwin P. Hoyt, The Alamo: An Illustrated History (1999)
John Hoyt Williams, Sam Houston: Life and Times of Liberator of Texas an Authentic American Hero (1994)
Randy Roberts & James S. Olson, A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory (2002)
Stephen L. Hardin, Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836 (1994)
Stephen L. Moore, Eighteen Minutes: The Battle of San Jacinto and the Texas Independence Campaign (2003)