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As Houston’s small army trundled
down the road toward Harrisburg,
Santa Anna and his column
of 750 men invaded San Felipe
on the east bank of the Brazos River.

 

His artillery bombarded the west bank deceiving the small band of Texicans under Captain Moseley Baker into thinking he would attempt to cross the river there. Having learned of the newly formed Texican government retreat from Washington-on-the-Brazos to Harrisburg, Santa Anna determined to catch the revolutionary ringleaders. In a daring maneuver, he led his troops downriver to Fort Bend and captured the ferry there. Colonel Juan Almonte, who spoke perfect English having been educated in the United States, tricked the slave who manned the ferry into coming across the swollen stream to pick him up. By the next day, Santa Anna had moved his army across the Brazos and was marching east toward Harrisburg.

David Burnet, the president of the newly formed government, and his cabinet understandably feared for their lives. But their headlong flight only added to the confusion and panic of the settlers surrounding them. Burnet bombarded Houston with orders to stand and fight, even as he and his government fled: “Sir, the enemy is laughing you to scorn. You must fight them. You must retreat no further. The country expects you to fight: The salvation of the country expects you to do so.”

At Fort Bend the steamship Yellowstone encountered the Mexican Army after ferrying Houston's forces across the Brazos at Groce’s Plantation. Most of the Mexican soldiers had never seen a steamboat and were astonished by the sight. Several tried to lasso the smokestacked steamer, lined from stem to stern with cotton bales,as it ran a gauntlet of gunfire and headed down stream to the Gulf of Mexico and safety.

The Army of Texas was rapidly running out of room to retreat. Santa Anna's scouts kept him apprised of his foe’s whereabouts. He know that if he did not capture the government at Harrisburg, he could easily move and capture Lynch’s Ferry, the only available crossing on the San Jacinto River in that area. Santa Anna's Army arrived at Harrisburg the night of April 15. He found the partially burned town deserted except for three printers (one of which was Gail Borden later of canned milk fame) putting to bed the latest edition of the Telegraph and Texas Register. The printers told Santa Anna that Burnet and his cabinet had left the town just hours before the dictator’s arrival. After setting afire what remained of Harrisburg and throwing the printing press into Buffalo Bayou, Santa Anna and his men marched to New Washington, located at Morgan’s Point which juts out into San Jacinto Bay hoping to capture the government there. They came within a hair’s breadth of accomplishing just that. As Burnet and his staff were rowing out to a ship in the bay, a patrol of Mexican cavalry clattered up to the pier and prepared to open fire. Almonte, who led the patrol, forbade the soldiers to shoot as he saw a woman (Burnet’s wife) in the rowboat. Santa Anna's attempt to nab the rebel government produced nothing but a fistful of air. He now decided to find and destroy the only remaining semblance of rebellion left in Texas — Houston and his ragtag rabble of an army.

At Morgan’s Point, Santa Anna made an addition to his camp, a mistress known to us as Emily Morgan, the legendary Yellow Rose of Texas. Emily was an indentured servant on the plantation of James Morgan, an early settler at New Washington.

Morgan’s Emily, the name by which she was known in 1836, came from Mississippi with her owner at the invitation of the Mexican government in the early 1830’s. The Mexican government prohibited slavery but James Morgan, like many other southern immigrants, sidestepped this ban by freeing his slaves upon entering Texas and then making them indentured servants, a practice which Mexico accepted completely. To the slaves, however, indentured servitude appeared amazingly similar to slavery.

Emily has been described variously as mulatto (half African, half Caucasian), quadroon (one fourth African) and octoroon (one-eighth African), Mexican chroniclers called her “Santa Anna's quadroon mistress”. Contemporary accounts relate that she had finely chiseled extremely attractive features; coal black wavy hair, dark brown eyes and a “golden” cast to her skin.

By the evening of April 18, Emily was sharing Santa Anna's silk tent. Colonel Pedro Delgado, Santa Anna's personal aide, recorded that on the morning of the 19th, while the army began its march, Santa Anna remained in bed with his quadroon mistress.

As Santa Anna was enjoying the company of his new-found camp follower, Sam Houston was busy putting down open rebellion among his own troops. His command repeatedly came under question as his army had continued to retreat. Houston's actions only aggravated this as he remained uncommunicative “I consulted none. I held no council of war. If I err, the blame is mine.” David Burnet had sent the Secretary of War, big, beefy red-haired Thomas Rusk to consult Houston on his plan of action with the authority to depose the commander-in-chief if he though it necessary. Instead of removing him, Rusk remained with the army to fight and soon became Houston's staunchest supporter.

Sidney Sherman had raised a volunteer company in his home state of Kentucky and had joined Houston as a lieutenant colonel of cavalry at Gonzales. Sherman protested louder and louder as the Texican Army moved ast and became a constant detractor of Houston's.

One day a man from Georgia, Mirabeau B. Lamar, showed up in camp and attempted to rally men to his command to march off to glory against Santa Anna's legions. Houston had two graves dug and announced than anyone attempting to “beat for volunteers” would be immediately shot. Lamar wisely opted to serve in the cavalry. Houston went so far as to post notices about camp that deserters and mutineers would be court-martialed and shot. He promised them that soon he would give them “all the fighting you can stand."

jacintoquoteA.jpg (36477 bytes)After taking the fork to Harrisburg on April 16th, Houston marched the army 60 miles in two days to Buffalo Bayou where they arrived at noon on the 18th. Across the bayou the army could see that Harrisburg had been burned to the ground. Santa Anna had obviously been there and gone. Houston had to find him and his troops and maneuver him into an advantageous position for battle before Santa Anna could be reinforced by more soldiers under Filisola and Urrea. Houston sent out scouts, hoping they could ascertain Santa Anna's whereabouts.

At the time when it was most needed, Houston received an incredible stroke of luck. Houston's Chief of Scouts, Deaf Smith, returned to camp with a bedraggled Mexican courier, Captain Miquel Bachillar, who carried some deerskin saddlebags stamped with the name “William Barret Travis." The saddle bags contained special dispatches to Santa Anna giving the complete disposition of his columns, their strength and whereabouts.

On April 19th, Houston wrote a letter to Henry Raquet, a friend with whom he had stayed while at Nacogdoches, “This morning we are in preparation to meet Santa Anna. It is the only chance of saving Texas . . .We go to conquer. It is wisdom growing out of necessity to meet the enemy now; every consideration enforces it . . .No precious occasion would justify it. The troops are in fine spirits, and now is the time for action” . . .I leave the results in the hands of a wise God.”

By now a handful of survivors form the Goliad massacre had arrived and joined Houston’s army. Their recounting of the treatment of Fannin’s forces enraged the small bands of men joined around campfires for their evening meals. These descriptions, along with the sight of Harrisburg completely burned to the ground and the Alamo massacre fresh on their minds, only served to whip the men into a frenzy for action.

Houston's army crossed Buffalo Bayou on roughly built rafts (Houston ripped his trousers on a nail). They then crossed Vince’s Bayou on the only available bridge to gain the sea-level plain known as San Jacinto.

Upon the map, Houston's choice for a battlefield looks like a prescription for suicide. The field of San Jacinto is small — barely three square miles. It is roughly triangular, bounded on the northeast and northwest by the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou and open on the southwest by the Texas coastal plain. As neither stream is fordable (Buffalo Bayou is 300 feet wide and fifteen to thirty feet deep). The position is virtually a dead end except for Lynch’s Ferry, which crosses the San Jacinto River at the northern corner of the triangle. The ground itself is rather marshy along the margins of the waterways and is cut by two shallow ravines. There are occasional pools of open water in these marshes and, on the east, Peggy Lake, a considerable body of water. Much of the plain is grassy, but there are substantial stands of live oak forest running along the bayou and ravines scattered about in several other places. Houston hid his men in one of these Spanish moss-covered live oak motts located at the northern tip of this virtual island after having seized Lynch’s Ferry.

About noon on the 20th, the vanguard of Santa Anna's army reached San Jacinto, burning the town of New Washington behind them. Santa Anna, finding himself cut off from Lynch’s Ferry by the Texican Army, took up position in some live oaks situated on the southeast corner of the prairie.

The Texicans remained well protected within their line of trees with their two six-pound cannons, the “Twin Sisters”, about ten yards out on the plain. Mexican artillerymen brought out their cannon, a brass nine-pounder, and began to fire at the Texican lines. Santa Anna clearly wished to draw the Texicans out into the open to probe their strength and perhaps to provoke an attack. The Texican artillery, under James Neill, fired back at the Mexicans and one lucky shot bowled over several dragoons, wounding a captain and killing the horse beneath him. The artillery duel continued for about four hours. Colonel Neill’s hip was shattered by grapeshot from the Mexican cannon. A shot from one of the Texican cannon damaged the Mexican piece, and as the Mexican cavalry drew it back to safety. Colonel Sidney Sherman, with a force of fifty cavalrymen sallied forth out of the woods to snatch the Mexican cannon. He failed miserably, losing two men and several horses. Worse, he nearly triggered an attack by the Mexicans, which prompted the infuriated Houston to take away Sherman’s command of the cavalry and give it to Mirabeau Lamar, who risked his life during the skirmish by helping a wounded comrade.

Santa Anna withdrew his forces about three-fourths of a mile away, placing his army with their backs to Peggy Lake, an inconceivably bad position. The Mexican soldiers spent the rest of the after noon and all night constructing a five foot high breastworks fashioned from baggage, packs, sacks of beans and hard bread, branches and dirt. By dawn the next day the Mexican had finished their defenses and braced themselves for an attack from Houston's forces. None came.

Houston's army, habituated to daily four o’clock reveilles, had risen long before dawn, spoiling for a fight. For six weeks Houston himself had seldom slept more than three hours a night. But on the morning of the greatest battle of his life, the general lay with his head pillowed on a coil of rope dreaming nonchalantly. To his men’s bewilderment he slept until the sun was well up and high in a bright blue spring sky.

After supervising the building of the Mexican breastworks Santa Anna retired to his tent with his new mistress, Emily Morgan. He stirred briefly at nine the next morning as his brother-in-law, General Cos, marched into his camp with five hundred soldiers, bringing Santa Anna's army up to 1,250 men. He then retired once again to his tent and the rest of the Mexican Army settled down to rest under the oak trees after having worked or marched all night.

Around noon, Houston called his officers together for a council of war. He asked them a single question: “Shall we attack the enemy in position or receive their attack in ours?” To his amusement, his confused officers could not agree on a plan of action. The assembled men expressed the belief that attacking over an open field was too risky. He is said to have laughed and dismissed them, thinking to attack the next day. But Houston, wanting to know how his troops felt, went from campfire to campfire asking his men if they were ready to fight. Their response was a resounding yes. Houston told them, “Very well, get your dinners and I will lead you into the fight, and if you whip the enemy every one of you shall be captains.”

The General went to Juan Seguin and his band of Tejano horsemen who had served as scouts throughout the campaign. Perhaps questioning their resolve in the upcoming conflict, he requested that they fall to the rear and guard the wounded and the pack train. Seguin replied that he and his men were at San Jacinto to fight Santa Anna--not guard the pack train.

Houston sent Deaf Smith and six others to destroy Vince’s Bridge, thus cutting off any more reinforcements. He formed his army by placing his cavalry, under Lamar, to his right; next to them he put the 240 bayonet equipped troops of the Texas Regular Battalion under Henry Millard; then the “Twin Sisters” of the Cincinnati Battery with 31 men; to their left came Colonel Edward Burleson’s 1st Regiment with 220 men; on the extreme left were the 2nd Texas Regiment under Colonel Sidney Sherman with 260 men.

In all, the army stood in two thin lines stretching some 900 yards, each man ready for action, many armed not only with a musket but also with pistols and a sword or Bowie Knife.

At 3:30 Houston took up position in the middle of his line astride Saracen, his big white stallion, a few yards out in front. Sword in hand, he waved his army forward and shouted, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” and urged them across the sunlit plain of San Jacinto. As the men stepped forward, the color bearer of the 2nd Texas unfurled the regimental banner, a bare breasted Liberty figure wielding a saber from which dangled a ribbon inscribed “Liberty or Death”, the only flag the Texicans had that day. The army’s band, a black drummer and a German fifer, played a naughty tune popular at the time for lack of anything else known to them both: “Will you come to the bower I have shaded for you? Our bed shall be roses all spangled with dew. There under the bower on roses you’ll lie. With a blush on your cheek but a smile in your eye.”

The Texican army advanced over the three-fourths of a mile which separated the two armies protected by a slight rise and a few stands of live oaks in the middle of the prairie. Remarkably, all of this activity went unnoticed in the Mexican camp. Santa Anna and his officers had neglected to post scouts or sentries. Most of the men were asleep or resting. Santa Anna remained in his tent, some say under the influence of opium and his young mistress. So, as the Texicans approached, moving at a very easy pace so to not lose their formation, no one in the Mexican camp noticed.

At about 4:30 the Texicans emerged from the thin woods in the center of the plain, some 500 yards from the Mexican lines. A Mexican bugler on the right was the first to sound the alarm. As the other bugler joined him the Mexican cannon cut loose with grapeshot and an outpost line began to fire their muskets. But in their surprise and excitement, both groups fired high, and few of the Texicans were hit.

Houston's men continued to advance with their cannon out ahead of the infantry and Lamar’s cavalry swinging around to the right. At 200 yards, the “Twin Sisters” unlimbered and swung about firing rounds of chopped-up horseshoes gouging a hole in the midst of the Mexican breastworks. As the Texican line swept forward the cannons were manhandled to within 70 yards of the Mexicans and fired again. The infantry fired in volleys and ran for the breastworks. Houston's stallion was shot from under him. He quickly mounted another and rode on. This horse too was soon hit with Houston taking a round of Mexican grapeshot in his right ankle. Ignoring the pain, he mounted a third horse and pressed on.

The 2nd Regiment made first contact, driving a thin front of the enemy backward on the left. Seconds later the 1st Regiment came up on the right and together they overran the Mexican cannon which had managed to get off only five rounds. The Texican forces rushed in taking the breastworks and the camp rather quickly. The Mexican soldiers tried to rally but failed. Supporting regiments would come up in fair order only to be overrun by their fleeing comrades, and then came the Texicans.

One soldier, Old Jimmie Curtice, whom Noah Smithwick had almost abandoned on the Colorado River a few weeks before, had a son-in-law, Wash Cottle, who was slain in the Alamo. Swearing vengeance, Curtice now attacked the Mexicans, clubbing them with his rifle and saying, “Alamo, you killed Wash Cottle!”

Although wounded in the leg, a Mexican general, Fernandez Castrillon, leaped up on an ammunition box in an effort to rally his men. They ignored him, streaming to the rear. He stubbornly held his ground shouting, “I have been in forty battles and never once showed my back. I’m too old to do it now.” Colonel Tom Rusk tried to save Castrillon but failed as the Texicans cut him down, showing no mercy.

Santa Anna's army disintegrated as the battle quickly became a slaughter. Santa Anna quickly grabbed a horse and fled toward Buffalo Bayou. Texican officers tried to stem the bloodlust. Colonel John Wharton was told by a soldier, “Colonel Wharton, if Jesus Christ were to come down from heaven and order me to quit shooting Santanistas, I wouldn’t do it, sir.” One eyewitness said that when the man stepped back and cocked his rifle, leveling it at Wharton’s chest, “Wharton very discreetly (I always thought) turned his horse and left.” Houston tried to gain control of his men but couldn’t, saying, “Gentlemen, I applaud your bravery, but damn your manners!” Most of the carnage took place in and around Peggy Lake at the rear of the Mexican camp. The bodies were so thick that it was later said that one could walk across on the corpses. Colonel Juan Almonte was able to rally some 600 Mexican soldiers and surrendered them after the slaughter stopped around nightfall.

As the prisoners were marched into camp, Houston delirious with pain from his wound, saw them and mistook them for reinforcements crying, “All is lost! My God, all is lost!” He later confessed that a hundred disciplined soldiers could have defeated his scattered forces.

Altogether, some 650 Mexican perished at San Jacinto and 730 were taken prisoner, no more than 70 or 80 having succeeded in escaping. Texican losses were two killed, six mortally wounded and another 18 less seriously wounded.

The next day a search party scouring the area for escaped Mexicans took a prisoner. Joel Robinson, who could speak Spanish, interrogated the prisoners who was “dressed in white linen pants and a blue troopers jacket ...but with red worsted slippers and a silk shirt buttoned with diamond studs. He was a cavalryman and Santa Anna had escaped to Thompson’s Pass farther south.” Trotting at the point of a lance the prisoner covered two or three miles back to camp, but finally complained he could go no further. Robinson’s partner wanted to shoot him. But Robinson gave the prisoner a hand up and they rode together toward the camp. As they rode the prisoner asked if Houston had commanded at the battle the day before and what the body and prisoner count was. He was also “very keen” to know what the Texicans were going to do with the prisoners. When Robinson told him that Houston's forces numbered six or seven hundred, the prisoner insisted such a figure to be a gross underestimate. Nearing camp the prisoner was quickly sobered by the corpses on the battlefield.

Not until they approached the motley throng of prisoners did Robinson learn who it was he really carried on the back of his horse. In unison, every Mexican officer rose to his feet, and the troops called out, “El Presidente!” Santa Anna had returned to his army.