"A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land
A noble type of good,
Heroic womanhood." by GARY BROWN The Battle of San Jacinto had ended some sixteen years before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these lines. And although the Yankee poet probably had no thought of the battle when he penned the lines, somehow the spirit of his words captured one aspect of the turning point in Texas independence from Mexico: an aspect buried deep within the pages of history books and seemingly buried with care.
Unlisted in most accounts of the battle is the death of one noncombatant: a Mexican woman killed by the thrust of a saber.
Every military conflict has a number of casualties among innocent civilian populationsa fact of warfare as old as the fighting itself. But the woman killed at San Jacinto was different. Her name is unknown. The location of her remains is unknown. And, although suspected, the name of her killer remains unknown.
Accounts following San Jacinto included reports of a court of inquiry after the battle and subsequent civil lawsuit over allegations that one of Sam Houstons senior officers had been charged with the murder.
But why would the death of one Mexican woman have been so important as to lead to charges of cowardice and murder and countercharges of civil libel? The Texans at San Jacinto were killers, but they were southerners first. And a woman, especially a beautiful woman, was supposed to enjoy the protection of their arms, especially a southern officers arms.
Furthermore, the killing of an unarmed woman by saber was unfathomableno accident and no random death by errant bullets or grapeshot. A valued southern code had been broken and even worse, allegedly broken by a senior Texan officer from the American south.
But as historically significant as the Texan victory at San Jacinto was, the battle was in no way a model for the conduct of "civilized warfare"even in the 1830s era of Napoleonic codes. In truth, the victory at San Jacinto consisted of a precious few minutes of fighting around the Mexican breastworks followed by tracking and killing of unarmed and retreating Mexican soldiers.
In reality, San Jacinto was a combination of combat victory on the battlefield and a massacre no less heinous than the Mexican killing of all Texan combatants under the policy of "no quarter" in the Alamo and the massacre of unarmed rebel volunteer prisoners at La Bahia.
The Texas Revolution can be characterized in many ways: heroism, sacrifice, suffering, bravery and even idealism. But it will never be characterized as civilized warfare. Both Mexican and Texan combatants sealed that verdict with each others blood.
But, in the midst of such brutal conduct of warfare, why did the murder of the Mexican woman at San Jacinto stir up such strong sentiments among the Texans in the aftermath?
Was it the fact that the murder violated a sacred southern code with regards to women? While most of the Texas volunteers at San Jacinto (and some U.S. Army "deserters") were in fact predominately from the U.S. south, they were for the most part neither officers nor gentlemen.
A few months earlier, American volunteers from east of the Sabine had terrorized the Anglo women in the town of Gonzales and severely beat Noah Smithwick when he attempted to intervene on behalf of one of the women.
In December of 1835, Mexican snipers intentionally killed one of their own women during the Battle of Bexar as she attempted to retrieve water for wounded New Orleans Greys from the San Antonio River. Both sides of the conflict glorified women in word but not always in deed.
And the theory of a "southern code" did not stand the test of time. Sam Houston ordered an Anglo rapist hung and left displayed as the civilians filed by during the Runaway Scrape. After the Texas Revolution, members of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry whose ranks included many southerners often gained notoriety with their treatment of Native American women.
But back to the woman at San Jacinto. It was very difficult to find information about her or the murder. The New Texas Handbook, in two biographical sections, mentions the incident briefly. Two other books, which I found in my local library, titled Texas Almanac 1857-1873, and Frank Tolberts The Day of San Jacinto had good background on the incident and established beyond a doubt that the murder did take place on the battlefield.
Both sources made for fascinating reading and after studying them I decided to visit the battlefield and try to retrace the steps of the principal characters in the story.
Almost immediately after Texas became independent from Mexico, a movement began to make the battlefield a historic site. In 1894, a committee of veterans, including survivors of the battle, located important sites of the battle events and in 1897 these were marked with pipes, which in 1912 were replaced by granite boulders erected by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Today, twenty of those markers indicate to visitors the key locations and incidents during the battle.
From 1936-1939, the 570 foot tall San Jacinto Monument was constructed on the ridgeline of the battlefield and featured a reflecting pool constructed between the monument and Sam Houstons campsite. Three of the veterans markers had to be moved to accommodate the reflecting pool.
In 1948, the retired Battleship Texas was moored at the battlefield requiring a parking lot built in part of Houstons encampment area.
Today the park is suffering from historical identity disorder. A Vietnam-era PT boat is being installed near the site of Sidney Shermans camp while a 10-foot wide bronze ship propeller blocks the location of Thomas Rusks advance. Park rangers have reported having school children ask if the battleship assisted Sam Houston during the battle.
But this was the Anglo encampment and the Mexican woman wasnt in this area on the afternoon of April 21, 1836. She was across the gently sloping ridgeline and out of sight in the Mexican encampment backed up to the San Jacinto River and Peggy Lake about a mile away.
The guide brochure to the battleground markerswhich must be purchased in the monument museum gift shopis designed for touring the battlefield by auto. But today Im going to walk across the prairie and over the ridgeline into Santa Annas encampment just the way the 1894 veterans said they had done with Sam Houston.
The Texans that afternoon advanced on the Mexican camp around 3:30 p.m. I wait until that time then start out following the path of the Second Regiment which was led by Sidney Sherman. Passing by PT-309 and the Masonic statue, I walk across the asphalt parking lot for the battleship, across State Highway 134 which is the Lynchburg Ferry Road, and suddenly Im walking in freshly mowed grass.
Reports after the 1836 battle describe knee-high prairie grass extending across the ridge and into the marshy areas where the Mexicans were encamped. But today the walking is considerably easier since the grass in mown.
Sam Houston later wrote that this silent advance seemingly took forever as the undisciplined Texans staggered the line, broke ranks, and stopped to reload and check their weapons. Also slowing progress was the pulling and pushing of the only two cannonthe Twin Sistersup the gentle incline through the tall grass. As the ungreased axles heated up, the cannon became more difficult to transport and slowed the line of advance.
It took the Texans one hour to traverse the approximately three-fourths mile to the ridgeline. Today it takes me far less than that but construction barricades around the monument force me to cut to the right and cross the ridgeline in front of the area where Sam Houston was wounded near the Mexican breastworks.
This is where the Mexican sentries first noticed the advancing Texans and the breastworks were the scene of the heaviest fighting during the short battle. Colonel Sherman flanked the areas to my left and forced the retreating Mexicans to fall back towards the San Jacinto River and Peggy Lake. Mirabeau Lamars cavalry to my right prevented any escape by land to the southwest.
The fighting began around 4:30 p.m. and was over within eighteen minutes. Then the carnage began and the retreating Mexicans were driven back against the water and systematically killed. There are many documented reports of the Mexicans attempting to cross the waterway only to become bogged in the mud and shot down like stationary targets. Others died in the mud and water as their heads bobbed above the surface. The killing stopped only after darkness fell and at least 630 Mexican soldiers died that afternoonmost of them around the area of Peggy Lake.
The womans body was also found near Peggy Lake.
As darkness overtook the battlefield on the 21st and the victorious Texans established small encampments around fires throughout the area amongst the bodies of the dead. Rumors started circulating among the groups of men that one of the victims of the killing had been a Mexican woman killed by a saber thrust thought the chest.
As the rumors continued to swirl around the scattered encampments, someone began to call out into the darkness, "Who killed the woman?"
And then, almost simultaneously the answer would come back from different campfires, "Colonel Forbes done it!" Several reports describe how this derisive chorus was continued for the next several nights at San Jacinto.
Colonel John Forbes was one of Sam Houstons senior officers at San Jacintothe commissary general of the Texan forces. In a rebel army chronically short of food and supplies, no officer in that position could have been popular but Forbes had already been singled out prior to the battle as the object of ridicule and scorn.
The day before, April 20, the colonel had been asleep with his hobbled saddle mule nearby when one of the rebels falsely yelled that the Mexicans were attacking. Forbes had jumped up, mounted the mule and frantically tried to escape to the rear but the hobbled mule could only jump around in circles while the Texans stood around laughing at the cowardly officer.
That night, before the fighting, the campfires had been accented all evening by the yell, "Who rode away on the hobbled mule?" The responding chorus was "Colonel Forbes done it!"
Now, on the night after the battle, the entire evening was once again a continuous serenade.
"Who rode away on the hobbled mule?"
"Colonel Forbes done it!"
"Who killed the woman?"
"Colonel Forbes done it!"
"Who bloodied his sword on a helpless woman?"
"Colonel Forbes done it!"
John Forbes was an Irishman well established in Texas prior to San Jacinto. A municipal judge from Nacogdoches, he had sworn in many of the Anglo volunteers crossing the Sabine including Davy Crockett. He had, with Sam Houston, negotiated and signed the treaty with the Cherokee Indians that guaranteed their neutrality during the revolution. But he was not a well-liked man.
Darkness had not settled and the killing had not stopped that afternoon before reports began circulating that Forbes was plundering the spoils of war including a $12,000 Mexican war chest and gold objects taken from the bodies of dead officers.
Did Forbes kill the defenseless woman so he could display a bloody sword and claim to be a combat veteran of the days fighting? Or was he the scapegoat of bickering Texan politics and the resented symbol of a poorly supplied ragtag army?
On the morning following the killing, Second Lieutenant William Summers and Private Sam Woods observed the womans body near Peggy Lake. Summers stated that she was "young and long-haired and finely dressed."
So who was this woman and why was she on the battlefield? The Mexican army utilized women to support the soldiers. Called soldaderas, the women were not military but civilian and cooked and did laundry for the men. Often mistakenly characterized as camp followers, the women were in fact the wives, sweethearts, sisters and even mothers of the soldiers and had marched with Santa Annas army from Mexico to San Jacinto. Many of them were in the Mexican encampment when the Texans attacked that afternoon.
But the soldaderas were also impoverished, in poor health and often starvingjust like the men. The woman killed at Peggy Lake was "finely dressed" so she probably was not a soldadera. She might have been an officers wifethese women also traveled with the armybut, if so, why would she have been near the front line in the midst of the fighting?
But she was and she was now dead and Colonel John Forbes was being blamed for her death. After being subjected to the nightlong taunts, rumors and innuendo, Forbes went to Sam Houston and demanded a court of inquiry to clear his name of the plundering and murder charges.
By now, Ive crossed over the marker identifying the location of the Mexican breastworks and entered into the area of Santa Annas camp which now is also the location of several barbecue pits and an asphalt parking lot. The San Jacinto River is only about fifty feet in front of me now and it was here that the Mexicans backed up to the water before retreating to the right and the marshy inlet called Peggy Lake.
This is where the really brutal killing began and it was in this general area that the small encampments were later located from which the taunts were passed: "Who killed the woman?"
The Forbes inquiry was held one week after the battle. Sidney Sherman, no friend of Houston or Forbes, was in charge of the investigation. Other members of the commission included Forbes fellow senior officers and, in a quick statement that does suspiciously smack of cover-up, "no evidence whatever in support of such charges or any grounds for censure against Colonel Forbes in the action of the 21st" were substantiated. On the contrary, the court "finds his conduct on that occasion to have been characterized as that of a courageous as well as human soldier."
The document was signed by Judge Advocate Tinsley and Colonel Sherman and later co-endorsed by Commander-in-Chief Sam Houston, Inspector General George Hockley and Secretary of War Thomas Rusk.
Forbes was cleared of all charges. In the euphoric aftermath of the battlefield victory and resulting independence for the Republic of Texas, the issue and the woman were both quickly forgotten. As the victors reconstructed the accounts of the battle for the history books and future historians, almost no mention was ever made again of these heinous charges.
At least for twenty-two years.
Today this area of the battleground site is pleasant. Live oak trees draped with Spanish moss create a canopy of shade for the picnic tables and barbecue pits. A restroom area is located nearby and the overall atmosphere is one of family-oriented recreation.
But on April 22, 1836 this area was literally strewn with dead bodies. The Texans had no inclination to bury the deadespecially with the recent memory of the treatment of their own dead at La Bahia and the Alamo. Santa Anna refused to use Mexican prisoners to bury the dead since he considered them to be "victims of a massacre."
And so their bodies lay rotting in the sun during the day and stripped by the vultures and wolves at night. I have found no records to indicate the body of the woman fared any differently.
In time, the bodies became skeletons and the ghastly field of bones became a macabre tourist stop for steamboats on the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou. For years, ships would stop and discharge their passengers to wander among the bones and collect souvenirs. As the wolves finished the flesh and retreated, the cattle grazed on the remaining sun-bleached bones resulting in ruined sour milk for years afterward.
Late in 1836, Santa Anna was marched as a prisoner back through the battlefield en route to the United States. Tolbert reports that there was no evidence that the gristly sight of the bones of his soldiers affected the general.
I have now completely walked the battlefield from Sam Houstons camp to the tip of San Jacinto Bay, which, unmarked, is Peggy Lake. Only because a park ranger had described what to look for can I discern the dirt ridge that marks the edge of the lake. The DRT marker nearby describes this location as the scene of Almontes capture and the site of the "greatest carnage of the battle."
But most writers describe Peggy Lake as the scene of the most brutal killing. According to the ranger, despite all the commercial development in the Houston Ship Channel and the resulting drainage bayous, Peggy Lake remains basically the same as it was in 1836.
Unmarked, the lake is almost hidden from view. Few tourists even are aware it is within the park boundaries much less aware of the importance it played that day in 1836. No markers exist past Almontes point of capture. Peggy Lake is seemingly a lost and hidden part of the San Jacinto storymuch like the story of the dead woman.
To reach the lake, I have to cross a marshy area maybe a hundred yards wide. Almost immediately, my feet bog down in the mud and the walking is slow and difficult. This is where the Mexican soldiers became stuck and shot down by riflefire from behind them.
Directly in front of me are the billowing white emissions from the stacks of the many refineries that surround the park. The recently completed Fred Hartman Bridge is in the background. Not fifty yards from me a giant cargo ship, the Delaware Trader, plies the waters inland toward the docks of the Houston ship channel. Low flying planes crisscross the sky. Even in this most isolated and remote area of the park, commercial activity is evident.
In 1858, the Texas Almanac issued a volume consisting of a first-person account of the battle by the physician who had attended the wounded Sam Houston on the battlefield, a Dr. Nicholas Labadie.
The story of San Jacinto had already become legend by this time and yet another account of the battle would have been unremarkable except that Dr. Labadie once again broached the subject of Forbes killing the unarmed woman prisoner.
Immediately Forbes, who in 1858 was then the mayor of Nacogdoches, filed a $25,000 slander suit in district court. The result was a nine-year lawsuit that reopened the issue of the murdered woman and brought forward eyewitnesses making sworn testimony concerning her murder.
Forbes focused upon his exoneration by the battlefield court of inquiry that had been cosigned by Houston, Sherman, Rusk and Hockley.
Labadie subpoenaed depositions from other eyewitnesses including Thomas Corry who stated:
st, about an hour before sundown ..there came from the timber onto the prairie where we stood two men in the uniforms of Texas regulars, bringing with them two prisoners, a man and a woman ..The two regulars immediately attacked the man prisoner with their bayonetes (sic). At the same time, Colonel Forbes thrust his sword through the womans breast, the blade entering in front and coming out her back. As the sword was withdrawn, she fell forward upon her face and, quivering, died without a groan. She made no effort to escape or ask for mercy. I have always thought she felt that, as a woman, she was safe."
Sam Houston, in his 1859 deposition, again stated he believed the charges were a
fabrication and contained not one word of truth.