A Curious Thing Happened on the Way to San Jacinto
A curious thing I’ve noticed about history is that unnoticed nuances can bring about a drastic pivoting in the history of a country or in a person’s life.
I don’t care who’s fighting, the location of the engagement, the strategy, or the strength of the forces, but to quote Walter Lord, ‘there’s a time when any general needs more than a plan and intuition—he needs a touch of luck.’
Over the years in my reading of Texas history regarding the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto, I’ve recognized some of those nuances that directed the engagement into an unexpected direction.
April 21 was San Jacinto Day, the day on which the battle was fought that made Texas a republic.
History seems to suggest that Houston did nothing but retreat until he stumbled on to Santa Anna on the banks of the San Jacinto River.
The truth is much different.
After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Houston left New Washington for Gonzales to take charge of the troops and go to Travis’ aid. There, on March 12, he learned of the fall of the Alamo.
When settlers heard the word, they fled east.
Houston and his small army remained at the rear in an effort to stave off Santa Anna.
Houston pulled up at the Colorado, planning on making a stand and waiting for Fannin to join him as ordered.
Fannin did not follow the orders. He was captured. On Palm Sunday, he and his men were executed.
On March 25, Houston received word of Fannin’s capture. The four hundred men Houston counted on had vanished. The next day, he moved his army east once again, despite his mens’ griping and complaining. They wanted to fight, not retreat.
For two weeks they camped on the Brazos until a mysterious message came to Houston that Santa Anna was to his south, heading his way. Houston moved out.
At this point, the Santa Anna began making a series of mistakes that sealed his defeat. Hearing that President Burnet and his staff had moved to Harrisburg, he split his force, and with 700 men, moved south.
He pushed his men hard until 9:00 p.m., picked a camp without water, pulled out early next morning, and hurried on. Anxious to reach Harrisburg, he took only a few men and raced ahead, riding into the village at midnight, but Burnet had moved his cabinet to Galveston.
He then received word came that Houston was heading for the Trinity. Santa Anna saw another chance to end the revolution in one stroke, ambush Houston at Lynch’s Ferry.
At the head of his 700 men, he raced to Lynch’s Ferry, in his enthusiasm ignoring the sluggish waters of Buffalo Bayou on the left; San Jacinto estuary at the rear; and the marshes of Galveston Bay on the right. No room for maneuvering.
Leading 700 exhausted soldier, Santa Anna arrived ahead of Houston.
Houston came up behind him.
On the twentieth, there were a couple skirmishes. One Texian was killed.
On the twenty-first, General Cos arrived with four hundred men, bringing the Mexican force to 1100 against Houston’s reported 783.
Houston knew there were another three thousand or so Mexican forces coming. He ordered Vince’s Bridge destroyed, cutting off Mexican reinforcements and Mexican retreat as well as Texian retreat. It was fight or die.
At four o’clock, Houston gave the charge. Eighteen minutes later it was over. They captured the Mexican general the next day.
But, what would have happened if Fannin had obeyed orders and joined Houston at the Colorado? What if Houston had not received that mysterious message on the Brazos? What if Santa Anna had not pursued Burnet? What if he hadn’t split his troops? What possessed him to camp where he did, a spot not even a shavetail lieutenant would have selected?
Reverse any of those decisions, and we might find ourselves in a completely different world today.