Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 6, 1836 – Santa Anna Allows Alamo to Surrender

After spending nearly two weeks besieging the Texian fortifications at the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar, General Antonio López de Santa Anna considered destroying the garrison utterly. He would show the Texians his military might by example: any who stood against him would be wiped out. However, after review of the tactics used in Mexico's own revolution, Santa Anna realized that he would be turning himself into a version of Colonel Joaquín de Arredondo, who had once been his commanding officer. Arredondo had used mass execution to put down the initial rebellions, but the war of independence would eventually be won after eleven bloody years. Santa Anna did not want to turn Tejas into an expensive war of occupation, but he realized he could not simply terrorize the Texians into submission. Instead, he would have to cut off the head of the rebellious snake.

The Texians (Americans living in Mexican Texas) began their revolution for independence fairly quickly after Mexico's own war of independence against Spain. Santa Anna had initially fought on the side of Spain, then spent the remainder of the war building villages for refugees and suppressing Indian attacks. In 1821, he swore allegiance to Mexican El Libertador Agustín de Iturbide, who rewarded him with a generalship, the position that Santa Anna would exploit for great personal gain. He lived through the early days of Mexico periodically fighting Spanish invasions and working to grow his political authority amid numerous coups. Finally, in 1833, he was elected president by Congress, and he would begin a program of centralizing power into his own hands.

Meanwhile, in Texas, the number of Anglos had grown to over 30,000, while the native-born Mexicans was only 7,800, half-again as many as the 5,000 slaves in the state. Santa Anna's government handed down specific directions and laws, such as disallowing slavery and ordering farmers to grow grain and beef. The Texians, descended from the laissez-faire attitudes of British colonialism, wanted to grow cotton cash crops on plantations well staffed with slaves. Tension increased, and Santa Anna eventually dissolved local governments and militias to be replaced with his own men. Those who stood against him were imprisoned.

The Texians fought back, refusing to allow the cannon at Gonzales to be taken from the militia. They held their own “Battle of Lexington”, calling back memories from the American Revolution, and used informal volunteers gathered from the countryside to fight 100 Mexican dragoons. The revolution spread, and the Mexican army was forced out of Texas. Santa Anna himself led a new army of thousands to retake Texas. One of their first targets was a group of some 150 Texians (including former Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, inventor of his namesake knife) set as a garrison in the mission outside San Antonio. After a few altercations and exchanges of cannon fire, the Mexican army turned to siege. Both Lieutenant Colonel William Travis and Colonel Jim Bowie sent messages attempting to surrender, but they were informed that any surrender must be unconditional.

On the eve of preparing a massive assault to break the Alamo's defenses after much artillery fire, Santa Anna finally decided to allow the Texians a fair chance to surrender. The beleaguered Texians did surrender, despite voices calling to fight to the last man. Seeing the division among even the hardened fighters of the cause, Santa Anna decided to use it to his advantage. He made certain news reached the Texas government at Gonzales (who had declared independence on March 2), and they immediately began packing up to flee. Stephen Austin and Samuel Houston were branded as cowards, and Santa Anna announced that he would be enforcing his liberation of the slaves: any slave who wished to be free would simply need to join his forces. Small farmers who had no business in the rebellion would not be harmed.

The new Republic of Texas was thrown into chaos as its slave class rose up, its middle class sought to protect their farms, and the upper class of rebels fought to keep control. Santa Anna, meanwhile, continued his pursuit after the Texians despite the cold and rain of the spring. He earned further credit as a merciful man when he honored General Urrea's request that the prisoners at Goliad be spared. The army under Sam Houston, however, conducted a scorched earth retreat that horrified locals.

Houston's army, low on morale and provisions, finally made its stand to fight at the Battle of Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Whispers ran through the troops of “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Goliad”, causing the men to believe that, if they surrendered, they would be treated fairly. Houston kept down mutiny by insisting he would shoot any officer that attempted to usurp him. His battle plan was risky: attacking the Mexican army during the siesta time over open ground. Santa Anna made a bitter error in not posting sentries, giving the Texians the upper hand. However, as the Mexicans regrouped, the Texians broke, and the battle was the end of the revolution. Houston and others attempted to flee into Louisiana, but a US army under General Pendleton Gaines arrested them as trespassers.

After the war, Santa Anna made quick to populate Texas with loyal citizens. He granted cheap land and huge haciendas to political allies as well as those who had been displaced from other areas in Mexico attempting to break away. In 1838, Santa Anna defeated a French invasion attempting to force Mexico to pay reparations for losses from French interests during the revolution. He would ultimately be unable to hold power forever as he was feared a warmonger against the United States. Valentín Gómez Farías knocked him from power to reduce the size and privileges of the military and institute reforms. He worked with American President James K. Polk to clarify the border between the countries. Without a war to fight, Santa Anna was made to retire to Kingstown, Jamaica, where he continued his gambling habit and promoted cockfighting internationally.

Tejas today is a wealthy corner of Mexico with careful immigration policies to keep its population of Americans at a reasonable level. Locals sometimes joke of attempting to declare independence when Mexico City passes unpopular laws, but such a reality is as unlikely as if it were to come from Los Angeles in Baja California, which remained Mexican after the north seceded in 1846.

In reality, Santa Anna attempted to crush the revolution with a heavy hand. His armies killed some 200 people, and the Texan government at Gonzales was able to immortalize them as patriots against a tyrant. He ordered the executions of 342 prisoners at Goliad, which further fueled the hate against him. At the Battle of San Jacinto, the Texan troops calling “Remember the Alamo!” overwhelmed Santa Anna's unprepared men, and Texas won its independence, which it would soon give to the United States with its annexation in 1845.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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