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Was the April 21, 1836 battle the result of military genius or an accident? Did Houston intend to fight or to hide behind Uncle Sam's coattails in the Louisiana swamps? Was he a hero or a coward? Was he wounded in the right leg or left?
Researchers periodically dig up documents from Houston's detractors and political enemies critical of his conduct of the war that won independence for Texas. But recent Sam Houston biographer James L. Haley points out in his book "Sam Houston" the lack of support Houston had from the general Texas population, many of whom would not fight, deserted, and would not follow orders.
Houston estimated that the population of Texas at that time should have produced an army of about 4,000, Haley wrote. Instead, he had only 700. Just days before the San Jacinto battle, one of the men who later criticized him most loudly marched off with 400 men who would have been a big help.
The Texas frontier folk of the time would not even allow him to use their animals, with one woman demanding the return of her oxen, which were being used to transport artillery pieces, just days before the decisive battle.
Haley also points out that Houston may have had an ace up his sleeve as he led Santa Anna toward the Texas/Louisiana border. His men didn't know it, but he knew there were volunteer forces there who were ready to join the fight in what would have been, in Haley's words, a "surprise...on the Sabine."
Other historians have ranked the Battle of San Jacinto as one of the 10 most decisive battles in the world's history. Some place it as high as 8th.
Whether 8th or 10th, there is agreement that it had great impact. It resulted in Texas independence from Mexico, Texas statehood, and led to the Mexican War of 1846-'48, which resulted in the United States' acquisition of lands from the Rockies to the Pacific.
It resulted eventually in the addition to the United States of not only Texas, but the future states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and part of Wyoming--a territory larger than the organized area of the United States at the time of the battle.
During the battle Houston was wounded, most accounts agree, by a musket shot to the ankle. But which ankle?
In a rare case of history imitating art, much of the confusion may result from an 1886 painting by William Henry Huddle. Now hanging in the Texas Capitol building, Huddle's "Surrender of Santa Anna" depicts Houston lying on a pallet beneath an oak tree, arranging an armistice with the captured Mexican general and dictator. Captured Mexican battle flags rest against the tree.
Marquis James' 1929 Houston biography, "The Raven," which is often cited as one of the most authoritative of many books and articles written on Houston, may have taken its cue from the painting. "His right leg was shattered above the ankle," James wrote.
Modern accounts of the battle and wound continue the right leg reference.
In 1986 "National Geographic" ran a 20-page spread on "Sam Houston: A Man Too Big for Texas." The article included the Huddle painting as one of 21 illustrations. The text said, "Sam Houston lay in prideful pain. A bullet had splintered his right leg when his horse was killed beneath him."
Marshall DeBruhl's 1993 biography "Sword of San Jacinto," inspired by the 200th anniversary of Sam Houston's March 2, 1793 birth date, stated:
"As he went down, he felt an unbearable pain in his right ankle. It had been shattered by a musket ball. Ignoring the wound he mounted yet another horse and rode on, his boot filling with blood."
Even Haley's new biography, which has been available for only a couple of months, says:
"Houston's horse was shot from under him; he was helped in mounting another. A musket ball then shattered his right ankle, but still he advanced with his men."
A more imposing illustration of the right ankle theory is the "World's Tallest Statue of an American Hero," the 67-foot statue of Sam Houston on Interstate 45 just south of Huntsville. It has Houston holding his cane in his right hand, which would be the logical position for a person suffering from a damaged right ankle.
There is one place, however, where the left ankle theory holds sway. That is the campus of Sam Houston State University, where Trace Guthrie's smaller 1979 statue of Sam Houston, that is also in the university's official seal, has the cane in the left hand.
Also, at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum at Sam Houston State, there is a new diorama of the scene beneath the tree at San Jacinto. The bandages are on the left leg, thanks to the alertness of Richard Rice, historical interpreter at the museum.
As the diorama was being designed, Rice became aware of a letter from Sam Houston, written to his wife, Margaret, dated January 11, 1853. The letter is in the four volume series "The Personal Correspondence of Sam Houston" edited by Madge Thornall Roberts of San Antonio, who is also Sam Houston's great-great-granddaughter.
"My Love," Sam wrote, "I have nothing to write, that would cheer or delight you. My health is fine, and as I only eat twice in the day moderately, I hope to retain it. I suffer slightly in my left leg, from the same cause, that I complained of at home, the San Jacinto wound."
Roberts also points out that in a 1938 book by Andrew Jackson Houston, Sam Houston's son who was born in 1854, it is written that "...the general's left ankle was shattered by a copper ball..."
"He would certainly have known which was his father's lame leg," said Roberts. "It was common knowledge within the family that it was the left one."
Sam Houston died in 1863. The periodic potshots at his character, his accomplishments, and even his courage continue. But on April 21, 2002, San Jacinto Day 166 years later, we can be ALMOST certain of one Sam Houston fact--the shattered ankle was his left.
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For more on Sam Houston, see Sam the Man, Sam Houston Biographical Perspectives.
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