Old Sam Jacinto

Sam HoustonThe Texian Army and Old Sam Jacinto. There are no typos in that sentence fragment.

In 1836 members of the scraggly amateur army that won independence from Mexico called themselves "Texians." Their leader, Sam Houston, they later referred to nostalgically as the "Old Chief," and "Old Sam Jacinto."

Throughout history generals have been known by famous battles--Napoleon and Waterloo, Patton and the Battle of the Bulge, Houston and San Jacinto.

The military victory on April 21, 1836, on a river, bayou and swamp-ringed field just east of Houston, Texas, is considered one of the 10 most decisive battles in the world's history. Some historians have ranked 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.

So how did it happen?

For one thing Mexican General Santa Anna thought that his victory at The Alamo and other successes in the southern and central part of Texas had won him the war. In today's sports terms, Santa Anna was over-confident and ripe for an upset.

When The Alamo fell Houston and his army of 600-700 began a retreat from Gonzales, some 60 miles east of San Antonio. Against them were four Mexican generals with a total force estimated at more than 5,000.

By the time they were in position for battle at San Jacinto, there had been talk of mutiny, the provisional government's president had tried to goad Houston to stop and fight, two small cannons had arrived, they had faced a fork in the wagon trail--one leading to safety and the other to the fight--and Santa Anna's force had swept by.

All the while Houston told no one of his plan, if he had one. But on the afternoon of April 21, with a portion of the now-fragmented Mexican Army camped and napping, Houston ordered the attack.

The Mexican force is estimated to have been about 1,600, Houston's 700-800. Marching to a fife and drum playing the period love song "Will you come to the bow'r I have shaded for you?" and shouting "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" the Texians surprised the Mexicans.

This is Houston's description:

"...at half past three o'clock in the evening...I ordered the officers...to parade their respective commands...having in the meantime ordered the bridge on the only road communicating with the Brazos, distant eight miles from our encampment, to be destroyed--thus cutting off all possibility of escape...Our line advanced without a halt...

"The conflict lasted eighteen minutes from the time of close action until we were in possession of the enemy's encampment--.

"In the battle our loss was two killed and twenty-three wounded, six of them mortally. The enemy's loss was six hundred and thirty killed...prisoners seven hundred and thirty--President-General Santa Anna (and) General Cos...are included in the number."

Wounded with a rifle ball in his left ankle, Houston traveled to New Orleans for medical treatment and returned to Texas to recuperate somewhat before being elected President of the Republic of Texas by a huge margin.

How important was the battle? Houston biographer Marquis James put it this way in "The Raven:"

"The mastery of a continent was in contention between the champions of two civilizations--racial rivals and hereditary enemies, so divergent in idea and method that suggestion of compromise was an affront.

"On an obscure meadow of bright grass, nursed by a watercourse named on hardly any map, wet steel would decide which civilization should prevail on these shores and which submit in the clash of men and symbols impending--the conquistador and the frontiersman, the Inquisition and the Magna Charta, the rosary and the rifle."

So each year on April 21, in this civilization which has survived, the descendants of those who once called themselves "Texians" observe San Jacinto Day and celebrate the heroism of "Old Sam Jacinto."

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For more on Sam Houston, San Jacinto, and Houston's wounded left ankle, see Museum Exhibit Shows Correct San Jacinto Leg Wound.

Also see more on Sam Houston in James Haley's biography, "Sam Houston."

Text by: Frank Krystyniak