On April 21, 1836, a force of Anglo and Tejano “Texians” under the command of Sam Houston defeated a portion of the Mexican Centralists forces that had been operating in the region for the previous two months.
Sam Houston’s 900 men were desperate for a victory, and with their backs against the wall, knew they had to conquer—or die trying. They faced 1,400 soldados led by the President of Mexico himself, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. If Houston’s men prevailed, there might be a chance that Texas independence could take root.
While the Texians were desperate, the Mexicans were exhausted, having been over marched, under rested, and poorly equipped throughout their campaign. That morning, 500 weary reinforcements had arrived after a grueling night march, and everyone in the Mexican camp needed a break. The Texians had showed some fight the previous day, and officers ordered their dead-on-their-feet men to fortify their camp. Then, nothing happened. The enemy camps lay quiet.
The Mexicans relaxed in the warmth of the spring day. Typically, armies fought in the morning, when men were well rested, the day was young, and the hours many until darkness would end the battle. Not this day.
The shadows were growing long in the late afternoon when the Texians surged out of their camps nestled in a grove of oaks on the banks of Buffalo Bayou more than a mile away. A fifer and drummer played Come to the Bower, a popular tune in its days, as the line of men started toward the Mexican positions. Then, they disappeared. Santa Anna’s sentries reported what they saw, but few of their officers seemed alarmed. A swale in the ground hid Houston’s army from view as it closed the distance to the Mexican camp, and no one thought this advance would amount to much. The Centralist forces had the odds, and the position. This was a mere probing attack—a sizing up of the forces in advance of an assault in the morning.
But Houston’s men kept coming. When the Texians emerged from the swale, they were within close musket and artillery range. The volleys they unleashed whipped through the enemy camp, and blasts of canister raked the Centralist barricades. The Mexicans, shocked, fired back, but order began to unravel. Many broke and ran.
Houston’s men knew that it was now or never and surged to grapple with the men they blamed for the massacres of their friends and family at the Alamo and at Goliad. Then, there was carnage.
The Battle of San Jacinto was over in 20 minutes as the Centralists disintegrated. The killing, however, continued for hours as Texians took no chances that the Mexican army would rally and reform, killing as many of their foes as they could. Eventually, with their fury spent and night coming on, the Texians rounded up prisoners. These included Santa Anna.
This battle has been described as one of the most decisive in world history. The subsequent establishment of the Republic of Texas set into motion changes that would remake both Mexico and the United States.
Remember the Battle of San Jacinto today. The outcome created the nation you love.
—Donald Frazier, Ph.D., history professor at McMurry University and THF director
Image from Prints and Photographs Collection, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission