Texas Revolution 1835-1836: Battle for North Mexico and the Birth of the Texas Republic

American interest in ‘Norte’ (North) Mexico, what would become the nation and later American state of Texas, dated back to the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain, which stalled Moses Austin plans for colonization of the fertile Texas river valley. Known as the first empresario (a settler bound by contract to lead other settlers and homesteader parties to the territory), Austin was unable to complete his vision of a new settlement in what would become Texas, dieing in 1821 before he could see the territory himself.

Stephen F. Austin

It was his son second son Stephen F. Austin (b.1793-1836), who received his fathers’ grant for colonization in Southeastern Texas, though it is long handed down that the younger Austin was reluctant to travel to Texas. The first settlers, the “Old Three Hundred” remain an enduring symbol of the founding of Texas and in a sense represent the spirit of those who still reside there today. Though it is now believed that the beloved ‘Ole Three Hundred’ were actually slightly less than their namesake, they settled in the fertile lands between the Colorado and Brazos river valleys and etched out a living

Heaven for Men and Dogs: Pre-Revolution Texas

The population grew slow but steady in first years of the Texas settlement; families as well single men looking for work & adventure came in first several years of legal immigration. One original settler to the Texas colony described it as “heaven for men and dogs,” and “hell for women and oxen.” In 1823 as Texas grew under Stephen F. Austin’s leadership, he established its capital at San Felipe de Austin, which still remains today as the tiny township of San Felipe. The next important step for Mexican Texas was its merger with its neighboring Mexican state of Coahuila. The Mexican Congress thought this was critical in order to make sure that the majority of the population of this newly created colony remained Spanish speaking native-born Mexican citizens and not American émigrés. The state and territory of Coahuila-Texas was re-born as such under the empresario system.

Though Moses Austin had been granted the first empresario by the viceroyalty of New Spain, the system that was set up by the Mexican government differed somewhat, though like their Spanish counterparts the Mexican government wanted to ensure that the wide open plains of their frontier were filled by farmers, settlers, and tax paying, god fearing colonists. Land policies and laissez-faire control brought immigrant families during the early period helping the population of Coahuila-Texas boom into the mid to late 1820’s. Each family was given well over 4,000 acres to start a farm and homestead and many did just this. The Mexican constitution had outlawed slavery in 1824, an extremely liberal policy at the time which was not well received by the Texians[1] in the territory.

However Stephen Austin successfully challenged this and the Mexican government let the Anglo-Americans keep their slaves as ‘indentured servants’ for the duration of the owner’s life. The Texian were also exempt from taxes, tariffs, and conscription in the Mexican army. Though Austin was an effective leader and is now considered the "father" of Texas, during this period many Texans disliked his relationship with the Mexicans, as they saw him as all to willing to please the directives of the Mexican colonial authorities.

An example used by his detractors was in the aftermath of the “Fredonia Revolt.” The Edwards brothers, Haden and Benjamin, had become disillusioned by the interference of the Mexicans in their business and Haden’s expulsion from the colony. They lead a bloodless coup in Nacogdoches and founded the Republic of Fredonia on December 16, 1826.

General Santa Anna

It collapsed weeks later under pressure from Austin to disband the plan lest the Mexicans get angry and dispose of all American settlers in the region. Austin was correct in assuming the Mexicans had been growing wary of the perceived and mostly accurate inclusion of an American presence in Northern Mexico. Hundreds of Mexican army troopers had been stationed in Coahuila-Texas after the Fredonia incident and Mexican patience was running thin by the start of the 1830’s.

As the winter of 1835 began war between Anglo-American Texas, and their Tejano allies and the Mexican federal government was unavoidable. General Santa Anna saw the Texas Independence movement as a group of rebels and “filibusters” who would destroy and divide Mexico for their own gain. The Texians saw Santa Anna’s reign as unjust and drew many parallels to the American War for Independence against England.

Austin was imprisoned on Santa Anna’s orders in January which began the open Texian hostilities towards the Mexican government. Lawyer and recent immigrant to Texas William Travis would begin harassing customs officials at Anahuac with his militiamen, and everywhere men of age went to arms in defense of Texas. In October, a Mexican cavalry troop was ordered to march to Gonzales to retake a canon lent to Texans to fend of Indian attacks. As the Mexicans got closer to the town they could view a large flag with the canon painted on it, above it were inscribed the now legendary phrase “Come and take it!”

Facsimile of the Gonzalez Flag

As they drew closer to the town the Texan defenders opened fire with muskets and improvised grape shot from the archaic canon defending the small settlement. The Mexicans retreated back to San Antonio and Texas had an inspiring if nominal first victory. By November of 1835 the Texas Revolution would ignite, blood would be shed for Texas, and the history of both the United States and Mexico would be altered forever.

In December 1835 the Texians won an early first victory during the siege of Béxar, modern day San Antonio, over General Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cos. Though 1,200 Mexican soldiers protected Béxar low morale and declining ammunition and supplies defeated the Mexican forces who surrendered on December the 9th. General Cos and the rest of his force were allowed to withdraw however because the mostly volunteer Texas army could not house that many prisoners of war, with many returning to their homes despite a state of war.

Birth of Texas 1835-1836, a Republic is born on Washington-on-the-Brazos, role of the Navy on the Texas Revolution

The Republic of Texas began in earnest in November of 1835, though independence would not be declared until March 2nd, 1836. Austin established a twelve man council which he was at the head of, having proven his resolve during the Siege of Béxar. He and three other leaders left for American to drub up support for their cause and Sam Houston (b.1793-1863), a Virginia born, Tennessean politician and one-time member of the Cherokee nation, was named as the commander in chief of the Texas military, de facto head of the new nation.

Sam Houston

Houston realized as did Austin the importance of American support for their cause and his appeal to the American public was published in many newspapers of the time, including New Orleans, reading simply, “Let each man come with a good rifle, and come soon.” For the Mexicans, they could not help but to disdain at the flagrant meddling of the Americans in this revolt, with US volunteers from every state, and indeed US army deserters flocking to Texas for a chance to fight in the War.

Author and former U.S. Secretary of State, George Lockhart Rives (b.1849-1917) does note in his book that Santa Anna’s force were comprised mostly of untrained conscripted troops, many of whom were native Indians forced into service. These conscripts were outfitted in the fairly normal fighting attire for the average European army of the Napoleonic age, regardless they had nothing in common with their British, French, or German counterparts on the continent.

Their weapons were mostly the British made Baker flintlock musket; however they were poorly trained in its use and drill, spoke almost none or didn’t speak Spanish at all, and held little sympathy for either side, especially the aristocratic officers leading them. As a young country Mexico possessed virtually no navy and therefore was unable to blockade the Texas ports which kept the Texians supplied well during and after the Revolution.

Because shipping and land routes as well were unmolested, weapons and ammunition were on a continuous flow across the border Texas-American border for years after the conflict ended. Most of the resupply and American volunteers came by way of New Orleans, where weapons in particular flooded Texian port cities. Santa Anna had a clear disadvantage in this aspect of the conflict in that he was never able to match the material and logistic power of the rebel Texians.

Austin’s earlier established General Council was able to appropriate the funds necessary to buy war-ships and in January of 1836 they purchased four ships. These included the Liberty, Brutus, Independence, and Invincible, which were all rebuilt schooners with small guns that nevertheless were important to the survival and economic growth of the Republic in its infancy. None of these ships would survive the post war period with the Texas Navy continually at odds with the Mexican navy from 1840-1845.

Texan resolve was strengthened during the period before the Alamo, with the Texian founding fathers proclaiming their republic independent on March 2, 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos. David G. Burnet was named as the interim president and the stage was set for a decisive battle between the rag-tag Texian army under Sam Houston and the even less impressive Mexican regulars under General Santa Anna.  The signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence had in-turn no way of knowing that the Alamo was being attacked and would soon fall as they signed the document and proclaimed independence from Mexico

The Great Defeat-The siege and battle of the Alamo, March 1836

William Travis, now a colonel in the Texas army, had been sent to reinforce the skeleton company which was in San Antonio occupying the adobes of the Alamo an old Spanish mission. Though second-in-command he was held nominal power amongst the defenders of the Alamo.

Texan army colonel William Travis

Though troop levels were small before the battle they were bolstered by the leadership of Travis and Jim Bowie (in theory), as well as the arrival of David Crockett and his sixty odd volunteers from Tennessee. Santa Anna came upon the fort during his march up from Mexico and on February 23rd quickly laid siege to the garrison at the Alamo.

The event which would in turn define the entire Texas Revolution was to be a bloody and tragic affair. For thirteen days Santa Anna’s army pounded the Alamo, finally breaching the wall on March 6th 1836 with French style sappers hacking away at and breaching then breaching Alamo’s outer defenses. With the walls and outer defenses breached, all was hope was lost of keeping the fort. The surviving defenders knowing they faced certain death even they surrendered. Colonel Travis lay dead already, slumped over a canon which he had been defending in the earliest part of the siege with his shotgun.

Another American icon Jim Bowie was gravely ill during the battle and was killed whilst he lay dieing of consumption (tuberculosis) in his bed. Perhaps the most iconic figure to meet his demise at the Alamo however was David ‘Davy’ Crockett. Many stories exist in popular culture in which Crockett either escaped or met a more sinister end, tortured and killed by the ruthless Santa Anna and his Mexican Lancers.

Battle for the Alamo, 6 March 1836

However eye witness accounts do place Crockett’s body amongst the dead for sure. One story in particular was that he was found surrounded by fifteen to twenty dead Mexican soldiers, dispatched by his own hand before being overtaken and killed in a brutal hand-to-hand struggle, impossible, but heroic nonetheless. The truth undoubtedly is that Crockett despite his tall tales and legendary life, died, most likely fighting side-by-side until nearly the end of the siege with the other (virtually) unknown defenders of the Alamo. When the siege had ended and the Alamo had been captured, all of the 200 or so Texian defenders lay dead. As the legend holds, confirmed by historical accounts, the Texian-Tejano (Mexican descendant) Juan Seguin (b.1806-1890) had survived because he was sent to gather reinforcements.

David Crockett, center meets his end at the Alamo

Mexican casualties were reported as anywhere between four and six hundred soldiers; though modern estimates put these numbers slightly lower. Regardless the siege of the Alamo cost many Mexican lives, slowing Santa Anna’s march considerably. After both the Massacre at Goliad, and then the Alamo, large numbers of Texians ran for their lives and fled back to America, fearing Texas independence was lost.

The opposite was true, as Santa Anna was only successful in creating martyrs for the Texas Independence (revolutionary) movement. The Battle of Coleto Creek on March 20th 1836 had the same result.  Officer James Fannin was murdered along with over 300 of his men after surrendering and being brought back to Goliad on Palm Sunday, March the 27th.

Colonel James Fannin (b.1804-1836)

Houston prepares for the mother of all battles, March-April 1836

In March-April of 1836, Santa Anna began his search for the rebel army but Sam Houston and the Texian army found him first. The Texian government fearing for its safety had fled from the newly established capital of Washington-on-the-Brazos and then on to Harrisburg after Santa Anna’s march into Gonzales. General Santa Anna continued on, with his army reaching Harrisburg on April 15th to find that the Texians had burned the city, fleeing yet again and moving even further east, to the Texas coast and to the safety of Galveston Island.

The armies under General Santa Anna’s turned their direct efforts to finding Houston and neutralizing his command, the great general hypothesizing that if he could capture or kill one, if not all of the Texas military/political leaders then the revolution would be crushed, and the ‘filibusters’ vanquished. Houston had been ordered to fight and he did the exact opposite during his return from the burned-out former capital Washington-on-the-brazos. Many contemporaries and men who later supported Houston were outraged at his lack of initiative. The man himself and later a legion of supporters in the 19th century would later support his Fabian-esque strategies which were highly unpopular at the time. After the Battle of San Jacinto, the general noted “I consulted none-held no councils of war. If I [was defeated] the blame is mine.”

Houston had not known the Alamo until 14 March, eight days after its fall and once he did, his army retreated even further north, closer to the coast as to avoid an inevitable clash with Santa Anna’s larger army. On the eve of the battle of San Jacinto prairie sensing the “mother of all battles” was approaching, as Saddam Hussein quipped following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Houston wrote to the people of Texas that they must “conquer or perish… act now or abandon all hope."

Conquer or Perish, Texian Independence is won on the field at San Jacinto, April 1836

The Battle of San Jacinto remains an important study in the military practice of gaining an advantage over an enemy combatant through unconventional  and "guerrilla" style tactics. Houston, who had military experience in the War of 1812 fighting with President Andrew Jackson against the Red Stick Creek Indians at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, was nevertheless a novice tactician and inexperienced commander.

General Santa Anna clearly over pursued Houston and the Texas army in his great march into rebel country. He overextended his lines of supply and communication with Mexico marching north to East Texas at the Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto Plains in May-April 1836 (see above map). His tired army had chased Houston for weeks, marching hard and often in an effort to find and destroy the rebel Texian army. By using a much smaller and mobile force of infantry and mounted men, Houston outflanked Santa Anna at the end of his expedition, and on April 20th a small skirmish was initiated which left no clear victor.

The Mexican army awoke at dawn on the 21st expecting battle though the Texans remained silent and hidden from sight throughout that previous night and into the early morning. Santa Anna perhaps sensing that no attack would come ordered his army to rest and eat, which proved disastrous for his army and his command in retrospect. In fact the self-styled “Napoleon of West” neglected several basic military procedures; de-saddling his horses in enemy country knowing the enemy was near, neglecting to post sentries, and for generally allowing the the majority of his army to keep a disorganized and undefended camp at San Jacinto.

Sam Houston in the charge in which he fell from his horse and was taken out of the melee on the prairie of San Jacinto

Houston quickly gave the signal and the 900 Texians under his command crept through prairie and charged into the Mexican camp at three o’clock in the afternoon. Catching the Mexicans by surprise they killed many where they sat or laid resting and eating. The cry of “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Goliad” filled the afternoon air as many later recalled in revenge and gore soaked triumph. Houston wrote in his report after the battle that “not having the advantage of bayonets on our side, our rifleman used their pieces as war-clubs, breaking many of them off at the breech.” Juan Seguin led a Tejano regiment during the battle avenging his fallen brothers at the Alamo and was a witness to the penultimate slaughter of surrendering Mexicans at the battles conclusion.

Battle of San Jacinto

A number of Texians also used tomahawks to grave effect in the before mentioned slaughter; many having traded for them with friendly tribes or received them in shipments from America. More than 625 Mexicans were killed in the battle and close to 700 captured, including Santa Anna who secured his release by granting Texas her independence to an injured Sam Houston. He was held captive in Texas for a year before returning to Mexico.

In less than fifteen minutes the Revolutionary campaign which had gone so poorly for the rebel Texans had finally ended with a stunning and decisive victory over the Mexican Army. One fascinating caveat to end of the conflict was that Mexico still had a large army in Texas led by General Vicente Filisola. Had he marched on Houston's small army and forced a Second Battle of San Jacinto, the Texians would have been defeated. Fearing for his Commanders life and dangerously low on supplies due to an effective Texas naval strategy, Filisola fled with his army. General Santa Anna was ousted by his government as president and according to Mexico, Texas independence was never truly legal or sanctioned by representative.

Santa Anna surrenders to an injured Sam Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto

Sam Houston would go on to win the first presidential election by a landslide and many hoped for annexation by America to come in the near future. Juan Seguin would serve as Texas senator and politician before anti-Tejano/Mexican sentiment drove him from the land of his birth. He would eventually be impressed into Mexican service, fighting Texas and later American forces in 1842 and 1846-1848. Texas statehood would come in 1845, leading America, its army & navy, and its President, James K. Polk (b.1795-1849), into war with Mexico for what would become the Western United States territories.

[1] An archaic originally offensive term used to describe the Anglo-American settlers of Mexico.

Blake, Adm. Jerry C. “A Brief History of the Texas Navy Flag.” Maine Maritime Academy. (29 November 2010).

Mead, Douglas V. The Fighting Texas Navy 1832-1843

Hardin, Stephen L. Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994)

Vigness, David M. The Revolutionary Decades: The Saga of Texas, 1810–1836 (Austin, Steck-Vaughn, 1965).


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