Why Was the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto Important?

Few battles in the Texas Revolution were as important as the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836. At the battle the Texans were able to score a stunning victory that effectively ended the Mexican threat, a massive achievement leading directly to Texan independence.

When looking at the timeline of the Texas Revolution the victory at the Battle of San Jacinto couldn’t have come at a better time.

By April 1836 the Texan cause was in dire straits following the devastating loss at the Battle of the Alamo and the massacre of Texan soldiers at Goliad just a month earlier.

The ragtag group of volunteers under General Sam Houston was the last remaining effective fighting force the Texans could muster. Untrained, under-supplied, and vastly outnumbered Texas’ chances at victory were slim and growing slimmer as Houston bided his time by retreating east.

Finally the Texans decided to stand and fight seeking a decisive engagement. Houston caught Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his smaller, advance guard of troops unawares near the San Jacinto river.

Houston pressed his advantage and unexpectedly attacked, stunning the unprepared Mexicans. The battle was a rout as the unprepared Mexicans largely fled, surrendered, or were killed and massacred by the vengeful Texans seeking retribution for their own massacred comrades.

Even Santa Anna fled and was captured a day later. Santa Anna’s capture helped dissolve the remaining Mexican forces in Texas, effectively ending the Texas Revolution after the great Battle of San Jacinto.

Texas Revolution Prior to Battle

The monumental Texan victory at Battle of San Jacinto has the tendency to overshadow just how dire the Texan cause had become by April 1836.

On March 11 General Sam Houston took charge of the Texan volunteer army in Gonzales just five days after the Texan defeat at the Alamo. “Army” perhaps was a generous term for the motley group of 374 volunteers who were virtually all untrained in military discipline and greatly under-supplied. Many did not even have weapons or ammunition to fight with.1

Houston knew this army did not stand a chance against the ~5,000-6,000 Mexican soldiers under Santa Anna that just wiped out the Alamo defenders. Thus the army fled east along with a majority of Texas’ citizens who sought refuge in the United States from the incoming Mexican army.

This event is commonly known as the Runaway Scrape and the event led to high levels of desertion among Houston’s ranks as volunteers left to be with their fleeing families.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Furthermore, the spring season of 1836 was one of the wettest on record which caused severe logistical problems. Morale was also an issue as the Texans hardly even had any tents, so soldiers were constantly exposed to the rain and mud.1

Houston had virtually no power to prevent the desertions as army size fluctuated wildly between desertions and new volunteers joining. It is interesting to note that most historians agree that a majority of the Texan army both at the Alamo and ultimately at San Jacinto was composed of men who had never stepped foot in Texas prior early 1836.2

These were mostly single, young American volunteers who traveled great distances to fight for Texan freedom and hoped for reward after the revolution was over, while many men who had actually lived in Texas for years fled east with their families.

It is only with luck that Houston obtained intelligence of Santa Anna’s movements and discovered a rare opportunity he could exploit.

Who Fought in the Battle of San Jacinto?

The Battle of San Jacinto was fought between the Mexican forces under President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and the rebel Texan forces under General Sam Houston.

Houston learned that Santa Anna had split his forces and taken a smaller detachment of roughly 700-800 men as an advance force. He hoped that his smaller force could move faster and the Mexican army could quickly capture the Texan government holed up in Harrisburg.

Santa Anna genuinely thought the Texan rebellion was over following the victory at the Alamo and defeat of the Texans at Goliad weeks later. After his troops narrowly missed capturing the Texan government at Harrisburg, Santa Anna camped near the San Jacinto River.1

Santa Anna was completely unaware of the nearby presence of Houston’s force as he chose his camp on poor terrain. The river cut off the Mexican right flank and a thick impassable marsh lay to his rear. His troops had very limited maneuverability at that location.3

Battle of San Jacinto map

On April 20, 1836 the armies spotted each other with a brief skirmish between cavalry units. The next morning Mexican general Martin de Cos arrived with reinforcements of roughly 500 conscripts to bolster Santa Anna’s forces.

These men were poorly-trained and some of the worst in the Mexican army. They had just marched for nearly 24 hours straight without food to arrive in time.1

As no Texan attack congregated, Santa Anna allowed his troops to rest and sleep for a late afternoon siesta, believing it was too late in the day for the Texans to muster an attack.

Meanwhile the roughly 900 strong Texan army was practically begging for a fight to avenge those killed at the Alamo. Houston had faced numerous near-mutinies and desertion threats in the past month over his unwillingness to throw the untrained and undisciplined troops into battle.

If he was to keep the army together, the time for battle was now. After holding his first council of war on the morning of April 21st, Houston ultimately decided to attack immediately.

How Long did the Battle of San Jacinto Last?

The Battle of San Jacinto is notable in that it lasted a total of only 18 minutes. The Texans surprise attack in the late afternoon caught the Mexicans completely unprepared and the battle turned into a slaughter.

Entire units of Mexicans threw down their weapons, fled, or attempted to surrender, many reportedly shouting, “Me no Alamo” and “Me no Goliad” to convey they were not at the two massacres.1

The Texans did not care as the attacking force quickly turned into an uncontrollable mob and the killing lasted well after the battle was over. Houston is said to have tried to gather his troops several times to return to camp to no avail.

This mob action was exactly what Houston feared and partially why he was reluctant to send the undisciplined force into battle earlier. Had San Jacinto been a regular, pitched battle, the result may have been very different due to Houston’s limited tactical options with such a force.4

The battle was extremely one-sided in terms of casualties.

Out of nearly 1300-1400 Mexicans present, ~630 were killed, ~208 wounded and 300-500 captured. Houston’s report listed 730 captured, but historians believe that number to be inaccurate.

Battle of San Jacinto 1836 important casualties chart

Very few Mexicans were able to escape the carnage completely. Santa Anna himself was captured a day after the battle disguised in civilian clothes.1

Meanwhile the Texans suffered only 8 killed and another 25 wounded per Houston’s official report. General Houston himself was wounded after receiving a musket ball in his ankle and also had two of his horses shot out from under him.4

The Texans had scored a major victory and captured the Mexican President himself, but the revolution was not over. There still remained nearly 4,000 Mexican troops nearby in Texas.

Houston largely won at San Jacinto due to Santa Anna’s mistakes; could he pull off another improbable victory?

Why Was the Battle of San Jacinto Important?

The Battle of San Jacinto was important as it was the final battle of the Texas Revolution, effectively ended the conflict, and paved the way for the existence of the independent Republic of Texas.

Texan fears of another Mexican offensive with the 4,000 or so troops that remained in Texas proved to be unfounded. Most of the Mexican troops were conscripts and poorly-trained. Desertion was common and the generals were unwilling to mount another offensive.

Santa Anna was a master in logistics, keeping his army together and supply lines intact over the vast distances the campaign covered. With his capture the supply began to break down. By mid-May the Mexican army was starving, sick, and thoroughly demoralized.1

Meanwhile the Texans and the captured Santa Anna negotiated two separate treaties, one public and one private, to bring a conclusion to the conflict. The Treaties of Velasco stipulated Mexican armies would leave Texas with private property to be restored and prisoners released.

Battle of San Jacinto painting

In the secret treaty, Santa Anna was to attempt to persuade the Mexican legislature to accept Texan independence so the two nations could mend relations.

Ultimately, Mexico refused to recognize Texan independence, claiming the Treaties of Velasco were null and void as they were signed by a captive under duress.

Mexico would not fully recognize Texan independence until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 following the Mexican-American War.

The important Battle of San Jacinto is memorialized widely today as the turning point of the Texas Revolution where Texas gained its independence and gained vengeance for the Mexican atrocities earlier in the war.

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To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.

Sources

1) Henderson, H. M. “A Critical Analysis of the San Jacinto Campaign.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 3, 1956, pp. 344–62, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30237682.

2) MUIR, ANDREW FOREST. “The Mystery of San Jacinto.” Southwest Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 1951, pp. 77–84, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43463662.

3) “THE BATTLE OF SAN JACINTO, (TEXAS).” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 7, no. 2/3, 1907, pp. 194–97, https://doi.org/10.2307/41168639.

4) WINTERS, JAMES WASHINGTON. “AN ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE OF SAN JACINTO.” The Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, vol. 6, no. 2, 1902, pp. 139–44, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27784928.

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