The Texans won the final and decisive engagement with Mexico in the Texas Revolution on April 21, 1836, at the Battle of San Jacinto. While the battle only lasted 18 minutes, its ramifications were significant. The victory at San Jacinto gave Texas its independence from Mexico and opened the door for the continued westward expansion of the United States.
The United States annexed Texas in 1845, which led directly to the Mexican-American War. When that ended, Mexico ceded the American Southwest and California to the United States. Today, San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site and Monument preserves the site of this critical battle and commemorates the Texans’ victory over Mexico, as well as the battle’s lasting effect on the history of the United States. San Jacinto Battlefield is a National Historic Landmark.
Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, the newly formed Republic of Mexico encouraged American immigrants to settle in Texas, which was part of the Mexican State of Coahuila y Tejas. The Mexican government offered settlers from the United States land at low prices. By 1830, the American population of Texas grew to around 25,000 people, significantly outnumbering the Mexican population and thus causing the Mexican government to become increasingly concerned about protecting its claims to the frontier land in this region. Tensions between the Mexican government and settlers from the United States began to rise as the Mexican government forbade further American immigration to Texas in 1830.
Over the next five years, Texans of both American and Mexican ancestry grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Mexican government. Some American settlers disagreed with Mexico’s prohibition of slavery, while other settlers were upset that under Mexican law, they did not have many of the rights that they had enjoyed in the United States. Mexico did not provide rights such as trial by jury or freedom of religion that the settlers had grown accustomed to in the United States. Other issues arose when the Mexican government increased property taxes in Texas and tariffs on goods shipped from the United States.
All of these issues came to a head in 1835 when the newly elected President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, dissolved Mexico’s federal Constitution of 1824. By dissolving the Constitution of 1824, Santa Anna centralized power and removed Mexico’s Congress and state legislatures. Texans of American and Mexican heritage alike felt outraged at the changes to the Mexican government.
By October of 1835, Texans of American and Mexican heritage organized a rebellion against the Mexican government – launching the Texas Revolution. Five months later, on March 2, 1836, delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence (which reflected American democratic principles and paralleled the United States Declaration of Independence) at Washington-on-the-Brazos, formally declaring the independence of the Republic of Texas from Mexico.
The signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence was an important step toward establishing a Republic of Texas independent from Mexico. However, March of 1836 proved to be a challenging month for General Samuel Houston, the Commander-in-Chief of the Texas forces. Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had three armies, totaling roughly 5,500 men, moving north to squash the revolts. Santa Anna’s armies killed and defeated Texans throughout the month at settlements such as San Antonio de Bexar, Agua Dulce, Refugio, and Victoria. The largest and most upsetting of these defeats were the massacres at the Alamo(March 6) and Goliad (March 27). The annihilation of Texans at the hands of the Mexican army both enraged and frightened Houston’s men. Some of the troops fled to assist their families before the advancing Mexican army reached them in what became known as the “Runaway Scrape,” while others continued the fight, fueled by feelings of revenge.
Houston slowly retreated to the east throughout March, realizing that his army was small and had only meager provisions. He spent the end of March and the beginning of April training recruits into a semblance of a disciplined army. By April 18, Houston began to move strategically when documents captured from a Mexican courier revealed that Santa Anna had isolated himself from most of his troops and only had about 750 men (slightly smaller than Houston’s 820 men). The intercepted documents also revealed that Santa Anna planned to move east to pursue interim Texas President David G. Burnet and other Texas government officials. These officials had avoided Santa Anna in Harrisburg (an extinct town about 11 miles west of the San Jacinto Battleground).
Houston anticipated that Santa Anna would next cross the San Jacinto River, where it joins Buffalo Bayou at Lynch’s Ferry. Feeling confident that their chance had come, Houston and his troops crossed south of the Buffalo Bayou and proceeded in the vicinity of Lynch’s Ferry. Houston established a camp in the woods slightly north of the ferry to wait for Santa Anna on the morning of April 20, 1836.
As expected, on April 20, 1836, Santa Anna took his position where the San Jacinto River joined Buffalo Bayou, setting up camp in a position slightly south and east of Houston’s forces. On the morning of April 21, Santa Anna’s forces swelled from 600 men to 1,200 men as his brother-in-law’s forces joined his troops as reinforcements by crossing the bridge over the Brazos River. Santa Anna had expected Houston to attack on the morning of the 21st, and when he did not, permitted his now numerous Mexican troops to relax, eat, and sleep.
Houston was dismayed at Santa Anna’s reinforcements and ordered the destruction of the bridge crossing the Brazos River to prevent further swelling of Mexican troops. This also prevented retreat by both the Mexican and Texan armies. By that afternoon, Houston had a battle plan. He sent out three forces – the main frontal force advanced quietly, hoping to take the Mexican army by surprise, as two other forces circled around the left and right flanks of the Mexican camp. Houston’s men got within 200-300 yards of the Mexican camp before the Mexicans detected them.
As the Texans attacked, they chanted, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” At the end of the violent battle that lasted only 18 minutes, the Mexican Army surrendered. Caught off guard by the bold broad-daylight attack, the Mexican Army hardly had time to respond. Nine Texans died, and only 30 more suffered wounds, while the Mexican losses totaled 630 killed, 208 injured, and 730 taken prisoner.
Santa Anna ordered his troops to withdraw from Texas. The Texans captured Santa Anna disguised as a Mexican private the following day. On May 14, 1836, Presidents David G. Burnet and Santa Anna signed the public and private treaties of Velasco, confirming Mexican retreat and declaring an end to the war. However, Mexico did not formally recognize Texas independence until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.
Today, visitors to San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site and Monument can take a walking tour of the battleground to see where significant events leading to Texas independence occurred. San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site includes the San Jacinto Monument, the world’s largest column memorial (taller than the Washington Monument by 12 feet). Constructed between April 21, 1936, and April 21, 1939, the Monument serves as a memorial to all of those who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto and to all others who contributed to the independence of Texas. A large star atop the Monument symbolizes the Lone Star State, while friezes along the Monument’s base depict eight significant periods in the history of the Republic of Texas. The San Jacinto Museum of History is at the base of the Monument and offers information on the San Jacinto Battle and the history of Texas and the Spanish Southwest. The museum promotes friendship between Texas, Mexico, Spain, France, and Latin America.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2022.
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Source: National Park Service