Dr. Teine’s Inflammatory Tonic

For the relief of acute/chronic complacency, optimism, and coherent thought.

The Alamo 1836 – Santa Anna’s Texas Campaign

Posted by drteine on March 19, 2010

Campaign Series #89 by Osprey Publishing.  This book covers the entire 1836 campaign of Santa Anna through Texas, from his initial battle at the Alamo to his defeat at San Jacinto.  There is also a nice summary history of events leading up to this campaign involving Mexican independence and the beginnings of the Texas Republic.  What is really educating about this book is how so many events affected the outcome of the war, and in the final battle which decided the fate of the Texas Republic – as the author of the book put it best – it was not that General Sam Houston won the battle so much as General Santa Anna botched it.

First let’s talk about the opposing forces.  The Mexican army was at least a standing professional army even if against other standards it may not have been good as others.  It was not well equipped and it was definitely under strength, but it did have a professional officer corps and it did have drilled soldiers.  The Texian forces were strictly volunteers – strong fighters, excellent marksmen, but completely undisciplined.  The Texians tended to have many more officers than enlisted, and maintaining order, let alone having a central strategy or command structure where things could be obeyed, was nearly impossible.  You could argue given some of the events that happened in the campaign, that while the Texians were brave and would fight ferociously, they were incompetent in the arts of war.  So we have an understrength and poorly equipped, but disciplined army, going up against a disorganized, but brave, resistance.

From the beginning, Mexican General Santa Anna did throw the Texians curve balls that they didn’t expect.  Firstly, he invaded during Winter and forced marched his forces faster than the Texians ever expected him to arrive.  Secondly, he had another General at his disposal who was more than competent, but was really the shining star of the entire campaign – General Jose Urrea.  First let’s discuss the quick invasion in Winter and then General Urrea.

Santa Anna invaded in Winter because Texas winters were in general mild in comparison to the Summers which were brutal.  However during this Winter there was a sudden cold snap with lots of snow over a few days that dealt a lot of damage to his army before it even got to San Antonio.  Still, his Army arrived in Texas much faster than the Texian govt. ever expected, especially since they did not expect Santa Anna to march in Winter.  Indeed, when information finally began to show up that Santa Anna was closing in on San Antonio, the garrison there chose to stand and fight rather than withdraw and regroup with other forces in spite of orders from the Texas govt. to withdraw.  To be fair to the Alamo garrison, at this point the Texas govt., pretty well disorganized to begin with, really had no ability to make any influence on anything that was going on.  So the defenders of the Alamo were surprised by the sudden appearance of the Mexicans and settled down into a siege mode.  The outcome of the siege is well-known, but what isn’t so well-known is that if Santa Anna had wanted, he could have just pounded the fort into rubble as he had longer range artillery than the Texians did.  So he laid siege to the place for a few days, but then went and stormed the place.  The storming of the Alamo was done at night and did not go according to plan, and while the Texians were slaughtered to a man (save a few) the Mexicans had higher casualties and the massacre at the Alamo served as a rallying cry to the Texians.  Santa Anna could have done things differently and greatly blunted this moral high event for the Texian cause, but he made a bloody (literally) mess of it.

Now onto General Urrea.  So while Santa Anna’s column was attacking the Alamo, General Urrea’s column was moving along the Texas coast and had a very different outcome.  I had never heard of General Urrea before this book, but after reading about what he did, I feel that is a shame as it was obvious he was a damn good general.  General Urrea knew the strengths of his opponent – long distance marksmanship and excellent fighting behind cover.  So General Urrea focused on setting ambushes and picking battle sites that removed the Texian strengths and played on their disorganized weakness.  He did this more than once as he went up the Texas coast – completely beating the Texians in each of 4 encounters on his approach to Galveston with minimal losses.  One wonders what would have happened if he had been around at the final battle at San Jacinto.

The entire campaign ends with the Battle of San Jacinto.  It’s pretty clear from the book that General Sam Houston was a very reluctant general and if you look at the events that led to the battle, it wasn’t so much that Houston decided to attack as his battle-hungry troops dragged him into it.  Houston arrived to the site first and set things up and Santa Anna arrived shortly afterwards, surprised to find the Texians there, but given how they had been retreating to this point, he had his own Army set up camp but did not post guards.  His army was exhausted but the stupidity of Santa Anna to not set up basic guards for his camp left him completely defenseless.  Initial engagements had the Texians attacking the Mexican position in their typical uncoordinated fashion.  The only Texian cavalry unit went out for recon, but again being hungry for battle, ended up engaging the Mexican units who were far better and outnumbered the Texians – and the cavalry began to lose.  The infantry volunteers clambered for battle to save their Cavalry comrades, and before you knew it, began to charge on the Mexican positions.  The Mexicans, who set up camp but didn’t bother to guard it, had pretty much collapsed in exhaustion due to the forced marches and now were completely overwhelmed by the charging Texians.  The battle lasted all of 18 minutes, after which the Mexican army was in complete rout and the slaughter of the Mexicans the hands of the angry Texians wanting revenge for the Alamo began.  So if Santa Anna had bothered to keep his units on guard, even if they were exhausted, he could have picked off the piecemeal attacks by the Texians at first, and then when they did charge, probably could have still beaten them since he outnumbered them.  A great “what if” moment in history.  The entire outcome of US history would have been very different if Houston and the Texians had been beaten at San Jacinto, and again, the battle was not won due to Houston’s leadership, but because Santa Anna incompetent leadership set up perfect conditions for Texian victory.

Overall a good book if one wants a more in-depth version of the events in the early history of the US which led to the birth of Texas.  It’s very obvious how differently everything could have turned out had certain things been done.

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