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Texas War of Independence

Texas War of Independence (1836).The origins of the Texas War for Independence were directly linked to the growth of the province following Mexico's own national independence in 1821. Mexican liberals bent on economic progress opened the borders to immigrants and provided them generous land grants and considerable local authority. The population grew tenfold by 1835 and the central government soon became concerned over the Anglo‐American majority in the province. Disputes arose over Mexico City's efforts to govern Texas more firmly and prohibit the importation of more slaves. In 1835, President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna centralized the government, abolishing the 1824 constitution and snuffing out provincial rebellions. Many Anglo and Mexican residents of Texas pro tested. Resistance to the central government in turn created in Mexico a determination to rule Texas firmly and to reduce the malcontents to obedience by force.

Mexico City dispatched troops to Texas in the late summer of 1835, and fighting broke out that October. The campaign focused on the town of San Antonio de Béxar, which contained Mexico's major military garrisons and political offices. Hastily assembled Texas forces were organized loosely under colonizer Stephen F. Austin, who had difficulty disciplining the democratic‐minded volunteers. Hostilities interrupted efforts to establish a stable provisional government and accentuated problems of supply and strategy. A “Consultation” held in November endorsed a compromise view of the purpose of the war (maintaining Texas rights under the 1824 constitution, including the right to import slaves) and created an unworkable interim political structure. The rebel Texan forces at Béxar, including a unit organized in the United States as the New Orleans Greys, conducted a loose siege spiced by a couple of skirmishes, and continued debates, until 5 December, when commander Edward Burleson ordered an assault. Five days of house‐to‐house warfare ended with capitulation by the Mexican commandant, Martin Perfecto de Cos.

Most of the Texas residents returned home in the knowledge that volunteers were streaming in from the United States. A handful remained at Béxar, but most concentrated around Goliad near the coast. Sam Houston, a dynamic former governor of Tennessee who had moved to Texas in 1833, was appointed commander of the Texan revolutionary army and gave defensive orders.

Into this setting in February 1836, Santa Anna led an army of 5,000 regulars and conscripts to Texas on a march through cold, wet, and wind. This force had superiority in officer training, discipline in the ranks, and professional cavalry, as well as numbers, although the conscripted peasants were ill‐prepared. The rebel army suffered from smaller numbers, disjointed command, and a defensive line stretching 200 miles, from Béxar to the coast. The Texans always fought better where terrain gave the advantage to accurate rifled weapons and minimized close order drill, horse, and artillery. Such conditions did not prevail when 550 men under Mexican Gen. José de Urrea arrived from Matamoros and slashed up details of the Texas volunteers in engagements at the towns of San Patricio and Refugio, and at Agua Dulce creek in late February and March 1836.

These men, under command disputed between James Bowie and William Barrett Travis, concentrated in a walled mission in Béxar called the Alamo on 23 February 1836, when the advance units of Santa Anna's main army were first sighted. Both sides probably made significant errors. Travis ignored the consensus that the town was a death trap and relied on reinforcements from the ranks of unorganized settlers and the addled Fannin. Santa Anna yielded to his desire to avenge the Mexicans' December defeat and decided not to bypass Béxar. Further, he set aside the likelihood that siege guns and time would reduce the fortress. For twelve days the opponents squared off, pilloried surrender demands, and exchanged a few shots.

During the early morning assault of 6 March, both sides displayed remarkable courage, one in bitter defense against overwhelming odds and the other in open assault against fortified sharpshooters and about twenty artillery pieces. All 187 of the defenders died, including David Crockett and a few others who were executed after being captured at the end of the battle. Mexican losses totaled around 600 killed and wounded out of 3,000 troops.

On the political front, four days before the Alamo fell, a Texan convention 300 miles away adopted a Declaration of Independence and worked on a constitution. At Goliad, Col. James W. Fannin dispersed his men in vain efforts to save elements of his army, this time engaged at Refugio, 12–14 March. Not until 19 March did Fannin begin an ill‐planned retreat, only to be caught by Urrea's cavalry on open ground short of Coleto Creek. After an afternoon of bloody fighting, he agreed to surrender on the morning of 20 March. On 27 March, the prisoners were executed; more than 340 Texans were killed in the Goliad massacre.

Houston took command of the new volunteers who assembled for renewed fighting. He confirmed the fate of the Alamo and began an unpopular retreat eastward, moving ever deeper into the Anglo population centers rather than making a stand on the Brazos or Colorado Rivers. Santa Anna divided his army into four and set off not after Houston's army but the leaders of the interim Texas government, barely missing them at Harrisburg as they left for Galveston Island. This advance placed Santa Anna and 700 of his men further east than the rest of his army, except for a reinforcement of 350 on 20 April. Houston at last turned from the road leading to the United States to one approaching the Mexican Army, thoughtlessly placed with the San Jacinto River and marshlands barring retreat.

The 800 or so members of the vengeful Texas Army attacked in a long, thin line on the late afternoon of 21 April. The Battle of San Jacinto took fewer than twenty minutes, but was followed by several hours of close order clubbing, knifing, and shooting. Santa Anna was captured and wrote out orders for his second in command to take the rest of his army out of Texas. He also signed a treaty pledging recognition of Texas, an act repudiated by the Mexican Congress.

The victory at San Jacinto gave the new republic a semblance of security and an opportunity to build a nation, though most of its citizens favored annexation. Sam Houston became president of the Republic of Texas in October 1836. Eight years later, annexation of Texas by the United States led to the Mexican War.
[See also Alamo, Battle of the.]

Paul D. Lack

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