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Texas War of Independence

Stephan Austin magnanimously expressed a conviction that "I have full confidence that all will go right," even hoping that within six months Texas would become another star on Old Glory.' As he watched Houston in office in those first weeks, he found much to approve and little to fault, but he would not be around either to see Texas annexed, nor even to witness Texas's progress half a year hence. His illness (pneumonia) only got worse, and on December 27 he lapsed into a coma, emerging in a delirium before he died to tell his friends that "the independence of Texas is recognized!"

In terms of losses and destruction, the Texian Revolution paled in comparison with the most recent wars in Europe, and even here in America, though for the Texians at least, the percentage of their losses seemed dramatic. Probably no more than thirty-seven hundred men served as volunteers or Regulars during the entire period of the revolution, and most of them enlisted for no more than a single brief thirty- or sixty-day period. Yet just the tragedies at the Alamo and Goliad accounted for almost six hundred killed. Even though the battle deaths of Texians at the other engagements like San Jacinto and the siege of Bexar were minimal, still somewhere above seven hundred Texians died, making just deaths in the army almost 20 percent of total enlistments, with another hundred or more wounded. The inordinately high proportion of dead to injured is perhaps the most eloquent testimony of all to the unusual nature of the revolutionary actions, and to the continuing emotional and psychological impact of just those two disasters to Travis and Fannin.

Mexican losses approached more customary proportions of the experience of an army in the field, at least until San Jacinto. While he never had them all together at any one time, Santa Anna overall counted somewhere over six thousand soldados among his several columns. At none of the little skirmishes at Gonzales or Goliad or Concepcion, or even in the siege of Bexar, did they absorb much loss. Indeed, in only two actions did Mexican arms suffer substantial injury. In the final assault on the Alamo, they lost two hundred killed and that many more wounded, many seriously, while at San Jacinto the Mexican dead amounted to six hundred fifty or more. In all, with those killed in the smaller actions and on patrols, Santa Anna's army may have lost as many as one thousand dead, and probably another five hundred wounded.

Thus, for both sides, casualty figures departed from the norm in nineteenth-century warfare, in which the wounded generally outnumbered the killed by two- or three-to-one or more. In this bitter little war, however, Santa Anna's vengeful policy toward "traitors" on the one hand, and an even more bitter determination for revenge on the other, ensured that after the Alamo few prisoners would be taken by either side, and the wounded were as likely to be murdered if caught. The concept of war crimes had not yet become a part of Western military ethics by the 183os, though generally people at war knew excess from the legitimate and necessary cost of war. White Americans expected massacre from native adversaries. The killing of all combatants had often been a part of Indian war ethics and was a frequent feature of the earlier contest between Indian and white for possession of the trans-Appalachian wilderness. But Europeans were expected to fight by a different standard, and the Texians at the time, and posterity since, concluded that Santa Anna stepped well over the line at the Alamo and Goliad. It is no wonder that so many Texians wanted Santa Anna put to death.

For years after 1836 many Texians dreamed of Santa Anna someday paying for his acts, though he never would. Instead, all too many of his soldados paid on the field at San Jacinto. There were far too many heartrending stories of vengeful Texians murdering helpless men trying to surrender, or wounded pleading for their lives, when they ought rightfully to have been made prisoners. Ironically, of the men with Santa Anna at San Jacinto, very few had even been present at the Alamo, and none were at Goliad. Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the actions at the Alamo and Goliad reinforced the perennial underlying racial distrust of dark-skinned peoples by the white Texians. It characterized their relations with tejanos during the war, and poisoned them in future. The seeming barbarities practiced by Santa Anna only confirmed long-held prejudices that made future relations between whites and tejanos and whites and Mexicans all the more difficult. The Alamo would be remembered, and for generations innocent Hispanics paid for the cruel lesson taught there by Santa Anna.

Both sides learned other lessons in this little war. For Mexico it simply reinforced what wise heads had known already for some time, and that was the near impossibility of ruling a province at so great a remove from the central authority, especially in an era of inadequate roads and otherwise poor communications. Unfortunately, the concomitant to that lesson, that a gentle hand was the wiser course in dealing with distant provinces, seems not to have gotten through. Zacatecas, Yucatan, Coahuila, and then Texas rose up in reaction to perceived repressive measures from the central government, even though they had tried in the main to be good citizens of the federation so long as left a reasonable degree of autonomy. But despite Santa Anna's troubles, he came back as dictator. The unhappy tradition of two generations of revolution and instability had not yet run its course, and turmoil and insecurity characterized Mexican politics for generations to come. The little affair in faraway Texas, while embarrassing, was hardly going to have any influence on something as fundamental to Mexican life and politics as that.

If the Texians learned some lessons from their narrow success, still they ignored others. For one, they resisted acknowledging the important role played by the tejanos, just as they also chose to ignore the substantial number of their white comrades who either sat out the Revolution entirely, or else for reasons of their own actively aided and supported the Mexicans. Rather, they soon began building their own myth of unanimity and exclusivity, of a revolution in which all of the people were united, and in which all of the revolutionaries were white Anglos. It was a myth that did much that was good in cementing Texians' image of themselves in the generations ahead, but also one that unfortunately supported and encouraged gradually making their tejano neighbors and onetime allies almost invisible. A decade after independence Texians narrowly missed denying tejanos the right to vote.

Nor did the Texians learn immediate lessons of the need for political unity, even though they saw their efforts to respond to the crisis repeatedly hampered by the political infighting between Houston, Austin, Henry Smith, Burnet, and others. Indeed, in the days and years ahead fellow Texians as much reviled as revered Houston. Public affairs in his new capital at Columbia, then later when the capital moved to a location named for Austin, remained chaotic throughout the ensuing nine- year life of the Republic. The flow of immigrants never ceased. "The country is filling up fast," observed a Louisiana man living on the Red River just three years after Texian independence. "The roads hereabouts are crowded with emigrants to Texas from Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia & Mississippi." When they reached their new homes out on the prairies, however, these new Texians and the old veterans of the revolt learned rather more from their revolutionary experience, though perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Revolution simply enhanced the lessons they learned all along about survival on this southwestern frontier. The wide expanses, the limited roads for communications, the hardness of some of the country, and the vagaries of the weather meant that to hold on to their new domain they needed hardened men well prepared for any contingency. Even with the Mexicans gone—for the moment—there were still the Indians on the Northern and Western fringes. Houston himself had been absent during the early stages of the Revolution concluding treaties with some of them in order to reduce the number of potential adversaries. Those peoples must be controlled or kept at a remove if the settlers of Texas were to be secure in their homes and plantations. On November 24, 1835, during the siege of Bexar, the authorities in San Felipe decreed the creation of the Texas Rangers, first as scouts for the army itself, but after independence they went on to become a growing force employed to control the Indians and, eventually, to break them down as a threat. When the war with Mexico erupted in 1846, the Rangers came into their own as a military force, a peacekeeping force, and a permanent fixture in Texan and Western lore.

The Texas campaign broke no new ground militarily. Texian authorities aspired to create a conventional military establishment very much on the model of the United States Army, even though their resources in manpower and materiel made it far more dream than reality. Meanwhile, they had little alternative but to conduct their campaigns entirely in reaction to Mexican movements after the fall of Bexar. Only at San Jacinto were they opportunistically able to seize the initiative and put the campaign on their terms for the final but crucial engagement. Their military lessons should have been of the crippling impracticability of the excessive democracy that permeated their ranks, but their actions after San Jacinto revealed that to be an admonition ignored. It was one thing for volunteers to elect their company officers, an old militia tradition in America, but for those same men to hold elections on the choice of their army commander, and on actual campaign operations, was simply foolish. Austin may have felt it necessary before Bexar in late 1835 in order not to alienate men by attempting to act by arbitrary authority, but in the summer of 1836 for the army repeatedly to reject an appointed commander, and for its officers to refuse to take orders from him, was simple anarchy. The attempt of the army to depose the president fell little short of an aborted coup. Thereafter, when Texas needed volunteers, as it would in two wars to come within the next quarter century, the volunteers still elected their company and even regimental officers, but the men in higher command usually received appointments on the basis of at least some experience and ability - or political connections - and decisions would be made in headquarters, not by the tent fire. As for the Mexican military, in the years ahead it would be just as riven with politics and revolts as the nation itself, a climate of instability in which development of military thinking was stultified amid the chaos of officers just trying to choose sides in internecine contests.

Of course, Texians and Mexicans met in hostilities again, though not in declared war between the two nations. In fact, the peace of the abortive Treaties of Velasco really inaugurated a period of overall calm interrupted by occasional but minor cross-border clashes, growing largely, among other things, out of the Texians' claim that their nation extended all the way to the Rio Grande, whereas Mexico acknowledged Texan claims just to the Nueces, and only grudgingly even to that line. In 1842, with Santa Anna again in charge in Mexico City, Mexican forces swooped across the Nueces and captured Lipantitlan and San Antonio. Eventually they withdrew, but Houston, now president of the republic, ordered a retaliatory expedition across the border commanded by Alexander Somervell. He led seven hundred men out of Bexar in November and captured Laredo the next month, and then took Guerrero. The expedition ran out of steam, and Somervell and part of the command returned to Texas. The rest decided to continue toward Mier, on the lower Rio Grande. On Christmas day they attacked the Mexican garrison and despite being outnumbered ten-to-one, continued the assault for two days before they were forced to surrender. Ordered at first to be executed, they were later sent off as prisoners, but when many escaped, only to be recaptured, Santa Anna reverted to his old harshness and ordered them shot. In the end, the men drew lots, and one in ten was executed. The rest either escaped again or remained prisoners for more than a year. In retaliation for the Mier episode, Jacob Snively led yet another incursion into Mexican territory early in 1843, penetrating through present-day Oklahoma and into Kansas, bent on preying on the Santa Fe Trail trade. In the end, he achieved nothing except a minor diplomatic incident when he ran into United States soldiers who claimed that the raid had crossed into territory claimed by the Union. It would be the last of the numerous TexianMexican clashes until 1846, when Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande and engaged United States soldiers in the opening clash of what became known in the United States as the Mexican War, and in Mexico as the War of American Intervention.

It was in the United States that the greatest effects of the successful bid for Texian independence were to be felt, far afield from the prairies and plains over which the Republic flew the new flag it adopted at the end of 1836, a single gold star on a blue field, virtually the same flag raised by the brief Republic of West Florida a quarter century before. The moment Texas became independent, it went into play in the power struggle taking place in the United States between North and South over the issue of slavery and its expansion.

Inevitably Texas one day became a part of the United States. No immediate neighbor populated so largely by Americans and governed so entirely on the American model could long remain outside the orbit of the Union, and certainly not in the era of Manifest Destiny. When the United States annexed it by treaty in 1845. In 1846 when the war with Mexico broke out, largely because Santa Anna held power again and was not about to recognize the independence he had accepted under duress ten years before, American victory resulted in the acquisition of the New Mexico Territory, along with California and most of future Utah and Nevada.

In the end that tradition of insurgency, with attendant causes, is what made it all happen in 1835 and 1836. Of course, men in Texas then answered a host of imperatives to take their rifles and muskets and stand against what they chose to perceive as tyranny. All interests are ultimately selfish, even what is called patriotism. No doubt a few really did hope to precipitate a revolt in order to gain the large land holdings promised by those fraudulent Monclova grants. No doubt, too, others agitated principally out of a desire to expand slavery, or because they resented being ruled ultimately by brown-skinned peoples whom they thought racially inferior. Some sought the quick profits of plunder from a regime they thought too disorganized and distant to defend itself, and no doubt some wanted a new and independent polity in order to achieve high station for themselves.

None of these influences brought about the Texian revolt, however. Rather they all operated on the fringes of the overwhelming causes. The term "manifest destiny" still lay a few years in the future when the "Come and Take It" gun first barked at Gonzales, yet the unstoppable dynamic behind that phenomenon was already well in train for a generation before. Americans began that century determined to head west in quest of land, opportunity, and a life less fettered by the restraints of Eastern society, including the growing power of government. They wanted to direct their own affairs in their own land, a wish coincidentally identical with that of the liberals in Mexico with whom the immigrants so long made a rocky common cause. Denying that autonomy was bad enough, but when councils in Mexico City repeatedly proved themselves incapable of providing efficient rule thanks to internal instability, revolutions, distance, and simple neglect or ineptitude, the situation in the colonies became intolerable. After a decade of experience taught them that Mexican rule meant seemingly capricious lurches from right to left and back again, when they saw the organic law either ignored or unable to maintain itself, and when their own voice in the councils that determined their affairs seemed so weak, Texians' ancestral instincts awakened.

Mexico seemed to have only the will to rule them, but not the skill or the internal stability to do so with security or efficiency. When the only future alternative in 1835 appeared quite logically to be more decades of upheaval and confusion, stunting economic policies, onerous interference in their public and even personal lives, and denial of rights whose concept of inalienability most of them brought from east of the Sabine, the choice became steadily more clear and unavoidable. They must rule themselves in their own land. Not only the practical realities before them impelled them to that course, but also the experience and tradition of a century of Anglo and Hispanic peoples alike in the New World. It was a hemisphere for revolution, and its destiny of revolt was not done yet.

William C. Davis. Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic . Free Press. 2004.
H.W. Brands. Lone Star Nation: The Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence . Doubleday. 2004.
James L. Haley. Passionate Nation: The Epic History of Texas . Free Press. 2006.

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