Calculated Victory

Sam Houston’s Campaign to Rescue the Texas Revolution


In order to better appreciate the place of Sam Houston’s cautious “San Jacinto” campaign in the larger story of the Texas Revolution, it is useful to understand the difficulties faced by General Houston in shifting the Texan war effort away from an overtly offensive posture during the winter of 1835–1836.

To be sure, the offensive actions of the Texans during the first phase of the war had served them well. The Mexican force sent out from San Antonio de Béxar to recover the now-famous Gonzales cannon was forced to return, bloodied and empty-handed, after the Texan volunteers crossed the Guadalupe in the early morning of October 2nd and enthusiastically engaged the enemy. The taunt of the rebels’ flag notwithstanding, they did not wait for the government dragoons to “Come and Take” their precious ordnance. Most of the settlers who rushed to protect the Gonzales cannon had apparently left their homes eager for a fight, and their audacity was rewarded when the Mexicans withdrew from the field.

From Gonzales the rebels continued to take the fight to the enemy as they marched toward San Antonio under the titular command of the Anglo-Texan patriarch, Stephen F. Austin. The empresario turned general found that “titular” was a much more significant word than “commander” in the Texan “Army of the People,” as most of the orders he gave over the few weeks of his generalship were either disputed or disobeyed by his headstrong soldiers and subordinates. This pattern did not end when Austin gave up his command in late November to seek aid for the rebel government in the United States. On the contrary, the tendency toward insubordination became one of the most common, and most costly, characteristics of the Texan war effort.

In the meantime, however, the offensive operations of the rebels continued to pay dividends. Even before Austin’s motley crew reached their goal and laid siege to Béxar, other Texans seized the Goliad presidio on October 10th from the token garrison that had been left to defend that place by General Martín Perfecto de Cos as he marched to San Antonio following his September landing at Cópano Bay. The Mexican post at Lipantitlan on the Nueces was also successfully attacked and dismantled. Now Cos’s only remaining line of supply and communication stretched all the way from San Antonio to the Río Grande.

Though he had been sent to Texas to prevent a rebellion, Cos did not have enough “boots on the ground” to defend both Goliad and San Antonio from an even partially aroused Texan population. Before the end of the year, thanks to key defections from his besieged army and the timely arrival in the Texan ranks of fresh volunteers from the United States, it became clear that Cos could not even hold on to San Antonio itself.

In early December, just as the Texans were about to give up their lengthy and uncomfortable siege of Béxar, a Mexican lieutenant sympathetic to the Federalist cause slipped out of town and urged the departing rebels not to move east into winter quarters without a fight. The Centralist forces under Cos, he said, were weak and the city could be taken. A Federalist-leaning cavalry unit had already mutinied and headed south. Emboldened by this news, the remaining rebel forces stormed San Antonio and after five days of fierce house-to-house combat, received Cos’s
capitulation. His subsequent withdrawal across the Río Grande meant that by mid-December no Centralist forces remained in Texas.

The introduction of the terms “Federalist” and “Centralist” into this description of the conflict reflects the political definition of the revolt adopted by Texan delegates to a “Consultation” which met in San Felipe de Austin while San Antonio was under siege. By a vote of 33 to 14, the members of the Consultation voted to declare their struggle as one in defense of the “republican principles of the Federal Constitution of Mexico, of 1824.” For most Texans, these principles were: states’ rights, limited government, unlimited immigration, low taxes, free trade, and no meaningful interference with slavery. It was under a Mexican tricolor with the year 1824 emblazoned on its central white band that the rebels, assisted by more than a hundred local tejanos, fought their way into San Antonio and defeated the representatives of President Santa Anna’s Centralist regime.

This did not mean, however, that most of the delegates at San Felipe nor most of the soldiers who stormed San Antonio actually opposed the idea of Texan independence from Mexico. But such an outright declaration was seen by cautious men such as Austin and Houston as the kind of political candor which they could not yet afford. When war came bubbling up in 1835 from the cauldron of strife between contending Mexican factions in the interior – with the Centralist President Santa Anna dismissing state legislatures and shattering Federalist militias in Zacatecas and
Coahuila – there did not exist in Texas the kind of unity or preparedness that could guarantee the success of an open war of secession against Mexico. The war had started before the most serious revolutionists were fully ready for it.

Most of the Texan revolt’s leaders believed that their immediate fortunes depended on cooperation with Mexican Federalists who might well turn against them and embrace Santa Anna if the territorial integrity of the Mexican nation were threatened. But if such cooperation could succeed even temporarily, it might keep the war out of Texas and allow immigration from the United States to continue unabated. Even before the Mexican civil war had reached Texas, Stephen F. Austin had concluded that “the violent political convulsions of Mexico” would soon shake Texas from Mexico “like a ripe peach.” All that is wanted, he confided to his cousin in August of 1835, is a “great immigration” in the coming fall and winter—“especially from the western states” with “each man [carrying] his rifle or musket.” Then, Austin predicted, “the peach will be ripe.” In the meantime, however, some calculated subterfuge was in order.

Sam Houston (who had wanted to deliver Texas to the United States from the moment he splashed across the Red River into Mexico in 1832) agreed with this assessment, and backed Austin’s cautious advice to the November Consultation to avoid an outright declaration of independence. But by the end of the year, Houston had come to fear that the logic of cooperation with Mexican Federalists was pushing Texas prematurely toward a much more dangerous offensive than any yet attempted: an expedition to Matamoros, far to the south and deep in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

Less than a week after the fall of Béxar, several members of the General Council—a body created by the Consultation to exercise authority over revolutionary Texas in an unsteady tandem with Governor Henry Smith—suggested a Matamoros expedition in a letter to General Edward Burleson, who had succeeded Stephen Austin as commander of the volunteer army of Texas. After the ignominious departure of General Cos for Laredo, many of the restless volunteers from the United States were ready for more action, and perhaps a little plunder, as well. Matamoros, the
reputedly rich Mexican port city just across the Río Grande, beckoned to them like a jewel. Others saw Matamoros as the logical place to link up with supporters of General José Antonio Mexía. This exiled Federalist leader had departed New Orleans on November 6th with a boatload of volunteers bound (as it turned out) for Tampico, the next major port down the Mexican Gulf coast from Matamoros.

In addition to a governor and council, the Consultation had created, at least on paper, a “regular” Texan army, with Sam Houston as the commanding Major General. The catch was that Houston was given no authority over the volunteers already in the field. Houston was soon to discover a second limit to his authority. So great was the prejudice against “entering into the regular service” among those who were willing to fight for Texas that at no time during the revolution did the Regular Army attract more than a hundred enlisted men, despite the government’s elaborate plans for thousands of recruits!

Houston, the “titular commander” of a virtually non-existent army, got wind of the Matamoros plans almost as soon as they were hatched. On December 17th, the day after the letter from the Council was sent to San Antonio, Houston turned to Governor Smith and asked for orders “directing the adoption of such measures as might be deemed best for the protection of the frontier and the reduction of Matamoros.” On the very same day, Houston in turn gave complete command of the Matamoros expedition to James Bowie, a man who, the Major General knew, could be very popular with the volunteers.

Houston’s written orders made it crystal clear that Bowie was to carry out such an ambitious campaign only if he could obtain “a sufficient number of men for the purpose,” and that if he deemed the expedition too risky, he should instead take up a position on the southern frontier that would, at all costs, protect the Texan port of Cópano. “You will conduct the campaign,” wrote Houston to Bowie, adding that “much is referred to your discretion.” “Great caution,” Houston warned in the final words of his orders to Bowie, “is necessary in the country of an enemy.”

But Bowie never received these orders, and the Matamoros Expedition soon fell into other hands – many other hands. Colonel Francis W. Johnson had emerged from the fight for San Antonio as the elected “Commander in Chief of the Volunteer Army of Texas.” Frank Johnson, as he was known, claimed that Edward Burleson “lost entirely the confidence of this army in consequence of his having opposed offensive measures against the enemy.” Johnson opened the letter sent from the Council to Burleson, and saw the chance to lead a much greater offensive than the storming of Béxar. He promptly ordered an expedition against Matamoros, and while his second-in-command led 530 volunteers out of San Antonio toward the southeast on December 30th, Johnson hurried to San Felipe to let the councilors know just what they had wrought.

As it turned out, the Council was dissatisfied with Johnson’s proposed list of officers for the expedition, and refused them commissions. Johnson resigned in a huff, and then on second thought told the Council the next day (January 7th) that he was going on with the expedition anyway, even if the denial of commissions to his officers “drives them to the necessity of seeking authority from some liberal [that is, Mexican Federalist] General in the interior and should Matamoros be taken deprives Texas of the benefits.” (The Matamoros customs revenues were expected to be quite lucrative.)

While Johnson had wavered, however, the Council had handed over responsibility for the Matamoros Expedition to a young Texan officer (and West Point dropout) by the name of James W. Fannin. But when Johnson changed his mind and claimed the command after all, the Council explicitly revoked neither man’s commission! For his part, Fannin headed to the coast to find recruits for the venture.

Governor Smith vetoed Fannin’s appointment, but the Council overruled him, and then impeached the governor for good measure. Smith refused to give up his office, and attempted instead to disband the Council. Neither side backed down, and soon there was no effective government in San Felipe. Yet meanwhile both Fannin and Johnson were busily preparing to carry their war beyond the boundaries of this completely dysfunctional “provisional state” of Texas.

It gets worse. When Johnson’s “second-in-command,” a charismatic Scottish physician by the name of James Grant, led the expedition’s volunteers out of Béxar, they took with them most of the supplies and provisions – even the clothing – intended for the San Antonio garrison at the Alamo. When the marchers reached the Goliad presidio, Grant seized the horses belonging to the Goliad garrison for his own troops, and further demanded that the soldiers at Goliad pull down the unauthorized flag of Texan independence that had been raised at the presidio a few weeks before.

The Scotsman, who had large landholdings south of the Río Grande, had been one of the leaders of the Federalist forces in Coahuila in 1835 before the arrival of Santa Anna’s troops forced him to flee to Texas. Grant was adamantly opposed to an independent Texas, despite the fact that calls for a complete separation from Mexico were becoming more and more frequent among both old settlers and new arrivals in Texas. Frank Johnson was also adamant in his adherence to Federalism. He even claimed that the volunteers from the United States who were arriving in San Antonio in December “all declare that if we pretend to independence they will immediately quit us, as they consider the War in that case interminable.” On January 10th, four days after his hasty “resignation,” the self-styled commander-in-chief issued a proclamation in San Felipe in the name of the “The Federal Volunteer Army of Texas” to the effect that his army marched under the flag of 1824, and had “for their object the restoration of the principles of the constitution, and the extermination of the last vestige of despotism from the Mexican soil.” Texas, said Johnson, “yet hears the groans of her oppressed Mexican friends, and their call for assistance.”

Governor Henry Smith, who had favored an outright Texan declaration of independence even at the time of the Consultation, had a very different attitude toward cooperation with Mexicans. He even opposed allowing tejanos to vote for delegates to the convention which had been called to meet on the 1st of March (1836), to take up once again the issue of independence. Many historians have cited their contrasting attitudes toward Mexicans as a key factor in the split between the Governor and the Council, and some have argued that Sam Houston shared with Smith a “racial antagonism” towards Mexicans. Others have argued that Houston opposed a Matamoros Expedition led by Johnson or Fannin simply because egocentric Major General wanted to lead the campaign across the Río Grande himself.

A closer examination of Houston’s words and deeds as he faced the twin crises of “Matamoros fever” and the breakup of the Texan provisional government will show that his motives were much more pragmatic than they were racist or egotistical. It will also show that the contours of the San Jacinto campaign of March and April were shaped in great part by the events in Texas in December and January. It may also be useful to take a look at one of the least studied and most often misunderstood phases of the Texas Revolution – especially since it has attracted the attention of some of the most interesting and challenging new scholarship in the field, including Edward L. Miller’s New Orleans and the Texas Revolution and Thomas Ricks Lindley’s Alamo Traces.

Sam Houston did not spend the winter of 1835–36 planning the San Jacinto campaign. Much of December was devoted to commissioning recruiting agents and ordering the establishment of a line of posts from Cópano Bay to San Antonio to defend the frontier and to house the recruits that Houston hoped to receive in time for a renewed conflict in the spring, which, he warned, could begin as early as February 20th to March 1st. As late as December 30th, he was advising all new recruits to head for the port of Cópano. He told Governor Smith that before he could join the troops on the frontier, however, he would have to go to east Texas “to hold an Indian talk, and arrange matters for safety in the rear of the army.” When that was done, he told the governor, he would be ready to proceed to either Cópano or Matamoros, depending on Smith’s orders. The spring could bring either offensive or defensive war for the Texans, depending on the circumstances that they might face.

However, Houston received news on January 6th that made him postpone his visit with the Cherokees. The San Antonio garrison, reported its commander J. C. Neill, had been left depleted and nearly destitute by the departure of all but a hundred men with Dr. James Grant. This “deplorable anarchy,” exclaimed Houston in response, caused an “anguish” in his soul that no language could express. He told Governor Smith that he would leave his headquarters at Washington-on-the-Brazos “within thirty hours” to try to intercept the volunteer army on its march to the south. By the time that he departed on January 8th, Houston had discovered to his mortification that the Council, without his knowledge, had in effect commissioned both Johnson and Fannin to proceed to Matamoros, and that none other than Stephen F. Austin was reputedly lending support to a plan proposed by James Grant to the troops that he led from
San Antonio—a plan “to march to the Río Grande, and unite with the Federalists . . . and form a new Confederacy of the Northern Mexican States & Texas.”

Was it racism, or egotism, that sent Sam Houston hurrying to South Texas to try to stop this movement in its tracks? It is true that he distrusted James Grant’s assurances of assistance from Federalists who were reputedly waiting for him near Matamoros. Similar promises made to (and by) José Antonio Mexía had proven illusory at Tampico in November and December. The Mexican Federalist General barely escaped from Tampico with his life, and those of his New Orleans recruits who were left behind as captives (most of whom claimed that they thought they were sailing to Texas, not Tampico) were executed by the Mexicans as pirates. By Christmas, the New Orleans papers were carrying the doomed men’s last words as they faced the firing squad.

On Christmas Day Mexía was at the mouth of the Brazos, having deep discussions with Stephen F. Austin about making Texas a part of a new north Mexican Republic that would encompass all of that country above a line drawn from Tampico due west to the Pacific! Mexía also apparently persuaded Austin that General Cos’s capitulation at Béxar had been some sort of political gesture designed to promote such a confederacy. Just before he left for New Orleans the day after Christmas—in the company of Mexía, on a ship bearing the Mexican Federalist flag—Austin was writing letters to the Texan government in opposition to Texan independence, arguing that the upcoming March Convention should declare Texas explicitly to be a separate Mexican state, and even suggesting that new volunteers coming to Texas from the United States be gathered at Goliad and then “offered to the federal party” should it need an army in north Mexico. Austin was also in conference at Velasco and Quintana, where new volunteers were landing daily, with that other potential Matamoros Expedition commander, James W. Fannin,

By end of the first week in January (just as Stephen Austin, ironically, was undergoing a radical change of mind in New Orleans and coming out forthright for Texan independence), Sam Houston was hearing Austin’s December opinions in the form of swirling rumors. “I hope you will send me an Extract of Austin’s letter about the New Confederacy,” he begged Governor Smith, “and what he says about the “Capitulations” of Bexar.” An hour after writing to Smith, Houston was on his way south.

As he approached the Texan volunteer camp between Goliad and Refugio on the 17th of January, Houston wrote to Governor Smith that he was going to attempt to dissuade the rank and file from acting on James Grant’s “hope or belief that the Mexicans will cooperate with us. I have no confidence in them,” Houston declared, “and the disaster at Tampico should teach us a lesson to be noted in our future operations.”

For years, historians believed that Houston’s distrust was not limited to the Mexicans south of the Nueces and the Río Grande. But the bitterly racist speech to the Texan troops that is recorded in The Writings of Sam Houston and The Papers of the Texas Revolution—a speech which denounces most tejanos as traitors and claims that Mexicans and “the descendants of the sturdy north” can never live together in peace—has been shown to have been written instead Herman Ehrenberg, ironically one of those volunteer soldiers whom James Grant had lured out of San Antonio with dreams of Matamoros. (Ehrenberg’s colorful memoir of the Texas Revolution, written in Germany in 1842, frequently puts his own words and ideas into the mouths of others.)

Houston, even when explaining his efforts to stop the expedition to Governor Smith, did not rely on racist reasoning, but instead called attention to the insanity of sending against “a city containing twelve thousand souls . . . a handful of men who have marched twenty-two days without . . . necessary supplies for an army.” He also accused Fannin of having promised to pay his recruits for the expedition “out of the first spoils to be taken from the enemy.” Houston declared that “in war, when spoil is the object, friends and enemies share one common destiny. This rule will govern the citizens of Matamoros in their conclusions, and render their resistance desperate.” He added that those citizens had probably already heard of James Grant’s tendency to seize the property of others.

However, Houston feared disaster not only from a failed Matamoros expedition, but also from a successful one, if that success should produce a north Mexican Confederacy. Sam Houston did not get involved in a revolution in Texas in order to create a north Mexican Confederacy. In an emotional letter to John Forbes written on January 7th, when “Events Hurry themselves upon us,” Houston said that he regarded such a union

as worse, than our present, or even our former situation. Their wars
would be our wars, and their revolutions our revolutions:
While our revenues, our lands, and our lives would be expended
to maintain their cause, and we could expect nothing in
return; but prejudice, and if we relied on them disappointment.
Let Texas now Declare her Independence, and it will cost her
less blood, and treasure to maintain it; than it would cost her
to maintain her integral interest in such a confederacy as has
been projected. Were she to unite in such a confederacy; the
preponderance, would be so decidedly against her, that she
would, have less influence if possible, than she has heretofore
enjoyed in the Congress of Coahuila and Texas.

This is not the outright racism that Herman Ehrenberg reported, but Houston undoubtedly did give a speech to the men at Refugio on January 17th urging them not to attack Matamoros. His oratory was only partially successful. Most of his listeners continued to favor an the expedition, but they agreed after listening to Houston to wait for Fannin’s arrival by sea with the additional troops and supplies that could make their campaign a success.

When Fannin finally did arrive in early February, rumors of a large Mexican invasion force heading north from Matamoros persuaded him to withdraw those men who would follow him to the Goliad presidio, where he set them to work strengthening its defenses. But Johnson and Grant would have none of these defensive measures. With a splinter group of followers, they headed south. Separated from each other and with their forces fatally split, each of these would-be commanders was quickly surprised and defeated by advancing Mexican troops under General
José Urrea. Johnson and only four of his men managed to escape from San Patricio on February 27th to bring word of their disaster to Fannin. Grant was surrounded at Agua Dulce and killed with over half of his men on the 2nd of March, the same day that the newly-elected Convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos issued the Texan Declaration of Independence that the fiery Scotsman had so opposed and that Houston had so longed for.

And what was Sam Houston doing in the meantime? That’s not easy to say, because neither Houston’s plans nor his actions during the spring of 1836 are entirely clear—nor did he want them to be.

As he rode south toward Refugio, Houston was already rethinking the defense of Texas. In the same letter of January 17th in which he told Smith that he was planning to speak to the troops in person in order to quell the “Matamoros rage,” he informed the governor that the Alamo garrison was in such deplorable condition that he was sending James Bowie with orders to destroy the fortifications of the city of San Antonio, and that with Smith’s permission, Houston would “remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Cópano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers[;] the sooner I can be authorized the better it will be for the country.”

Of course we know that Smith disagreed with this advice, and instead sent William Barret Travis to San Antonio to join Bowie in the Alamo and in immortality. But again, what of Houston?

Unable either to command the obedience of the volunteers gathering on the extreme southern border or to recruit enough men into the regular army to provide an adequate defense for the rest of Texas, Houston requested at the end of January a furlough from his duties as commander-in-chief. He went to East Texas, where he negotiated a treaty with his Cherokee friends and their allies. If Texas was to face the Mexican army on the southwest, the friendship (or at least the neutrality) of the Indians of North and East Texas was essential.

But this is undoubtedly not all that Houston was doing while he was close to the Louisiana line. Recent research by Tom Lindley has shown that even before Houston left Refugio and Goliad in January, he was sending couriers to the United States Army post at Fort Jesup. Houston would have many opportunities while he was in Nacogdoches throughout February for clandestine conferences with people who could help him to “arrange matters for safety in the rear of the army.”

James Haley and Stephen L. Hardin, who disagree about so much with regard to Sam Houston, concur that there is considerable evidence that he was prepared to lure Santa Anna, if necessary, into an East Texas trap. Andrew Jackson himself had authorized (on the excuse of the Mexicans’ use of Indian auxiliaries) the United States Army to proceed into Texas as far as Nacogdoches—a move which could snap that trap shut.

Houston returned from the Redlands to Washington-on-the-Brazos just in time for the Convention, determined to put a stop to the military anarchy he left behind him in January. Tom Lindley has criticized Houston for staying at the Convention and playing politician when he should have been rushing to relieve the Alamo. But nothing Houston did during the revolution was more important militarily than his persuading those other politicians to give him, finally, full command over all Texan forces. There is still a great debate as to whether Sam Houston rescued the Texas Revolution in March and April. If he did, it wouldn’t be the first time.

James E. Crisp, North Carolina State University