Mexican Army Perspective
In examining the San Jacinto campaign from the Mexican army’s perspective the campaign will be defined as March, 6, 1836 to May, 9, 1836. If one examines the five turning points that have been selected as having the greatest effect on the outcome, three common themes arise—politics, power and profit. The following turning points show why the actions of the Mexican army were a great part in Houston’s ultimate success in this campaign.
For the Mexican army in Texas, participating in the Federalist-Centralist civil war, the San Jacinto campaign began at the storming of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. With the fall of the Alamo, Antonio López de Santa Anna was, essentially unopposed by any organized Texan army. His coastal division under the command of General José Cosme Urrea was yet to deal with the Texans at Goliad under Col. William Fannin but this force posed no particular threat to Santa Anna. On February 29, General Ramírez y Sesma had been sent toward Gonzales with pickets of the Jiménez Btn. and the Dolores Regiment to meet the Texans that were rumored to be marching to the relief of the Alamo. Finding no evidence of a Texan column he returned to Béjar on March 1st. This assured Santa Anna that Fannin was not marching on Béjar. Even if Fannin had managed to do so, General Santa Anna and his force of several thousand seasoned Mexican troops would have been anxious for the chance to confront him.
The first turning point in the campaign by the Mexican army is the fact that Santa Anna abandoned the military campaign at this point and decided to play politics in San Antonio until the end of March. This delay shows that Santa Anna may have been as concerned with his enemies in Mexico City as he was with those to his front.
The subsequent lull in the campaign, on the part of the Mexican forces under Santa Anna, was likely a huge blunder on the part of the Mexican Commander. By March 11, 1836, the remainder of the first infantry brigade, the second brigade and the cavalry brigade had arrived in Béjar. At that time there were 5106 soldados (5417 listed by Filisola—Memories for the History of the War in Texas pg. 149–152, less the 311 listed by Andrade as killed at wounded at the Alamo; Memories pg. 178) and 20 pieces of artillery (plus what was captured at the Alamo) available to Santa Anna.
Sam Houston, recently appointed commander of the Texan army, arrived at Gonzalez on March 11, the very day that the last of the Mexican army arrived in Béjar. At that point Houston found “upward of three hundred men in camp, without organization, who had rallied on the first impulse.” [Eighteen Minutes Stephen Moore, pg. 44] Houston’s dispatch reported that he had 374 men available.
While it is true that, on March 11, Santa Anna sent troops, under the command of Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma, to advance on San Felipe, a closer look at this force and commander is warranted. Ramírez y Sesma’s division was composed of 100 cavalrymen from the Dolores, Veracruz, and Tampico Regiments; the Aldama, Toluca, and Matamoros Battalions; two six-pounder cannons. [Memories pg.208—see original Spanish for correct translation] The strength of this force was about 894 men. (100 cavalry + 350 Matamoros + 280 Toluca + 364 Aldama—less 44 Matamoros Alamo casualties, less 94 Toluca Alamo casualties, less 62 Aldama Alamo casualties) It is interesting that Santa Anna chose to send three of the Battalions that had participated in the storming of the Alamo on March 6—three of the units that incurred the greatest number of casualties during that action. It is certainly curious why Santa Anna would send such a small force, composed of the units that had suffered the most in the storming of the Alamo.
Equally strange, was his decision to have Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma command this force. In his Manifesto to the Mexican Government, Santa Anna stated that, as he approached Béjar,
“It would have been easy enough to have surprise it [Béjar],
because those occupying it did not have the faintest news of
the march of our army. I entrusted, therefore, the operation to
one of our generals, who with a detachment of cavalry, part
of the dragoons mounted on infantry officers’ horses, should
have fallen on Béxar in the early morning of February 23,
1836. My orders were concise and definite. I was most surprised,
therefore, to find the said general a quarter of a league
from Béxar at ten o’clock of that day, awaiting new orders.”
[Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution Castañeda pg. 13]
The San Luis Btn. daily log [included with the de la Peña papers at the Center for American History at UT] clearly indicated that this bungled operation was entrusted to Ramírez y Sesma.
In his memoirs of the Texas campaign, Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña had the following to say in regard to General Ramírez y Sesma’s operation (the advance on San Felipe) that commenced on March 11.
We left General Ramírez y Sesma on the march to San Felipe
de Austin, and we shall now see how the errors he committed
were instrumental to the fatal outcome. Arousing the hatred
of influential persons is painful and harmful to me, but no
consideration should cause me to shrink from stating the
truth, however harsh, regardless of how it might affect me
personally. General Ramírez y Sesma is a timid and irresolute
commander, dilatory in his judgment and apathetic in his
movements, and since with this poor attitude he worries
about every possible difficulty, his plans are always exaggerated…
The commander in chief [Santa Anna] never took a
step that was not the wrong one; he did not even have the
good judgment to use his lieutenants according to their abilities.
General Ramírez y Sesma’s previous deeds were well
known, so he could mislead no one. The conduct observed
during the march toward Béjar, the purposelessness and the
folly he manifested within sight of this city, refusing to enter
it at the stipulated hour, spoke against him and foreshadowed
what he would do later, but General Santa Anna was determined
to do what was not to be. Sesma foolishly compared
Santa Anna with Napoleon and tactlessly styled himself as his
Murat, as he sometimes was ironically called in the army.
We have already noted that our soldiers were able to see
the flames of Gonzales. The enemy had retreated shortly
before carrying this out; his march had been slow and cumbersome,
as he took with him a great number of covered wagons,
which carried all the families of the village and their possessions.
Since General Ramírez y Sesma had under him seven
hundred infantry, two field pieces, and one hundred horses, he
could have easily dispersed the enemy, who was inferior both
in numbers and discipline. He should have pursued him
between Guadalupe and the Colorado to prevent his joining
reinforcements on the left bank of the latter stream; It was a
great mistake not to have done so. General [Adrian] Woll,
who was under General Ramírez y Sesma’s command, realized
the importance of such a maneuver and requested the use
of the choice companies and the cavalry to carry out this
scheme, but he was refused… [With Santa Anna in Texas de
la Peña pg. 79-80]
In spite of the fact that Santa Anna was so critical of Sesma’s failure to take Béjar by surprise, and preventing the Texans from occupying the Alamo, he, inexplicably, chose Sesma for this extremely important task. As Peña feared, Sesma was very hesitant to move against Houston and prevent his small force from crossing the Colorado River. By that time Sesma finally reached the Colorado, Houston was entrenched on the left bank of the river in a strong defensive position. Sesma took no action until Santa Anna and reinforcements arrived late in March. Thus the Mexican army lost a tremendous opportunity to destroy Houston’s small army before it ever became a semblance of a viable fighting force.
Looking closely at the actions of Santa Anna during this delay in the campaign, it is highly suspicious that the Commanding General was occupied with his political concerns while placing his military responsibilities on hold. It must be remembered that the Texas rebellion was only a part of the larger civil war that had been raging in Mexico for years. Santa Anna had only recently put down a similar uprising in Zacatecas and other parts of Mexico were threatening to join in the liberal Federalist cause. For this reason Santa Anna had to continually look to his rear, taking care that his base of power, the conservative Centralist government, was not at risk in his absence.
The Journal of Col. Juan Almonte, special aide to Santa Anna, has several entries that make it suspicious that matters of state were of great concern to the Commander-in-Chief / Presidente after the storming of the Alamo.
Monday, 7th [March, 1836] …. The mail arrived from
Matamoros and Mexico—dates to the 2nd and 3rd of February.
Tuesday, 8th … Letters written to Mexico under the date of 6th inst.
Monday, 14th … The correspondence from Mexico, Monterey
and Matamoros was received…
Tuesday, 15th … A courier extraordinary arrived with
accounts of the sickness of Gen’l Barragar [Barragan] and the
election of Mr. Corro as President, as interim by 27 votes. For
Bravo 18 votes, and Parres 8. This election did not please
Gen’l Santa Anna; he preferred Gen’l Bravo. It is said that
Gen’l Michilena voted for Bravo.
Thursday, March 17th.—A Courier Extraordinary was
despatched [sic] to Tolsa and Sesma, and to Matamoros; one
for Mexico will start tomorrow; by it go my letters for Mexico
and the United States; … [ Almonte Journal, SW Historical
Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII July, 1944, No. 1 pg. 23–25]
Almonte left Béjar on March 18th and Santa Anna did not catch up with them until April 4th so Almonte’s journal does not reflect any further political distractions prior to Santa Anna leaving Béjar.
Peña also documented that Santa Anna was devoting his energies to the politics of Mexico and to the internal strife within the army during the last three weeks of March.
When, on the 21st of March, general headquarters rendered
tribute to the kindly General Barragán, interim president
of the Republic, the commander in chief rebuked all his
aides and insulted even those closest to him in the presence of
all the leaders and officers who attended the ceremony. General
Castrillón was the only one who had the courage to confront
him with the indecorous treatment that he had given
them, so his Excellency appeared as having repented, admitting
that it was not within his power to control his irascible
character, which circumstances only made worse.
[ With Santa Anna in Texas pg. 93]
Peña also noted that Santa Anna was so confident of a military victory (or possibly concerned about losing his authority in Mexico City) that the Commander-in-Chief was ready to return to Mexico after the fall of the Alamo. He offered some interesting theories as to why Santa Anna changed his mind and remained in Texas to lead the campaign.
Also, if the commander in chief had returned to Mexico as
he had thought of doing, and which was taken as a foregone
conclusion after the death of the interim president and the
engagement at Perdido [ Fannin’s defeat at Coleto Creek],
very probably the campaign would have ended successfully,
because the second in command would have given ear to the
recommendations of his colleagues and would have conducted
himself wisely, if slowly; he would not have been bewildered,
as our commander in chief was, with the death blow
that we received, nor would he have incurred the grave errors
that the latter committed as a result of this;…
It must be noted that the commander in chief, with no prearranged
plan and no firm base of operations, did not believe
the campaign to be ended until he learned of the action on
March 19[Fannin’s defeat], which is proved by his orders of
the 25th that the cavalry brigade, the artillery, the munition
dump of the corps and their pickets return to San Luis Potosí,
as well as by instructions given to the generals the 23rd of
It was at least believed, and it was so stated in the army,
that the jealousy inspired by General Urrea and the reproachable
conduct of General Ramírez y Sesma forced him to alter
the decision he had made to return to Mexico and leave General
Filisola in command. He well knew how much he was
being censured because of the costly and unnecessary sacrifices
at the Alamo, and the wish to forget this blot, the fear
that General Urrea would bring the campaign to an end, since
up to now he had done almost everything, and the uneasiness
brought on by the exaggerated news about Ramírez y Sesma
are probably the causes that force him to continue the march.
[With Santa Anna in Texas pg. 94–95]
This preoccupation with the happenings in Mexico City as well as his overconfidence in his military superiority eventually would result in Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto. As to how much jealously of Urrea was a part, it is hard to say, but clearly Peña felt it to be a factor.
The second turning point selected as being particularly important in the campaign actually had three separate but similar incidences. Over the span of just over one week Santa Anna was to make three “mad dashes”, with relatively small forces, leaving the main Mexican army to his rear. In each of these three dashes he exposed himself unnecessarily to the Texans.
Having decided not to return to Mexico, Santa Anna joined the division of Ramírez y Sesma at the Atascosito Crossing of the Colorado River (a few miles south of present day Columbus) on April 5. On the 6th of April Santa Anna undertook his first “mad dash”. He left a large number of his troops crossing the Colorado and forged ahead, toward San Felipe, with the troops that had already completed the crossing. Almonte documented that Santa Anna forged ahead with only 80 cavalrymen and 200 Cazadores (light infantrymen). He would do this two more times in the San Jacinto campaign and the third time would result in a devastating defeat
Santa Anna stated that his purpose in forging ahead was to unite there with General Gaona, who had been ordered to proceed by way of Bastrop to Nacodoches. Santa Anna claimed that he felt that Gaona would be going through San Felipe, based upon a message sent by Gaona from Bastrop. The worst result of this first dash may be that Santa Anna got away with a daring movement. He may well have gained a false sense of security that he could venture when and where he wished with little or no risk.
Upon arriving in San Felipe on April 8 Santa Anna found the town burned. As his cavalry entered the town they captured an American, William Simpson. In both the account of Santa Anna and that of Simpson, it is revealed that Simpson told Santa Anna the exact strength and position of Houston’s forces. Santa Anna states that he was told that Houston was “in a woods at Gross Pass, fifteen leagues distant from our left with only eight hundred men that he had left.” [Memoirs, Filisola, pg. 220; For the Simpson account see “Recollections of Isaac L. Hill, Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association, 7 (July, 1903), 40–46]
Both these accounts prove that Santa Anna was absolutely aware of Sam Houston’s strength and position. There can be little doubt that the Mexican Commander-in-Chief could have kept hot on Houston’s trail and forced him to commit to battle or leave Texas. Surprisingly, Santa Anna chose to drop the pursuit of Houston and venture off in another direction. Claiming that the Texans (seventy men under the command of Moseley Baker) that were dug in on the opposite side of the Brazos, at San Felipe, prevented him from crossing, Santa Anna wrote that he was left there to scout for another crossing.
Santa Anna, himself, said that nothing was more fitting than to quickly cross the Brazos and pursue and defeat Houston before he could recover from the hardships of the retreat. He claimed that he decided to reconnoiter up to ten or twelve leagues (one league = 2.68 miles) along the right (west) bank of the Brazos. It is odd that Santa Anna decided to go south to look for a crossing when he knew that Houston was to the north. Santa Anna’s personal secretary, Ramon Caro noted the inconsistency in the Mexican general’s comments.
“Why reconnoiter the right bank when it was known that
the only enemy that existed was on the left? [In reality the
Texans were still on the right or west bank at Groce’s. However,
Caro’s argument is still valid in that Santa Anna headed
south when he knew Houston and the Texans had gone
north] Why not reconnoiter the left bank where the enemy
was? With forces vastly superior to those of the enemy, now
intimidated, and with fortune still smiling upon us, as His
Excellency claims, why were we not led directly to the enemy
in order to destroy it? The route along the right bank was better
suited to the future designs of His Excellency, who already
saw himself arriving in Harrisburg, proceeding on to New
Washington, thence to Nacodoches, and as far as the Sabine,
returning along the coast to Cópano, and embarking there for
Matamoros. (Orders had already been issued to General Vital
Fernández at Matamoros to dispatch the Mexican war
schooner El Bravo to El Cópano to await there orders from
His Excellency.) From there he was to go on to Tampico, continuing
by land to San Luis Potosí, where he would join the
travelers and descend upon the capital of the republic to be
received with triumphs, ovations, offers of the presidency, etc.
This was the true motive for his decision” [Mexican Side of
the Texas Revolution pg. 113]
In this statement Caro not only criticizes Santa Anna for not pursuing Houston and destroying the Texas army but also claims that his venture south was all about personal glory.
There is further evidence that Santa Anna’s claim that he was trying to find a crossing of the Brazos in order to track down Houston was not factual. There may have been a second motive for not doing so. On April 8, Santa Anna wrote a letter to Filisola that included the following statement: “Since my march for Columbia and Brazoria is scheduled for tomorrow, I will be sought in one or both places…” [Santa Anna’s Campaign Against Texas, Santos, pg. 94] This makes it obvious that he was not intending to immediately cross the Brazos but instead was planning on taking the supply rich, Brazoria and Columbia. It is certainly possible that Santa Anna was interested more in all the supplies that were to found in these two locales than chasing Houston to the north.
Peña documented that Santa Anna’s brother-in-law, Ricardo Dromundo, Quartermaster General of the Army, had taken the stores captured at San Antonio and was selling them at huge profits. It certainly is possible that Santa Anna was a partner in this scheme. This profit motive likely was to raise it head again when Santa Anna was in Harrisburg.
There is another obvious fact which demonstrates that Santa Anna was not reconnoitering the Brazos, as he claimed. The path that he took was not south along the Brazos, on the road to Old Fort. (the road that Sesma and Filisola would later take as they advanced from San Felipe to Old Fort). Santa Anna headed, instead, down the Columbia/ Brazoria road. This is obvious as he spent the night of April 9 at Gabriel Cole’s home, which is on the San Bernard River, not the Brazos. The next day he went by Madam Powell’s which was often used by travelers as the midway point on the San Felipe to Columbia road.
When considering the April 8 document and the road on which Santa Anna departed San Felipe, it seems likely that Santa Anna had no intention of chasing Houston and his ragtag army. He was headed for Brazoria and Columbia, possibly to race Urrea to the rich stores at these points, or, as Caro believed, he was seeking glory and political power.
His dash south from San Felipe was the second time in the San Jacinto campaign that Santa Anna left the larger portion of his force and sallied forth at the head of a small vanguard of men. In his force were the preferential companies of the Guerrero, Matamoros, Primero Mexico and Toluca Btns., and a portion of the Dolores Cavalry. There seems to be no definitive documentation as to when and why Santa Anna changed his mind and marched to Old Fort instead of Brazoria. Caro does offer a hint that Santa Anna did revise his plans.
It is worth while noticing that his brilliant measure [the
capture of Thompson’s Crossing at Old Fort] was not decided
upon prior to our departure from San Felipe, but that it
was the result of an unforeseen coincidence. Soon after we left
San Felipe four Americans on horseback were sighted and we
left our road to follow them, but not succeeding in overtaking
them, we returned to our former route. Colonel Treviño, who
had gone ahead of us, found a negro and his wife in one of the
houses and took them to His Excellency to whom they
declared that they had come from Thompson’s Crossing
where there were a few Americans [Wiley Martin’s company
had deployed there to prevent the Mexicans from crossing at
that point.]. His Excellency offered the mulatto 100 pesos to
return to Thompson’s to tell the Americans he had seen us but
that we had taken a different route. The mulatto fulfilled his
mission, going to Thompson’s immediately and returning at
once to serve as guide. It was thus that we captured the crossing,
but the mulatto never received the 100 pesos. [Mexican
Side of the Texas Revolution, pg. 113]
It is possible that Santa Anna was so anxious for a confrontation with the Texans that even the prospect of defeating a small band of Texans was enticing to him. Certainly his sudden change in plans was not unusual in the Texan campaign. There are multiple instances of this behavior as he continually ordered his various divisions here and there (Urrea to San Felipe then to Brazoria; Cos to Velasco then to San Jacinto; etc.)
One of the popular theories as to why Santa Anna took off in advance of his army was to chase the Texan cabinet. This does seem to be the case but not until after he had arrived at Old Fort. Santa Anna wrote that several colonists at Old Fort informed him that Houston was indeed at Groce’s and that the Texan government was at Harrisburg. Santa Anna specifically mentioned Lorenzo de Zavala and claimed that the capture of the cabinet was “certain if a few troops marched on them quickly. This news was important, and even more so the movement indicated, the success of which would disconcert completely the revolution”. [Memoirs of the History of the War in Texas, pg. 221–222] Santa Anna went on to claim that this mission was so important that he could not entrust it to anyone else.
In the orders that he wrote to Filisola when he left Old Fort, for Harrisburg, Santa Anna wrote:
Since the operations of the Army should not be paralyzed,
I have decided to depart with a section to Harrisburg where
the principle leaders of the rebellion are located and to which
the entitled General Houston is marching with the band he
has united and calls by the name of the Army of Texas.
While I am executing this and other forays to the banks of
the Trinity River, Your Excellency is to remain at this place
[Old Fort]… [ Santa Anna’s Campaign Against Texas, pg.
It is very unlikely that Santa Anna knew anything of Houston’s actions on April 13. Houston crossed the Brazos, at Groce’s on April 12 and 13 and did not leave there until the 14th.
On April 14, 1836 (the same day Houston marched for Harrisburg), Santa Anna set out with a relatively small force of approximately 800 troops. This third “mad dash” would not be the charm for Santa Anna. This time he was to face Houston’s army on Houston’s terms. To make matters worse Santa Anna had allowed Houston time to organize and train the small force into a semblance of a fighting force. He had done this by allowing Houston to escape his clutches both at Gonzales and at San Felipe. At either juncture, had he been aggressive, or pushed hard against the Texans the results likely would have been very different.
As to the motivation for this third dash to the front, it seems very likely that it was initially intended to capture Lorenzo de Zavalla and the rest of the Texas cabinet. It is odd that Santa Anna felt that this would cause such a profound disruption of the revolution.
When Santa Anna failed to capture the Texan cabinet at Harrisburg he sent Col. Almonte with a troop of cavalry to try to cut off the retreat of the cabinet at New Washington. Santa Anna’s motivation now seemed to switch from the Texan cabinet to profit. He noted in his Manifest to the Mexican Government that he received notice from Col. Almonte, who was at New Washington, that a large train of supplies had been captured at that point. Santa Anna decided that it was so important to guard these supplies that he would have to rush to Almonte’s aid. This movement placed the Mexican army in a tenuous position with only one route to exit New Washington.
The fourth turning point for the Mexican army in the San Jacinto campaign was the capture of one of their couriers. It probably had more of an impact on the decisions of Houston but obviously had a negative impact on the Mexican army. Lt. Col. Peña documented that on April 17 Capt. Miguel Bachiller brought sealed documents for Filisola, from Santa Anna. Apparently Filisola used this same messenger to forward documents from Mexico City to Santa Anna at New Washington. This incident happened on April 18, near present day Bellaire—Deaf Smith and Henry Karnes captured Bachiller and his escort and brought them back to Houston’s camp, which was opposite Harrisburg on Buffalo Bayou.
Santa Anna later criticized the fact that Filisola used Bachiller to forward special mail from Mexico as Bachiller returned to New Washington. General Santa Anna wrote in his manifest that this messenger was captured by the Texans, giving them valuable information.
The Sending of Captain Miguel Bachiller with special mail
that had arrived from that capital, dispatched to me by the
supreme government, and which was intercepted, was no less
a cause [of his defeat at San Jacinto]. As a result, the enemy
acquired positive information regarding our forces at a time
when it was retreating, wondering what it could do, astonished
by our operations and triumphs. Thus it became aware
that I was at New Washington, it learned the number that
made up the division that was operating in that region, and
the situation of the rest of our forces, all of which cleared the
confusion in which it found itself as a result of our continuous
offensive and the appearance of our victorious columns at
the points least expected. From the dispatches, it learned
everything that it desired; and, coming out from the uncertainty
that was making it retreat to the Trinity, it gained new
courage. This could not have happened without knowing that
my force was inferior to theirs. The arrival of the reinforcement
under General Cos was regarded by the enemy as a ruse,
believing it a party sent out during the night before, to return
in the morning in full view. This was told to me by the enemy
afterwards. [Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution, pg.
Ramon Caro pointed out that the capture of Bachiller could not have given the Texans too much information as the documents from Mexico City were dated and would have had no information concerning recent Mexican movements. Bachiller was “grilled” by the Texans and told them Santa Anna’s location. Caro also downplayed the fact that the position of the division was divulged. He claimed that the Texans were very aware of what the Mexican army was up to. Caro also questioned why the Texans, if the were in a state of panic, fear, and terror about the Mexican columns appearing out of nowhere, could have possibly felt the reinforcements to be a ruse. [Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution, pg. 122–123]
One thing that Caro does not address, and was likely to have been very significant information for the Texans, was the fact that Santa Anna was indeed with the vanguard division in New Washington. There was even some belief that Santa Anna had returned to Mexico as he had earlier planned.
Santa Anna’s claim that Filisola should not have sent Bachiller with sensitive documents, because of the risk of capture, is ludicrous. On April 17, Santa Anna had sent Bachiller to Filisola with orders that were likely to have been every bit as sensitive, taking an equal risk of capture and exposure of Santa Anna’s whereabouts.
The actual battle of San Jacinto has been very well documented. The glaring fact that spelled doom for the Mexican forces was Santa Anna’s continued arrogance. Like Fannin, at Coleto, he showed no respect for his enemy. Santa Anna, most likely, felt confident that the Texans would remain in the woods, along the Lynchburg road, and that the Mexican army would be forced to find a way to flush them out or attack their position. With the reinforcement of Cos having just completed a forced march, there was no hurry to start anything on the 21st.
The San Jacinto campaign did not end with the devastating defeat of the Mexican vanguard under Santa Anna. (For a detailed account of the history and archeology of the retreating Mexican army see Sea of Mud) There were still over 2500 Mexican troops in the area that were not involved in the battle. Filisola was at Old Fort, located on the Brazos River near present day Richmond, with just over 1400 men. Unfortunately for Filisola, he also had the women camp-followers of his force and those of Santa Anna’s men [approximately 1500 women]. General Urrea was at Brazoria and Columbia with over 1100 men at the time of the battle.
General Filisola got the word of the defeat of Santa Anna on April 22 but none of the survivors of the battle knew the fate of Santa Anna. He also reported that these soldiers that made it back to his camp gave very diverse estimates as to the strength of the Texans.
Not knowing the situation of Santa Anna’s division, and not liking his position at Old Fort, Filisola decided to unite immediately with General Urrea and his division. He was to later point out, at his court martial, that Santa Anna had taken all the best troops for his vanguard division; that he (Filisola) was stuck with all the women, children, sick and wounded; that he was also burdened with all the baggage of his men as well as those of Santa Anna’s troops; that his men were very poorly supplied and their clothes were rags; and that the morale of the army was decimated by the defeat of their Commander-in-Chief. He also wrote that he was concerned for the safety of any prisoners that the Texans may have taken.
Filisola and Urrea brought their divisions together at Madam Powell’s tavern, on April 24. The next day Filisola called a meeting of the senior generals meant to determine their course of action. They were still unaware as to whether Santa Anna was dead or captured. There were approximately thirteen stragglers from San Jacinto (out of over 1200) that eventually made it back to the Mexican camp. This meeting of the Mexican generals is the fourth turning point selected.
At the meeting it was decided to 1) recross the Colorado River to Goliad or Victoria; 2) obtain supplies from Mexico; 3) drill their troops as many were raw recruits that lacked the skill to fight; 4) unite all the Mexican forces in Texas (at the time there were over 4,000 scattered in Matagorda, Victoria, Goliad, Refugio, and San Antonio); 5) await for orders from the Mexican Government as to what action the army was to take in the future.
Thus the meeting assured that the Mexican army would take the conservative, defensive attitude toward the campaign. Up until this point they had generally been the aggressor and had at least kept a semblance of pressure on Houston’s Texans. Now the conservative Filisola was going to wait in a defensive position at Goliad or Victoria and let the Mexican Government decide what steps to take next.
It is very likely that this was the best decision on that day. Due to many of the factors listed above it is likely that any attempt of the Mexican army to have undertaken an immediate offensive maneuver would have been a total disaster. This is especially true when one considers the fact that the natural disaster that they were about to suffer through would have affected their offensive movement as much or more than their withdrawal.
The main Mexican army left Powell’s on the morning of April 26, 1836. As they started to cross the San Bernard River, heading toward Victoria, a torrential downpour commenced. Unfortunately for Filisola and his troops, they managed to cross the San Bernard before it became impassable. This left them trapped between the flooded West Bernard and
San Bernard Rivers. The army had to eventually turn to the northwest and cross the Colorado River at the Atascosito Crossing near what is now Alleyton. This was the same crossing the main Mexican army had used as it proceeded to the east during the advance. This “act of God” was the fifth, and likely the worst, turning point of the San Jacinto campaign for the Mexican army.
This turn to the northwest led the army into a huge quagmire that is now referred to as the Lissie Prairie. The Mexican army had to traverse the quicksand with 2500 troops, 1500 female camp-followers, 120 wagons, eight pieces of artillery and 1200 mules. Filisola wrote that the mud was so bad that the only thing that kept the mules from submerging was the cargos on their backs. He reported that the soldiers had to carry the cargoes to higher ground and then carry the mules as well. He likened the scene to a battlefield where the army had suffered a terrible defeat.
Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña documented his sufferings as well. He described the remnants of canister shot, trunks, artillery gear, baggage, etc., spread all over the prairie. He detailed that he lost his spurs and eventually his boots in the mud and had to return to Mexico barefoot.
It took the Mexican army fourteen days to extricate itself from what Filisola labeled the “Mar de Lodo”, or Sea of Mud. After the army had crossed the Colorado and headed to Victoria, on May 9, they had left their fighting spirit in the mud. There was never any real attempt, after that point, to go on the offensive or halt the retreat.
It should be noted that Filisola and his generals did not receive news of Santa Anna until April 27. On that day they received his orders to retreat. He ordered Filisola to proceed to San Antonio and Urrea to go to Victoria. Filisola and his staff felt that it would be best for the 600 Mexican prisoners if they gave the impression that they were obeying the orders of Santa Anna. However, they never changed the plans that they had made on April 25 at Powell’s. The only thing that had changed was the fact that they accidentally stumbled into the Mar de Lodo.
Extensive archeological excavations have been undertaken by this author and members of the Houston Archeological Society. The extensive number of artifacts unearthed, over a huge area of rice fields, proves the extent of the disastrous quagmire into which the Mexican army stumbled. It was a testament to their determination and sense of duty that they were finally able to traverse the Sea of Mud.
There were many turning points for the Mexican army in the San Jacinto campaign. As documented above, some of these turning points were far more significant than others. Among the most significant were:
• Santa Anna playing politics in San Antonio after the fall of the Alamo.
• The three “mad dashes” that Santa Anna made; exposing himself to unnecessary risks. The third time was not the charm but the backbreaker.
• The capture of Capt. Miguel Bachiller by the Texans
• The meeting at Madam Powell’s on April 25. At this meeting the Mexican generals decided to take a conservative approach and await orders from Mexico City rather than advancing immediately against the Texans.
• The extreme bad luck of venturing into the Mar de Lodo. After the Mexican army extracted itself from the mud they were no longer a viable fighting force.