Ten Facts About the Independence of Texas

How did Texas Break Free from Mexico?

The story of Texas’ independence from Mexico is a great one: it has determination, passion and sacrifice. Still, some parts of it have been lost or exaggerated over the years: that’s what happens when Hollywood makes John Wayne movies out of historical deeds. What really happened during Texas’ struggle for independence from Mexico? Here are some facts to set things straight.

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. 1853 Photo

In 1835 Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna invaded the rebellious province with a massive army of some 6,000 men, only to be defeated by the Texans. The Texan victory was due more to unbelievable luck than anything else. The Mexicans had crushed the Texans at the Alamo and then again at Goliad and were steamrolling across the state when Santa Anna foolishly split his army into three smaller ones. Sam Houston was then able to defeat and capture Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto just when victory was almost assured for Mexico. Had Santa Anna not split his army, been surprised at San Jacinto, been captured alive and ordered his other generals to leave Texas, the Mexicans almost surely would have put down the rebellion.

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One of the most legendary battles in history, the Battle of the Alamo has always fired the public imagination. Countless songs, books movies and poems are dedicated to the 200 brave men who died on April 6, 1836 defending the Alamo. The only problem? They weren't supposed to be there. In early 1836, General Sam Houston gave clear orders to Jim Bowie: report to the Alamo, destroy it, round up the Texans there and fall back into eastern Texas. Bowie, when he saw the Alamo, decided to disobey orders and defend it instead. The rest is history.

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Austin.jpg
Stephen F. Austin. Artist Unknown

It's surprising that the Texan rebels got their act together enough to organize a picnic, let alone a revolution. For a long time, the leadership was split between those who felt they should work to address their grievances with Mexico (like Stephen F. Austin) and those who felt that only secession and independence would guarantee their rights (like William Travis). Once the fighting broke out, the Texans could not afford much of a standing army, so most of the soldiers were volunteers who could come and go and fight or not fight according to their whims. Making a fighting force out of men who drifted in and out of units (and who had little respect for authority figures) was nearly impossible: trying to do so nearly drove Sam Houston mad.

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The Texans fought because they loved freedom and hated tyranny, right? Not exactly. Some of them surely did fight for freedom, but one of the biggest differences the settlers had with Mexico was over the question of slavery. Slavery was illegal in Mexico and Mexicans disliked it. Most of the settlers came from southern states and they brought their slaves with them. For a while, the settlers pretended to free their slaves and pay them, and the Mexicans pretended not to notice. Eventually Mexico decided to crack down on slavery, causing great resentment among the settlers and hastening the inevitable conflict.

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William B. Travis
William B. Travis. Artist Unknown
Tensions were high in mid-1835 between the Texan settlers and the Mexican government. Previously, the Mexicans had left a small cannon in the town of Gonzales for the purpose of warding off Indian attacks. Sensing that hostilities were imminent, the Mexicans decided to take the cannon out of the hands of the settlers and sent a force of 100 horsemen under Lieutenant Francisco de Castañeda to retrieve it. When Castañeda reached Gonzales, he found the city in open defiance, daring him to “come and take it.” After a small skirmish, Castañeda retreated: he had no orders concerning how to deal with open rebellion. The Battle of Gonzales, as it came to be known, was the spark that ignited the Texas war of Independence.

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James Fannin
James Fannin. Artist Unknown
Such was the state of the Texas army that James Fannin, a West Point dropout with questionable military judgment, was made an officer and promoted to Colonel. During the siege of the Alamo, Fannin and about 400 men were about 90 miles away in Goliad. Alamo commander William Travis sent repeated messengers to Fannin, begging him to come, but Fannin stayed put. The reason he gave was logistics – he couldn’t move his men in time – but in reality he probably thought that his 400 men would make no difference against the 6,000 man Mexican army. After the Alamo, the Mexicans marched on Goliad and Fannin moved out…but not fast enough. After a short battle, Fannin and his men were captured. On March 27, 1836, Fannin and about 350 other rebels were taken out and shot at what became known as the Goliad Massacre.

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Mexicans Fought Alongside the Texans

Juan Seguin
Juan Seguin. Artist Unknown

The Texas Revolution was primarily instigated and fought by American settlers who immigrated to Texas in the 1820’s and 1830’s. Although Texas was one of Mexico’s most sparsely populated states, there were still people living there, particularly in the city of San Antonio. These Mexicans, known as Tejanos, naturally became embroiled in the revolution and many of them joined the rebels. Mexico had long neglected Texas, and some of the locals felt they would be better off as an independent nation or part of the USA. Three Tejanos signed Texas’ declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836 and Tejano soldiers fought bravely at the Alamo and elsewhere.

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Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Public Domain Image
In April of 1836, Mexican General Santa Anna was chasing Sam Houston into eastern Texas. On April 19 Houston found a spot he liked and set up camp: Santa Anna arrived shortly thereafter and set up camp nearby. The armies skirmished on the 20th, but the 21st was mostly quiet…until Houston launched an all-out assault at the unlikely time of 3:30 in the afternoon. The Mexicans were taken completely by surprise: many of them were napping. The best Mexican officers died in the first wave and after 20 minutes all resistance had crumbled. Fleeing Mexican soldiers found themselves pinned up against a river and the Texans, enraged after the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad, gave no quarter. The final tally: 630 Mexicans dead and 730 captured, including Santa Anna. Only nine Texans died.

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The Battle of Palo Alto
The Battle of Palo Alto. Artist Unknown
Texas achieved independence in 1836 after General Santa Anna signed papers recognizing it while in captivity after the Battle of San Jacinto. For nine years, Texas remained an independent nation, fighting off the occasional half-hearted invasion by Mexico intending to reclaim it. Meanwhile, Mexico did not recognize Texas and repeatedly stated that if Texas joined the USA, it would be an act of war. In 1845 Texas began the process of joining the USA and all of Mexico was furious. When the US and Mexico both sent troops to the border region in 1846, a conflict became inevitable: the result was the Mexican-American War.

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Houston.jpg
Sam Houston.

In 1828, Sam Houston was a rising political star. Thirty-five years old, tall and handsome, Houston was a war hero who had fought with distinction in the War of 1812. A protégé of popular president Andrew Jackson, Houston had already served in Congress and as Governor of Tennessee: many thought he was on the fast track to be President of the USA. Then in 1829 it all came crashing down. A failed marriage led to full-blown alcoholism and despair. Houston went to Texas where he was eventually promoted to commander of all Texan forces. Against all odds, he triumphed over Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. He later served as President of Texas and after Texas was admitted to the USA he served as senator and governor. In his later years, Houston became a great statesman: his final act as governor in 1861 was to step down in protest of Texas' joining the Confederate States of America: he believed that the south would lose the Civil War and that Texas would suffer for it.