The Battle of San Jacinto

The Defining Battle of the Texas Revolution

Artists rendering of the Battle of San Jacinto
Painting (1895) by Henry Arthur McArdle

The Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, ​was the defining battle of the Texas Revolution. Mexican General Santa Anna had unwisely divided his force to mop up those Texans still in rebellion after the Battle of the Alamo and the Goliad Massacre. General Sam Houston, sensing Santa Anna's mistake, engaged him on the shores of the San Jacinto River. The battle was a rout, as hundreds of Mexican soldiers were killed or captured. Santa Anna himself was captured and forced to sign a treaty, effectively ending the war.

Rebellion in Texas

Tensions had long been simmering between rebellious Texans and Mexico. Settlers from the USA had been coming to Texas (then a part of Mexico) for years, with the support of the Mexican government, but a number of factors made them unhappy and open war broke out at the Battle of Gonzales on October 2, 1835. Mexican President/General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna marched north with a massive army to put down the rebellion. He defeated the Texans at the legendary Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. This was followed by the Goliad Massacre, in which some 350 rebellious Texan prisoners were executed.

Santa Anna vs. Sam Houston

After the Alamo and Goliad, panicked Texans fled east, fearing for their lives. Santa Anna believed that the Texans were beaten even though General Sam Houston still had an army of almost 900 in the field and more recruits came every day. Santa Anna chased the fleeing Texans, alienating many with his policies of driving off Anglo settlers and destroying their homesteads. Meanwhile, Houston kept one step ahead of Santa Anna. His critics called him a coward, but Houston felt he would only get one shot at defeating the much-larger Mexican army and preferred to pick the time and place for battle.

Prelude to Battle

In April of 1836, Santa Anna learned that Houston was moving east. He divided his army in three: one part went on a failed attempt to capture the provisional government, another remained to protect his supply lines, and the third, which he commanded himself, went after Houston and his army. When Houston learned what Santa Anna had done, he knew the time was right and turned to meet the Mexicans. Santa Anna set up camp on April 19, 1836, in a marshy area bordered by the San Jacinto River, Buffalo Bayou and a lake. Houston set up camp nearby.

Sherman’s Charge

On the afternoon of April 20, as the two armies continued to skirmish and size each other up, Sidney Sherman demanded that Houston send a cavalry charge to attack the Mexicans: Houston thought this foolish. Sherman rounded up about 60 horsemen and charged anyway. The Mexicans did not flinch and before long, the horsemen were trapped, forcing the rest of the Texan army to briefly attack to allow them to escape. This was typical of Houston’s command. As most of the men were volunteers, they did not have to take orders from anyone if they didn’t want to and often did things on their own.

The Battle of San Jacinto

On the following day, April 21, Santa Anna received some 500 reinforcements under the command of General Martín Perfecto de Cos. When Houston didn’t attack at first light, Santa Anna assumed he would not attack that day and the Mexicans rested. The troops under Cos were particularly tired. The Texans wanted to fight and several junior officers tried to convince Houston to attack. Houston held a good defensive position and wanted to let Santa Anna attack first, but in the end, he was convinced of the wisdom of an attack. At about 3:30, the Texans began silently marching forward, trying to get as close as possible before opening fire.

Total Defeat

As soon as the Mexicans realized an attack was coming, Houston ordered the cannons to fire (he had two of them, called the “twin sisters”) and the cavalry and infantry to charge. The Mexicans were taken completely unawares. Many were asleep and almost none were in defensive position. The angry Texans swarmed into the enemy camp, shouting “Remember Goliad!” and “Remember the Alamo!” After about 20 minutes, all organized resistance failed. Panicked Mexicans tried to flee only to find themselves trapped by the river or bayou. Many of Santa Anna’s best officers fell early and loss of leadership made the rout even worse.

The Final Toll

The Texans, still enraged over the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad, showed little pity for the Mexicans. Many Mexicans tried to surrender, saying “me no La Bahía (Goliad), me no Alamo,” but it was no use. The worst part of the slaughter was at the edges of the Bayou, where fleeing Mexicans found themselves cornered. The final toll for the Texans: nine dead and 30 wounded, including Sam Houston, who had been shot in the ankle. For the Mexicans: about 630 dead, 200 wounded and 730 captured, including Santa Anna himself, who was captured the next day as he tried to flee in civilian clothes.

Legacy of the Battle of San Jacinto

After the battle, many of the victorious Texans clamored for the execution of General Santa Anna. Houston wisely refrained. He correctly surmised that Santa Anna was worth much more alive than dead. There were still three large Mexican armies in Texas, under Generals Filisola, Urrea and Gaona: any one of them was large enough to potentially defeat Houston and his men. Houston and his officers spoke with Santa Anna for hours before deciding on a course of action. Santa Anna dictated orders to his generals: they were to leave Texas at once. He also signed documents recognizing the independence of Texas and ending the war.

Somewhat amazingly, Santa Anna's generals did as they were told and retreated out of Texas with their armies. Santa Anna somehow evaded execution and eventually made his way back to Mexico, where he would later resume the Presidency, go back on his word, and try more than once to re-take Texas. But every effort was doomed to failure. Texas was gone, soon to be followed by California, New Mexico, and much more Mexican territory.

History lends events such as the independence of Texas a certain feeling of inevitability as if it was always the destiny of Texas to become first independent and then a state in the USA. The reality was different. The Texans had just suffered two huge losses at the Alamo and Goliad and were on the run. Had Santa Anna not split his forces, Houston's army may well have been beaten by the Mexicans' superior numbers. In addition, Santa Anna's generals had the strength to defeat the Texans: had Santa Anna been executed, they likely would have kept fighting. In either case, history would be much different today.

As it was, the Mexicans' crushing defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto proved decisive for Texas. The Mexican army retreated, effectively ending the only realistic chance they ever had of re-taking Texas. Mexico would futilely try for years to reclaim Texas, only finally relinquishing any claim to it after the Mexican-American War.

San Jacinto was Houston's finest hour. The glorious victory silenced his critics and gave him the invincible air of a war hero, which served him in good stead during his subsequent political career. His decisions were consistently proven wise. His reluctance to attack Santa Anna's unified force and his refusal to let the captured dictator be executed are two good examples.

For the Mexicans, San Jacinto was the start of a long national nightmare that would end with the loss of not only Texas but also California, New Mexico, and much more. It was a humiliating defeat and for years. Mexican politicians made great plans to get Texas back, but deep down they knew it was gone. Santa Anna was disgraced but would make yet another comeback in Mexican politics during the Pastry War against France in 1838-1839.

Today, there is a monument at the San Jacinto battlefield, not far from the city of Houston.

Resources and Further Reading

Brands, H.W. Lone Star Nation: the Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Battle of San Jacinto." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). The Battle of San Jacinto. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Battle of San Jacinto." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).