Texas Independence Day and the History of Texas
March 2 is Texas Independence Day, Time for us Texans, Texians or
Tejanos to remember why our homeland is so great. To appreciate what it
means to be a Texan, one needs a sense of the history of our great
state, and the epic struggle that turned a wilderness into the land that
we now know as Texas.
The Texas Revolution of 1836 was not
the first revolution in Texas. In 1810, Father Hidalgo issued the famous
“Grito,” or call to revolution, which swept across the Mexican
countryside, as the people rose up against the tyranny of Spain.
The Tejanos too, wanted to revolt. But they were a poor province,
with no weapons, no trained soldiers, and little hope against the
vaunted Spanish Army. Isolated as Texas had always been from the rest of
the country, it was only natural that they turned to their northern
neighbors for help.
America in 1810 was a growing, but still tenuous nation, surrounded
and isolated by monarchies world-wide. A revolution in Mexico was
greeted with jubilation. Soon, it was hoped, freedom and democracy could
spread throughout the continent. But America could offer no direct aid
to the cause – it had its own problems to worry about. Trouble was
brewing with England, and soon the two countries would be engaged in the
War of 1812. As Washington, D.C. was burned to the ground, it seemed
American independence itself was in danger of being destroyed by
But there were many individual Americans who sought to help their
Mexican neighbors. Knowing that they needed help, the Tejanos sent
representatives to Louisiana and Washington to plead their case. The
result was the Gutierrez-Magee expedition, in which 300 Americans (to be
joined by more in the coming months), entered Texas to fight on the
side of the Mexican Republicans in a multi-ethnic army fighting for
They succeeded at first, fighting several battles before entering San
Antonio in triumph. The new “Mexican State of Tejas” was proclaimed.
But dissention crept into the ranks after the local population brutally
murdered the former Spanish commander in the city. Many American
veterans went back to Louisiana. By this time, their own country was in
Those who remained marched out under Gen. José Álvarez de Toledo (a
Cuban) to meet a Spanish force that had come to expel them. On August
18, 1813, along the Medina River south of San Antonio, they stumbled
into an ambush. In the “Battle of Medina,” the destinies of five nations
– Spain, Mexico, the United States, England, and France rested on the
When the Spanish emerged triumphant, the geopolitical forces turned,
and the Mexican revolution’s successful outcome was delayed for nearly a
decade. Before the battle, it looked as it would be swept out of North
America (it had lost Florida already). But success in Texas delayed the
inevitable. Ten more years of decay would ultimately stunt the growth of
the new Mexican nation that was to be born – while America and its
people were on the rise. This would have an important impact on Texas.
Nearly 1,000 republican soldiers died in the “Battle of Medina,” the
bloodiest battle ever fought in Texas. Spanish losses were in the low
hundreds. But bad as the battle was, the aftermath was worse. Spanish
forces, under the orders of Gen. Joaquin de Arredondo, burned and
pillaged their way across Texas, hanging revolutionaries, killing any
Americans they found and torching villages. One of the Spanish officers,
Mexican-born officer Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, watched his mentor
and learned well. He did not know it, but fate would bring him back to
San Antonio 23 years later.
Following the battle, the Mexican population of Texas had plummeted.
Crushed by Spain, facing hostile Indians – many pushed out of settle
areas in Louisiana and Arkansas, the land was clearly in a state of
decay. Eight years later, realizing that continued chaos would only
cause the province of Tejas to slip from its grip forever, Spain was
looking for a solution. That’s when an American, Moses Austin, came to
them with a proposition.
Few Spanish people, or interior Mexicans, were willing to settle in
Texas. Austin and his son Stephen (who took over after his father died)
offered to settle Americans instead. What they promised were
hard-working, Christian people who would swear allegiance to Mexico and
the Catholic Church and provide a buffer between Mexico proper and the
hostile Indian tribes – in exchange for certain rights that would be
granted to them. Neither side would stick to the agreement. The Texans,
because Austin was unable to keep unwanted people out, and the Spanish
(and later Mexicans), because their leaders were not so committed to
Although Spain had held onto Mexico after 1813, the inevitable defeat
came and Mexico achieved its independence. When he saw the writing on
the wall, Santa Anna switched sides, as did most of the native-born
Spanish soldiers. Soon, Spain was expelled from the continent. A
republic was proclaimed in 1821, and an enlightened constitution very
similar to the American one was passed in 1824. The president of the
constitutional convention was Lorenzo de Zavala – a native of the
Yucatan and former deputy in the Spanish Cortes. De Zavala would soon
move to Texas.
American immigration into Texas continued under Mexico. Although
Austin had only brought in 300 families in the first wave, new
“empresarios,” as they were called soon brought in more. When a Mexican
general rode through the province in 1830, he was shocked. Anglos had
come to outnumber native-born Mexicans 10 to 1, and they were still
coming. What was more, beyond the legal immigration was extensive
Mexican alarm over changing demographics in Texas coincided with
Santa Anna’s rise to power. Elected president, he turned the office into
a dictatorship along the lines of his idol, Napoleon Bonaparte. Soon,
he had overturned the constitution of 1824 and was oppressing all of
Mexico, not just Texas.
(Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna)
By 1834, there were two types of people in Texas: those who reviled
Santa Anna, wanted a new president and the constitution restored (most
of the old 300 immigrants and the native-born Mexicans) and those who
favored independence (new immigrants and illegal immigrants). The first
group was larger, led by Austin, the nominative head of the Anglo
population in the province. The second group, led by firebrands like
William Barret Travis, bid their time.
Stephen F. Austin, still hoping for reconciliation, went to Mexico
City to present the grievances of the Texans. At first received
politely, he was later thrown in prison for expressing his view that
Texas should be an independent state within Mexico, free of Coahilla,
whose politicians in Saltillo cared little for Texans and Tejanos alike.
It was this act that radicalized the population in Texas. Still, most saw Santa Anna
as the enemy – not the Mexican state. When Austin was released months
later, he was a changed man, and now openly opposed Santa Anna. When a
Mexican garrison marched on Gonzales in October, 1835 to seize a very
small cannon that had been given to the settlers to defend against
Indians, the seeds of revolution had been sown. Underneath a flag with a
picture of the cannon, a single star and the words, “Come and Take It.”
Beneath their flag, the Texans readied for the Mexicans.
When the shooting started, one Mexican soldier was killed before they withdrew. It was a small victory in an undeclared war.
Gonzales aside, the largest city in Texas – the provincial capitol
San Antonio de Bexar – was still firmly in Mexican control. A group of
revolutionaries formed in the Anglo colonies and marched on it. Their
single piece of artillery was the small cannon from Gonzales (about
three feet long). As it was deemed useless in a real battle, they buried
it alongside a creek, where it was re-discovered over a century later.
The large force of Texans, led by Ben Milam, surrounded the city,
which was commanded by Martin Perfecto de Cos, Santa Anna’s
brother–in–law. A siege ensued, but it soon became clear that the
Mexicans had much more food and provisions than the revolutionaries.
Morale was slipping amongst the Texans and it seemed the siege would
fail. Finally, Milam stood up before his men and shouted, “Who will go
with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” A resounding cry greeted him and
the Texans attacked. After days of house-to-house fighting in which
hundreds of Mexicans died to a mere handful of Texans, the Mexicans
surrendered. As they began retreating across the Rio Grande, Texans
thought they had expelled the source of tyranny.
Santa Anna himself, however, had been busy crushing revolts across
Mexico. The revolution against the dictator was not isolated to Texas,
and was not primarily – as later Mexican propaganda attempted to assert –
racially motivated. In all, four states rose up against the Santa Anna,
and only one of them had a sizeable non-Hispanic population.
The Mexican patriots in the Yucatan, Lorenzo de Zavala’s original home,
fought for the same ideals their compatriot now fought for in distant
Texas – freedom from centralized governmental control.
Though it would later get some help from the Republic of Texas Navy,
revolt in the Yucatan would fail because of lack of arms and support
from the outside world. Santa Anna easily dispatched the outmatched
rebels in Mexico proper, then turned his eyes northward.
All throughout late 1835 and early 1836, Santa Anna began plans to
return to the site of his triumph in 1813, to remove all Anglos and
disloyal Mexicans from Texas for good. Defying conventional wisdom that
argued against military campaigns in winter, the self–styled “Napoleon
of the West” marched 2,000 soldiers through thousands of miles of barren
land, through a blizzard (which is rare for that region), toward San
Antonio. It was truly a masterpiece of military organization and
logistics. At the same time, he sent up an army under Gen. Jose de
Urrea, of equal size, which moved along the coast, terrorizing the
population and demanding loyalty oaths to Santa Anna.
Not all of the rebels were Anglo – respectable numbers of Hispanics
joined them – and neither too were all the loyalists Hispanic. The
mostly Catholic Irish of San Patricio County generally opposed the
(The Alamo, as it appeared a decade after the battle.)
The force of rebels which had captured San Antonio in 1835 had
dwindled to only about 150 men three months later. The Texians – as they
generally called themselves back then – had formed a military, led by
Sam Houston, and he began organizing defense of invasion, which no one
expected before summer. He sent Col. James Fannin to the Presidio La
Bahia in Goliad to set up a defense of the southern border of the Anglo
colonies. San Antonio, he thought, was too far away from the Anglo power
base to be successfully defended, and he ordered the city
But its leaders had other plans. Since Ben Milam had been killed in
the battle for the city, leadership fell to two men. James Bowie, an
American who had married a Mexican woman and had lived in the city for a
decade, wasn’t about to let his new hometown be taken. William Barret
Travis, a vain, glory-hungry 25-year-old lawyer from South Carolina,
thought the town should be held, and the Mexican Army stopped in South
The two men turned to the old Mission San Antonio de Valero, which
the Mexicans had used as a garrison, as their best defensive spot. The
fort, known to locals as the “Alamo,” was in disrepair, but could be a
very strong fort – with enough men to guard it’s wide walls. But Bowie
and Travis didn’t have enough men, and sent letters across Texas asking
for more. While they waited, they shored up the walls as best they
could, and brought in all the Mexican cannon they had captured.
They had scarcely begun when suddenly, a massive army, 2,000 strong,
appeared on the horizon. The Texians were shocked and caught surprised,
but quickly regrouped. Provisions were brought into the fort and a group
of about 30 volunteers from Tennessee, led by Davy Crockett, a former
Congressman, slipped inside the walls. Though the numbers are still
debated today, about 190 Texans were probably inside the Alamo, a fort
that was designed to be defended by 300. With these small numbers, there
were many gaps in the wall.
Santa Anna demanded surrender. Any who refused, he said, would be
killed. Travis, who had taken sole command after Bowie had been struck
down with illness, replied to the ultimatum with a single cannon shot. A
13-day siege ensued. Midway through it, in an impassioned plea, Travis
appealed to the rest of Texas for help.
There was no help coming, though. For none could come in time.
Although the flag flying over the Alamo bore the Mexican colors and
the year “1824” for the constitution the Texans had demanded be
reinstated, things had moved much further back in the colonies. On March
2, 1836, 59 statesmen gathered in Washington-on-the-Brazos (near
present-day Navasota) and signed a declaration of independence from
Mexico. The president of the convention was Sam Houston, who was
celebrating his birthday on that day. Soon after it was over, he left to
return to his army, which he was readying for battle. Although he had
not planned it that way, the defenders at the Alamo were buying him
time, and he didn’t waste it.
But time was running out for the Alamo defenders. The Mexicans were
now well-settled on all sides of the fort, and it was nearly impossible
to get dispatch riders through their lines. Finally, Travis pulled aside
Juan Seguin, one of the 10 or so native Tejanos who were fighting on
the side of the Texans in the fort. Knowing that only a native could
slip through the Mexican lines at night, Travis sent Seguin to send one
more plea to Houston.
As he rode through the darkness, Seguin responded to challenges from
the Mexican sentries. “Soy Mexicano,” he said. “I am a Mexican.” They
let him pass and he spurred his horse to Houston’s camp.
(Juan N. Seguin)
On March 5, James Bonham, another scout who had been sent out to find
help, returned to the Alamo, to find it surrounded. The Mexicans were
clearly planning an assault, which would overwhelm the fort. Bonham
could have turned around and gone back to Houston, but he didn’t.
Knowing that there was no possibility of survival, he went in anyway,
racing through the Mexican lines, into the fort, so that he could die
with his friends.
The attack began in the pre-dawn hours of March 6. The Mexicans
suffered terrible losses, including many of their best soldiers, who
died in the first waves. Hundreds of bodies piled up before the walls of
the Alamo. Finally, the soldiers broke through in a spot where the
collapsed wall had been replaced by a wooden palisade. Retreating Texans
forgot to spike their cannons, and the Mexicans turned them around. A
second line of defense was breached and the fort was overrun. All the
defenders were killed in the melee that followed. When it was over, the
only survivors were Susana Dickenson, wife of a defender, her child, a
black slave and one or two wives of Tejano fighters. All the bodies but
one were burned in a funeral pyre. A Mexican army soldier pulled out the
body of his own brother, who had fought among the defenders of the
Alamo, and was allowed to bury him as a Christian.
Santa Anna had suffered at least 500 dead and many more wounded.
Still, he proclaimed it “a small affair.” He then began his march
northward, spreading terror, just as his mentor, Gen. Arredondo had done
in 1813. The terrified Texas population began to flee in what became
known as the “Runaway Scrape.”
At Goliad, Fannin had received Travis’ letters, and after a long
debate, chose to abandon his fort (one of the strongest in Texas) and go
to his aid. He had only gotten a day or so away from home when he
learned of the Alamo’s fall. He turned back, still unaware that a second
army was moving up, with him in its sights.
Fannin was a West Point graduate, and his 300 men were the
best–trained Anglo soldiers in Texas. But they were caught in an open
field by the army of Gen. Urrea. In the Battle of Coleto Creek (March 19
and 20), Fannin’s troops were surrounded and threatened with
annihilation. Upon receiving Urrea’s promise of good treatment, Fannin
surrendered, and his troops were marched back to their fort, where they
now became prisoners of the Mexicans. Upon receipt of word that Urrea
had treated the Texans well, Santa Anna flew into a rage, and wrote a
letter demanding that Urrea execute all captured troops. To ensure that
the letter got to his general, the dictator sent three copies by three
Reluctantly, Urrea complied, and on Palm Sunday, marched the Texans
out of the fort under the pretext of moving them. When they got to an
empty field, the Mexican soldiers suddenly fired on the helpless men in a
massacre. Some Mexican soldiers may have intentionally shot high, and a
dozen or so of the men escaped, to carry word to the colonies about the
With the interim government having fled Washington-on-the-Brazos and
many considering the Texas cause lost, Sam Houston, now the general of
all Texas forces continued to drill and prepare his men. Santa Anna’s
armies drew nearer, and Houston made strategic retreats, knowing that
each step deeper into the colonies helped his supply problems and made
Santa Anna’s worse. Still, moral was shrinking fast, and many thought
that Houston was a coward.
Finally, after a month of moving backwards, the army came to a
crossroads. One road went north – to America. One went south – to Santa
Anna’s army. In a scene of poignant simplicity, Houston, without saying a
single word, pointed south and his army erupted in a cheer.
(Statue of Sam Houston, Hermann Park, Houston)
Among the men riding with Houston was Col. Seguin, who had escaped
the Alamo as a courier and would lead the Tejano contingent in the
ensuing fight against the Mexican dictator. To identify the “good
Mexican” from the “bad Mexicans,” Seguin’s men put pieces of cardboard
in their hats. It worked. Although Mexican losses would be heavy, none
of Seguin’s Tejanos would be killed.
Santa Anna had camped with his back to the San Jacinto River near
modern Houston. He was cocky and arrogant and dismissed Houston’s army.
His forces still outnumbered the Texans nearly two to one. His pickets
were not even put at their highest state of readiness. He had seen what
the well–drilled Mexican Army could do to revolutionaries in the Yucatan
and other places, and was not afraid. But he hadn’t appreciated just
what he lost at the Alamo. Many of his best troops were gone, and half
of the rest were conscripted Indians.
On April 21, 1836, Houston attacked. His scouts had destroyed the
bridges Santa Anna needed for escape, and as the Texas forces quickly
swept into the surprised Mexican camp, the Mexican Army broke and ran.
As the revolutionaries had done in 1813, the Mexicans lost all
organization and degenerated into a fleeing mob. The slaughter was
terrific. Over 600 Mexicans died.
Santa Anna himself was captured a day later, hiding in the uniform of
a private. But when he was brought back to his captured men, one of
them shouted “El Presidente!” and he was exposed. When he was brought to
Houston, who was recovering under a tree from a leg wound, Santa Anna
was given a simple offer. His life for Texas. Santa Anna bowed his head
and agreed. Texas was a free nation at last.
A few weeks later, a solemn
group of citizens gathered around a pile of ashes in San Antonio. Before
them was the funeral pyre of the heroes of the Alamo. Only two were
missing: Gregorio Esparza, whose brother, a Mexican soldier, had been
given his body for burial, and Juan Segiun. Seguin, who was among the
most fiercely patriotic Tejanos, had been amongst the Alamo defenders,
and seemed fated to die with the rest. But it was not to be. Seguin was
chosen to send a vital message to the outside world, and bidding a
heart-felt goodbye to his friends, he rode out of the walls of the
And now, here he was again.
Presiding over the gathering of mourners, Seguin spoke a eulogy in both
English and Spanish. Finishing his touching speech, Juan Seguin bade his
friends farewell for a second time. As the sarcophagus was taken to the
San Fernando church - where it remains to this day - the final remains
of the mortal men of the Alamo were laid to rest. As men, their days
were gone forever. As heroes, they would live on, never to be forgotten.
Seguin’s eulogy itself is lost,
but the message he had carried from the Alamo on that fateful day is
etched forever in the minds of those who love freedom:
To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World
Fellow citizens & compatriots
I am besieged, by a thousand or
more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual
bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The
enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison
are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the
demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the
walls. I shall never surrender or retreat.
Then, I call on you in the name
of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American
character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving
reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four
thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am
determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a
soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his
VICTORY OR DEATH.
William Barret Travis,
Lt. Col. comdt.
Fellow Texans, on this day, we
should pause and remember the sacrifices of these heroes, who gave us
the freedoms we have today. The heroes of 1836 fought and died to defeat
tyranny and to protect democracy and the rule of law. They were
emulating their own heroes of 60 years before, and in our daily lives,
we should emulate them as well. For theirs was a great, noble and
righteous struggle. For those who live in their shadow, the sacrifices
of 1776, 1836, and yes, 2008, make every day our Independence Day.
God Bless Texas!