Grass Wins the War for Texas Independence

"The major problems of the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think." Gregory Bateson, British Anthropologist

Lucky for the Texian Army on April 21, 1836, nature worked in their favor during one of the most decisive battles in American History, the battle of San Jacinto. The war for Texas Independence was launched only 6 months prior in response to a decade of political and cultural turmoil with the Mexican government, including a new aggressive policy toward Texas immigration and immigrants.

The first American settlers to coastal Texas observed a vast extensive prairie extending from western Louisiana to South Texas. “Think of seeing a tract of land on a slight incline covered with flowers and rich meadow grass for 12-20 miles,” reports John Brook an early settler.

Coastal Prairie along the Texas seashore

Those extensive tracts of meadow grasses attracted the early settlers. The rich fertile soil below was ideal for farming and the grasses exceptional for raising cattle. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the fledgling country was unable to control far-flung borders like the territory of Texas. In the beginning, American settlers were welcomed to help stabilize the region. As more Anglo immigrants arrived by the thousands, an aggressive sentiment arose changing Mexican policy and erupting into a revolution.

In October 1835, a skirmish at the town of Gonzales between mostly American settlers and Mexican soldiers ended with the soldiers retreating and the campaign for independence commenced. Over the next few months, battles were fought with small victories for the Texian volunteer army. By December 1835, Mexican President-General Antonio López de Santa Ana signed over his presidential power to lead over 6000 soldiers to defeat the rebels. Before leaving, General Santa Ana authorized by an act of Mexican Congress, the Tornel Decree, declaring any foreigners fighting against Mexican troops "will be deemed pirates and dealt with as such." Essentially, there would be no prisoners of war all would be killed. Over the next few months, Santa Ana marched his troops north defeating the Texian rebels at the bloody battles of Goliad and the Alamo. Several more brutal defeats found the Texian Army retreating east toward the U.S. border of Louisiana to the final battle of the Texas Revolution.

Reenactments soldiers: General Sam Houston in the middle with black boots and a sombrero. Photo at San Jacinto Day ceremonies April 21, 2017 by Cody Jones

"We view ourselves on the eve of battle. We are nerved for the contest, and must conquer or perish. It is vain to look for present aid: none is at hand. We must now act or abandon all hope!" -General Sam Houston, April 19, 1836 

Camped in the woods along Buffalo Bayou, the volunteers for the 930 strong Texian Army awaited their final battle. The Mexican army led by General Santa Ana camped only a mile away across the prairie awaiting reinforcements. On the morning of April 21 around 9:00 am additional Mexican soldiers arrived. Drums and cries of joy erupted from the enemy camp. Mid-morning General Sam Houston called a war council to ascertain whether the Texian army should attack or wait to be attacked in their cover of trees. The vote won in favor of waiting.

Unknown to the Texian Army was the Mexican reinforcements had marched through the night without rest or food and Santa Ana’s troops by midday were allowed to relax.

"Since I was worn out from having spent the morning on horseback and had not slept the night before, I lay down in the shade of some trees while the troops were preparing their meals." -General Santa Ana, April 21, 1836

The Texian Army was described by Benjamin Cromwell Franklin, a captain of 9 volunteers from Galveston arriving in time for battle, "Immediately on my landing,...around some twenty or thirty camp-fires stood as many groups of men, English, Scotch, French, Germans, Italian, Poles, Yankees, Mexicans all unwashed, unshaven for months, their long hair, beard and mustaches, ragged and matted, their clothes in tatters, and plastered with mud. In a word, a more savage band could have scarcely been assembled."  Photo provided by the San Jacinto Museum

A mile-long prairie of tall grass rising at the far end beyond which the Mexican Army slept lay before the Texian Army. A profound silence filled the battleground by the afternoon. The Texians gathered to attack. At 4:00 p.m. General Houston ordered, “Trail arms! Forward!” The troops silently pushed forward concealed by tall prairie grasses. They advanced undetected including two heavy cannons under cover of grass until 200 yards from the enemy camp. The left-wing regiment of Colonel Sidney Sherman crept through the woods along a marsh flanking the prairie. Col. Sherman’s troops encountered the first Mexican guards 100 yards from the enemy camp. The first shots were fired. The Mexican army was caught off guard and tried to mount a resistance. Once Sherman’s regiment entered the camp the makeshift defense wall was powerless and under 20 minutes the Mexican soldiers retreated including officers and General Santa Ana. While fleeing, the enemy again suffered from another natural feature, a ravine obscured by lush green grass and a marsh below. Here the horses, mules, and soldiers began sinking into the muddy mire and the Texas Army avenged their fallen brothers. Shouting, “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” as a reminder to take no prisoners.

A map of the battleground from the Texas Parks & Wildlife battleground brochure.

Every year there is a reenactment of the final battle of the Texas Revolution at the San Jacinto Monument, the original battleground site. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department manage the historic site. Together with volunteers from the Texas Master Naturalists active restoration of the tallgrass prairie and surrounding wetlands are bringing history back to life. The San Jacinto Monument stands 567 feet high and is open 9-6 daily. The battle reenactment starts at 3:00 p.m. on the Saturday closest to April 21st. 

Current prairie restoration efforts by TPWD & volunteers from the Texas Master Naturalists. Thank you to Boyd Harris of  TPWD for the interpretive natural tour of the battlegrounds. Immense gratitude to Dianne Powell for arranging our visits and the official invitation to the San Jacinto Day Ceremony.

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