SANTANA: AN EAGLE OR A CHICKEN?
by Prof. Amos C. Miller
May 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 16, Number 9

     In February 1836, José de la Peña, a 28 years old officer from Jalisco, jined one of the battalions marching across the Rio Grande to suppress the rebellion that had erupted in Texas. He later published his diary entitled With Santa Anna in Texas, a well written and perceptive personal account of the military operations of the Mexican army during the Texas Revolution. He describes the "Fierce Norther"at night which brought misery to the advancing army "Officers, soldiers, women and boys all shivering, gathered around the fire, circumstances made equals of us all, and the soldier could crowd against the officer without fear of being reprimanded." Then he portrayed the beauty of the dawn. "What a bewitching scene! As far as one could see, all was snow. The trees, totally covered, formed an amazing variety of cones and pyramids which seemed to be made of alabaster."
     This vivid passage, however, illustrates the author's basic purpose: to indict the military leaders, especially the "ignorance, stupidity and cruelty" of the commander-in-chief, Santa Anna, since de la Peña believed the troops ought to have been conveyed to Texas by ship, not forced to make an exhausting march over harsh desert terrain exposed to winter storms and Comanche attacks. His criticisms became even sharper once the army entered San Antonio and prepared to attack the Alamo. Several of Santa Anna's generals urges him not to being the assault until heavy artillery and have been brought up to breach the walls; otherwise, the army would suffer heavy losses. But, says de la Peña, Santa Anna ordered the attack to being immediately, because he had heard that William Travis, commander of the Alamo, was ready to surrender, and Santa Anna wanted to take the fortress by storm, for "without clamor and bloodshed…there in no glory." However, there was no truth to rumors that the hot-tempered, heroic. Travis considered surrender. His 200 deadly marksmen killed or wounded one third of the 700 Mexicans bravely advancing on the Alamo in a dense, ill coordinated mass. "Why," de la Peña demanded, "Should we have been forced to leap over (climb with ladders) a fortified place as if we were flying birds?"
     After the battle, he discovered that Santa Anna had provided on field hospital with bandages and medicine for the wounded, so that many died unnecessarily one a close friend of de la Peña.
     The most dramatic incident at which the execution of seven captives, one of whom was the renowned frontiersman Davy Crookett. The Mexican General Castrillòn intervened with Santa Anna on Crockett's behalf, but the latter commanded his immediate execution with the others. De la Peña says that he "turned away horrified, in order not to witness such a barbaric scene," but that "though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining or humiliating themselves."
     Santa Anna was certainly a cruel man, but Americans defending the Alamo were citizens of a foreign nation with whom Mexico was at peace. By long tradition such individuals had no claim to protection under the laws of war. The rise of humanitarian feeling by the 19th century, however had surrendered. Some Mexican officers shared de la Pena's disgust with Santa Anna's brutality. But in Mexico, plagued by civil war, where harsher conditions of life prevailed, others saw no reason for mercy toward those whom they regarded as pirates and adventurers. Three hundred and fifty more prisoners captured at Goliad were also executed on Santa Anna's orders, an event, wrote de la Pena, "That presented us Mexicans as Hottentots, as savages who did not know how to respect any right."
     A terrible vengeance awaited Santa Anna's troops a month later on April 2, 1836, when they faced Sam Houston's army at San Jacinto, where Santa Anna, by inexcusable carelessness, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Believing victory to be certain, he decided that the outnumbered Texans would not dare to attack so late in the day. He retired to his tent for an after- noon siesta, perhaps with his beautiful mulatto mistress, some- times called the "Yellow Rose of Texas." However. He failed to maintain alert outposts facing the enemy, so Houston was able to launch a surprise attack which threw Mexican troops into panic. Many fled into a nearby swamp where they were massacred by the furious Texans shouting "Remember the Alamo!" "Remember Goliad!" while their victims entreated "Me no Alamo! Me no Goliad!" Ordinarily no coward, Santa Anna realized the hopelessness of the situation and his own imminent peril. Momentarily he lost his nerve and fled the battlefield, hoping to reach Mexican forces forty miles distant. Castril16n, however, vainly tried to rally the troops but was shot down when he surrendered. Later, Santa Anna shamelessly blamed this heroic officer for failure to keep an effective watch against surprise attack, but it was Santa Anna himself who bore primary responsibility for the defeat and for provoking the slaughter of his men, as de la Peña pointed out.
     The following morning he was captured. Instead of killing his prisoner as his men urged, Houston secured his agreement to a cease-fire and withdrawal of Mexican forces from Texas. These terms were fulfilled on Santa Anna's orders, but de la Peña, who was not present at San Jacinto, believed that such "weak and shameful concessions" ought never to have been carried out, even at the cost of Santa Anna's life.
     De la Peña died in obscurity six years later, but his diary reveals the mind of an intelligent, sensitive man. Yet it is not entirely fair to Santa Anna, for the author was an idealistic liberal who bitterly opposed Santa Anna's autocratic rule. He rightly ridiculed the dictator's claim to be the 'Napoleon of the West, but he failed to acknowledge his considerable energy, ability and courage. His weaknesses- overconfidence, carelessness, instability of judgment and nerve- were fully revealed at San Jacinto. Santa Anna adopted the eagle as the symbol of his character and achievement, but on that day per- haps the chicken would have been more appropriate.