SANTANA: AN EAGLE OR A CHICKEN?
by Prof. Amos C.
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
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
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.
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