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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Little Mistakes, Big Consequences

Have you ever noticed how sometimes decisions that appear to be insignificant can bring about a drastic change in life, or in the history of a country?

What brought that observation to mind was the fact that 176 years ago on this past April 21, 1836, Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna and his army at San Jacinto, removing the last obstacle to the Independence of Texas.

The battle could have gone the other way, except for a few almost insignificant decisions made by General Santa Anna that normally might not create insurmountable problems. Sort of like ‘the final straw’.

He learned the hard way that regardless who is fighting; the location of the engagement; the strategy, or the strength of the forces; ‘there is’ to quote Walter Lord, ‘a time when any general needs more than a plan and intuition—he needs a touch of luck.’ Or bad luck.

Luck was with Houston in 1836.

Over the years delving through stories and articles regarding the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto, I’ve questioned many of the decisions of both Texian and the Mexican armies.

History seems to suggest that after the fall of the Alamo, Houston did nothing but retreat until he stumbled on to Santa Anna at San Jacinto.

The truth is much different.

The unrest among the Texian settlers began in the autumn of 1835. By January, many of them had already fled to the protection of the United States.

Some did, however, remain, hopeful the ragtag Texian army could protect them.

After the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Houston left New Washington to take charge of the troops and go to Travis’ aid. In Gonzales on March 12, he learned of the fall of the Alamo six days earlier.

When the remainder of the settlers heard the news, they fled east.

Houston and his small army remained at the rear in an effort to delay Santa Anna and buy precious time for the retreating settlers.

Houston pulled up at the Colorado, planning on making a stand and waiting for Fannin to join him as ordered.

Fannin did not follow Houston’s orders. Instead of moving out immediately to join Houston, Fannin opted to wait until two of his companies returned. That decision gave the Mexican army time to intercept him. He surrendered his men and arms for the guarantee of their safety and ultimate release.

On Palm Sunday, he and his men were executed.

The four hundred men Houston counted on were not coming. The next day, he moved his army east once again, despite his army’s complaining. They wanted to fight, not retreat.

For two weeks they camped on the Brazos until a mysterious messenger came to Houston that Santa Anna was to his south, heading his way. Houston moved out.

At this point, Santa Anna began making a series of mistakes that sealed his defeat. Hearing that President Burnet and his staff had moved to Harrisburg, he split his force, and with 700 men so he could move faster, headed south on a forced march.

He pushed his men hard until 9:00 p.m., picked a camp without water, pulled out early next morning, and hurried on. Anxious to reach Harrisburg, he took only a few men and raced ahead, riding into the village at midnight, but Burnet had moved his cabinet to Galveston.

Then word came that Houston was heading for the Trinity River to the east. Santa Anna saw another chance to end the revolution in one stroke--ambush Houston at Lynch’s Ferry.

At the head of his 700 men, he raced to Lynch’s Ferry, in his enthusiasm ignoring the sluggish waters of Buffalo Bayou on the left; San Jacinto estuary at the rear; and the marshes of Galveston Bay on the right. He left himself no room to maneuver, a schoolboy mistake made by the one who levied upon himself the ostentatious title, ‘The Napoleon of the West.’ His 700 soldiers were exhausted, but he had arrived ahead of Houston.

On the 18th, Houston reached White Oak Bayou. The Mexican army had just crossed Vince’s Bridge spanning the bayou. Next morning, Houston crossed the bridge. The next day, Sidney Sherman gave the Mexican army a quick jab with a small skirmish.

Early the next day, April 21, Houston gathered his officers. He allowed each to state his assessment of their situation.

That same morning. General Cos arrived with four hundred men, bringing the Mexican force to 1100 against Houston’s reported 783.

Houston knew another three thousand or so Mexican forces were coming. He ordered Vince’s Bridge destroyed, cutting off Mexican reinforcements and Mexican retreat as well as Texian retreat. It was fight or die.

At four-thirty that afternoon, Houston gave the charge. Eighteen minutes later it was over. They captured the Mexican general the next day.

But, what would have happened if Fannin had obeyed orders and joined Houston at the Colorado? What if Houston had not received that mysterious messenger on the Brazos? What if Santa Anna had not pursued Burnet? What if he had not split his troops? What possessed him to camp where he did, a spot not even a shavetail lieutenant would have selected?

Was Luck indeed riding on the Texian’s shirttail?

Or was Santa Anna’s arrogance his own worst enemy?

Maybe a combination of both.

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