Samuel (Sam) Houston
Sam Houston led a small army of volunteers who defeated a larger professional Mexican army commanded by Santa Anna, gaining independence for the Republic of Texas in 1836. Although little known, the Texans’ victory at San Jacinto ranks as one of the most decisive victories in the history of warfare. Houston dedicated most of his career both before and after the battle to politics, but his brief time in military command significantly influenced the shape and future of Texas as well as the United States.
Born on March 2, 1793, near Lexington, Virginia, to a career military officer who had fought in the American Revolution, Houston moved with his mother to the Tennessee frontier when his father died in 1807. Houston received a limited education and seemed more comfortable visiting nearby Cherokee Indian villages than in studying in the classroom. When he was sixteen, his brother secured him a position in a local general store. Houston cared no more for being a clerk than he had for being a student, and instead of reporting to the store, he moved in with his Indian friends.
Houston remained with the Cherokees for three years, learning their language and customs before enlisting as a private in Andrew Jackson’s army in early 1813. He advanced in rank to junior officer, and on March 28, 1814, participated in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama against the Creek Indians, who were allied with the British. Houston performed bravely and received several wounds in the action.
Following the war, he remained in the army and served as a military liaison to his Cherokee friends, assisting in their transfer to Oklahoma Territory. In 1818, Houston advanced in rank to first lieutenant, but after being rebuked by his superiors for wearing native clothing and getting too close to the Indians, he resigned.
Houston returned to Tennessee, where he studied and then practiced law. He remained active in the local militia and in 1821 became a major general in the state military organization. In 1823 his neighbors elected him to the U.S. Congress and four years later selected him as governor. Houston’s advancement came to an abrupt halt in April 1829 when, for reasons never made public, his bride of only three months deserted him. Houston resigned his governorship and went west to again live with the Cherokees.
During his time with the Indians, Houston made several trips to Washington to lobby his former fellow legislators for better treatment of the Cherokees and other tribes. In 1832, Andrew Jackson, now president, asked Houston to proceed to Texas to negotiate with Indians there for safe passage of American traders into Mexican territory.
In April 1833, Houston attended the San Felipe Convention, which voted to send a representative to Mexico City to seek statehood status for Texas. There is no evidence, however, of his participation in early Texas independence discussions, and apparently Houston continued to work with various Indian tribes as well as a part-time representative of various New York business interests.
Whatever his activities, Houston made an impression on the Texans, and when the independence movement gained momentum, they asked him to take command of their small emerging army. Although criticized for having lived with the Indians as well as his excessive drinking, Houston, at more than sex feet tall and with an impressive speaking manner, was easily the Texans’ choice. In November 1835, Houston formally assumed command of the small force and participated in the convention that declared Texas independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836.
Mexico responded immediately to its rebellious colony. Gen. Santa Anna crushed Texan resistance at the Alamo in San Antonio and at Gol-iad in April Massacred the entire garrison. Houston used the time gained by the martyred defenders to train and motivate his ragtag army of less than eight hundred men, avoiding direct contact with Santa Anna’s experienced force.
Houston allowed Santa Anna to pursue him until the Mexican general became confident that the Texans offered little threat. Houston proved him wrong. On the morning of April 21, Houston and 783 Texans attacked Santa Anna’s force of about twice that number. The confident Santa Anna had few pickets posted, and most of his troops were asleep when Houston’s force poured into their camp, located where Buffalo Bayou enters the San Jancinto River. The few Mexicans who attempted to escape found their way blocked by a deep swamp. In a short fifteen-minute battle, the Texans killed or captured the entire Mexican army, with the loss of only six of their own men. The Mexican captives included Santa Anna.
Although he had sustained a painful ankle wound in the battle, Houston met with Santa Anna and persuaded him to sign an order withdrawing all Mexican troops from Texas. On October 22, 1836, Houston took the oath as the first president of the Republic of Texas, a new nation recognized immediately by the United States and European powers. While it continued to disavow the independence of the republic, Mexico made little effort to retake Texas.
Houston played an important role in the admission of Texas into the Union in 1845 and served as a U.S. senator from 1846 to 1859. In 1860, Houston won election as the state’s governor but soon fell into disfavor with most Texans because he opposed secession from the Union. Houston, a slave owner whose son fought on the Rebels’ side in the war, was not so much anti-Confederacy as he was pro-Texas, lobbying for the state to either remain neutral or to reestablish the republic. The Texas legislature accepted none of his recommendations, and when Houston refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War, they deposed him. Houston retired to his farm at Huntsville, Texas, where he died, at age seventy-three, on July 23, 1863.
Despite his removal from office during the Civil War, Houston remains today a major hero of Texas. Its principal city, a university, and many other schools and buildings were named in his honor. While the Battle of San Jacinto is a minor footnote in the long history of major conflicts, its significance far exceeds its reputation. With victory in his only major battle, Houston freed more than 260,000 square miles of territory, which became Texas, and set the stage for half again that much to become part of the western United States. Although the United States and Mexico would go to war to define their border shortly after the annexation of Texas in 1845, Houston had already determined the future of Texas and the Southwest in a vicious quarter-hour fight known as the Battle of San Jacinto.