Santa Anna: Hero or Traitor?

Some call his era the “Age of Santa Anna.” He was known as a brave soldier and a cunning politician. Over his forty-year career, he

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

served multiple times as a general and eleven times as president of Mexico.  He thought of himself as “the Napoleon of the West,” yet historians say he was among the many leaders of Mexico that failed the nation.  His political endeavors and his military failures resulted in Mexico losing over half its territory in the American west, first to Texas after its revolution and finally to the United States after the Mexican American War.

Antonio López de Santa Anna was born in 1794, the son of middle class criollos (persons of European descent born in the Americas) in the Spanish province of Vera Cruz.  His family had enough money to send him to school for a time, but at sixteen, he became a cadet in the Fijo de Vera Cruz infantry regiment.  For five years his regiment policed Indian tribes and fought against insurgents, including filibusterers from the United States who were trying to free Texas from Spain.  Many historians believe that this early period of Santa Anna’s military career shaped his ideas of how to put down rebellions through the use of a fierce policy of mass executions, which he later used during the Texas War for Independence,

As a member of the Royalist army, the dashing young man, who used his charisma to charm acquaintances, fought for a while on the Spanish side as Mexico began its eleven-year war for independence from Spain.  However, as he did throughout his military and political career, he realized his best interest lay in switching sides to join the rebel forces fighting for independence.  All during the turbulent 1820s as coups ushered in first one and then another president, Santa Anna changed his allegiance to whomever was clawing his way to the top, quickly rising through the ranks while gaining the reputation as a valuable if treacherous ally.

In 1829 Santa Anna achieved what some claim was his greatest (and perhaps only) military victory when Spain made its last attempt to regain control of Mexico by invading Tampico.  Santa Anna, who was good at stirring up emotions and quickly rounding up an army, led an expedition that defeated the Spanish force. The invading army was suffering from yellow fever, but the defeat was real and Santa Anna emerged as a national hero.  Without hesitation he branded himself “The Victor of Tampico” and “The Savior of the Motherland.” More coups followed, accompanied by presidential exiles and executions, until the new Congress of Mexico elected Santa Anna as president on April 1, 1833.  Despite having run as a liberal, within a year Santa Anna claimed that the country was not ready for democracy.  He dissolved Congress and centralized power, turning his regime into a dictatorship backed by the military.

Liberals all over Mexico felt betrayed and several states began to defy the new authority including citizens in Texas y Coahuila, which was the northernmost state in Mexico that would eventually become the Republic of Texas.  The Texas settlers, who were mostly from the United States, had received generous land grants from the Mexican government and were demanding more fair treatment and the return to the original liberal terms they had received during colonization. Several open rebellions occurred along the Texas coast, at Nacogdoches, and finally at Goliad.  When citizens in Zacatecas also rose up in December 1835 in defiance of Santa Anna’s new authority, he moved quickly to crush the resistance and allowed his army to loot the town for forty-eight hours.  Then, he marched his army at top speed through winter cold to San Antonio where he raised the red flag of no quarter and demanded surrender of the Texans, whom he called “land thieves.” The thirteen-day siege ended with the killing of all the inhabitants of the Alamo fortress except for some women, children, and slaves.  The next demonstration of his intent to dominate the rebellious citizens occurred at Goliad when he ordered the execution of over 300 captives who had surrendered on the battlefield to General Urrea.  Despite Urrea’s letter requesting that the honorable surrender be recognized, Santa Anna sent word that they should be executed as pirates.  On the morning of March 27, 1836, the prisoners who could walk, were marched away from the Goliad fort and shot.  Those who had been injured in the battle were shot inside the compound.  When word spread of the Massacre at Goliad, people who had thought of Santa Anna as cunning and crafty, realized that he was indeed cruel and the realization fueled an infusion of volunteers from the United States to help the Texans fight for independence.

Santa Anna continued to march eastward intending to kill or drive across the Sabine River all the Texas land thieves whom he held in such disdain.  His amazing ability to hastily round up an army had never been tested at such long distances from the center of Mexican supplies or in the bitter cold and rain of that Texas spring.  He did not have ample food or supplies for his men, and as he chased the rebels across Texas, his nemesis, General Sam Houston, had the towns burned and supplies destroyed as Texas settlers fled in terror before the advancing Mexican Army.  Still confident of his superior force and determined that his military skill would win the day, Santa Anna left half his force on the banks of the Brazos River as he raced eastward to catch the officials of the interim Texas government and then defeat the ragtag army of Texas volunteer farmers and merchants.

When the two armies finally met on the banks of Buffalo Bayou on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna grossly underestimated the fury and determination of the Texans to repay the Mexican Army for the slaughter at the Alamo and at Goliad.  In fact, as the Mexican Army enjoyed its afternoon siesta, the Texans using two cannon that had only recently arrived from citizens of Cincinnati, Ohio, raced across less than two miles separating the two camps and in an eighteen-minute battle defeated the startled Mexicans.  Despite their victory, the furious Texans continued killing the Mexicans until 630 lay dead and 730 were taken prisoner.  The Texans lost nine.

Santa Anna was found the next day, dressed in peasant clothing and hiding in a marsh.  When he was taken before General Houston and realized his life was to be spared, he boldly announced his willingness to treat with Houston regarding the boundaries of the two countries, a real turn around from the day before when he planned to exterminate the pirates.  Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco agreeing to Texas independence, but the Mexican government, upon hearing of his loss of Texas, deposed him in absentia and did not recognize his authority to give up Texas.

Santa Anna was not finished.  After a time of exile in the United States, he eventually made his way back to his estate in Vera Cruz.  In December 1838 the French landed in Vera Cruz after the Mexican government refused to reimburse French citizens for their financial losses in Mexico. Ironically, the government gave Santa Anna command of an army with instructions to defend Mexico by any means necessary.  In typical Santa Anna fashion, the assault failed, Mexico was forced to meet French demands, but Santa Anna managed to turn the disaster to his advantage.  He had been hit by cannon fire in his leg and hand, and his leg had to be amputated. He returned to politics as a hero of the war, touting his sacrifice for the fatherland.  He even had his amputated leg buried with full military honors.

He served again as acting president the following year and helped overthrow the government in 1841 to become dictator for the next four years.  During his reign he sent military expeditions into the Republic of Texas, which convinced many Texans that annexation to the United States would give them powerful support.  His autocratic rule fomented so much resistance that he was forced to step down and was exiled to Cuba.

Santa Anna found another chance to return to Mexico with the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846.  He made a deal with President James Polk to allow him to enter Mexico through the United States naval blockade in exchange for getting a negotiated settlement of land for the United States.  At the same time he was making that deal, he was arranging with Mexico’s president to lead an army against the northern invaders.  Reneging on both agreements, as head of the army, he marched to Mexico City and declared himself president.  Again, his military prowess failed and when the United States captured Mexico City, Santa Anna retired to exile in Jamaica.  The United States gained all or part of ten western states that stretched its borders all the way to the Pacific Coast.

General Santa Anna on a lithograph from 1852.

General Santa Anna on a lithograph from 1852.

It is hard to believe that even the conservatives, who wanted a central government under the control of the army and the Catholic Church, invited Santa Anna back in April 1853.  This time his administration was no more successful than before.  He declared himself dictator for life, funneled government funds to himself, and sold more Mexican territory to the United States in the Gadsden Purchase.  His “Most Serene Highness,” as he called himself, finally became too powerful even for his conservative friends.  A group of liberals, led by Benito Juárez, overthrew him and he fled again to Cuba. When the new government discovered the extent of Santa Anna’s corruption, he was tried in absentia for treason, and all his property was confiscated.

Santa Anna roamed from Cuba to Colombia, to St. Thomas and to Staten Island, New York, where he came up with the idea of selling chicle, which is the sap from the Mexican sapodilla tree, to the Americans as an additive to expensive natural rubber.  He planned to use his new wealth to raise another army to take over Mexico City.  Apparently Thomas Adams, who was a photographer, glassmaker, and inventor, was assigned to oversee Santa Anna.  Adams bought one ton of chicle from Santa Anna and tried unsuccessfully for a year to make rubber for carriage tires.  However, he remembered seeing Santa Anna chewing on the substance, decided to add sugar, and began what became known as “Chiclets” chewing gum. That was one windfall that Santa Anna failed to get in on.

In 1874, after Mexico issued a general amnesty, Santa Anna returned, a crippled old man who was almost blind from cataracts.  He had written his memoirs while in exile and spent the last two years virtually ignored by the Mexican government.  “The Napoleon of the West” died in Mexico City on June 21, 1876.

The Texas Navy

The Republic of Texas existed from March 2, 1836 until February 19, 1846 and during most of that time it boasted its own navy with a history as colorful as its government.  As Texas settlers, unhappy with the Mexican government, prepared to go to war for independence from Mexico, officials of the interim government realized ships would be needed to keep Mexico from blockading the Texas coast and to keep supplies coming from New Orleans to support the army. Historians estimate that three-fourths of the troops, supplies, and money needed for the rebellion came via shipboard from the port at New Orleans.

The provisional government in November 1835 passed a bill providing for the purchase of four schooners and they issued letters of marque to privateers authorizing them to defend the Texas coast until the navy ships could be put into service. On January 5, 1836, the Texas Navy became a reality with the purchase of a former privateer rechristened the Liberty. The Invincible, a Texas-Navyschooner built originally for the slave trade, was commissioned a few days later and the Independence, a former United States revenue cutter, which had been used to enforce customs regulations and catch smugglers, became the third purchase.  Finally, the Brutus completed the Texas naval fleet.  Immediately, the little band of ships sailing the Gulf of Mexico kept General Santa Anna’s army from receiving supplies, forcing it to forage for food as it marched across Texas. The ships also captured Mexican fishing vessels, sending their supplies to the volunteer Texas army.

The Independence

The Independence

After Texas won independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, the Liberty escorted the ship carrying the injured General Sam Houston for medical treatment in New Orleans.  That’s when the navy experienced its first setback—the Liberty remained in New Orleans for repairs and when the new Republic of Texas could not pay its bill, the Liberty was sold.  Similarly, the following September the Brutus and the Invincible were in New York for repairs and when the city’s customs collector realized the Republic of Texas could not pay the bill, the gentleman paid the tab himself.  Meantime, Mexico refused to ratify the treaty that General Santa Anna signed after his army’s defeat at San Jacinto and despite not having the military strength to launch a full attack on Texas, Mexico continued to make threatening forays along the coast.  The schooner Independence captured several small ships off the Mexican coast and after undergoing repairs in New Orleans in April 1837, started back to Galveston when it was forced to surrender after a four-hour gun battle with two Mexican ships.

With the loss of half its fleet, the secretary of the Texas navy and its commodore decided that the men needed a cruise to inspire confidence.  President Houston believed Texas needed the ships to patrol the coast, not go on a cruise raiding Mexican towns.  Nevertheless, the cruise took place and when the Invincible returned to Galveston it drew such a deep draft that it could not cross the bar into the harbor.  As it sat at anchor waiting for high tide to allow it to proceed, two Mexican ships attacked.  The Brutus, which has managed to enter the harbor, sailed out to help in the fight and ran aground on a sandbar.  After a daylong battle, the Invincible attempted to enter the harbor, went aground and was destroyed.  The Brutus, last of the ships of the Texas Navy, was lost the following October in a storm at sea.

Although the Republic of Texas had no active navy from September 1837 until March 1839, Mexico was too preoccupied with problems at home to take advantage of the unprotected coastline,

Schooner San Antonio

Schooner San Antonio

which gave Texas time to purchase six ships at a cost of $280,000.  In March 1839 a steam packet was purchased and renamed the Zavala, the first ship in the second Texas Navy, followed by the San Jacinto, the San Antonio, the San Bernard, the brig Wharton, the sloop-of-war Austin, and the Archer completed the second fleet.

Brig Wharton

Brig Wharton

Political differences existed from the beginning of the republic between President Houston and Vice President Mirabeau B. Lamar and came dramatically to the surface in December 1838 when Lamar became the second president of the Republic of Texas. Whereas Sam Houston wanted Texas to use its ships to protect the coast and insure the republic’s increased industry and commerce, Mirabeau B. Lamar encouraged the navy to pursue an aggressive policy of raids to keep Mexico busy defending its coastline.

During Lamar’s three years as president he initiated a friendly relationship with the Yucatán that had declared itself independent from Mexico.  In December 1841, just as Sam Houston was returning for a second term as president, Lamar sent the Austin, San Bernard, and the San Antonio to the Yucatán for defense against Mexico.  Immediately after Houston’s inauguration, he ordered the fleet to return.

In the meantime, the only mutiny in the Texas Navy occurred in New Orleans on February 11, 1842.  The schooner San Antonio was in port to be refitted.  Apparently concerned the sailors and marines would desert, the officers confined the men to the ship and went ashore.  The men got drunk on liquor that was smuggled aboard and Sergeant Seymour Oswalt led a mutiny in which a lieutenant was killed.  Eventually the men were brought to trial; three were flogged; four were hanged from the yardarm of the Austin; and Oswalt escaped from jail.

Mirabeau Lamar had appointed Edwin Ward Moore, a ten-year veteran of the United States Navy, commodore of the second Texas Navy and Moore was as determined to defend the Yucatán as Lamar.  Moore had constant problems financing the repair of his ships and because paydays did not come regularly, he had trouble recruiting enough men.  The Zavala had been allowed to rot and was eventually sold for scrap.  Houston, determined to reduce spending in his second term, withheld funds allocated by Congress for the navy.  Moore raised almost $35,000 to repair his ships and when it became clear he could not raise enough money in New Orleans to refit the ships, Houston ordered him back to Galveston.  Hearing of renewed Mexican troubles on the Yucatán, Moore arranged to supply Texas ships to Yucatán for $8,000 a month.  He sent the San Antonio to the Yucatán but it was lost at sea.  Just when the Austin and the Wharton were ready to sail from New Orleans, commissioners arrived with orders from Houston instructing Moore to sell the fleet immediately for whatever price he could get.  Further, Houston suspended Moore from command and told him to return immediately to Texas.  Moore convinced the commissioners to allow him to take the vessels back to Texas and as he embarked on the trip, he got word that Yucatán was about to surrender to Santa Anna. Commodore Moore headed for the Yucatán.  The resulting battles against the much larger Mexican vessels did not produce a victory, but it broke the blockade of Campeche and allowed Texas ships to get supplies to the forces fighting the Yucatán land battle.  After a week the Mexican force sailed away, Yucatán was not retaken, and Moore believed Texas was spared the invasion that would have followed if Mexico had captured the Yucatán.

A very angry President Sam Houston claimed Moore’s cruise was illegal and charged him as a pirate, a murderer, a mutineer and an embezzler.  When Moore reached Galveston on July 14, 1843, he was welcomed by a harbor full of boats loaded with cheering people. Houston discharged Moore dishonorably from the Texas Navy for disobedience of orders, fraud, piracy, desertion, and murder.  Moore insisted on a court martial and was acquitted of all the charges except disobedience.  The following year he was cleared of disobedience.

The political battles had not ended.  Texas had attracted volunteers to fight in its War for Independence by passing a bounty act on November 24, 1835, promising 640 acres for two years of military service.  Veterans of the Texas Navy did not get a single acre of almost ten million acres that were distributed as bounties.  President Sam Houston vetoed a resolution on January 6, 1842, that would have allowed navy veterans to receive a bounty claiming they were an “unnecessary extravagance.”  He added, “Generally, the seaman has no interest (except a transitory one) on shore.” An effort to reintroduce the bill and pass it over Houston’s veto met no success.

The Texas Navy had come to an end.  The Republic of Texas was negotiating with the United States to join the Union.  As part of annexation, the Austin, Wharton, Archer, and San Bernard became part of the United States fleet.  Their officers hoped to be included in the transfer, but US naval officers were against the plan and the Texas ships were declared unfit for service.

The Texas Navy was forgotten until 1958 when Governor Price Daniel established a Third Texas Navy.  In October 1970 Governor Preston Smith reestablished the headquarters for the Third Texas Navy at its original base in Galveston.  The new organization serves as a commemorative nonprofit, chartered by the State of Texas to assure the survival of Texas naval history.


Named for the ebony trees in the area and for the tiny town hugging Texas’ southern border, this ancient crossing on the Rio Grande serves as the only government-licensed, hand-operated ferry between the U.S. and either its Mexican or its Canadian border.

For years before Spain began issuing land grants on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, colonists in Northern Mexico crossed this old river ford on their way to La Sal del Rey, a massive salt lake where they loaded blocks of the precious mineral in wooden carts for the trip back to Mexico.

In the 1740s José de Escandón, an appointee of the Viceroy of New Spain, led his men across this old ford on an expedition to locate the most favorable sites for Spanish colonization and Christianization of the Indians.

In 1875 an incident at this crossing resulted in the naming of a Mexican national hero.  Despite Texas Ranger Captain L.H. McNelly’s efforts to drive Juan Cortina and his bandits across the border and out of Texas, cattle thefts increased.  A rancher reported Cortina’s men driving 75 head of stolen cattle toward this crossing known then as Las Cuevas for the Mexican ranch on the opposite bank.  Word spread claiming Las Cuevas Ranch headquartered the great bandit operation, and 18,000 cattle waited there to be delivered to Monterrey.

Captain McNelly’s men pursued the Mexicans across the river after dark, attacked a ranch, and killed all the men only to discover that they had stopped at the wrong ranch.  They returned to the river and posted guards in the brush waiting for a counterattack.

When General Juan Flores Salinas, who owned Las Cuevas Ranch, learned of the earlier attack, he led 25 mounted Mexicans to the river only to die along with some of his men in the surprise ambush.

The following day the Mexicans agreed to turn over the thieves and return the stolen cattle.  Incensed over the indiscriminate killing, Mexicans across the region proclaimed General Salinas a national hero.  His statue dominates the plaza across the river in the little village of Ciudad Díaz Ordaz.

Over the years, bandits and illegals used the ford, and during Prohibition as many as six boatloads of liquor crossed here every night.  In 1950 the U.S. Border Patrol opened the entry station here.  It remains the smallest of eight official ports of entry into Texas from Mexico and it offers a glimpse of an earlier time when residents on both sides of the border enjoyed casual visits between neighbors sharing a common river.
Depending on the swiftness of the river, it takes from two to five men pulling hand over hand on heavy ropes to propel the wooden ferry loaded with three cars and a maximum of a dozen foot passengers across the 70-yard expanse.

The anchor cable that keeps the vessel from drifting off down river has been tied, since 1950, to the massive Ebony tree on the Texas side of the river. The giant tree, thought to be 275 years old, is listed in Famous Trees in Texas.

Most travelers choose to park their cars and join walking passengers who board the barge-like vessel on its round trip.

A new port of entry station is scheduled to open in January 2013, however talk persists that fence building under Homeland Security may close the old waterway.  The time may be short for travelers to experience the last hand-drawn ferry on a U.S. international border.