Recently I posted a blog on the battle of the Alamo of 1836 and its meaning in American history. Some folks have asked me about the Mexican strong man who commanded the army that overran the Alamo, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876). Accordingly, I thought I would offer this brief discussion.
Santa Anna was one of the most significant figures of nineteenth century Mexico, a general of both outstanding political and military abilities, but one deeply flawed by egotism, hunger for power, and ruthless brutality. Born in Jalapa, Veracruz, on February 21, 1794, Santa Anna became a cadet in the Spanish colonial army in 1810. In 1821 he lent his services to the Mexican revolution and became a leading officer in the young nation’s army. In 1829 he helped overthrow the Mexican president and the next year he seized power in his own right. This was a military coup, and it was the first of his three stints as Mexico’s chief executive.
When the province of Texas revolted and declared its independence in 1836, Santa Anna took personal command of the army and marched north to quash the rebellion. He scored a victory on March 6, 1836, when his 4,000 troops decimated 187 Texans at the Alamo, outside San Antonio, after a 12-day siege. Although it was a Mexican victory, Santa Anna’s casualties have been reliably estimated between 1,000 and 1,600, thus seriously hampering his ability to wage a war of attrition. His loss of men, coupled with the length of time required to take the Alamo, hurt Santa Anna’s campaign enough to allow the Texans to rally.
At San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston surprised the Mexican army and captured Santa Anna. This brought to a successful end the Texas revolution. The Republic of Texas was an independent national between this time and 1845 when it was annexed by the United States and entered the Union.
When Santa Anna returned to Mexico after the Texas Revolution he entered a semi-retirement, but soon returned to action to fight French occupation forces in Veracruz. In the process he was wounded and lost a leg, but became a hero and succeeded to Mexican leadership once again. After a few years, in the 1840s he was exiled to Cuba for malfeasance in office.
As war arose with the United States in August 1846, Santa Anna left his exile and returned to Mexico. By the end of the year he had formally ascended once again to the Mexican presidency. He formed an army and on February 22-23, 1847, Santa Anna fought a pitched battle with Zachary Taylor’s American forces at Buena Vista, a few miles south of Saltillo. In a series of brutal frontal assaults he was unable to overcome the American positions and was forced to withdraw with his army in disarray.
Santa Anna returned to Mexico City to reform his army and when Winfield Scott began his march from Veracruz on the capital in the summer of 1847, he moved to oppose the Americans. Fighting a series of delaying actions, Santa Anna had troops fortify both a Franciscan mission and a bridge at Churubusco. When the American force arrived there on August 20, it was surprised by the stiff opposition of the Mexicans, but Scott brought up additional troops and mounted a frontal assault on both the bridgehead and the other Mexican fortifications.
Although this and other battles on the same day was soon won by the Americans, casualties for high on both sides. Santa Anna lost nearly a third of his force as either casualties or prisoners of war; and set the stage for an assault on Mexico City and the ending of the war in 1848.
When Mexico surrendered Santa Anna once again was exiled, this time to Jamaica and later New Granada, but in 1853 governmental chaos again allowed him an opportunity to take over the Mexican government. He was in power for two years before being overthrown and banished one more time. During the American Civil War he made another bid to take power in Mexico, petitioning the United States for assistance in throwing out the French supported Maximilian but receiving none. A decade later he was allowed to return to his native land and died in Mexico City on June 21, 1876. His military brilliance and charisma were impressive—some called him the Napoleon of the Americas—but his lack of principles, his love of military extravagance, and his penchant for political intrigue sparked a series of disasters in Mexico.