SAN JACINTO DAY – April 2016

Nina was asked to speak at the commemorative ceremony for San Jacinto Day on April 21, 2016. It was an inspiring ceremony, and per tradition, the speech lasted precisely 18 minutes - just like the final battle for Texas Independence.  We are excited to share Nina’s speech with you here:  

The story of Texas Independence born here at San Jacinto is a story worth telling and retelling. It fills all Texans with pride, honor, and hope for the future. My fourth grade Texas history teacher shared the legacy of San Jacinto with me, and as a ten year old, her telling and retelling of this great story had a profound and lasting impact on my life. I fell in love with the extraordinary story of Texas and her people. Suzanne Gilson – my fourth grade teacher – literally brought me here today.

Who brought you here today? Was it your Social Studies teacher? Was it a family ancestor who was one of the “Old 300”? Was it Sam Houston? How did a battle on this remote salt grass marshland impact the world even today some 180 years later?

What you may not know is how this battle is studied around the world even today.

When our son was a Plebe (1st year) at the United States Naval Academy, his class studied the battle of San Jacinto for 2 weeks as one of the most important military battles in the history of the world. Why would the Naval Academy study a land battle which took place in a colony of Mexico? That answer may lie under the Chapel at the Naval Academy in the crypt of John Paul Jones – the father of the American Navy who defiantly replied in battle when his ship was stricken and he was expected to strike his colors – “I have not yet begun to fight.” Across the yard in Bancroft Hall hangs the flag “Never give up the ship”. This is where we train our military leaders that surrender is not an option.

In 1941 as Churchill huddled in the famous London War Rooms desperately struggling to save his nation and the remnants of Western Europe from the Nazi assault. One of the books on the shelf in the War Room was “The Battle of San Jacinto”. Why a book about this battle in the London War Rooms? When you are facing enormous odds In a desperate battle for life and civilization – it is the greatest book of hope and victory you could read while you were under constant assault.

Recently we cycled in Spain and our trip leader was a delightful 30 year old Spanish female cyclist who shockingly knew every detail of Texas’ struggle for independence and the story of San Jacinto. In that Basque area of Spain was the fierce spirit of independence and resistance of a self-serving government. You can see why the story would lift those spirits half a world away. 
As Texans we think of San Jacinto as “our little story” – but the world looks at San Jacinto even today as a striking victory and beacon of hope against oppression.

San Jacinto is the lynchpin of the story of Texas. Here at San Jacinto, Texas gained her independence, and an empire of liberty was won in just 18 minutes. The monument behind us reads, “Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.”

The legacy of San Jacinto is this: Ordinary men and women may accomplish extraordinary things and change the course of history and the shape of nation states in the process. Even though the Texas Army and its supporters were a “ragamuffin” band of imperfect people, these patriots mustered their courage to overcome unthinkable odds. They used every tool at their disposal to gain an advantage over an enemy with superior numbers, supplies, and training.

180 years ago, on a perfectly clear Thursday, Sam Houston’s “ragamuffin” volunteer militia of barely 900 strong repeated the battle cries of “Remember the Alamo, Remember Goliad” and fought with fervor unmatched by Santa Anna’s 1200 conscripts. The Texans fought for their massacred brothers and friends, they fought for their land, they fought for freedom, and in 18 decisive minutes, they won freedom that is enjoyed by millions today. Look around you. Hear their battle cries. It is here that these brave men vanquished their conquerors, here that they won our freedom, and here that they changed the course of history.

The days leading up to April 21, 1836 had been dark days for the citizens of Texas and the Texas Army. The Alamo had fallen, and Santa Anna released the only two survivors to spread the word to remaining patriots that “You have no hope against the superior Mexican army.” Following the massacre at the Alamo, William Ward was defeated at Refugio, and Amon King’s men were executed near Refugio. Goliad fell on Palm Sunday, and 383 Texians were put to death with many shot in the back. Houston’s Army was the last hope for independence, and he was on the run, losing recruits to the Runaway Scrape, and desperately trying to buy time to train his rag tag militia. Santa Anna was driving to take the Texas coast, where he could take control of the seaports and pursue the Texas provisional government at Morgan’s Point. The stakes for Texas were high, and after Goliad the patriots realized they faced two outcomes: Conquer or Perish. Santa Anna’s cruelty would continue, so they were willing to do anything to stop him, including lose their lives.

On April 17th, Sam Houston came to the proverbial fork in the road. He took the road to Harrisburg to come face to face with a brutal dictator, instead of taking the road to safety, the road to Louisiana. Houston soon learned that Santa Anna had crossed Vince’s Bridge to the west side of the San Jacinto River, and his army would be forced to use the same bridge to return. Furthermore, Santa Anna had divided his army across the river. Recognizing this opportunity, General Houston informed his troops on April 19th that they would soon see action and entreated them to remember the massacres at the San Antonio and La Bahia. Houston’s army encamped at San Jacinto along Harrisburg Road in a dense grove of oak tree protected by rising ground. On the afternoon of the 20th, both sides were preparing for conflict, and the Mexicans began firing cannon on the Texan line. Sherman and his cavalry engaged the enemy infantry in a skirmish trying to capture the cannon, which almost resulted in a larger battle. Lamar fought so valiantly that day that he was placed in command of the cavalry.

On April 21, Houston ordered Deaf Smith to destroy Vince’s Bridge to prevent further enemy reinforcements, cutting off retreat for both armies. The General then held a council of war before noon, and decided to attack the Mexican army that very afternoon during the Mexicans’ siesta.

Houston used every strategic tool at his disposal to ensure a swift victory. He distracted the dictator with the yellow rose of Texas. He chose an encampment where his army was screened by the woods and rising topography. He attacked from the west in the afternoon, when the gleaming sun would be in the enemy’s eyes. He seized opportunities resulting from Santa Anna’s hubris. Santa Anna had moved his army camp eastward, abandoning the high ground and putting marsh and water at his back. Houston seized this strategic gift and cut off the supply and reinforcement lines. Santa Anna had also posted no sentries or pickets, which allowed the Texians to advance for a surprise attack. With strategic thinking, preparation, planning, ingenuity, the battle was already won before it began, even though the Mexican army outnumbered Houston’s by over 300 men.

The battle line was led Sidney Sherman’s regiment on the left, Edward Burleson’s regiment in the center, then the artillery commanded by George W. Hockley on a gentle rise in ground, Henry Millard’s infantry to the right of the artillery, and the cavalry under Mirabeau B. Lamar on the extreme right. General Houston led the infantry charge. The Twin Sisters, the cannons given by the people of Cincinnati, joined the line.

Texian artilleryman Sam Cushing was only seventeen years that day, and later wrote in his memoir that

“[The Texas Army] precipitated themselves upon the appalled Mexicans with yells and shouts, like so many tigers, and above all may be heard the hoarse battle cries, “Remember the Alamo! Labadie! Goliad! Crockett! Travis! Fannin!” while in many cases the Indian war –whoop was attempted with brilliant success.

“Before this unearthly uproar, the panic-stricken Mexicans melted away like icicles in the hot sun. The flank of the Mexican line broke and fled at the commencement of the charge, while their center made a brief stand, their position being supported in the center by a small breastwork formed of bags of sand.

“Behind this was planted their artillery, a fine brass nine-pounder, which, at the instant of its capture, was loaded to the muzzle, and was by our men turned upon the Guerreras, who still made a show of resistance. This decided the day in our favor.

“The enemy were now scattered and flying in every direction. But still the work of retribution went on…”

630 Mexican soldiers were killed and 730 captured. Only 9 of the 910 Texans were killed or mortally wounded. 30 wounded, including Houston, who had two horses shot out from under him, and a rifle ball shattered his ankle.

Santa Anna disappeared and was later found hiding in tall marsh grass wearing a foot soldier’s uniform. The search party did not realize they had captured Santa Anna, until other Mexican prisoners addressed him as “el president.” Rather than execute the dictator and create a martyr, Houston wisely sent Santa Anna home in disgrace.

The battle of San Jacinto reverberated throughout the world. It resulted in the creation of the Republic of Texas. Governments in Europe closely observed the Texas colonists’ complete victory over the larger invading Mexican Army. A nation built on the passion of freedom and fierce independence was birthed on the battlefield surrounding this place 180 years ago today.

The legacy of San Jacinto is one of self-determination. Texas would be free to choose how to govern itself. It would later join the United States of America but this too would not come easy. Five times in the 10 year life of the Republic of Texas the United States Congress voted NO to annexation of Texas. Texas had Slavery, massive war debt, and was full of….well….rugged frontier characters.

Texas would later join the United States, and following annexation in 1845, Judge William H Stewart described the formal ceremonies commemorating Texas joining the union:

“In December, 1845, Texas was annexed to the United States by act of Congress and the following spring the formal ceremonies took place at Austin whereby the government of the Texas Republic lapsed and ended.

“There were 2000 or 3000 persons at Austin when the ceremonies took place. It was a wonderfully impressive scene. After prayer, the President of Texas, Anson Jones, delivered a speech. It was a strong, vivid review of the trials, the privations, and the triumphs of the early settlers of Texas, of the making of the Republic, of the war with Mexico, of the tragedies of that war and so on through the ten years of the life of the Republic. Then he told of the movement to annex Texas to the United States, of the ratification of the treaty of annexation and the purpose for which the people were congregated at Austin. And he closed with a solemnity that was profound. His closing sentence was: “And now the Republic of Texas is no more.”

“Although we all knew why we had gathered there, although we knew beforehand just what was to be done, the services were so impressive and the speech of the President so grave that when he said ‘And now the republic of Texas is no more,’ the people acted as if they were stunned. The silence was broken only by the rattling of ropes as the Lone Star of Texas, which had been floating from the flagstaff, came down. Then those 2000 or 3000 persons looked as if they were about to cry. There was a look of suffering in every face. The full significance of their act was brought home to them by the single act of hauling down the flag – the flag for which they had suffered so much and which represented so much to them.

“They were still in that unsettled, tremulous, deeply sentimental state when the man at the halliards began pulling at the ropes and slowly but surely another flag was hoisted on high. When it reached the top of the flagstaff the wind whipped it out of its full length and the Stars and Stripes of the United States burst into view.

“In a moment that crowd that had been still as death changed. A mighty cheer went up, hats were thrown ahigh, cannon boomed and there was a tremendous tumult. Never before and never since have I seen such a sudden change from grief to rejoicing. It was marvelous.”

In the audience today is a direct descendent of Judge William H. Stewart whose eyewitness account we just heard – Lisa Morris Simon.

The story of San Jacinto and of Texas is worth telling and retelling. Over 50 years ago, my fourth grade history teacher shared this story with me, and it has profoundly impacted my worldview. With whom will you share this story? Who will you inspire with the story of the brave men and women who fought and sacrificed so much for the cause of Texas liberty? Their battle cries still echo through this place and across the marshy fields of San Jacinto. Do not let them die out! Their words are kept alive in our telling and retelling of this story of courage and commitment. The world today yearns for the hope of what happened here 180 years ago. It is our task to keep those shouts of freedom alive. Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad! REMEMBER SAN JACINTO!