The Wild West of Yester-Year

Santa Anna: On the Other Side of the Alamo's Walls
By Rachel Kovaciny

I love to remember the Alamo. I love reading books or watching movies about it. I’ve seen four so far (my favorites are John Wayne’s The Alamo and Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, if you’re curious). I can sit and learn about Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and Colonel William Barret Travis for hours upon hours and be a happy little camper. But everything I have seen has spent little time or words on the guy leading the troops on the other side of the walls of San Antonio. They tell you his name is General Santa Anna, and that’s about it. In learning more about him, I discovered he had an almost unbelievable military and political career.  

Born in 1794 to wealthy Spanish colonists in Vera Cruz, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (usually called Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna) at sixteen joined the Vera Cruz Infantry Regiment just in time to see action in the Mexican Revolution of 1810. During that revolution, he transferred to a ruthless cavalry unit sent to Texas in 1813 to put down another rebellion against Spanish rule. They killed every prisoner they took and suppressed the rebellion with unusual brutality. Santa Anna rose swiftly through the ranks, becoming a colonel by his late twenties. 

In 1821, Santa Anna suddenly switched sides. He joined the Mexican revolutionaries and met with astonishing success, being made brigadier general the following year. He began acquiring land and wealth along with his military renown. In 1825, he married and settled down, but soon became bored with the quiet life of a gentleman farmer, husband, and father. Two years later, he returned to active military duty and helped put down another rebellion. He became governor of Vera Cruz, and got promoted to division general, the Mexican Army’s highest rank. Santa Anna was not yet thirty-five. In 1829, Santa Anna’s army defeated the Spanish invasion forces. Following this success, he again gave up his military and political positions. Meanwhile, the Mexican government went through several leaders in quick, bloody succession. In 1832, Santa Anna raised his own army, overthrew the government, and got elected president. However, he found being president boring and pretended to be ill so he could resign and go home. He repeated becoming president of Mexico and then leaving the government eleven more times over the coming years, serving twelve non-consecutive terms as president over two decades. 

In 1835, many Texans decided Texas should no longer be part of Mexico. They started a fresh revolution and did well at first. Santa Anna marched toward Texas to put down this rebellion himself. Word of his approach scared so many Texans that many packed up and fled Texas entirely. But a number of revolutionaries holed up in a little mission in San Antonio nicknamed the Alamo. Santa Anna decided to crush them and end this revolution just as he’d done several times before. 


For two weeks, Santa Anna’s army laid siege to the Alamo. A few more revolutionaries sneaked in, bringing the Alamo’s defending forces up to 189. Santa Anna gathered reinforcements until his army numbered over 2,000. He ended the siege by shelling the Alamo, then sending in troops until they overwhelmed the revolutionaries. As was his usual procedure, he ordered all prisoners executed. He spared only one woman, her baby, and one servant—Santa Anna wanted them to tell the rest of Texas how pointless it was to try to stand against him. He followed this victory up by attacking more Texas revolutionaries in Goliad and killing all of them, including about 300 unarmed prisoners. These two victories may have made Santa Anna overconfident and led to his resounding defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto about a month later. That battle lasted less than twenty minutes and ended with 700 of Santa Anna’s troops killed and another 700 captured, including General Santa Anna. To secure his own release, Santa Anna signed a treaty recognizing Texan independence and promising not to try to regain it at a later date. 

Defeated and disgraced, Santa Anna returned to Mexico. He regained popularity while defending Vera Cruz from the French two years later, though he lost his leg during the battle. In 1841, he seized power again and declared himself the dictator of Mexico. A year later, he was ousted and exiled to Cuba. He gained supporters from abroad and became involved in the Mexican-American war of 1846, only to be defeated and exiled again when the United States won that war. Twice after that, he returned to Mexico, only to be exiled once more. Finally, he returned in 1874 and lived comparatively quietly with his family until his death in 1876. And if you think this sounds like some kind of bizarre military soap opera, you’re not alone. Santa Anna was a flamboyant opportunist whose ultimate loyalty was only to himself. He would do or say anything in pursuit of his own gains. He so dominated the political scene in Mexico that historians sometimes call much of Mexico’s history in the nineteenth century the “Age of Santa Anna.” He idealized Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, and wanted to be as like him as possible. Yet he was a disastrous leader for Mexico, losing not only all of Texas but also most of what we call the American Southwest while in power.  

Still, I can’t help but find him fascinating. Though he was an inept political leader, he must have had great personal charm and charisma to convince people to put him in positions of great power so many times. If he could have suppressed his ambitions and devoted himself to working for the good of his country, imagine what Mexico could have become under his guidance!