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Mexican Independence | Coahuila y Tejas-Index | Texas War of Independence

Mexican Chieftain | Captivity in Texas

Santa Anna is entitled to all the credit of beginning the.....successful movement for the establishment of a Republican government in Mexico, and under circumstances in which very few men would have had the boldness to have attempted it....circumstances attending the campaign of is forcibly reminded of General Jackson's attack of the British.  The revolution in the fall of 1841....exhibited the same boldness, tact and sagacity.....Santa Anna was invested with absolute power.....of the hundreds of laws which were dictated....there were very few which were not wise and necessary.....And it should redound to his lasting honor, that, surrounded as he was by faction, intrigue, and enemies, who have since overthrown him, in no single instance was any man punished for a political offense.  Very few dictators, in possession of absolute power for the same length of time, surrounded by the same circumstances, can say as much.  The reader will, at least, agree that he is not the sanguinary monster which some have supposed him to be---Waddy Thompson, 1846.

Santa Anna ca. age 55The Character of Antonio L�pez de Santa Anna
(From Recollections of Mexico by Waddy Thompson, 1846, Chap. 7)

From The Handbook of TexasWaddy Thompson (1798-1868), United States diplomat and political leader, son of Waddy and Eliza (Blackburn) Thompson, was born in Pickensville (now Pickens), South Carolina, on September 8, 1798. He was elected to the state legislature from the Greenville District in 1826 and served until 1830, when he retired due to an incompatibility with his constituency over the question of the Union. Thompson was a staunch advocate of states' rights. He was elected to Congress as a Whig in 1835 and held the office until he retired in 1841. In Congress he was highly vocal in his calls first for the recognition and later for the annexation of Texas. When Mexican forces captured the men of the Texan Santa Fe expedition, public reaction in the United States demanded official intervention on their behalf. Secretary of State Daniel Webster first instructed the United States minister in Mexico, Powhatan Ellis, to secure the release of any United States citizens taken captive in the expedition and to urge Mexican authorities to treat citizens of the Republic of Texas with humanity and to give them fair trials. Texas urged the United States to appoint a special envoy to Mexico to treat for the prisoners, and the Texas charg� d'affaires in Washington, Nathaniel C. Amory, called upon Senator William Campbell Preston of South Carolina for support. Preston nominated Thompson, likewise a South Carolinian, for the post, and Webster and President John Tyler approved. Thompson was sent to Mexico as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary. His instructions were to demand the release of those prisoners who were United States citizens and to require that Texan prisoners be treated with consideration. His mission met with significant success. He obtained the release of some 300 prisoners, mostly United States citizens, and generally strengthened United States relations with Mexico. 

Thompson returned to the US in 1844 and wrote up his recollections (published 1846) in a period when Santa Anna was in exile in Havana just prior to his return to participate in the war with the United States.

General Santa Anna, is now fifty-four years of age. He is about five feet ten inches high, with a finely proportioned person. His complexion is of an olive case, but not indicating any mixture of blood, although I believe he is not of pure Castilian lineage. I do not know that I have ever seen amore striking and finely formed head and face; there is scarcely a feature or a point in either that Spurzheim or Lavater would desire to change. I remember to have heard a distinguished American statesman remark when Santa Anna was in Washington, that he had rarely seen a face indicative in a higher degree of talent, firmness, and benevolence; and when I say as I do, that I think that his face is not an inaccurate index to the volume of his character, I beg the reader not to start and lay down the book before he has read a few incidents which I propose to narrate, and for most of which I vouch, as they passed under my own observation. I am well aware that I should better satisfy the great mass of readers both in this country and in Mexico, by speaking in a different vein of this now fallen man; but it would be both unjust and ungrateful in me to do so. I trust that I may without impropriety say, that the history of my mission will show that I never stooped to flatter General Santa Anna when at the height of his power neither can I find it n my heart to traduce him now. He has at different times, at my instance, released from imprisonment more than two hundred Texan prisoners, and has so often afforded me that highest of all happiness that of making others happy, that I should be gratified to know that in his present fallen state anything which I may write of him has given him one moment's gratification. I shall not, however, be betrayed by this desire into writing one line which my own deliberate judgment does not approve.

Mr. Poinsett had an interview with General Santa Anna in 1822. He saw and judged of him free from the false glare of high position and extended reputation. Santa Anna was then only a colonel of a regiment. Mr. Poinsett was particularly struck with his high bearing and polished manners. Mme. Calderon de la Barca bears the same testimony to the grace, ease, naturalness of his manners, and the thoughtfulness and repose which are so striking in his countenance; and on this subject there is no authority so conclusive as that of a well-bred and accomplished lady. I have seen no countenance except that of General Jackson, whose range of expression was so great, where there was so great a difference between the quiet expression of the face when at rest and in a gentle mood, and its terrible ferocity when highly excited. The mildness of the lamb and the fierceness of the enraged tiger would not much too strongly express this difference. Such is his character, by nature kind and affectionate, but subject to bursts of passion fiery and fierce. He is a Spaniard; a race, which, with its many noble traits of character, is everywhere, regarded as more than ordinarily sanguinary; perhaps not more so by nature than others. They have been from the earliest period engaged in civil wars, and civil wars are everywhere sanguinary to a proverb. That between the Goths and the Moors lasted for eight hundred years, and there were elements in that protracted contest calculated to increase even the characteristic ferocity of civil wars. It was a religious war, and more even than that, it was a war of races. The civil war between mother country and Mexico, in which Santa Anna was bred, was not the best possible school for lessons of clemency. No quarter was generally the law of that war, at least on the part of Spain, and almost the only law which Spain rejected. It would be strange indeed, if one brought up in such school should not have committed some acts not strictly conformable to our notions. Yet, I believe, that with the exception of his conduct in Texas, and the order for decimating the Texan prisoners of Mier, his character is free from stain in this particular; whilst his military career has been illustrated by many acts of noble clemency which would do honor to any commander.

He attempts to justify himself for the shooting of the men of Colonel Fanning's command, and for the massacre at the storming of the Alamo. As I had never before heard any justification whatever of either of these acts, I will state what passed between Santa Anna and myself on this subject in the last interview with General Jackson, at Washington City, and it was so characteristic of that gallant old man, that I will endeavor to give it in Santa Anna's own words. When he arrived in Washington, Mr. Forsyth, then Secretary of State, called upon him and requested that he would go with him and see General Jackson, who was confined to his chamber, where he received Santa Anna. After the usual salutations and ceremonies, and some short conversation on other subjects, General Jackson said to him: "Well, General Santa Anna, tell me why you abandoned the republican party in Mexico and went over to the priests?" Santa Anna said to me, laughingly hearty, that although he felt that it was rather an awkward affair for the President of one republic to be thus catechized by the President of another, yet that he answered the question to the entire satisfaction of General Jackson, by stating all the circumstances of his position, and the condition of the country. When he had finished his defense on this point, General Jackson said to him: "Well, Sir, now tell me another thing; why did you massacre the Texans of Fanning's command, and at the Alamo?" Santa Anna said that he then justified himself for those acts, or his participation in them, and that General Jackson expressed himself satisfied on that point also. I give you the statement of Santa Anna. I of course do not vouch for it. When he told me this I could not forbear saying to him, "And did General Jackson say that you had satisfied him on that point?" "Yes, he did, Sir," was his reply. I then told him that I had never heard one work in justification of those acts, and begged that he would repeat it to me the substance of what he had said to General Jackson. He said that he would do so with great pleasure; that he was not surprised that I had never heard but one side of that matter, or of anything else connected with the war between Texas and Mexico; that he knew, when he traveled through the United States, shortly after those scenes in Texas, that his name was never mentioned but as a murderer and assassin; "Yes, Sir," said he, "and it is most honorable to your countrymen, that nowhere, did I receive the slightest indignity, but was treated everywhere with the most marked respect---even in the steamboats, where, as you know, there is not much ceremony or respect for persons."

As to the affair at the Alamo, he said that it was not expected of any commander to restrain his troops when a place was taken by storm, and still less so when the disproportion of the forces of the besiegers and besieged was so great as to make a successful defense altogether hopeless---that in such a case, to protect the defense was a wanton sacrifice of the lives of the assailants---and unjustifiable; that scenes equally sanguinary were enacted by the troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington at the storming of San Sebastian, Cuidad Riego, and Badajos. The Texans who defended the Alamo did not exceed one hundred and fifty men, without artillery, against between four and five thousand Mexicans, with artillery. He added that he had seven different times summoned them to surrender, and offered them quarter, which he would have taken the risk and responsibility of granting, but that they refused to accept it, and fought to the last and died gloriously.

As to the shooting of Fanning's men, he said that the campaign of Texas had commenced under a special act of the Mexican Congress, providing that no prisoners should be made; and added, that if the law was a sanguinary one, that the odium should attach to the legislature which passed it, and not to the military commander who obeyed and executed it. I replied, that in that case, no capitulation should have been entered into, but that, after it had been done, it was obligatory, and I saw no justification whatever for violating it. He replied: "That is true; and when the officer to whom Colonel Fanning had surrendered informed me of it, and of the capitulation, I wrote to him, that although it was a violation of the law, yet as he had entered into the capitulation, it must be scrupulously respected." He said, that shortly after this, the officer in charge of the Texan prisoners wrote to him that he was suffering extremely from want of provisions, and that most of the Texan prisoners had secret arms, which they refused to surrender, and that there were constant indications of a revolt among them. There were only about three hundred Mexican soldiers to guard near five hundred Texans." He also said that when he received this last communication, he sent to the officer in command a copy of the law of the Mexican Congress above referred to, but ordered him expressly to commit no act of unnecessary cruelty; and if any executions were ordered, that it must be done only in cases of clear guilt and from stern necessity, and strictly according to military usage. He said much more upon this point, but the above is the substance. I confess that whilst I thought his defense for slaughter of the Alamo in some degree an exculpation, that the shooting of Fanning's command, prisoners of war under a formal capitulation, was wholly unjustifiable, and an act of unmitigated murder---a guilt from which Santa Anna is not free, as the officer committing the act was never punished for it.

Thompson's footnote.  The massacre of Colonel Fanning's command was regarded in this country with great and general horror, as it deserved to be, but it was not without illustrious examples. The following account of the slaughter of the Turkish prisoners at Jaffa is taken from Scott's Life of Napoleon. They were executed in precisely the same manner as were the unfortunate Texans---fired upon first with musketry, and the horrible butchery finished with the sword and bayonet. Change the names and Sir Walter Scott's description of the wholesale murder at Jaffa would be an equally exact account of the massacre at Goliad. It does not, therefore, lie in the mouth of any admirer and eulogist of Buonaparte to denounce Santa Anna, even if he is to be held wholly responsible for the act.

"After the breach had been stormed, a large part of the garrisons, estimated by Buonaparte himself at twelve hundred men, which Miot raises to betwixt two and three thousand, and others exaggerate still more, remained on the defensive, and held out in mosques and a sort of citadel to which they had retreated, till, at length, despairing of succor, they surrendered their arms, and were, in appearance, admitted to quarter. Of this body, The Egyptians were carefully separated from the Turks, Maugragins, and Arnaouts, and while the first were restored to liberty, and sent back to their country, these last were placed under a strong guard. Provisions were distributed to them, and they were permitted to go by detachments in quest of water. According to all appearance, they were considered and treated as prisoners of war. This was on the 18th of March. On the 20th two days afterwards, this body of prisoners were marched out of Jaffa in the centre of a large square battalion, commanded by General Bon. Miot assures us that he himself mounted his horse, accompanied the melancholy column, and witnessed the event. The Turks foresaw their fate, but used neither entreaties nor complaints to avert it. They marched on, silent and composed. Some of them of higher rank seemed to exhort the others to submit, like servants of the Prophet, to the decree which, according to their belief, was written on their forehead. They were escorted to the sand hills to the southeast of Jaffa, divided into small bodies, and put to death by musketry. The execution lasted a considerable time, and the wounded, as in the fusillades of the Revolution, were dispatched with the bayonet. Their bodies were heaped together, and formed a pyramid, which is still visible, consisting now of human bones, as originally of bloody corpses."

Nor would it very well become an Englishman to use any harsh terms of the actors in the massacre of the Texans at Goliad. The atrocities perpetrated after the battles at the river Raisin and Fort Meigs were infinitely more horrible. After a formal capitulation, in which protections was promised, the American prisoners were delivered over to the savage allies of the English, in comparison with whose cruel tortures any ordinary mode of killing was mercy, the British officers standing by and making no effort to prevent it. None but cowards are cruel. In a few months after these butcheries, the same British troops, with their leader, General Proctor, fled at the first charge like frightened wolves from the American army under General Harrison at the battle of the Thames. The battle-cry of Colonel Short, when leading the charge at Fort Sandusky, was, "Give the damned Yankees no quarter." When they were repulsed and beaten, their wounded were treated with the kindness of brothers. What a noble revenge! The murderous forays of the British troops at Hampton and other places on the Chesapeake, would have disgraced a band of Scottish marauders of the sixteenth century. Most of these buccaneers shortly afterwards went to New Orleans; the bones of many of them are there yet. I have no disposition to perpetuate the feelings of hostility against England, but acts of murderous atrocity like these to which I have alluded deserve to be held up to eternal execration.

The decimation of the prisoners of Mier I regard as an act of much greater atrocity than either of the others. Those prisoners were not on parole, and had a perfect right to escape if they could; nothing was more common in the Peninsular War, than for British officers to refuse to be released on their parole, preferring to take the chances of escape, and not to deprive themselves of the right of serving again during the war. When the news of the re-capture of the Mier prisoners was received in Mexico, General Bravo was acting as President ad interim, and issued an order that they should all be shot. As soon as I heard of this, I called at the office of Mr. Bocanegra, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in the most respectful manner, expressed the hope that all the privileges of prisoners of war would be extended to the Texans, and that no act of undue severity would be committed. He was very much excited, and it was the only instance, in all my intercourse with him, that his conduct was not dignified and courteous; for he is a very polished and amiable gentleman. He said to me: They are not American citizens, and you have, therefore, no right to interpose in their behalf. I replied: They are human beings and prisoners of war, and its is the right and the duty of all nations to see that Mexico does not violate the principles and the usages of civilized war---more particularly is it the duty of the United States to maintain those laws and usages on this Continent. He replied with much warmth, that Mexico would listen to no suggestion upon the subject, from any quarter. I rose from my seat, and said: Then, Sir, shoot them as soon as you choose, but let me tell you, that if you do you will at once involved in this war a much more powerful enemy than Texas---and took my leave. An express was immediately sent, countermanding the order to shoot them all, and another order given that they should be decimated, which was executed. I afterwards received from some of the Texan prisoners, a heart-sickening account of the execution of those upon whom the lot fell. It was a cold-blooded and atrocious murder, of as gallant men as any country can boast of. A career of public service, now not a short one, has afforded me no happiness at all equal to that which I derive from reflecting upon the part which I bore in this transaction. I may have been the instrument of saving the lives of a hundred and fifty or more of those brave and patriotic, but unfortunate men.

Footnote on General Bravo, who was President ad interim.   The long military career of Bravo has been that of a brave, virtuous and humane man. Some instances are recorded of him, of a generosity which do honor to any commander during the war of Independence. In Ward's Mexico, we find the following anecdote of his magnanimity:

"In the first of these actions Bravo defeated Don Juan Labaqui, the commandant of the regiment of Patriots of Vera Cruz, at the head of a strong detachment. The engagement lasted three days, when the village in which the Spaniards had taken refuge was taken by storm (20th August, 1812). Three hundred prisoners, taken upon this occasion, were placed by Morelos at the disposal of Bravo, who offered them to the Viceroy Vinegas, in exchange for his father Don Leornardo Bravo, who was then under sentence of death in the prison of the capital. The offer was rejected; and the sentence against Don Leornardo ordered to be carried into immediate execution. His son, in lieu of making reprisals by the massacre of his prisoners, instantly set them at liberty, "wishing" (as he said) "to put it out of his own power to avenge on them the death of a parent, lest, in the first moments of grief, the temptation should prove irresistible."

In a military career of thirty years, these are the only instances, so far as I have ever heard of any acts of cruelty or even severity, perpetrated by Santa Anna. In the various civil wars in which he has borne a conspicuous part, and always been successful, he has not only spared the lives and property of his vanquished enemies, but if, as was generally the case, they were banished, ample provision was made for them, which was punctually paid; a somewhat rare thing in Mexico. There was one single exception to this remark: General Mexia, who was beaten at the battle of Acajeta, at the head of an insurrectionary army, was ordered to be shot in one hour. When the order was communicated to him, he said: "General Santa Anna is very generous; if I had made him prisoner, I should not have given him fifteen minutes." They were playing at a game upon which each had staked his head, and Mexia lost.

There were some occurrences which passed under my own eye, and for the truth of which I vouch, which will better illustrate the character of General Santa Anna than any general dissertation of mine, and which will be entitled to more consideration than my own individual opinion. When Santa Anna was a prisoner in Texas he was put in chains. The proud spirit of a soldier and a Castillian could not bear this indignity, and he attempted to commit suicide by taking laudanum. He was relieved from its effects, and otherwise kindly treated by Doctor Phelps, of Texas. On the arrival of the prisoners taken at Mier, Santa Anna ascertained that there was one whose name was Phelps. He sent for him, and asked him if he was related to Doctor Phelps of Washington, Texas; when the young man replied that he was his son, Santa Anna ordered that he should be released, sent an aide-camp with him into the city, and purchased two or three suits of clothes for him, and gave him a room in his palace. I was informed of all this, and as there was an American ship of war at Vera Cruz, about to sail to the United States, I wrote a note to Santa Anna, offering young Phelps a passage. He replied, thanking me for the offer, but declined it, saying, that he felt himself fortunate in having it in his power to return, in some degree, the kindness of Doctor Phelps to him, when he was prisoner in Texas, and that he preferred sending his son home at his own expense; which he did, giving to him also a draft on his factor in Vera Cruz, for whatever sum of money he might ask for.

Amongst the prisoners taken at Mier, was a very shrewd and handsome boy, of about fifteen years of age, John Hill. On their arrival in Mexico, this boy was not closely confined as the other prisoners were, and he came to see me, and requested that I would ask the President to release him. I told him to go himself, and I was sure that Santa Anna would be more apt to do it on his own account than on mine.

A few days afterwards the little fellow returned to my house very handsomely dressed, and told me that he had been liberated, and gave me the following account of what had passed between himself and the President. When he requested Santa Anna to release him, the latter replied, "Why if I do you come back and fight me again. The Santa Fe prisoners were released on their parole of honor not to bear arms again against Mexico, and it was not three months before half of them had invaded the country again; and they tell me that you killed several of my Mexicans at Mier." The little fellow replied that he did not know how many he had killed, but that he had fired fifteen or twenty times during the battle. "Very well," said Santa Anna, "I will release you, and what is more, I will adopt you as my son, and educate and provide for you as such."

The boy was sent to the house of General Tornel, the Minister of War, and was really as I know, adopted on a full footing of equality in his family, and treated with the most parental kindness. He was afterwards placed at the principal college in Mexico, where he was pursuing his education when I left the country. General Santa Anna not only paid the charges of his education, but in all respects cared for him as for a son. Some time after his own discharge, little Hill came to me, to request that I would obtain the release of his father; I told him no, that he was a more successful negotiator than I was, to go and try his own hand again. He did so, and obtained at once the release of his father, and afterwards of a brother, who was also among the prisoners.

I might protract this narrative almost indefinitely by describing similar instances, but I will mention only one more, and it impressed me more favorably than any other; because it was a triumph of the better and more generous feelings and impulses of our nature, over the previously formed determination of calculating policy. At the period of my leaving Mexico, there were thirty-six Texans confined at the castle of Perote, who had been made prisoners by General Wool at San Antonio, in Texas, in the fall of 1842. I was very anxious that they should be released, and with that view, stopped some days at Jalapa, as Santa Anna was daily expected at his beautiful country seat, the Encero, five miles distant from that city. When I visited him, he turned the conversation upon the purpose of the government of the United States to annex Texas, and spoke freely but respectfully on the subject. It was not positively known then in Mexico that such a negotiation was on foot; at least I did not know it, perhaps Santa Anna did. I was not disposed to enter into any discussion with him, but his remarks at length became so strong that I could not be silent, and I replied to him with a good deal of warmth, and at the close of a short and pretty animated discussion, I said to him---"What do you intend to do with the Texan prisoners? do you intend to keep them here always?" "What else can I do, Sir? if I release them on parole; they will not respect it, and I gain nothing by making them prisoners, for they immediately take up arms again, as did the prisoners of the Santa Fe Expedition, and," he added, "I was informed that you intended to ask the release of these prisoners; but I beg that you will not do it, for great as the pleasure would be to oblige you, my duty forbids it." I told him that he knew that I was not apt to abandon my purposes, and that I would ask it; and what was more, that I knew he would release them. I added that the prisoners taken at San Antonio did not know that it was the Mexican army which was approaching, but supposed it was a band of robbers which was infesting the place; the Texans had all told me so. He replied, "I know they say so, but it is not true; Gen. Wall entered San Antonio, with cannon and music, and any one knows that robber bands have neither." "Well," said I, "if they did, they were defending their homes and hearths, and a gallant defense they made, and a generous enemy should respect them the more." "That," said he, "is putting the matter on a different footing. Are there any particular individuals of the San Antonio prisoners whom you wish released?" "Yes, there are." "Then," said he, "send me a list of their names tomorrow." "No, I will give them to you now," I replied. "Very well," said he, "who are they?" I answered "all of them. How can I distinguish between men, all strangers to me, personally, whose cases are in all respects the same, and why should you?" "Well," said he, with manifest emotion, "I have been advised not to do it, and had made up my mind that I would not, but you shall take them all with you?"

In giving this narrative, I have been forced to speak more frequently of myself than I could wish; I could have simply stated that those men were liberated at my request, but that would most inadequately have conveyed the idea of the true character of the transaction---the yielding of all considerations of policy to the promptings of feelings of generosity and kindness. I do not believe that of the hundreds of Americans in Mexico, there was one who would not promptly have done all that I did. No unworthy motive can be imputed to Santa Anna for this act; my functions as Minister had ceased, and I was then only a private American citizen, who had no power to serve him in any way, and whose name, even, he would in all probability never again hear mentioned.

During the war in Yucatan the government of Mexico was in a great exigency for thirty or forty thousand dollars. Mr. Hargoos, an American merchant of Vera Cruz, advanced the money upon the personal pledge of Santa Anna, that it should be paid at a stipulated time at the customhouse in Vera Cruz. Mr. Hargoos at the time appointed presented his order and was refused payment. A few days afterwards, Santa Anna was in Vera Cruz, and Mr. H. called to see him, and informed him that he had presented the order which he had given him and that payment had been refused, the officer of the customhouse saying that he did so by the orders of Santa Anna---which Mr. Hargoos said he did not believe. Santa Anna said that he had given such orders, that there was no money in the treasury to pay the army, not enough even to purchase their rations, and that he must wait until it was more convenient to pay him. Hargoos, very much excited, said, "You know, sir, that I would not have advanced this money, except upon the pledge of your word of honor, which I have not known violated before; I have been your friend, sir, in more trials than one, and have respected and confided in you, henceforth, these feelings are changed; good evening, sir." Santa Anna called him back and said to the military friends by whom he was surrounded, "Gentlemen, have you heard the language which this man has used to me?" Hargoos said, "I come from a country where no station protects a man from being told the truth. Is not what I have said true?" "Yes, sir," said Santa Anna, "it is---and I respect you for your firmness in saying what you have; I have flatterers enough about me, but few who will tell the truth." The money was paid immediately.

The reader will judge whether a man can be wholly bad who is capable of such acts. I am by no means an indiscriminate admirer of General Santa Anna; he is not what Coleridge calls a "model man." He has many great faults and some vices both as a public and private man; but many high and generous qualities also: most of his vices are attributable to his country and education. He commenced life ardently in favor of a Federal Republic but very soon became convinced that his country was not prepared for such a government--an opinion in which I think most intelligent foreigners who have visited Mexico agree with him. I believe he is a patriot; his great vice is avarice, and he has at last fallen a victim to it. The total want of all real responsibility of all public officers, not only in Mexico, but in all Spanish countries, offers the most dangerous temptations to peculation and bribery. If I may believe the half of what I have heard, he is not free from these vices. With this exception and it is a great and damning one, I think that the general course of his administration was patriotic and wise. I dare to say that both with reference to its internal concerns and the maintenance of the public faith, as well as in conducting it foreign relations, that Mexico has never been better governed than during his last presidency, when he was literally the state, and sincerely desiring, as I do, the welfare of that country, I should be glad to see him again at the head of its government---an event not impossible.

� 1997-2010, Wallace L. McKeehan, All Rights Reserved