The time has come. Which of Texas’ many battles has earned the honor of our first place ranking?
The historical layman would most likely say it is the Siege of the Alamo. Certainly, it is the best-known of all the contenders for the title, with an almost unfathomable number of books, articles, films, speeches, and documents about it. It has been called, not without reason, the Texan Thermopylae. The story of the sacrifice of those 200 brave men is one of the most inspirational narratives in all of history.
And yet, does all this attention make the Alamo the greatest Texan battle? Sorry to disappoint any movie buffs, but the siege of the Alamo fails to meet the standard. The Mexican army, by daybreak on the morning of March 6, 1836, was bloodied and bedraggled, but it was far from beaten. Their numbers had not been significantly reduced. Any demoralization of the Mexican soldiers seems to have been negligible, or at least it was overcome within a few weeks, after the victory at Coleto Creek and the fact that the entire Texan population and government was fleeing from them en masse. Certainly, the sacrifice of the Alamo defenders was an inspiration to other Texans fighting in the days ahead, but this was equaled or surpassed by the anger over the Goliad Massacre, whose more numerous victims were never even given the chance for an honorable last stand. As dramatic as were the events that took place inside the old Spanish mission in San Antonio, its long-term effects are relatively unsubstantial.
The event that is commonly considered to hold the greatest claim to being Texas’ greatest battle should be unsurprising to any student of Texas military history. The Battle of San Jacinto has been called one of the great decisive battles in world history. Texans are justifiably proud of Sam Houston’s unexpected victory of April 21, 1836, as any visitor to the battlefield can attest after seeing the 545 foot-tall obelisk monument. The victory over Santa Anna’s forces most certainly deserves its accolades as one of the most impressive and surprising military turnarounds in history.
In spite of all this, I will contend that the Battle of San Jacinto is not the most important battle in Texas history because it does not measure up to the final requirements: while the battle had the enormously important short-term effects of capturing General Santa Anna, killing or capturing over 1,300 Mexican soldiers, and the successful establishment of the Republic of Texas, San Jacinto fails to meet the requirement for having the most significant long-term effects. My analysis of the long-term effects of San Jacinto (which I will unpack in due course here on this blog) are that the hard-won victory came dangerously close to becoming entirely irrelevant during the latter years of the Texas Republic. It would take another battle to ensure that the goals of the Texas Revolution would finally be complete.
Today, May 16, is the 176th anniversary of the greatest battle in Texas history. It did not even take place in Texas. It was fought in spite of the expressed orders of the Texan President to avoid battle. Total deaths on both sides may have been as few as 40 or 50, with about 140 men wounded. After the battle ended, both sides immediately claimed the victor’s cap. When word of the battle reached the Texan President’s ears, the defenders of his country fighters were branded as pirates and murderers. They were then subjected to such indignities as jail, court martial, dishonorable discharge, withholding of back pay, tarnished reputation, financial ruin, and ultimately the knowledge that their sacrifice and bravery under fire would be almost entirely forgotten by history. Today, no parades take place on the battle’s anniversary, no commemorative reenactments are performed, and no giant obelisk stands tall to declare its gallant deeds for all the world to see and admire – I doubt that the battle site has so much as a brass plaque. The great hero who commanded victory in the battle died in obscurity, his military career ruined, his honor still denigrated, and he lies buried in an unremarkable grave far from his adoptive homeland of Texas.
And yet, this was the final battle of the Texas Revolution. In my opinion, it was also the final battle of the American Revolution (see future blog posts). Victory in this battle saved Texas from almost certain invasion and destruction by vastly superior and sinister foes. Its name is the 1843 Naval Battle of Campeche.
This battle, when it has been acknowledged at all by general historians, has been labeled as a fluke, a mistaken chance of history, an inconsequential footnote in the long and glorious chapter about the modernization of the world’s navies in the mid 19th Century. This is the only battle in world history in which a single wooden sailing vessel of the Second Texas Navy defeated not one, but two steam-powered ironclads.
One of my purposes for creating this blog will be to explore the Battle of Campeche in more detail than has been done before; as far as I can tell, the multifaceted details of the battle are still largely unknown to historians. What I can say for certain is that, after the Battle of Campeche had ended, Texas was never again under any serious threat of invasion by a foreign power. In terms of its strategic effects on Texas history, there is no other battle that matches this accomplishment.