by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
I’m hunting around for a few words to describe the bizarre, ultra-violent years when my home state existed as an independent nation. Desperate, patriotic and paranoid—there are a few. But the one that stands out the most is lucky.
How did a nation with such a disastrous military record as Texas survive?
It’s an interesting question, because Texas’s troubled war years had a formative role in the state’s political and cultural development. The Capitol building in Austin is decorated with statues of revolutionary-era militia fighters and paintings of the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto.
Gov. Rick Perry, in an inadvertently accurate prediction, once compared his grab for the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina to the Alamo — the Texans lost. For many years, the Lone Star Brewing Company decorated their bottles with the portrait of Lt. Col. William Travis, the commander of the regular forces at the famous besieged mission, next to the company’s slogan: “The National Beer of Texas.”
But the idea of Texas being born from military achievement is variously true and also blown out of all proportion to reality. With the exception of the coup at San Jacinto, Texas’s early military history was a series of overlooked disasters, led by men who blundered their way into defeats. It’s also a fascinating overview of how warfare—especially when canonized—is almost invariably a series of tragedies and screw-ups.
Texas has plenty of both.
This isn’t even controversial. More than a decade ago, Texas Monthly declared the suicidal decision to defend the Alamo against vastly superior Mexican forces “a military mistake of mythic proportions” and that its “contribution to the strategy of the Texas Revolution was nil or negative.”
In its brief, 10-year existence as an independent state, Texas would launch two failed invasions—one in southern Texas and another in New Mexico. It also failed to stop two more Mexican invasions. And then the Lone Star state would fight several minor wars with itself and almost come to blows with the United States.
Finally, the republic would be annexed by the U.S.—a dream of the state’s founding president—once American politicians feared the republic would be taken over by the British. But we still act so high-and-mighty about it.
Where to begin? For our purposes, we’re beginning with the aftermath of the Texas Revolution.
It’s 1838, two years after Texas won its independence following a bloody war with Mexico. Pres. Sam Houston, the founding father of Texas, is prohibited by law from running for a second consecutive term.
Worse, the new nation is going bankrupt. Houston’s attempts to convince the White House to push for annexation have failed. The pragmatic but pro-slavery U.S. Pres. Martin Van Buren fears that admitting another slave state would embolden abolitionists—and he worries about provoking a costly war with Mexico.
Texas is on the verge of collapse. Mexico is threatening to invade. Then Houston’s chosen successor, Peter Grayson—the attorney general—commits suicide by gunshot after hearing he’s been nominated to run for president. Meanwhile, the few thousand Anglo settlers are suspicious—to outright hostile—to their Hispanic and American Indian neighbors.
Texas is a violent, besieged and broken place.
“Each mile toward the Rio Grande, each step up the endless rocky plateaus, Texans left their blood, bones and blasted dreams,” wrote Texan historian T.R. Fehrenbach in his epic Lone Star.
“The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land,” he wrote. “It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies they despised. The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.”
The craziest thing? Out of this environment came a Texas ultra-nationalist, expansionist and pro-war political movement under the leadership of Vice President Mirabeau Bounaparte Lamar.
As a presidential candidate, Lamar railed against annexation and dreamed of a Texas empire created “by the sword” that would stretch to the Pacific coastline. One of his priorities—stated in a matter of fact way—was to commit genocide against the nation’s indigenous population.
He won the election.
Lamar doesn’t rank highly among Texas historical figures, for obvious reasons. His presidency was by most measures terrible, particularly for non-Anglos. He ordered the mass expulsion of Cherokees from East Texas and sparked a prolonged guerrilla war, driving the nation deeper into debt.
Then he invaded New Mexico.
Lamar ordered a mixed expeditionary force of merchants and 320 armed men to take control of Santa Fe—then part of Mexico—ostensibly by persuasion. The group endured an exhausting, dangerous 1,300-mile trip before promptly being captured by a Mexican military force more than three times its size.
The Texan soldiers barely escaped execution. Instead, the Mexican army sent them on a three-month-long march to a dungeon in Mexico City, and held them until the U.S. could step in and negotiate their release a year later.
In 1842, Mexico invaded Texas—again—and recaptured San Antonio, six years after the Alamo. (The invasion was intended merely as a demonstration of strength.) Mexican forces withdrew, then returned and invaded a third time. Gen. Adrian Woll, the commanding officer, arrived with a force of 1,000 soldiers and captured 67 people, including the entire Anglo population in the city, and marched them back to Mexico.
Mexican forces fought two battles during this final withdrawal. During the first battle, a group of Texan militia fighters ambushed the Mexican force and killed 100 troops. During the second battle, Mexican artillery annihilated the Texans before they could come within rifle range. The Mexican army resumed marching.
What happened next can only be called a fiasco.
By 1842, Sam Houston had returned to the presidency. He moved militia into East Texas to deal with Anglo blood feuds that were descending into anarchy. Then he attempted to move the national capital from Austin to the city of Houston, his namesake city, and away from Mexican forces encroaching from the south. So he ordered an invasion of Austin to seize the state archives.
This was successful, at first. Twenty men moved into the city, seized the archives and fled. Alerted by cannon fire, an armed party of Austinites moved to intercept the expedition and succeeded in returning the archives at gunpoint.
Another expedition, which Houston authorized, involved an attack on a trade convoy between Missouri and Santa Fe. Texan militia fighters moved in on the convoy, but discovered American troops on guard duty.
This caused something of a major international incident, but thankfully, no shots were fired and the Texans surrendered.
The repeated Mexican incursions remained a problem for Houston. He wasn’t a crusading warmonger like Lamar, but public opinion threatened to turn against him if he didn’t act. And then it blew up in his face.
In late 1842, Houston mustered 750 soldiers under the command of Brig. Gen. Alexander Somervell, who marched to the Mexican-controlled city of Laredo, today part of Texas. But before crossing the Rio Grande, the troops turned around and marched away in a deliberate attempt to avoid a confrontation.
About half the force did not turn around. Instead, they went rogue and invaded Mexico proper. After crossing the river, Mexican forces under Gen. Pedro de Ampudia—an Alamo veteran—confronted the Texans and destroyed them.
The last battle between Texas and Mexico ended in a resounding Texan defeat. The Mexican troops shot one in 10 prisoners, and marched the rest off to prison in Mexico City.
U.S. annexation—prompted by fears Texas would fall under British influence—ended the existential threat to the Texan state. Yet that brief period of nationhood still lingers and influences the state’s distinct culture, for good and for ill. Or does it?
Fehrenbach’s Lone Star warns against ascribing “the notorious Texas chauvinism, so misunderstood and laughed at in other parts of America, to the brief 10-year flying of the Lone Star flag.”
It would be similarly mistaken to ascribe Texan chauvinism—and our Alamo boosterism—to our Americanness or Southernness. Because this implies the state’s culture arose from government or a set of ideas. That’s wrong.
“It grew out of the terrible struggle for the land,” Fehrenbach wrote. Other states arose from conflict, but Texas was distinct in the scale and duration of conflict. And the fact that Texas, on numerous occasions, had its ass whooped.