Antonio López de Santa Anna is perhaps one of the most colorful figures of the nineteenth century. Having served as president of Mexico eleven times, the self-proclaimed "Napoleon of the West" became indelibly associated with much of that country's tumultuous and unstable history. He figures in American history, too, in the story of the Texas Revolution and most notably, his defeat of the rebel forces at the Alamo.
Early Lessons in Brutality
Santa Anna was born in 1794 to a middle-class family in Jalapa, in Vera Cruz. He joined the Spanish infantry as a cadet at sixteen years of age. Santa Anna followed General Joaquin de Arredondo to San Antonio de Béxar where many of the local citizens, including the Navarro and Ruiz families, were rebelling against Spain. With brutal force, Arredondo defeated the rebels at the Battle of Medina in 1813 and executed all who had been involved in the insurrection. The commander imprisoned the women of San Antonio in a place called La Quinta and forced them to serve his troops. According to San Antonio lore, Santa Anna, who was quartered in the Navarro home, committed an act of indiscretion toward one of the Navarro women. By the time Arredondo's army left San Antonio, the town had been devastated by battle and pillage. Historians believe that Santa Anna was significantly influenced by Arredondo's strategy of total warfare.
In March of 1821, deep in the throes of a battle against Mexican revolutionary forces, Santa Anna suddenly changed loyalties. Perhaps anticipating the Mexican victory, the young lieutenant thought it more advantageous to join the rebel cause. In any event, his defection from the Spanish army earned him the promotion of a full rank in the Mexican camp.
Despite his meteoric rise in the military, it was his defeat of an invading Spanish force at Tampico Bay that made Santa Anna a national hero. Espousing a federalist platform, he was able to secure the Mexican presidency in 1833. Once in power, without warning, he switched to a Centralist regime, placed the hombres de bien -- the landed aristocracy -- in power, and formed a new Congress that dissolved the state legislatures, limited state militias, and abrogated the federal Constitution of 1824.
News of the regime change quickly brought protest. Rebellions broke out in Zacatecas and in Texas. By May of 1835, Santa Anna had assembled his "Army of Operations" and marched them to Zacatecas, where he brutally defeated the rebels, ordered the execution of all Anglos who were involved in the revolt, and destroyed the city. He then marched the army to Béxar, the political center of Texas. Modeling his trek on Napoleon's march through Russia, Santa Anna rationalized that despite the grueling demands of a four-hundred-league march through inhospitable terrain, the inhabitants of the province would welcome them and offer support. The army was soon to fall victim to scarce supplies, Indian attack, sickness, and the harsh climate. The blizzard of 1836 alone was enough to cause the loss of many Mexican soldiers.
Nevertheless, the Army of Operations reached San Antonio in February of 1836. The nearly 1,800 Mexican troops far outnumbered the band of 188 men who had retreated into the Alamo compound. A twelve-day siege ended in a bloody battle on March 6 in which Santa Anna and his army captured the Alamo. All of the defenders were killed; the Mexican army sustained nearly 600 casualties.
After another violent defeat of rebel forces at Coleto, Santa Anna moved on to fight Sam Houston's Texas rebel forces at San Jacinto. Caught in an unexpected attack by Houston's men, including Juan Nepomuceno Seguin's company of Tejanos, the rebels beat the Mexican army on April 21, 1836. After being captured the next day, Santa Anna surrendered to Houston and recognized Texas independence.
Santa Anna's later years were also filled with military exploits. He participated in the defense of Mexico against the French in the "Pastry War" of 1838. After tricking the Americans into sending him back to Mexico, he led the Mexican army against Americans during the Mexican-American War. In the north of Mexico, he nearly defeated U.S. forces at Buena Vista before he was bested by General Zachary Taylor's army. He then turned south and led the fight against General Winfield Scott's army between Vera Cruz and Mexico City, losing the critical battle of Cerro Gordo along the way. He returned to the presidency again in 1853 only to squander away lands in southern Arizona and New Mexico, known as the "Gadsden Purchase," to the United States. Banished in 1855, he returned to Mexico in 1874 only after relinquishing politics. He wrote his memoirs and died quietly in 1876.