Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna---General of Division, “Most Serene Highness,” 11 times President of Mexico, Grand Master of the National and Distinguished Order of Guadalupe, Knight Commander of the Great Cross of the Royal and Distinguished Order of Charles III of Spain, created by his Congress as “Benefactor of the Nation,” victor at the Alamo and vanquished at several battles against Texans and Americans, holder of the Grand Cross of the Red Eagle of Prussia---died an old, broken and poor man despite prior great wealth.
His political and military maxim throughout his life was “It is not important what it costs,” and this was never more true than at his most famous victory at the Alamo on March 6, 1836 and, in a sense, it was an allegory for his entire career as well. He helped win the Mexican War of Independence against the hated Spanish colonialists, negotiated with several US Presidents and battled their armies, aided and betrayed two Emperors (Augustin of Mexico and the Austrian-born Maximilian).
He rose from cadet to brigadier general within a dozen years, like his American foe George Brinton McClellan in the Mexican War of 1846-48, Santa Anna knew better how to raise and organize armies than he did the fighting and winning of the battles that they were destined for. He was supremely talented, however, at crushing political revolts, both domestic and in Texas, burning
enemy villages and shooting their prisoners-of-war, as with the defeated Texans after the Battle of Goliad.
His own biographer---Dr. Robert L. Scheina in Santa Anna: A Curse upon Mexico---takes the dimmest possible view of his subject in quoting Juan O’Donjou, the last Spanish colonial administrator of Mexico, who assessed Santa Anna thus in 1821: “This young man will live to make his country weep.” Adds Dr. Scheina, “He lost a third of Mexico’s territory in wars, sold almost another 30,000 square miles while pocketing most of the money, and repeatedly bankrupted the nation.”
He asserts that his subject’s chief fault was that by selling Northern Mexico’s natural resources prevented his country “for all time” from becoming a world power. In addition, he pocketed half of the $5 million dollar Gadsden Purchase money from the United States and sold Indians into slavery to Cuba at 25 pesos a head. He worried not about the losses of his men in combat, or about his soldiers during his many forced marches in the snows of winter and under the harsh desert sun.
He misused public funds throughout his political career. Though adept at raising several field armies, Santa Anna’s arms acquisitions gave his men weapons that were little better than clubs. Like many leaders and generals, Santa Anna detested opposition and criticism, and his bravery and risk-taking worked against the Mexicans, French and Spanish he fought, but not the Texans and Americans, against whom he lost five major battles during 1836-48 to Gens. Sam Houston, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. The latter victor assessed his opponent thus: “He failed in quickness of perception and
rapidity of combination; hence his defeats.” For his part, Gen. Santa Anna blamed disobedience of his orders on the part of two subordinate officers for his 1847 defeats at the hands of the Americans.
Declared “Perpetual Dictator” during his last Presidency in 1853 (he spent the last two decades of his life attempting to make yet another comeback from a series of well-cushioned financial and territorial exiles), Santa Anna sold titles, commissions and awards to increase the ragtag Mexican Army to 100,000 men. In addition, the self-styled “Napoleon of the West” brought back from their 1757-imposed ouster the Catholic Order of Jesuit priests as a would-be prince of the Church.
In 1867 during one of his many returns from exile through the port of Vera Cruz (True Cross), the US Navy captain who brought “El Presidente” ashore termed him a “damned old scoundrel,” just before he was arrested by the men of his most famous political adversary and the bane of the French armies of Emperor Napoleon III in Paris, Benito Juarez. A vainglorious, egotistical dictator like another, later Latin Benito---Il Duce Mussolini---Santa Anna buried his amputated leg with pomp and ceremony, only to see his foes dig it up and drag it through the streets in triumph. (Today it resides in a museum in the Illinois state capitol.) During his exile in Columbia, Santa Anna built his own tomb, which was never filled.
The Mexican cavalry that he built from scratch was too lightly armed to be of any use against the more powerful US Army infantry and artillery, yet four months after the end of that disastrous conflict, candidate Santa Anna still carried three of the 16 Mexican states eligible to vote for him, but was disqualified by the Congress at Mexico City from
taking office; as it was, he declined to attend two of his own Inaugurals, preferring instead to rule by proxy while retaining firm command of the army.
Stated one of his many political foes, accurately, of him, “Through his lack of understanding, he always moves to extremes and comes to contradict himself. He does not measure his actions or calculate the results.” Dr. Scheina states, “He was a political opportunist without equal.” He struck errant generals in the face, famously fled the lost Battle of San Jacinto, narrowly missed capture again by the famed Texas Rangers, and was also almost cooked and eaten by some Mexican Indians who did take him on one occasion.
And yet---despite the fact that he lost Vera Cruz, Tampico, Mexico City and numerous armies and campaigns time and again---Santa Anna was the Energizer Bunny of the Latin American wars of five decades-plus, rising militarily like the Biblical Lazarus from the political dead, even taking his fighting cocks into the field with him. He lives on today in numerous movie portrayals of the Battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto, linked inextricably with Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis and Sam Houston, and even in defeat is today far better known than US Army Commander Scott and President Taylor---and always will be, too.
Once, Santa Anna lost a full 10,000 men within 40 days of campaigning. Jealous of both living and dead Mexican heroes, the general twice married teenage girls decades younger then himself but of a higher social station in life than he. Like the later American Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Santa Anna, too, wrote of himself in the third person. He left
hundreds of his wounded soldiers to their fate at the Battle of Buena Vista, to which Yellow Fever was an added detriment, as it was in all Mexican campaigns, then as now,
plus lice, bronchitis and other intestinal ailments like the notorious Montezuma’s Revenge.
Like his hero Napoleon. (whose military ephemera he assiduously collected), Gen. Santa Anna was revered for “That boundless energy for which he became famous,” ran as a conservative, liberal, native and foreign imperialist, escaped from both the enemy as well as his own troops, executed foreigners and allowed his men to rape and pillage in victory. His violation of the Mexican Constitution of 1824 caused the rebel Texans to proclaim it on their battle flag at the Alamo, a needless siege and victory for him that he could just as well as ridden around and ignored, much like MacArthur in his later Pacific island campaigns against the Japanese.
Horrified as the Texans were at his slaughters at San Antonio and Goliad, in Mexico City his victories once more made him the many-times-over hero of the nation. The prevailing view in the capital was “The matter is over and done with.” Santa Anna thought so, too, underestimating Houston’s ability to rebound in defeat and fight again, dallying with his young Texas-born mistress/wife a full month before beginning his pursuit of the retreating, reforming Texan Army.
His terms for Texas included execution for armed foreigners he treated as pirates yet emancipation for black slaves 25 years before the Tsar of All the Russias freed the serfs and the President of the United States abolished American slavery. His second mistake in the 1836 campaign was the dispersal of his forces before the Battle of San Jacinto, just as “the little corporal” had done after the battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras and before
Waterloo, with the same results. Like Napoleon, too, he won two more victories: Los Guantes and Goliad, then burned the Texan towns of Harrisburg and New Washington.
Due to intercepted Mexican dispatches by the enemy, Santa Anna was literally caught napping at “San Jac” on Apr. 21, 1836 when Houston attacked at 4:30 PM during siesta time and in an 18-minute massacre in which the Texans refused to accept the Mexican surrender until they had killed enough of their enemy, he lost 650 dead and 730 prisoners, including himself in disguise; in all, eight Texans were killed and 23 wounded.
Faced with his conqueror lain wounded under a large tree and facing an angry mob of enemy soldiers who wanted---like Prussian Field Marshal Blucher with his idol Napoleon after Waterloo---to hang him from it, Gen. Santa Anna negotiated a reasonable exit treaty as President of Mexico from the war with Houston. Indeed, it was the Texans who violated it, and another soldier-president---Andrew Jackson---who saved Santa Anna’s charmed life yet again. El Presidente learned this lesson well and, following his defeats in the Mexican War by American generals, negotiated his way out of that mess as well with their President in Washington, DC, just as a militarily defeated Adolf Hitler attempted to do with the Allies in 1945.
Indeed, after his successful negotiations in Washington at The White House, Santa Anna was even returned to power in Mexico aboard US Navy warships. Once home, the general-president---like the defeated Napoleon I, John F. Kennedy after the 1961 Bay of
Pigs invasion and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein following the 1991 debacle over Kuwait in the First Persian Gulf War---Santa Anna was acclaimed as a national hero yet again.
Ridiculed as “Pegleg Santa Anna” by his foes both foreign and domestic, the secret of his incredible military and political staying power over the course of eight decades was that, at all times, he managed to be the hero to all factions, inside his country and out. Once, he even advised the rival “gringo” power of the United States across the Rio Grande (Great River) how to take a substantial chunk of Mexico, his own country!
The reason was, simply stated, that money, land, titles and naked power, were always the mainsprings of his white-hot ambition from the very start of his career. Sending his personal agent to Washington to negotiate the sale of California to the US for $30 million with President James K. Polk, Santa Anna fought yet a third President in the Mexican War, US Army Gen. Franklin Pierce.
During that conflict, an enraged, defeated Santa Anna flailed away at his retreating infantry with his riding crop while the Irish-American San Patricio Battalion of deserters fought for him. It was captured, branded as traitors and hanged. Who was this colorful, rather extraordinary martial politician?
Born at Jalapa in Vera Cruz Province on Feb. 21, 1794 as a contemporary of Gen. Bonaparte, Santa Anna entered the Imperial Spanish Army as a cadet on June 9, 1810, while the Duke of Wellington was fighting the French in the Iberian Peninsula a world away. The year 1812---that of the Grande Armee’s catastrophic invasion of Russia and the start of the British-American War to the north---saw him commissioned second lieutenant and promoted to the first grade both.
Named captain in 1816, lieutenant colonel and colonel in 1821 (the year of his hero’s death), Santa Anna was promoted brigadier general the following year, then to general of division. He served as President of Mexico in 1833 (several times), 1834, 1839, 1841, 1843, 1844, 1846, 1847 and 1853, then was named dictator.
Bribed successfully by Emperor Maximilian with a pension that kept him at arm’s length on the island of St. Thomas, he was visited there by no less a personage that US Secretary of State William L. Seward of the Lincoln-Johnson Cabinets, who remarked upon his “Good abilities as the leader of a party.” In New York later, he was fleeced by con artist swindlers who took most of his fortune.
According to Dr. Scheina, it was in the Big Apple that the aging generalissimo hired young James Adams as his secretary/interpreter, who “Noticed that Santa Anna would slice a piece off a tropical plant and chew it. The general told him the plant was called chicle and on his departure gave the remainder to Adams. The enterprising man experimented by adding sweeteners to it, and within a few years he established the Adams Chewing Gum Company.”
As for the victor of the Alamo, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna---11 times President of Mexico---landed yet a final time at Vera Cruz in 1874 in another and last failed bid for power, and died at age 82 on Feb. 21, 1876. Thus, he outlasted the Republic of Texas, Maximilian, the Confederacy, the Second Empire of Napoleon III, Juarez and
almost lived long enough to witness the Centennial of the United States, his more powerful neighbor to the north.
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