In the anything but halcyon early days of the Texas Republic, Galveston wasn’t a particularly inviting place — many residents lived in tents, those better off occupied shacks, and the island’s brackish water was barely potable — but it was the gateway into and out of the new nation.
In the summer of 1836, the first year of the Republic, passers through included two men who had made acquaintance weeks earlier, at the Battle of San Jacinto.
One of the two men that April day lay supine beneath an oak tree, his left ankle all but shattered by a musket ball, the other stood while surrendering to his felled vanquisher.
Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas Revolution, was passing through the port city mere weeks after he and his ragtag band of Texan warriors had routed the superior forces of Mexico’s president.
Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, stopped over as well on his forced visit to the nation’s capital, where his fate would be decided.
Houston was heading to New Orleans to have his damaged ankle attended to. At the port, he was carried on a pallet to board his ship to the Big Easy — he would walk with a limp the rest of his life — and Santa Anna boarded his separate vessel free of shackles, given his status as a president and as a prisoner of war.
While the two men quietly crossed paths on the island there is no evidence that they renewed their acquaintance in Galveston as spring turned to summer.
The Battle of San Jacinto had been fought on April 21, 1836. Houston had, according to legend, urged his men to “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” which were horrific massacres repaid by a similar slaughter at San Jacinto.
The initial fighting lasted less than 20 minutes; the killing went on for hours. When all was said and done, 11 Texans lay dead, another 30 were wounded. On the Mexican side, the toll was egregious: Some 650 of Santa Anna’s men were strewn about, many shot in the back, others fatally gashed by knife or brutally beaten to death with rifle butts.
Despite the massacre, when the fighting came to an end and when new fighting hung in the air — this time an internecine battle between South and North — Houston stood as a hero. The first president of the short-lived Republic and eventually the governor of the Lone Star State after the United States admitted it, Houston urged his fellow citizens not to secede from the nation they had fervently sought to join.
When that sage counsel was ignored and Texas joined the doomed Confederacy, Houston refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the rebels and was ousted as governor.
For his part, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón’s course careered along a combative curve, one that served him and his nation ill.
He was released by the United States before the year was out and returned home. Yet, he eventually was sent into exile, where he spent most of the rest of his final years. Santa Anna was allowed to return to the nation of his birth just two years before his death, in Mexico City, on June 21, 1876. He was 82.
At that, he outlasted Houston, who died on July 26, 1863, while the United States and the Confederacy were caught up in the bloody war over the fate of the nation, a four-year-long struggle that ended with the state — having ignored the advice of Texas’ greatest hero — on the wrong side of history.