Bridges history column: From revenge to amnesty, Santa Anna had grip on reluctant Mexico
Editor's note: This is the last of a three-part series about the life of Santa Anna, who has been portrayed as one of the great villains of Texas history. Part one explored Santa Anna's complicated role in the history of Mexico as president on 11 different occasions and a leader in supressing rebellions. Part two focused on his role at the Alamo. Today's column covers his later years in life.
The career of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna brought him to the height of power in Mexican politics, serving as president on 11 different occasions, though he preferred to be leading his armies in the field. His career had also brought him nearly into political oblivion. In spite of the many problems Mexico faced and the disaster of his surrender to Gen. Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 and his roles in many coups against elected governments, Mexico still reluctantly turned to him in times of crisis by the late 1830s and into the 1840s.
By 1841, he had clawed his way back into the presidency. He led a nation that was deeply divided and near bankruptcy. Instead of concentrating on Mexico, he turned his eyes toward Texas and revenge.
Santa Anna led a raid into Texas in 1842. By September, he reached San Antonio and captured the city. Texas troops attempted to retake the town, leading to the Battle of Salado Creek just on the outskirts. Mexican troops killed 36 Texas troops in what was called the Dawson Massacre. In spite of Mexico’s numerical superiority, they suffered heavy casualties and retreated back into San Antonio. A few days later, Mexican troops headed south and returned to Mexico. It was the last time Santa Anna was in Texas. The incident convinced most Texans to pursue annexation to the United States once again. Santa Anna left office a month later. He was president twice more before being overthrown in 1844 and forced into exile in Cuba.
When the U. S. and Mexico went to war in 1846, Santa Anna returned and led the army once again. At the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Santa Anna led a much larger force against the U. S. but faced difficult resistance. The Americans weren’t going to give in, but Santa Anna was gaining the advantage. Poised for victory after two days of fighting, Santa Anna suddenly left the battlefield in the dead of night. In his arrogance, he was more interested in the political drama in Mexico City as the government disintegrated. The retreat allowed American forces to advance rapidly southward. He installed himself as president again but stepped down weeks later to fight American forces approaching the capital. While Santa Anna delayed American forces, Mexico ultimately surrendered.
Mexico was forced to give up territory from California to Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. In yet another indignity to the self-proclaimed “Napoleon of the West,” Illinois forces captured Santa Anna’s amputated and buried leg from the 1838 Pastry War with France and took it back to the United States, sparking a diplomatic dispute that has lasted for decades.
By 1853, he was once again president. He ruled with the same heavy hand. Instead of due process or free speech, his opponents usually saw the army seizing their property. Seeing Mexico’s treasury bankrupt again, he agreed to a land deal with the U. S. He agreed to sell portions of southern Arizona and southern New Mexico in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. After having lost nearly half their territory to the U.S., his opponents had finally had enough of Santa Anna. In what came to be called the Liberal Revolution, a coalition of generals, aristocrats, and high-ranking politicians forced Santa Anna from office in 1855. His successors embarked on an ambitious program of reforms to undo the harsh and dictatorial policies that had marked his presidency and restore civil liberties to the people.
Santa Anna bounced around the Caribbean for a while before ending up in New York. He tried his hand at business. He tried selling Mexican chicle, a natural gum used since ancient times, to use on buggy and carriage tires instead of rubber. Thomas Adams bought a large shipment, but it proved a poor substitute. Instead, Adams began selling chicle as chewing gum, introducing the popular treat to Americans in part because of Santa Anna.
France invaded Mexico in 1862 after a debt dispute and seized Mexico City, while President Benito Juarez launched a long insurgency to defend the country. By 1865, hoping to be the hero of the nation again, Santa Anna offered to return to Mexico to lead the army against its invaders. Seeing the pattern that had marked so much of Santa Anna’s career, Juarez refused. In the meantime, Santa Anna tried to raise money for an army while in New York City, only to see these efforts falter. After Mexico repelled the French in 1867, Santa Anna continued to live in the United States.
In 1874, Santa Anna was offered amnesty and was allowed to return to Mexico. His return was met with little fanfare. Barely able to walk, deep in debt, and almost blind, he lived his remaining days quietly. He died in 1876 at age 82, with Mexico still unsure how to place him in its history.
Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Amarillo Globe-News: Bridges: Santa Anna kept grip on reluctant Mexico during crisis