“This Glorious Achievement”: Thomas J. Rusk’s Account of the Battle of San Jacinto
Even though Fiesta is a merry and lively celebration, its underlying purpose is the commemoration of a far more solemn event, the Battle of San Jacinto. There, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston’s Texas army defeated General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s Mexican force, thus achieving victory in the Revolution and the right for Texas to be an independent republic.
The Gail Borden papers at the DRT Library contain Thomas Jefferson Rusk’s official report on the Battle of San Jacinto. A signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, Rusk served as the Secretary of War for President David G. Burnet’s interim government. Perhaps best known as the inventor of condensed milk, Gail Borden was an important figure in early Texas and one of the founders of the Telegraph and Texas Register newspaper. A note included with Rusk’s report (shown at the end of this entry) states that it was given to Borden so that he could publish it, presumably in the Telegraph.
A participant at the Battle of San Jacinto, Rusk provided an eyewitness account that is considered to be a fairly accurate retelling of what happened immediately preceding and during the fight. He does, however, seem to whitewash one of the more appalling components of the battle. “There was a general Cry which ran from one end of the ranks to the other, ‘Remember the Alamo’ ‘Remember La Bahia,’” Rusk wrote. “These words electrified all, onwards was the cry, the unerring aim and resistless energy of the Texian army could not be withstood.” Writing about the same fervor in Texian Iliad, historian Stephen L. Hardin states:
The actual battle lasted no more than eighteen minutes, but the slaughter continued much longer. Determined to avenge the loss of those killed at the Alamo and Goliad, the bloodthirsty rebels committed atrocities at least as beastly as those the Mexicans has committed (213).
Other first-person accounts of the Battle of San Jacinto provide specific examples of these atrocities, and Hardin quotes some of them in his work.
Additionally, Rusk’s account provides a relatively simplistic explanation for the Texans’ victory:
Never in the anals [sic] of war was the interposition of Divine Providence signally displayed…Our unparallelled [sic] triumph is attributable, not to superior force but to the valor of our [men] and the sanctity of our cause…these brave men achieved a victory as glorious as any on the records of history, and the happy consequences will be felt in Texas by forty generations to come. It has saved the country from the yoke of bondage.
While not denying the valiant efforts of the Texan soldiers, Hardin offers a more complex picture of the battle and its significance. “Several factors had produced rebel victory at San Jacinto,” he asserts. First, “the troops that Santa Anna brought to Buffalo Bayou were hungry, demoralized, and far from provisions. They appeared, furthermore, to have lost all confidence in their commander.” Additionally, Hardin describes a series of significant mistakes committed by Santa Anna. In addition to “separating his detachment for the fruitless drive on Harrisburg,” he had also “moved his army off the prairies where his superior cavalry enjoyed an advantage and had ventured into wooded marshlands where the Texian riflemen could employ the terrain to advantage.” General Houston was able to take advantage of these circumstances, but, argues Hardin, “San Jacinto was not so much a battle that Houston won, but rather one that Santa Anna squandered” (217). Moreover, Hardin reminds us that, despite Rusk’s decisive description of the victory, forces under Mexican Generals Vicente Filisola and Jose de Urrea remained undefeated, at large, and a significant threat to the Texas army (216).
Stephen L. Hardin, Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution
Stephen L. Moore, Eighteen Minutes: The Battle of San Jacinto and the Texas Independence Campaign
Richard Bruce Winders, Crisis in the Southwest: The United States, Mexico, and the Struggle Over Texas
For Further Reading:
Multiple copies of Rusk’s report were made at the time of the Battle of San Jacinto and, while addressed to President Burnet, they were used to spread the word of the Texans’ victory. Another copy of the report housed at the Texas State Archives has been digitized and transcribed in its entirety and is available online. The content of this document is nearly identical with that of the copy held by the DRT Library, although a few scattered words and the pagination are different.
You can compare Rusk’s account of the battle with Sam Houston’s official report, dated three days later. This document has also been scanned, transcribed, and made available online by the Texas State Archives.