In March of 1836, the war for Texas' independence from Mexico was not going well for Gen. Sam Houston and his Texan troops. On March 11, Houston abandoned Gonzales and retreated eastward in advance of the numerically superior forces of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the president of Mexico. Houston's poorly trained troops were restless, eager for revenge after the Goliad massacre and the fall of the Alamo. Houston realized, however, that the Texans had little chance of winning over Santa Anna's much larger army without some sort of advantage.
On April 18, Houston arrived at Buffalo Bayou and found that Santa Anna had already sacked the small town of Harrisburg. Through a captured Mexican courier, he learned that Santa Anna had isolated himself from the bulk of his troops and had a force of about 750 men, slightly smaller than Houston's force of 820 men. Houston realized that his chance had come. On April 19, Houston and his men crossed to the south bank of Buffalo Bayou and marched east, setting up camp near Lynch's Ferry on April 20. An advance guard of the Texans captured a boatload of the Mexican Army's provisions at the ferry, providing food for the famished Texan soldiers.
A small party of Texans retreated back to Houston's position near Lynch's Ferry, with the Mexican forces not far behind. Upon his arrival at nearby San Jacinto, Santa Anna tried to draw the Texans into battle. Skirmishes continued into the late afternoon, when Santa Anna established a camp about .75 mile east of Houston's position.
In a brief skirmish at sunset, a detail of Texan cavalry almost met with disaster, stoking Houston's fears about his poorly trained, individualistic troops. As darkness fell, both armies settled into camp for the night. Houston ordered his men to eat and rest. Santa Anna, realizing that Houston's force was slightly larger, built fortifications using saddles, baggage, and anything else available, and hoped that reinforcements would soon arrive. Even though his men were exhausted, he kept them up all night on alert, believing that the Texans would attack at first light.
On April 21, dawn came with no attack and Santa Anna relaxed. At about 9 a.m. about 500 more Mexican troops arrived, to the chagrin of Houston and his men. Houston sent a small detail to destroy Vince's Bridge to delay additional Mexican reinforcements. At noon he held a council of war, at which no decision was reached.
That afternoon, Houston assembled his troops and laid out a plan of battle. The main force advanced quietly in a frontal assault, hoping for the advantage of surprise. Two other groups circled around to the left and right flanks of the Mexican camp. The Mexican troops had relaxed in the knowledge of their numerical superiority and many were eating and sleeping.
The Texans had advanced to within 200-300 yards of the Mexican position before they were discovered and the alarm sounded. The main group of Texans charged the camp, screaming, "Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!" A pitched battle quickly ensued, much of it hand-to-hand at the Mexican fortifications. The two other groups of Texans attacked the flanks, quickly overwhelming the Mexican camp. Houston was wounded, but fought on with his men. In less than 20 minutes, organized resistance ended, and many Mexicans were killed by revenge-driven Texans even as they tried to surrender. As the sun set to the west, the battle ended, the marshes stained scarlet with blood. Nine Texans and 630 Mexicans lay dead or mortally wounded, a tremendous defeat for the Mexican Army.
Those with medical training did their best with minimal supplies to treat the Texan and Mexican wounded. The 700 uninjured Mexican troops were disarmed and placed under guard. A small number, including Santa Anna, escaped from the battle and headed westward to the several thousand troops waiting west of the Brazos River. Houston knew that if Santa Anna was able to reunite with the main body of his army, the war would continue, so he sent out scouts to search for the escapees the next day. By noon, Houston's men had captured Santa Anna, who was disguised as a private. Santa Anna ordered his troops to withdraw from Texas, securing independence for the Republic of Texas.
Interpretive Trail Guide - Habitats of the Upper Texas Coast:
The native prairie, tidal marsh and bottomland forests of San Jacinto Battleground are some of the last remaining examples of these habitats in the area. Two hundred years ago, the coastal plain was dominated by these habitats, but the alteration of natural forces, such as fire; introduction of exotic species, such as Chinese tallow; and manipulation of the land for communities, businesses and industries, has drastically altered the landscape. At the 1,200-acre state historic site, it is our goal to restore the landscape to a condition much like it was at the time of the 1836 battle. In so doing, we are preserving an example of the vanishing coastal ecosystem for wildlife and for visitors of this and future generations. San Jacinto is one of the few places within an hour's drive of Houston where visitors can see such a diversity of native habitats and wildlife.
About the Trail:
The fully accessible interpretive trail starts at the parking lot on the north side of the San Jacinto Monument. The prairie portion of the trail is surfaced with asphalt and extends 700 feet to the edge of the marsh. Along the way there is a rest area under the canopy of several large oak trees. At the marsh, a boardwalk trail 510 feet in length allows visitors to experience the tidal marsh first hand, crossing both dense marsh vegetation and the open water of the tidal channel.
Native coastal tallgrass prairie, dominated as it historically was by little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass and switch grass, has become quite rare. Less than 1 percent of the original coastal prairie remains. Many species of wildlife which depend on the grasslands have been extirpated from the area, including the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken, black-tailed jackrabbit, Texas horned lizard, American bison, and numerous songbirds. Factors which have destroyed the native prairie include suppression of natural fire; invasion of exotic species, especially Chinese tallow (a tree); and of course conversion for agriculture and development.
At the time of the 1836 battle, most of the battlefield was open prairie. Bands of trees lined the bluffs overlooking the marsh and the creeks and gullies that emptied into the marsh, and a few small islands of trees dotted the landscape. Otherwise the battle was fought in grass "as tall as a horse's belly." The trail will take you through a grassland closely resembling that prairie. In the absence of periodic fire, this prairie is maintained by mowing, which discourages Chinese tallow and other woody plants, and helps return nutrients to the soil. Individual prairie areas are mowed each spring and/or each winter. This gives native grasses all summer and fall to mature, flower and produce seed.
As you approach the boardwalk portion of the trail, you will cross the transition from uplands to wetlands. On the right you might notice a small patch of bunched grass that is different from both the grass of the open marsh and the grass of the prairie. This is marsh-hay cord grass, which dominates a unique habitat called high marsh. High marsh is occasionally inundated by saltwater, but not daily as is the low marsh. Most of the marsh at San Jacinto may have been high marsh before subsidence lowered the land in the mid-20th century.
The tall grass that dominates the tidal marsh is smooth cord grass, specially adapted to the daily cycle of the tides. At one time, many thousands of acres of cord grass marshes lined the coves, flats, channels and floodplains of the Galveston Bay system. These tidal marshes are extremely important for wildlife, and play a role in the life cycle of most commercially important seafood species, including shrimp, crabs, spotted weakfish, red drum and flounder. Many species of shorebirds, wading birds, and resident and migratory waterfowl also depend on the marshes. Other wildlife you might see in the marsh at San Jacinto includes the river otter, diamondback terrapin and nutria (an exotic rodent resembling a beaver). Keep an eye out for the cottonmouth or water moccasin, a poisonous snake which is a common predator at San Jacinto.
Tidal marshes are also important for absorbing pollutants and moderating floodwaters. Impacts to tidal wetlands are now regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. The marsh at San Jacinto was completely converted to open water in the late-1900s by subsidence (which was caused by pumping a tremendous volume of water out of the ground for industry). It was restored in the 1990s by pumping clean sand and sediment into the marsh from the adjacent San Jacinto River (Houston Ship Channel). The project to restore all of the tidal wetlands at San Jacinto is ongoing.
As the coastal rivers meander back and forth in their shallow valleys, they leave behind terraces and floodplains dominated by marshes, swamps and hardwood forests. These riparian forests dissect the coastal prairies, add tremendously to the diversity of the ecosystem, and provide homes and critical foraging habitat to many species of resident and migratory wildlife. The forests, like the marshes and prairies, have been reduced to a small fraction of their original area by logging and clearing, and few examples remain in this area. In the east end of the San Jacinto site there is a small remnant forest, with some mature trees three feet in diameter. The forest that is visible across the marsh from the trail is a younger forest, having sprung up on soils deposited by dredging throughout most of the 20th century. This forest is diverse, having been planted from seeds which floated down from upstream forests during floods. As you can see though, the trees have formed a dense canopy that provides most of the biological benefits of a more mature forest.
The construction of this interpretive trail was made possible by a Coastal Management Program grant through the Texas General Land Office, along with grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Galveston Bay Estuary Program (NOAA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Partners include the Texas Department of Transportation, Telephone Pioneers of Texas, Environmental Institute of Houston, Harris County Adult Probation Office, and Ducks Unlimited. Future plans call for securing additional grant funding that will allow the trail to be extended another 500 feet into the forest beyond.