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‘Conquer or Perish’

San Jacinto Battleground State Historic site
Written by Jennifer Nalewicki.

When Houston Businessman Jesse H. Jones approached the federal government for money to help build the San Jacinto Monument in La Porte, it took a little ingenuity to get Uncle Sam to open his wallet.

After seeing a draft of the project—a towering obelisk made of concrete and faced with fossilized Cordova shell stone—the government agreed to help with the $1.5 million tab, but under one condition: that it not stand taller than the Washington Monument. Jones kept his word and upon its completion in 1939, the tower topped out at 552 feet, just three feet shy of the Washington Monument. However, Jones left out one minor detail: Its first floor sat on a 15-foot rise, pushing its height to 567 feet and therefore dwarfing its D.C. cousin.

Over the years, the true height of the monument, which memorializes the Texans who fought in the Battle of San Jacinto, has been a source of endless debate. In 1945, a Seattle newspaper columnist wrote that the structure actually peaked at 563 feet, but that some expected it to sink 20 feet in the soft coastal prairie over the next two decades. A survey conducted by Texas A&M University in 2006 proved that theory wrong, concluding that the monument had settled a mere 1.08 feet. As for its true height, modern-day measurements put it at almost 570 feet, even taller than when Jones hoodwinked the federal government. Its impressive height earned the monument a spot in the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest monumental column in the world.

Today, visitors from around the globe come to Texas to marvel at the architectural feat, which rises like a beacon over the oil refineries that line the Houston Ship Channel. Although the road leading to the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site and the San Jacinto Monument provides spectacular views of the tower, a prime spot to experience its sheer size is from the observation floor at 489 feet—just beneath the 34-foot-tall Texas Lone Star that caps the building’s shaft. It’s here that visitors can peer out and see a 360-degree view of the landscape below, a landscape that—178 years prior—Texian rebels used to their advantage to defeat the Mexican army and secure independence for the Republic of Texas. “The Battle of San Jacinto not only permanently changed Mexico, Texas, and the United States,” says Larry Spasic, president of the San Jacinto Museum of History, “it changed history.”

In March and April of 1836, after the fall of the Alamo and the Mexican execution of some 340 Texian prisoners at Goliad, the Texas army retreated eastward toward Trinity Bay, with the Mexican army in close pursuit. Commanded by General Sam Houston, the Texians camped near Lynch’s Ferry, where Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River flow into the bay. The Battle of San Jacinto began on the afternoon of April 21, 1836, when Houston ordered his troops to advance on General Antonio López de Santa Anna and his army. Houston’s men crept through the native tall grasses, and using the bottomland forest as a buffer, silently approached the enemy forces, which had failed to set up lookouts and artillery in case of a surprise attack. Once close enough to the Mexican base camp, the Texians advanced yelling, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” and fired the first shots. They took Santa Anna and his men by surprise, awakening them from their afternoon slumber. The Mexican retaliation was futile. Houston’s men had them surrounded, and those who fled found themselves cornered by the vast tidal marshes that rimmed the landscape. Earlier that day, the Texians had destroyed Vince’s Bridge, a wooden span that stretched over Vince’s Bayou just west of the Texians’ base camp, making escape in that direction difficult.

The battle was over quickly, ending in just 18 minutes. With nowhere to escape, the Mexican army had no choice but to surrender. In total, 630 Mexican soldiers lost their lives in the fight, compared to only eight Texans. Santa Anna later recalled that, “My sleep was interrupted by the noise of arms, and upon awakening I saw with astonishment that the enemy had completely surprised our camp.” This decisive battle served as a bookend to the Texas Revolution.

One of the best ways for modern-day visitors to experience the battleground and monument is at the annual reenactment of the Battle of San Jacinto, held in April. Texans and non-Texans alike come by the carload to witness history unfold before them. “Soldiers” don period uniforms and retrace the very steps that Houston and Santa Anna’s troops took nearly two centuries ago. Although much of the landscape of the 1,200-acre battleground has changed over the years—due to natural and man-made causes like fires and development—you can still get a sense of how the coastal prairielands looked during the epic battle.

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, less than one percent of the original coastal prairie in Texas and Louisiana remains intact. However, the department and the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site are working to restore the landscape to what it was like when General Houston and his men marched to victory. Their efforts have brought back marshes that harbor wildlife, including shorebirds like the great egret and the white-faced ibis, making the park a paradise for birdwatchers.

Another way for visitors to experience the site’s history is at the monument’s museum, whose vast holdings include 18,000 artifacts. Because of its impressive collection, the museum is raising funds to build a new facility on 13 acres it recently purchased adjacent to the historic site. “Less than 0.3 percent of the artifacts we have are on display at any given time,” says Spasic. The museum’s collection includes brass buttons from soldiers’ uniforms, silver from Santa Anna’s saddle, belt buckles, musket balls, bayonets, medicine bottles, paintings depicting the battle, a rare map of Texas by cartographer Karl Wilhelm Pressler, and a bust of Sam Houston by celebrated sculptor Elisabet Ney. By appointment, visitors can also browse thousands of titles at the museum’s library, including several tomes dating to the 1500s, such as Niccoló Tartaglia’s two-volume General Trattato de Numeri, et Misure, published in Venice about 1560. 

However, the collection lacks one item in particular that’s on Spasic’s wish list: Santa Anna’s leg. During a conflict with France in 1838 in Mexico, a French cannonball struck the general in the leg. The blow shattered his ankle and resulted in a partial amputation. For years, Santa Anna hobbled around on a prosthetic cork leg. In the mid-1840s, during the Mexican-American War, the 4th Illinois Infantry captured the fake appendage at Santa Anna’s abandoned carriage, where, the story goes, they also found his uneaten lunch and a bevy of gold. The Americans turned the gold over to the U.S. Army, ate his roast-chicken lunch, and kept the leg, which now resides at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield. Spasic believes the trophy should be kept where Santa Anna surrendered to Texas forces—regardless of the circumstances of the leg’s capture—and despite repeated requests for the cork leg, it remains in Illinois.

In 2012, the museum even started an online petition to bring the leg to Texas, but the effort didn’t muster the 100,000 signatures required to keep it live on the WhiteHouse.gov website, which provides a venue for petitions. “I think the leg has better context in Texas,” Spasic says. “It would be nice to have this piece of history at our museum for those who travel to Texas from all over the world to learn about our history.”

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