The Mexican-American War was a pivotal conflict between the United States and Mexico that took place between 1846 and 1848. Much of the fighting during the war centered around the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna, who led Mexican troops against the US invasion. Santa Anna was a prominent figure in Mexican politics and military affairs in the mid-19th century and served multiple terms as president of Mexico. Though he enjoyed early military successes, Santa Anna was ultimately unable to defeat the US forces that occupied Mexico’s capital and forced the country to cede large portions of its northern territories after Mexico’s defeat.
Santa Anna’s Early Military and Political Career
Antonio López de Santa Anna was born in 1794 in the Spanish colonial city of Veracruz, Mexico. As a young man, Santa Anna joined the royalist army and fought to defend Spain’s control over Mexico during the Mexican War of Independence. However, in 1821, Santa Anna switched sides and joined the pro-independence forces led by Agustín de Iturbide. This shift in allegiance helped him build a reputation as a clever political operator guided primarily by self-interest.
After Mexico gained independence, Santa Anna continued his military career, fighting on behalf of local politicians and landowners who would reward him with political offices. By the 1830s, he had built a power base and used it to help overthrow and succeed President Anastasio Bustamante. Santa Anna initially pledged his support of a federalist model of shared national and state powers, but he soon dismissed the elected Congress and began centralizing power under his own authority as president.
The Texas Revolution
In the early 1830s, Santa Anna ordered Mexican troops to crush rebellions in Texas, which was then a part Mexican state. The Texians, as Texas residents were called, were refusing to abide by Mexico’s ban on slavery and policies raising taxes on American settlers. In early 1836, Santa Anna and his men besieged a small Texas garrison at the Alamo, an old mission in San Antonio. Despite being vastly outnumbered, a few hundred Texians held out for 13 days before finally being overrun and slaughtered by Santa Anna’s forces on March 6, 1836. Though Santa Anna viewed the Alamo slaughter as a decisive victory, the defeat ended up rallying the remaining Texian rebels to fight even harder.
Just over a month after the Alamo, on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna’s army of over 1,300 was caught off guard near the San Jacinto River by roughly 900 Texians led by Sam Houston. In the 18-minute Battle of San Jacinto that followed, Santa Anna’s forces were split and routed, with over 600 killed or captured. Santa Anna himself was caught the following day and forced to order the remaining Mexican forces to retreat from Texas soil. Two months after San Jacinto, Santa Anna signed a treaty agreeing to withdraw his troops south of the Rio Grande River and to recognize an independent Republic of Texas under a new president, Sam Houston.
The Mexican-American War
In 1845, the United States voted to annex Texas as a new state. This angered Mexico, which still considered Texas part of its sovereign territory. Relations deteriorated in 1846 when President James K. Polk sent US troops to the disputed Texas-Mexico border, provoking skirmishes that soon sparked a full-scale war. Again appointed president of Mexico and seeking revenge for the loss of Texas a decade earlier, Santa Anna vowed to personally lead troops to defeat the Americans.
The war began in earnest in early 1847, as Santa Anna marched north to encounter an invasion force led by US General Zachary Taylor. At the Battle of Buena Vista in February, Santa Anna failed to dislodge Taylor’s smaller army despite repeatedly throwing his numerically superior forces against defended American positions. Though tactically inconclusive, the battle was a major strategic victory for the US, as the Mexican army was forced to withdraw and leave northern Mexico open to occupation.
Santa Anna returned to Mexico City to raise and train reinforcements. In September 1847, he marched out with over 20,000 men to mount a counteroffensive against the US General Winfield Scott’s army that had recently landed amphibiously to the south near Veracruz. However, Scott’s troops steadily pushed inland after securing their beachhead, skillfully overcoming Santa Anna’s defenses in a series of battles. In mid-September, Santa Anna tried and failed to defend fortified positions on the approaches to Mexico City at Molino del Rey and Chapultepec Castle. On September 14, 1847, US troops seized the Mexican capital in the dramatic Battle for Mexico City, though Santa Anna escaped.
Exile and Legacy
The fall of Mexico City decisively concluded the Mexican-American War, with a peace treaty signed in early 1848 that forced Mexico to cede over half a million square miles of territory to the United States in exchange for $15 million in compensation. The loss discredited Santa Anna once again, and he was soon ousted from power and exiled from Mexico. Though he schemed to return to leadership in the following decades, Santa Anna lived most of the rest of his life in exile in Cuba, Colombia, and America before dying in obscurity in Mexico City in 1876 at age 82.
In many ways, Santa Anna embodied both the most ambitious and tragic qualities of Mexico during its first decades of independence from Spain. His military record was mixed, marked by arrogance and impulsiveness but also fleeting moments of strategic insight and tactical brilliance. However, his political opportunism and tendency to switch allegiances and break promises most defined his legacy. Santa Anna’s penchant for centralizing power under corrupt dictatorships helped lead to deep disillusionment in Mexico with the early promises of democracy and self-governance following independence. His repeated attempts to defend Mexican national pride against foreign interventions ultimately led to painful military defeats and loss of territory. Nonetheless, for all his flaws and failures, Antonio López de Santa Anna stands as one of the most intriguing and complex figures from the turbulent early decades of independent Mexico.
Key Facts and Details
- Antonio López de Santa Anna was a Mexican general and politician who led Mexico against Texas and the United States in the pivotal conflicts of the Texas Revolution and Mexican-American War during the mid-19th century.
- Santa Anna shifted allegiances in his youth, first fighting for Spanish colonial rule before becoming a Mexican independence leader in 1821.
- As president of Mexico on multiple occasions in the 1830s and 1840s, Santa Anna often ruled as a dictator and centralized power under his control.
- Santa Anna crushed early Texan revolts, but his arrogance led to disastrous defeats during the Texas Revolution at the Alamo and San Jacinto.
- After Texas was annexed by the U.S., Santa Anna returned to power to lead Mexican forces against the American invasion during the Mexican-American War.
- Despite early battlefield successes, Santa Anna ultimately failed to prevent the U.S. seizure of Mexico City in 1847, forcing Mexico to cede vast territory in defeat.
Santa Anna’s Key Military Engagements
|Santa Anna’s Role
|Battle of the Alamo
|Tactical win, strategic blunder
|Battle of San Jacinto
|Decisive Mexican defeat
|President and general of Mexico
|Mexican defeat, ceded territory to U.S.
|Battle of Buena Vista
|Commander of Mexican forces
|Tactically inconclusive, strategic Mexican withdrawal
|Battle for Mexico City
|Commander of defending troops
|Decisive Mexican defeat
In conclusion, General Antonio López de Santa Anna was the prominent Mexican leader who commanded troops against both the Texian rebels and American invaders in the Texas Revolution and Mexican-American War. As president of Mexico during the 1830s-1840s, Santa Anna sought to consolidate central power and crush dissent. His aggressive efforts to maintain Mexican control over Texas by military force backfired, as his overconfidence led to catastrophic defeats that lost Texas to independence. Later, Santa Anna again took command of Mexican forces against American invasion during the Mexican-American War. Despite some early battlefield successes, he proved unable to stop the seizure of Mexico’s capital in 1847, dooming Mexico to defeat and loss of huge amounts of territory. Flawed as both a politician and general, Santa Anna nonetheless embodied Mexico’s travails and fits of militarism during its turbulent early independent era.