This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
President James K. Polk issued a secret order on May 13, 1846 granting an infamous exile safe passage through U.S. lines.
By telling the American leader exactly what he wanted to hear, that he alone could bring an early end to the Mexican War, Santa Anna finagled a trip home.
Less than a month into the grudge match with the gringos, the conflict was already going badly for the Mexicans. Belligerent boasts the northern giant would pay through the nose for the annexation of Texas were proving to be just so much hot air, as the advancing Americans whipped Mexico’s best with embarrassing ease.
While his successor soothed the sting of defeat by drinking himself into a daily stupor, Santa Anna cooled his heels in Havana, his forwarding address after a second scandal-ridden regime. Supremely confident that he alone could rescue his besieged nation, the deposed dictator was itching to climb back into the saddle.
Deciding a megalomaniac was a step up from a drunk, desperate Mexicans overthrew the government in a practically bloodless coup. Offering the “Napoleon of the West” a new lease on his political life, the rebels begged Santa Anna to seize the reins in the dual role of president and commander of the demoralized army.
But first the born-again hero had to find a way through the air-tight naval blockade off the Mexican coast. Opening private negotiations with President Polk, he vowed to surrender on terms favorable to the Tennessean in exchange for his assistance in a rapid return to power.
Polk was no babe in the woods and undoubtedly realized that the cunning despot had more tricks up this sleeve than a riverboat gambler. But if the Mexican was willing to betray his country in order to feather his own personal nest, who was he to stand in the way? The deal was made, and with the controversial safe conduct Polk guaranteed smooth sailing for the exile’s homecoming.
After regrouping the Mexican forces, Santa Anna caught Gen. Zachary Taylor flat-footed at Buena Vista in January 1847. The surprise attack left the Americans on the rope and ripe for the kill, but their opponent suddenly withdrew. Though his countrymen later preferred to think him a traitor rather than simply incompetent, the fact remained that Santa Anna wilted in the heat of battle.
True to form, the Mexican, who a decade before let Texas slip through his fingers, managed to finish second in skirmish after skirmish with the invaders. Committing boneheaded mistakes that would have put a private against the wall, Santa Anna could not win for losing.
While he persisted in fighting in clear violation of the covert pact with Polk, Washington bureaucrats blindly swallowed his lame excuses. Still convinced Santa Anna was faithfully playing both ends against the middle, the state department continued to funnel money to its man in Mexico City in the vain hope that he might complete his undercover assignment.
When the Mexican War at last staggered to a close, Santa Anna stood far taller in the eyes of the enemy than his own people. With the notable exception of the Texas troops, who knew the butcher of the Alamo and Goliad for the monster he really was, the discredited general owed his life to the American officers that escorted him into yet another exile.
To the utter disgust of the Texas Rangers, the general staff actually held a farewell banquet for Santa Anna the evening prior to his departure from conquered Mexico. In a scene straight out of a ridiculous European novel, the two-faced villain was toasted as a valiant foe.
The same short-sighted officers also took credit for saving Santa Anna from the wrath of the bloodthirsty Texans, portrayed in the northern press as merciless barbarians who broke every rule in the gentleman’s game of nineteenth-century warfare. Since the fiercely independent fighters always went their own way, it was out of character for them to obey the Yankee brass on such an emotion-charged occasion.
Ranger ranks did indeed seethe with an overwhelming desire to tear Santa Anna limb from limb, but their own captain kept the frontier cavalrymen in line. Asking his men to do nothing that would dishonor Texas, low-key Jack Hays prevented a violent international incident.
As Santa Anna’s carriage rolled slowly past the assembled Rangers, scores of fingers were poised on the trigger. For the terrified dictator, the short ride to the ship waiting to transport him to foreign sanctuary must have taken forever.
Eyewitnesses insisted that Santa Anna visibly paled at the sight of the wild-eyed Texans and quickly turned away in obvious fear. If looks could kill, he would have been a dead man before he reached the dock.
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