Santa Anna Did a Lot More than Kill Davy Crockett

Feb 17 2015 | 01:29 AM

    -Ramon Alcaraz, The Other Side

    New York was mother of exiles long before Emma Lazarus bestowed that accolade on the Statue of Liberty. Some merely sought respite from the struggle. Giuseppe Garibaldi, between commanding the armies of the revolutionary Roman Republic in 1848 and the unification of Italy in 1860, spent a quiet year or so in Rosebank, Staten Island. Many Latin American revolutionaries also spent time in New York: the father of Cuban independence, Jose Marti, for instance, whose dashing features now adorn rum advertisements.

    In the late spring of 1866, one might have met another Latin American exile-a lesser man but more successful politician-limping up Broadway from the Staten Island ferry to yet another meeting with his rapacious lawyers or hangers-on. Eleven times Mexico's president, Antonio Lopez de Santa-Anna Perez de Lebron-His Serene Highness; General-in-Chief of the Liberating Army of the Mexican Republic; Well-Deserving of His Country; the Hero of Tampico; the Hero of Vera Cruz; the Benefactor of the Fatherland; Napoleon of the West (he had proclaimed himself all of these)-was plotting yet another comeback.

    In this country, Santa Anna is known solely as the man who massacred Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. His capacity for cruelty was only one aspect of a character so complicated that one biographer called him "the enigma who once was Mexico." He had first taken power in the 1830s over what was then one of the largest countries in the world. From 1836 to 1847, through his faults as a soldier and statesman (as well as American expansionism), he had lost half the nation's territory: nearly one million square miles of land, comprising what is now most of the Western United States. Despite this, he had again served as president from 1853 to 1854 and felt he might serve again.

    Santa Anna was still handsome, with fine dark eyes, sensual lips and a full head of dark hair. Restless and energetic, he was usually involved in a revolution, plot or coup attempt-one nearly every year. His great strength came from the Mexican street, where (paradoxically) his pseudo-aristocratic poses had overwhelming appeal to the illiterate masses.

    He was born at Jalapa, Vera Cruz, on Feb. 21, 1794, to a family of middle-class creoles: Mexican-born Spanish whites. Uninterested in school or business, the younger Antonio was appointed in June 1810 to a cadetship in the Spanish colonial army, where he fought bandits, insurgents and Indians. He was repeatedly decorated for valor and barely escaped court martial for embezzling regimental funds.

    As long as the right held sway in Madrid, the insurgents in Mexico remained weak. But in 1820, the Spanish Liberals came to power, summarily abolishing the economic, legal and social privileges enjoyed by the Roman Catholic Church and by the army. Suddenly, quietly, large numbers of the Mexican colonial establishment changed sides, sensing they might preserve their perquisites by ruling their own country.

    On March 29, 1821, at 4 a.m., troops under Santa Anna's command defeated a force of insurgents; the Spanish promoted him to lieutenant colonel on the spot. At 2 p.m., he changed sides; the insurgents made him a full colonel. His timing was impeccable: within weeks, the Spanish regime in Mexico crumbled.

    Independent Mexico was first an empire, ruled by Augustin Iturbide, another ex-Spanish officer. The Emperor failed to promote Santa Anna to full general. Worse, he ordered Santa Anna's removal from command at Vera Cruz. The young brigadier mustered his troops and called for a republic. (He later admitted he had not known what a republic was.) By happy coincidence, the Emperor had disappointed many in his brief reign. Numerous generals also rose against him. Abdication followed. Once again (and perhaps he perceived this) Santa Anna's timing in changing sides had precipitated change itself. Now, under the Republic, he was a general, his uniform encrusted with gold braid and festooned with the numerous crosses, medals and stars he had won fighting for and against Mexican independence and for and against the Empire.

    The new Republic was not blessed in its leaders, who seem to have been a melange of fanatical ideologues and cynical adventurers. History's indictment is that Santa Anna was the most effective of the lot. The Republic was torn by endless factional struggles, not merely between cliques or parties, but even the different rites of the Masonic order. Santa Anna flourished in this revolving-door politics: having been a Loyalist, then an Imperialist and then a Republican, he would soon have been a Federalist, a Liberal, a Centralist, a Conservative and a follower of the Scottish and the Yorkist Rites.

    In the 22 years between 1833 and 1855 Mexico enjoyed no fewer than 36 presidencies, 11 of them Santa Anna's. Changes of power were a process nearly as orderly as an American election. A general called together his troops and read a pronunciamento, a fire-breathing proclamation against the government, usually calling for freedom and liberty. Next he published his program, or "plan." Then the insurgent and government forces would face each other. Rarely, they fought. Much more frequently, they felt each other out, feinted and negotiated. If the government forces remained loyal, the insurgent commander "depronounced." If the government forces changed sides, the insurgents marched into Mexico City while the incumbent president booked passage on a fast boat out of Vera Cruz.

    Santa Anna loved gambling, whether dice or cards, and Mexican politics, too, was a game of chance. The payoff could be tremendous. A lieutenant who had brought over a few ragged privates might find himself a general overnight; a general who had changed sides at the right moment might find himself a cabinet minister; the fellows who hadn't might find themselves in exile, waiting for the next change of fortune. Santa Anna's genius for this kind of politics led him to the governorships of Yucatan and then Vera Cruz.

    In 1829, the Spanish landed an army at Tampico to reconquer their lost colony. Santa Anna assembled an army by seizing all weapons in Vera Cruz and forcing loans from the local merchants, commandeered six ships and sailed for Tampico. Within three weeks, through bluff and audacity, he had misled the Spanish into believing his forces much stronger than they were and negotiated a surrender. He crowned himself with glory by writing the official dispatches, emerging as the Hero of Tampico, even further bemedaled, with a trunk of jeweled swords from the various Mexican states.

    He overthrew the government in his own right in 1833, becoming president as a Liberal. Within the year, proclaiming Mexico unready for democracy, he governed as an autocratic Centralist.

    One result of his dictatorship was the practical abolition of slavery. Texas, then a Mexican state largely populated by American immigrant slave-owners or pro-slavers, found this intolerable and rebelled. Santa Anna's response was as ruthless as Lincoln's in 1861: he marched north to suppress the rebellion, proclaiming that all opponents taken in arms would be put to death. He even claimed that if the Americans supported Texan independence, he would advance until he raised the Mexican flag over the Capitol in Washington.

    On Feb. 26, 1836, he rode into San Antonio, TX, where he found an insurgent garrison in a fortified monastery called the Alamo. Santa Anna besieged the fort for just over a week. At 5 a.m. on March 6, 1836, the Mexican buglers sounded the deguello, the ancient Spanish call (its name derived from the verb meaning "throat-cutting") that signifies no quarter to the losers. The Mexicans got over the wall on the second try to find the Texans barricaded in every building. The Mexicans took four hours to take the fort; the white male survivors were bayoneted. Santa Anna probably sustained 500 casualties.

    He fought as he had been trained, as a colonial officer in ruthless colonial wars. From his point of view, the rebellion itself was an act of treason: the Texans were Mexican subjects rebelling against lawful authority. And after all, the Texans fought in much the same way. (Santa Anna's treatment of the women, children and slaves taken prisoner at the Alamo was most humane, with many being passed through Mexican lines to the insurgent forces.)

    At San Jacinto, commanding superior forces, Santa Anna caught up with Gen. Sam Houston and the 800-man army of Texas. It was a hot afternoon. Santa Anna ordered his men to siesta, a custom sacrosanct in Mexican warfare-so much so that the Napoleon of the West failed to post guards against the enemy.

    Houston was in no mood to honor Mexican customs. Only a few of Santa Anna's army were on their feet when Houston's artillery opened fire and the Texans, screaming, "Remember the Alamo," slaughtered every Mexican they could get their hands on. Quickly sizing up the situation, the Hero of Tampico grabbed a horse and galloped off. Within the hour, the Mexicans lost 400 men, leaving 200 wounded and 730 taken prisoner, while Santa Anna, a few miles away, abandoned his horse and discarded his uniform for some clothes stolen from a farmhouse. A scouting party captured him, unaware of his identity. It wasn't until they had brought him into Houston's camp, past the stockade where the prisoners of war were held, the Mexicans murmuring recognition, that they realized whom they had taken.

    He was brought before Houston where, legend has it, he gave the Masonic signal of distress to some of the Texan officers. It is unclear whether Houston said, as the official version puts it, "Ah, general, take a seat," or, as the unofficial version has it, uttered a more profane and somewhat less friendly greeting. Yet even in defeat, Santa Anna could still sling it: "The man may consider himself born to no common destiny who has conquered the Napoleon of the West, and it now remains for him to be generous to the vanquished."

    Houston dictated the terms of victory on the spot. He compelled Santa Anna to order an armistice, all Mexican forces to retreat from Texas and all Texan prisoners released. Houston also forced him to sign the treaty of Velasco, by which Texas became independent. The treaty also ensured the Hero's personal survival, albeit at the price of Mexican territory.

    Two years later, a French citizen, claiming his bakery in Mexico City had been looted during a riot, demanded compensation from the Mexican government. The French, who were pressuring Mexico into a trade agreement, sent a fleet to bombard Vera Cruz. Santa Anna rode out of disgrace to command the city's defenders with dash and courage. Several horses were shot out from under him before a French blast shattered his left leg below the knee. Though the limb was lost, honor was regained. He became acting president in 1839 and overthrew the government again in 1841, effectively ruling as dictator until 1845.

    Most of Santa Anna's term was dedicated to furthering his cult of personality and replenishing his personal finances, his greed equaled only by his extravagance. To raise money, he raised taxes exponentially and even sold phony mining shares to foreign investors. In 1842, he unearthed the remains of his leg, which were paraded through Mexico City and placed in a giant urn in the public square. The good times ended only after he had emptied the treasury and left his soldiers unpaid. The new regime sentenced him to exile. He would be back.

    The United States annexed Texas in 1845, which the Mexicans denounced as an act of war. The U.S. responded by blockading Vera Cruz (then as now also an act of war) and moving troops to the Rio Grande. In February 1846, Santa Anna entered into negotiations with President James K. Polk, offering a peace settlement in exchange for assistance in regaining power. Polk took the bait. On August 16, 1846, Santa Anna and his staff landed at Vera Cruz, having been allowed to pass through the American blockade.

    Polk now learned what various Mexican politicians had learned before him: Santa Anna was a terrific double-crosser: On arriving, he declared, "Mexicans! There was once a day, and my heart dilates with the remembrance?you saluted me with the title of Soldier of the People. Allow me to take it again, never more to be given up, and to devote myself until death to the defense of the liberty and independence of the Republic!"

    Upon the declaration of war, Santa Anna took the field as generalissimo of the Mexican forces. His intelligence service learned one American army under Zachary Taylor would advance from the north and a second, under Winfield Scott, would land at Vera Cruz to march on Mexico City. Santa Anna first dealt with Taylor at Buena Vista on Feb. 22-23, 1847. His attack enveloped Taylor's left and shattered three American regiments. Taylor fell back on Monterrey, where he remained for the rest of the war.

    Having effectively neutralized Taylor, Santa Anna turned to face Winfield Scott, who smashed him at Cerro Gordo, on April 17-18, 1847. The Mexican then began secret negotiations with Scott, demanding a $1 million bribe to make peace. Scott actually paid a $10,000 advance. Santa Anna double-crossed Scott, too, pocketing the money and raising another army. They fought again, at Churubusco. Scott drove Santa Anna from the field and took Mexico City. Once more, Santa Anna went into exile. Any other man, in any other country, would have been glad to leave with his life. He would be back.

    The Conservatives seized power in January 1853. They wanted a monarchy ruled by a European prince. But choosing one would take time, and the rightists in the government believed Santa Anna could keep order until the choice was made and, fools that they were, made him president on April 20, 1853. How the old man must have laughed! Within months, he had squandered the treasury, much of it on pleasure. He sold the Mesilla Valley-what is now southern Arizona and New Mexico-to the United States as the Gadsden Purchase for $10 million. In 1854, the Liberals overthrew and exiled him.

    For 11 years he plotted his return. In 1864, when the French invaded Mexico to install the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as Emperor, the old man returned home, proclaiming himself a monarchist. Maximilian had learned from others' experience: he exiled Santa Anna almost immediately.

    In January 1865, Secretary of State William H. Seward, on a tour of the West Indies, paid Santa Anna a visit in St. Thomas. The aging Santa Anna interpreted the visit as an indication of official support from America and retained various Washington lobbyists. At least one of these sensed that the old man could be defrauded.

    He sent a letter to Santa Anna, forged with Seward's signature, reporting that the House of Representatives had approved a $50 million loan for Mexico, $30 million of which had been earmarked to finance Santa Anna's return to power. A ship was leased. Before the General left St. Thomas, he had paid out $70,000 in cash. He may not have understood that his name had meanwhile been signed to some $250,000 in notes for supplies. Certainly, he was surprised on arriving in New York on May 12, 1866, to find no one from the State Dept. at the dock to greet him, and that the guns of the harbor forts did not fire a salute in his honor, and that the cash was not immediately available.

    Various suits and countersuits commenced over the procurement of the ship, the enforcement of the notes and even the terms of the General's room and board. His legal fees were reportedly $30,000. Eventually, his nephew, suspecting that the old man was being swindled, wrote directly to Seward to ask whether in fact the United States government had undertaken to finance Santa Anna's return to power. Seward replied in the negative. The old rascal had been outfoxed, the conner conned.

    On March 22, 1867, with Maximilian's fall at hand, Santa Anna left New York aboard the merchant ship Virginia. He attempted to land at Vera Cruz on June 7, 1867, only to be intercepted by an American warship. He tried again four days later at Yucatan, where he was arrested, jailed, tried by a military tribunal and sentenced to exile.

    In 1874, they let him come home. There were no crowds as he landed at Vera Cruz; the railway to Mexico City carried him into anonymity. He sought back military pay and the return of his estates. He was refused. The nation celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of Churubusco with speeches and parades; the man who had commanded Mexico's troops that day was not invited. His health, eyesight and mind failed, and he died of chronic diarrhea on June 21, 1876.

    One last thing. During his sojourn on Staten Island, Santa Anna had hired a certain James Adams to act as his interpreter and secretary. During the many hours they spent together, Adams often noted the General's habit of cutting and chewing thin slices from an unfamiliar, exotic plant-not exactly palatable yet elastic enough to tire the most persistent jaws. The General called this plant chicle and left some behind on his departure. Adams experimented with it, blending it with various sweeteners and flavorings. The results were wildly popular: it has never left the American mouth. The Hero's enduring legacy is chewing gum.