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© (1997 and 2002) Donald J. Mabry
Santa Anna (born on February 21, 1794 in Jalapa, Vera Cruz and christened Antonio López de Santa Anna Pérez de Lebrón) became one of the most famous and infamous Mexicans of the 19th century. To U.S. citizens, especially Texans, his reputation is unsavory. Mexicans tend to have mixed opinions. Most persons agree that he was a man without integrity, an opportunist. From May, 1833 until August, 1855, the presidency changed hands 36 times (average term was 7.5 months); Santa Anna was president eleven times.
His background would not have suggested such a life. He was the son of a respected Spanish colonial family; his father as a sub-delegate for the province of Vera Cruz was a minor royal official. His family was wealthy enough to send him to school. Even when his trouble making caused his parents to pull him out of school, for Antonio had made it clear that studying held no interest, his father used his friendship and connections with persons in the Spanish merchant community to apprentice the boy to a firm of merchants in the city of Veracruz. Antonio, a bright and energetic youngster, could have become rich had he stayed with the mercantile business but he found trade as boring as school. He finally convinced his father to let him join the Vera Cruz Infantry regiment on June 9, 1810. At sixteen, he became an army cadet. He had found his passion.
The young cadet, born a colonial Spaniard, initially defended the Crown. Within months after joining and with little training, he was sent to fight. On September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla started Mexico's first effort to wrest independence from Spain. In March, 1811, Santa Anna and about five hundred others were sent by boat to Tampico. From there they were to march to fight Hidalgo's forces. They were disappointed, for the priest had been captured elsewhere by the time they arrived.
Since the unit was already in northern Mexico, a vast, arid, and desolate region, where Indians nations were still resisting European and mestizo encroachments, the royal government reassigned the unit to Indian warfare. Indian warfare required cavalry troops with their mobility and ability to operate far from supply lines. These cavalry units struck quickly and usually killed their prisoners, for they did not want to be burdened with them. Executing Indians (who were often considered sub-human) and traitors was accepted practice. When Santa Anna transferred to the cavalry, he was trained in the most brutal tactics of the time. Frontal charges, risk taking, and the execution of captured opponents would characterize his military tactics throughout his career.
A man of action, he loved soldiering. It was exciting, decisive, and rewarding. He demonstrated his courage during a battle in San Luis Potosí province in August, 1811 He was promoted quickly—to second lieutenant in February, 1812, to first lieutenant before the end of that year. In 1813, his unit dashed to Coahuila-Texas province to suppress a rebellion there. They took no prisoners.
Being an officer also carried special privileges. During his first tour of duty in Texas he stole money from his unit's funds to pay his sizable gambling debts. Caught out, he was reprimanded, told to restore the funds, and, in 1814, quietly sent back to Vera Cruz. His fellow officers took care of him, for they did not have to obey civilian law. They enjoyed the fuero militar (military privilege), which meant that only fellow officers could punish them for peccadillos or crimes. Officers protected one another not only on the battlefield but also against other "enemies"—civilians and common soldiers. His officer status and uniform also helped him philander, a personality trait which emerged early in his military career. In 1816, he was promoted to captain.
Although from a good family and holding a commission in the royal army, his life might have been insignificant had it not been for the collapse of the Spanish Empire. Military duty in New Spain, as Mexico was then called, consisted mainly of occasional campaigns to suppress Indians or to restore order after a tumult had begun. Royal rule was not so much by force but by allegiance to the Crown. The colony stretched south to Panama and north to present-day Oregon, an area too vast for the Crown (and, later, the Mexican government) to control.
The Crown lost New Spain by losing the support of colonial elites, not through military losses. Father Hidalgo was defeated, defrocked, and disposed of, but Juan Alvarez and Vicente Guerrero led guerrilla bands which unsuccessfully fought for independence. The royal army could not defeat them either. Most of the elite supported the Crown and most people followed the lead of the elite. Agustín Iturbide , a criollo royalist army officer, deserted the cause of King Ferdinand VII when he realized that his fellow Mexican conservatives would not accept the Spanish constitution of 1812 which Ferdinand had been forced to reinstate in 1820. Alvarez, and Guerrero reluctantly supported Iturbide. The old order was crumbling, giving opportunities to ambitious men such as Santa Anna.
Santa Anna, who had just been promoted to Lt. Colonel by the Spanish Viceroy in March, 1821, climbed on the Iturbide bandwagon, becoming a colonel. When he defeated a Spanish general in April, Iturbide promoted him to Chief of the Army's 11th Division. Iturbide found the young colonel to be quarrelsome and opportunistic. Santa Anna, in spite of reckless bravery, failed to dislodge the Spanish from their island fortress in Vera Cruz harbor, the major reason he was sent there as military governor in 1821 and he so angered the local people by his constant forced requisitions of their goods and money, that Iturbide had to reassign him to Jalapa. After he was instrumental in capturing Vera Cruz city in October, 1822, Iturbide promoted him to brigadier general and made him commander of the Vera Cruz province.
The young general, now twenty-eight, exploited his situation for personal gain. He started acquiring land (and eventually would own a large hacienda). He frequented gambling establishments and dallied with willing women. Having gone to Mexico City, the young general courted favor with the Emperor by paying affectionate attention to the Emperor's sixty-year old sister. Nevertheless, Santa Anna was never particularly obedient to the Emperor. Iturbide solved that problem by sending Santa Anna back to Vera Cruz as military and then civilian commander when Guadalupe Victoria rose up in revolt, proclaiming that Mexico should be a republic. He didn't stay long because he once again angered the locals and had to be recalled to Mexico City.
Iturbide's reign as emperor was short-lived, for he was never popular and had to rely upon military support to stay in power. His generals began to desert him. In December, 1822, Santa Anna defected to the republican cause, bringing with him the custom houses revenues and the support of the wealthy Vera Cruz merchants who disliked Iturbide so much that they were willing to accept Santa Anna's promises of protection. The republican forces carried the day; Iturbide abdicated in March, 1823.
The new republican government was unsure how to handle Santa Anna, for some of its members recognized how fickle his allegiances were. He was first sent to San Luis Potosí state but then brought back to Mexico and put under house arrest when he openly supported the federalist faction in the new government. Vicente Guerrero had him released, reinstated as a brigadier general, and sent to distant Yucatán as military commander. His aid in the defeat of Iturbide was valued. By mid-1824, however, he was in trouble with the central government once again for he unilaterally declared war on Spain and tried to invade Cuba! He was ordered back to Mexico City and put in charge of army engineers, a post so boring that Santa Anna quit and went home to his estate near Jalapa, Vera Cruz in 1825.
Santa Anna married fourteen-year-old Inés García [or Inés Garate, the records aren't clear], daughter of a prosperous Spaniard and sired four children. He acquired more land and became a prosperous gentleman farmer. Even with his marriage, his children, his gambling, and his wenching, life was boring. He missed the military life and he was no longer a national political factor. To play a role in the political activities of the nation, he joined a Masonic lodge, for they provided the organizational basis of the political factions.(1) York Rite lodges tended to be liberal while Scottish Rite lodges tended to be conservative. Santa Anna joined a York lodge and bought a Yorkish newspaper, but, when the power of the liberal government waned, he quietly joined a Scottish Rite lodge. As a major landowner and a general, his normal loyalty would be to ally with the wealthy and privileged, but his immediate concern was to be on the winning side in any battle. Switching allegiance never troubled him.
He had ample opportunity in the ensuing years; Mexico lacked political consensus and power was seized by force of arms. Santa Anna fought for President Victoria and helped put down a conservative rebellion in 1827-28 led by vice president Nicolás Bravo and the Scottish rite Masonic lodges. He was named governor of Vera Cruz as a reward. In the 1828 elections, however, the states elected the conservative Manuel Pedraza as president and the liberal Vicente Guerrero, the incumbent government's candidate, as vice president. Santa Anna drove Pedraza from power. Guerrero became president with the conservative Anastatio Bustamante as vice president. Santa Anna was promoted to division general, the highest military rank. Santa Anna then won national acclaim in September 1829 when he defeated an invading Spanish army at Tampico. The next month he returned to his home and, in early 1830, resigned his political and military assignments. Guerrero refused to discard his wartime emergency powers; his conservative vice president, Anastasio Bustamante overthrew him in 1830, imposed a dictatorship, and persecuted liberals. Guerrero, the old independence warhorse, was executed in 1831. The hue and cry following this barbarous act told Santa Anna which side would win. In 1832, calling himself a liberal, he raised an army and overthrew the government. Then, feigning illness, he returned home to Jalapa to await the 1833 presidential election. He knew that he was the logical choice to govern the troubled land, for he was the most popular and powerful man in the country.
Santa Anna won the presidency in 1833 as a Liberal with Valentín Gómez Farías as his vice presidential candidate, but governing little interested him. Or perhaps he realized that the Liberal program would be controversial. Regardless, he pleaded illness and went home to Jalapa, leaving Gómez Farías as acting president. Conservatives revolted when Gómez Farías, through the "Laws of '33," which ended special privileges; Santa Anna suppressed the rebellion. Liberal efforts to dismantle the vestiges of the colonial past brought even stronger Conservative protests, so much so that Santa Anna returned to the presidency in 1834, sent the Liberals and their "Laws of "33" packing, and established a dictatorship. Conservatives replaced Liberals in state government. He again pleaded ill health in January, 1835, and returned to Jalapa, only to have to lead an army into Zacatecas to suppress another revolt in May. Returning to the presidency once again, he abolished the constitution of 1824, abolished state governments and put them under military control, made sure that only the wealthy could hold public office, and repressed dissent In 1836, the ultraconservative "7 Laws," which became the constitution. It made sure that only the wealthy could hold public office, and abolished state governments, turning them into military departments. Dissent would not be tolerated, for it threatened to destroy the nation. Although a number of Mexicans protested, only those in distant Coahuila-Texas found a successful means to resist. They and their illegal alien allies from the United States declared independence from Mexico.
Texas had been a long-term problem for the Mexico government. Located on the northeastern border, it was difficult to govern, for one had to cross hundred of miles of arid and semi-arid land before reaching the fertile lands of northeastern-most Mexico. In the colonial period, the Crown had established a fort and mission (the Alamo) in San Antonio as a defensive measure. By the 1820s, however, the cotton boom in the U.S. meant that U.S. citizens were infiltrating across the unguarded border Mexico to acquire cheap land in Mexico. In an effort to forestall the "Americanization" of Texas, the Mexican government granted land to a group led by the Austin family on condition that the members become Mexican and Roman Catholic. The effort failed, for both legal and illegal immigrants violated the law. By 1835, the illegals vastly outnumbered Mexicans and many wanted Texas to be part of the U.S., from whence they had come. Exacerbating the situation was the 1829 Mexican law outlawing the keeping of humans in captivity. Texans ignored the law with impunity for no Mexico City government could enforce it. The Santa Anna government, certainly no friend of civil liberties and democratic procedure, seemed to have the will to enforce the law. Texans revolted in 1836, aided by foreign adventurers from the neighboring United States.
Santa Anna lost the Texas war for independence and his presidency. His earlier experience in Texas had been against bandits and Indians and executing prisoners was routine procedure. In the 1836 Texas campaign, however, he faced men who had military experience in the United States and who were reinforced by volunteers from that country. When the traitors and foreign revolutionaries inside the Alamo refused to surrender, Santa Anna told his troops to take no prisoners. Later, at Goliad , he ordered the execution of captives. These acts goaded the Texans and their allies to fight harder and brought more aid from the U.S. Underestimating his opponents, Santa Anna failed to post sufficient sentries, saw his encampment overrun by Texas soldiers, and was captured. To obtain his release, he signed two treaties, recognizing Texas independence and promising never to fight Texas again. The loss of Texas cost him the presidency, for he returned in disgrace. His assertions that the treaties meant nothing because he had signed under duress and only as a private citizen carried little weight. Mexico repudiated the treaties but the U.S. recognized Texas independence in 1837; Mexico refused to do so.
The national government of Mexico was in disarray and ineffective. The national elite saw politics as "winner take all—loser lose all"and wouldn't compromise. Local political bosses controlled their own regions and the central government had scant ability to enforce its will. Foreigners saw the country as easy pickings.
The French invaded Vera Cruz city in 1838 to collect debts owed by Mexicans to French citizens. Santa Anna won this "Pastry War" (a French baker was one of the creditors) after other Mexican commanders failed. A French cannon ball took off his left leg during a battle. He was a national hero again!
Mexico needed a hero, for the nation was deeply divided and the government was collapsing. The Bustamante government was falling apart. Bustamante named Santa Anna as acting president in 1839 so that Bustamante could lead an army to suppress a rebellion in Tampico. Bustamante succeeded but not as quickly as Santa Anna when he destroyed a rebellion in Puebla. Few could then doubt that the General was more effective than the President. Santa Anna waited until 1841 before overthrowing Bustamante and naming himself dictator, a post he held until 1845.
This presidency was one of his worst. He was vicious and egotistical. To offset criticism, he had his embalmed leg paraded through the streets of the capital to the shrine built to house it. He angered important segments of the elite, the Church, and the army. In November, 1884, he didn't bother to ask Congress if he could lead an army to Guadalajara to put down a rebellion there. His army deserted him and he was captured by Indians, who asked the new government if it would like him delivered as a tamal, cooked and wrapped in banana leaves! Perhaps because he had only been married a year to his second wife, fifteen-year-old María Dolores Tosta, he was sent into exile in Cuba instead.(2)
United States efforts to acquire large portions of Mexico provided the means for Santa Anna to come home and lead the nation again. The U.S. annexed Texas in 1845 and the Polk administration supported the bogus Texas claim that the Rio Grande was the boundary between Mexico and the U.S., a claim that would also give Santa Fe to the U.S. Polk also wanted California. When Mexico refused to sell off some of its territory, Polk prepared for war, sending troops into disputed territory on the lower Rio Grande, across the river from Matamoros. Mexico countered with troops of its own. Shots were exchanged and Polk amended his war message to Congress to assert that Mexicans had attacked Americans on American soil. The Polk administration was uncertain about its ability to beat Mexico and agreed to send Santa Anna home, for he convinced Washington that he would be more reasonable than anyone in Mexico. He convinced the Mexican government that he should lead the attack against the Yankee invaders since he was the nation's most successful. Within a month after his return in August, 1846, he was leading Mexican troops northward.
Mexico, not Santa Anna, lost the war with the U.S., but leaders blamed him and sent him back into exile. Mexican leaders had failed to create an effective national army. Forced to war by the U.S., the government had little choice but to turn to Santa Anna. He was the only general who possibly could defeat the well-trained U.S. army, but he had to build an army as he made his way north to face the invaders. Disgusted with the government which had gotten the nation into this mess, national leaders made Santa Anna president in December, 1846. The President-General fought Zachary Taylor's troops in February, 1847 at Buena Vista. Neither side obtained a clear victory but the Mexicans fell back. Other U.S. troops were also invading Mexico through California and Vera Cruz. Santa Anna regrouped and fought again at Cerro Gordo but the American kept coming until they captured Mexico City in September after defeating adolescent cadets (Los Niños Heróicos) at Chapultepec Castle. The U.S. had also invaded Mexico at numerous other points. Mexico was simply not capable of defeating the well-trained U.S. army. Mexico, not Santa Anna, lost the war.
Disgraced by the loss, Santa Anna resigned and eventually went into exile in Jamaica in April, 1848. While he watched from afar, the U.S. completed its annexation of forty-five percent of his country, which many of his countrymen blamed on him. Much of his Mexican property was confiscated. He lived in Jamaica until 1850 and then in New Granada (Colombia) until 1853. He quietly built a new estate in South America and waited until his countrymen so mismanaged the nation that they would let him return. He did in 1853 as dictator.
The government was broke in 1853 and having difficulty in paying its army; money needed to be found to maintain the regime. Santa Anna made a critical mistake; he sold a portion of Mexican territory (La Mesilla or the Gadsden Purchase) to the hated U.S. His Liberal Party opponents, who had been fighting him for years, mustered enough support to overthrew him in 1855 and send him back into exile once more time.
Try as he might, he was never able to play an important role in Mexican history again. The Liberal Party hated him and was strong enough never to need him. When the French-backed Archduke Maximilian established an erstwhile Mexican Empire, Santa Anna returned to Mexico in 1864, offering to fight the Empire. In 1866 and 1867, the United States government, which supported the Liberal Benito Juárez against Maximilian, enabled Santa Anna to return to Mexico. Juárez, who had been exiled by the old rascal, sent him back to Cuba. The Liberals ousted Maximilian without him.
Only pity for an old man and the fact that Juárez died in 1872 enabled him to return home in 1874. He had been living in Havana and Puerto Plata, Cuba during 1867-68 and then in Nassau until 1874. He wrote his memoirs as his health failed. He always believed himself to be a patriotic Mexican and no worse than any of his contemporaries. When the Mexican government finally relented so he could die on his native soil, he moved to Mexico City where he lived, in part, on the charity of relatives and friends. The almost blind, eighty-two-year-old man died on June 21, 1876.
1. See Paul Rich and Guillermo de ls Reyes, " Problems in the Historiography of Mexican Freemasonary."
2. His second marriage (to María Dolores Tosta) was childless. Santa Anna legally recognized and provided for his four illegitimate children.
Antonio López de Santa Anna Collection Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas-Austin.
Anna, Timothy E., The Mexican Empire of Iturbide. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Callcott, Wilfrid Hardy. Santa Anna; the Story of an Enigma Who Once Was Mexico. Hamden, CT, Archon Books, 1964.
Santa Anna, Antonio López de, The Eagle: The Autobiography of Santa Anna. Austin, Pemberton Press, 1967.
Jones, Oakah, Jr., Santa Anna. New York: Twayne, 1968.
Johnson, Richard Abraham, The Mexican Revolution of Ayutla, 1854-1855. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1974.
Mabry, Donald J., "Antonio López de Santa Anna," Historic World Leaders, 5: North & South America, M-Z. Detroit and London: Gale Research, Inc, 1994, 756-760.
Meyer, Michael and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History, 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.