Mutiny on the road to San Jacinto

Hearing his commander-in-chief had decided to stand and fight, an insubordinate captain rejoined the Texas Army on Apr. 14, 1836 in time for the Battle of San Jacinto.

When Travis’ final appeal reached the independence convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos on Mar. 5, 1836, Sam Houston quickly excused himself.  He headed for Gonzales “to collect all the armed forces that could be found” and to march to the Alamo according to his “Review of the San Jacinto Campaign” written in 1845.

It must have been slow going because Houston did not arrive at Gonzales until Mar. 11.  Told the Alamo had fallen on the sixth, he took command of the motley crew calling themselves an army and tried to figure out how to stay one step ahead of Santa Anna.

On top of the heap of the problems facing Houston, one of his most bitter enemies had been elected captain of the largest company.  During a heated debate over the colonists’ course in late 1835, Moseley Baker had gotten Sam’s dander up.  In response to the former speaker of the Alabama house, who had fled to Texas rather than go to prison for forgery, Houston roared, “I had rather be a slave and grovel in the dust all my life than be a convicted felon!”

Baker had neither forgotten nor forgiven the personal attack and ached to return the compliment.  He was perfect for the part of chief critic, and Houston kept him second-guessing with a series of controversial and occasionally questionable decisions.

Believing a superior Mexican force was bearing down on him, Houston ordered the sleepy-eyed volunteers to break camp on the night of March 13.  Baker expressed his opinion of the hasty departure from Gonzales and the ensuing retreat in a public letter to Houston written in 1844 but not published for 50 years.

“But at the hour of midnight your retreat did commence, and commenced amid a scene ever disgraceful to Texian arms.  You threw your only two pieces of cannon into the river.  You caused many of your men to burn their tents and leave their baggage because your order … prevented them from finding their baggage animals.”

Houston stayed on the move and did not stop until he reached the Colorado on Mar. 17.  But the rain-swollen river was on the rise, and he feared being trapped.  The crossing of the Colorado took the better part of three days, and when it was over the exhausted troops dropped in their tracks at Beason’s not far from Columbus.

And that was where the Texans remained for a week.  Baker was stating the simple truth when he wrote, “By your retreat you abandoned the whole country west of the Colorado to the enemy.”

For the first and only time during the Revolution, the Texans faced an opponent their own size.  Gen. Sesema and his 700-man force were within easy striking distance, and Houston’s officers as well as the rank-and-file clamored for the chance to do battle.

Each day the general promised them a fight, but he was only stalling for time.  His attention was focused not on Sesema but the four columns that threatened to surround him:  Santa Anna at Gonzales with a thousand men, Andrade at San Antonio with 1,500, Gaona at Bastrop with another thousand and Urrea at Goliad with two thousand more.

“You hesitated so long that the most mutinous feeling began to show itself,” Baker recalled with irrefutable accuracy, “and to allay the storm, you unequivocally assured the army that you would fight on the next morning at daybreak.”

When Houston called everybody together on Mar. 27, they thought it was for a pre-attack pep talk.  Instead, he reviewed his reasons for resuming the retreat.

They were now “the only army in Texas” after the surrender of Fannin at Goliad, Houston gravely emphasized.  “There are but few of us, and if we are beaten, the fate of Texas is sealed.  The salvation of the country depends upon the first battle with the enemy. For this reason, I intend to retreat and I shall continue to retreat, if I am obliged to go even to the banks of the Sabine.”

Houston must have been pleasantly surprised by the nearly universal obedience of the disappointed soldiers.  The sole exception was Capt. Moseley Baker.  “Satisfied that you had no intention to fight, I indignantly refused longer to follow you.”

Houston wisely did not to make an issue of his mutinous conduct.  “You rode back to me in person and gave me orders to take post opposite San Felipe with my command.”

He also insisted to his dying day that his superior instructed him “to burn the town on the approach of the enemy.”  Houston subsequently swore he never gave the one order the thorn-in-his-side chose to obey.

However, Baker did not go away and sulk.  “On learning that you were bound for Galveston bay (instead of northeast Texas) I overlooked the past and followed cheerfully your command.”  He caught up with the main army and fought with courage at San Jacinto.

Like many of Sam Houston’s die-hard critics, Moseley Baker could not stomach his post-Revolution popularity.  To his way of thinking, the man he reviled as “the greatest curse that Providence in its wrath could have sent upon the country” was no hero.

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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