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San Antonio Express News
San Antonio, Texas
Sunday, September 13, 1992

Santa Anna’s revived invasion plans crushed at Salado Creek

By Paul N. Spellman
Special to the Express-News

As the thick dawn fog lifted from Alamo Plaza, shocked San Antonio officials startled at the hundreds of Mexican troops standing, armed at parade rest. Gen. Adrian Woll gleamed with pride at his success: the most important city in Texas was under his complete control. It was Sunday, Sept. 11, 1842.

Woll could not know, of course, that a week later, he and his battered army would be retreating from San Antonio and Texas, after a disastrous battle along a small creek just east of the city. From out of the banks of the Salado, Texas forces chased the last invading Mexican troops to the Rio Grande, and beyond.

But what was the Mexican army doing in Texas in the fall of 1842? It was six years alter San Jacinto. The former province of Mexico was recognized as The Republic of Texas now. What events led to this shocking invasion?

A year before the Battle of Salado Creek, and within 30 days of one another, the two San Jacinto adversaries, Gen. Sam Houston of Texas and Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna of Mexico, had been reelected to the presidencies of their countries. In Santa Anna’s inaugural address, he made clear his intentions to "restore the territory of Texas to the Supreme Government." In March 1842, he directed Gen. Rafael Vasques to raid Texas as more of a warning threat than an invasion. Vasques succeeded in capturing San Antonio for a few days, taking a handful of prisoners and livestock, and returning unscathed to Mexico. In June, Colonel Antonio Canales led a small force across the Nueces to harass local ranchers and the southernmost communities, but was repulsed after skirmishes near old Fort Lipantitlan, west of what is now Corpus Christi.

On June 10, 1842, Santa Anna addressed his Congress: The territory of Texas has been usurped to the end of making possible other usurpations. (Mexico) must combat without intermission and at cost of whatever sacrifices until her arms and her rights triumph."

In Texas, Sam Houston and his new administration, frustrated already with internal crises left behind by President Mirabeau Lamar, responded to the attacks from the south with measured alarm and a call for increased frontier protection.

The Texas Rangers, scattered from the Nueces River to San Antonio and north deep into Comanche territory, were irascible and tough but sparsely aligned over the hundreds of miles of borderland.

Early in September, Houston ordered Col. Clark Owen and Maj. Jack Hays to reinforce the frontier, keeping a keen eye along the Rio Grande, and safeguarding the lives of the families along the border. To Owen he wrote:

"Let us know of anything that would interrupt their trade."

Gen. Isidro Reyes, commander-in-chief of Mexico’s Army of the North, received orders from Santa Anna late in June to arrange an incursion across the Rio Grande and into San Antonio. The command of this force was given to the French mercenary and Santa Anna loyalist, Adrian Woll.

Woll had first arrived in Mexico in 1812 as a tempestuous but brave 17-year-old soldier of fortune. His own fortunes roses and fell with his president’s, and in 1842 were on the rise once more.

Woll organized an army of 1,400 soldiers and 200 Indian scouts. Unlike earlier troops, this one was well-armed, well-trained and led by experienced officers, including Col. Cayetano Montero, Col. Pedro Rangel, and Capt. Jose Maria Carrasco of the famed Santa Anna Regiment.

On July 2, a letter from a Texas sympathizer in Matamoros reported that Gen. Woll was situated on the Rio Grande, and five weeks later the same information was confirmed by Col. William G. Cooke a Santa Fe prisoner just released and returning to Texas. Spies from Mexico were seen in and around Bexar all summer, and one of Hays’ rangers, William "Big Foot" Wallace assisted in the capture of the two of them.

For all of the information given and confirmed, the response and preparation were slow in coming, probably because no one believed that Santa Anna would risk yet another invasion so soon after the Canales disaster.

But at dawn on Aug. 31, Woll crossed the Rio Grande and began his determined march upon San Antonio. Taking a wide route first to the north of Laredo and then east through the edge of the Hill Country, Woll managed to escape notice from scouts positioned more to the south and southwest of the old robber’s trail he followed.

On Saturday, Sept. 10, as Woll’s forces approached San Antonio from the west, President Houston received news that three Mexican spies had been captured near the Guadalupe, and that one had confessed to knowledge of an imminent invasion.

Called for help

The only organized force pre-pared to resist was that of Capt. Hays. Short of ammunition, however, he sent word to Austin and Seguin for supplies and reinforcements. Still, no one seemed bent on fortifying San Antonio beyond its normal defenses.

Still on Saturday, a report of sightings west of the city made its way to Judge Anderson Hutchinson, who sounded the alarm and sent word to Hays.

Mayor John W. Smith established a position of defense near the Alamo Plaza, in the spacious, thick-walled home of Samuel and Mary Maverick.

Court was adjourned at noon, and the pealing church bells. warned the townspeople to either remain in their homes or evacuate.

Just before sundown, Hays rode out south of the city to scout, but of course found no sign of the enemy, who was moving inexorably closer, but far to the north.

At the same time, a message arrived in Seguin requesting "50 to 100 men at once." However, the message continued, "Let there be no alarm. We have found from sad experience the consequences of a false rumor.

By midnight the city of San Antonio. Its citizens and its few defenders, was asleep.

At 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Woll’s troops encircled the city and nearby Alamo Plaza. A cannon shot fired through the fog awoke Judge Hutchinson and others, who dashed from their homes in alarm, only to find their situation already hopeless. Chauncey Johnson led about 60 men across the plaza and into the Maverick home, where they opened fire on the Mexican troops, killing one soldier and several horses. When two cannon turned onto the home, however, the small force of Texans surrendered.

By noon, 62 Texans were rounded up and recorded as prisoners of the Mexican army.

Wall’s orders were explicit: Take control of San Antonio and the surrounding area, await reinforcements who would maintain that control for an indefinite period, and to withdraw the army no later than mid-October. (The reinforcements, some 500 strong, bogged down In the swampy land south of the Rio Grande, and never arrived.)

Word of the invasion spread like a prairie fire across Texas.

In Gonzales, Col. Matthew "Old Paint" Caldwell, another Santa Fe prisoner just borne from Imprisonment, gathered his men and started for Seguin. Col. Owen marched south from Victoria to head off any reinforcements for Woll. In Black Jack Springs, near La Grange, Capt. Nicholas Mosby Dawson announced that all able-bodied men should take up arms and supplies and meet Thursday at a designated rendezvous. Capt. A.C. Horton raised a company in Matagorda.

From Seguin, Caldwell force-marched 125 men to Cibolo Creek, making camp some 20 miles east of San Antonio and sending word to Hays, who was circling the city to determine the size and location of the enemy.

On Thursday

On Thursday, Sept. 15, Gen. Woll ordered Capt. Ernetrio Posas to remove the prisoners across the Rio Grande under heavy guard. Fifty-two of the Texans captured on Sunday started out under the watchful eye of 125 Mexican troops.

That same day, Dawson, near La Grange, began a fateful march to San Antonio, gathering 52 men along the way. They would arrive at the Cibolo on Saturday night.

Saturday morning, Sept. 17, Col. Caldwell moved his camp from Cibolo Creek 13 miles closer to the city, selecting a site along Salado Creek where he met Hays and his scouting Rangers. The Texan forces, the only ones who would reach the area in time for battle, numbered 210.

Caldwell was elected commander, and Hays the head of a scouting party. Dr. Caleb Brown was the designated surgeon, and the Rev. Z. N. Morrell, a fiery Baptist preacher and frontiersman, appointed "physician for the souls of the men."

Caldwell, knowing by now that he was outnumbered 7-to-1, decided to draw Woll’s forces out from the fortifications of the city and onto the open prairie on either side of the Texan camp. If successful, he concluded, the Texans’ superior position down the creek’s hollow would make up for the disproportionate numbers of soldiers.

The Texan camp spread across a wide bottom of the Salado, just south of the New Braunfels crossings where the creek suddenly turns west to east for about a thousand yards before ambling back to the south.

Provoke Mexicans

Plans were set during several strategy sessions Saturday night. Hays and three dozen of his scouts would ride into the city, provoke the Mexican army and lead Woll out onto the Salado prairie and into the trap set by the remaining Texas forces, situated along the high creek bank and near a ravine that ran into the Salado.

Arriving on the outskirts of the city at 9:30 Sunday morning, eight of the Texans rode hard into the plaza area, shooting pistols and shouting at the startled morning guard. Turning at the Alamo (still crumbled and fallen six years after the siege), the Texas scouts made a dash back up the New Braunfels road. Appraised of the "attack." Woll ordered 200 troops to pursue. The Mexicans’ horses proved less exhausted and speedier than Hays’ mounts, and the Texan vanguard barely made it into the thick creek brush before being overtaken by their pursuers. The Mexican force crossed the Salado above the Texas camp and stood at arms on the prairie east of the creek hollow.

Woll sent 400 soldiers, including 40 Cherokees under Vicente Cordova, to join the first contingent, and led nearly 500 more to the battlefield himself about 1 p.m. Altogether, over 1,100 Mexicans troops would be involved in the fight, the remainder left to fortify the city.

Although several inconclusive skirmishes had occurred daring the first hours, the battle escalated into the afternoon as a series of feints by the Texans appearing at the edge of the prairie, the cannon fusillade and infantry attack by the Mexicans in response, and the increasingly frustrating disappearance of Caldwell’s men back into the creek bottom.

One dead Texan

The cannon fire, though well directed, shot harmlessly over the creek and the Texans, while the devastating return fire of the Texan sharpshooters withered the resolve of the experienced but outwitted Mexicans.

Only one Texan died along the Salado in the nearly five hours of the battle. Stephen Jett, a San Antonian who had arrived late to the camp from town, tried to retrieve his horse during one of the onslaughts and failed, killing three Mexican soldiers before he fell.

On the Mexican side, the toll was difficult to confirm. Eyewitnesses at the scene claimed over 60 had died and at least 200 wounded. In the official report to Santa Anna, Woll’s self-aggrandizing perspective reversed the numbers, concentrating an on the bravery of his soldiers against the Texans.

Dawson Massacre

The Battle of Salado Creek would have been counted as an overwhelming victory for Texas except for a disastrous fight that took place nearly two miles from the battlefield. This was the Dawson Massacre.

Nicholas Mosby Dawson and his 52 cavalrymen had hurried from Black Jack Springs in a futile attempt to reinforce Caldwell and Hays by Sunday morning, instead, they managed to reach only Cibolo. Creek, where they received the news from two scouts that the battle was at hand.

Dawson called hastily for a decision by the men, whether to await other Texas forces from the east (he believed incorrectly that Jesse Billingsley’s 100 men were only a few miles behind), or to attempt to skirt Woll’s forces and make the creek bottom. The two oldest men in Dawson’s company, Joseph Shaw and Zadock Woods (celebrating his 69th birthday that day), shouted to move forward.

Crossing prairie

To get to the Salado meant crossing a part of the same wide-open prairie upon which General Woll stood in force. Two miles froms the field of battle, Wolls rear guard, made up of the powerful Santa Anna Regiment and commanded by Col. Montero, spotted the Texans and turned to prevent their run to the Salado.

Sizing up the numbers (200 hundred Mexican cavalry were headed his way). Dawson ordered the small contingent to turn off the trail and dismount in a one-acre clump of mesquite and brush standing like an oasis on the prairie.

As the Mexican surrounded Dawson’s men, a call for surrender by Capt. Carrasco was met by a barrage of rifle fire from the tiny mott. A preliminary assault was also repulsed by the Texan sharpshooters, but when two cannons were rolled into place as a cross fire, the tide had turned. Cannon ball and grapeshot rang through the mesquite and elm oasis, maiming and killing.

Bayonet and lance

At 4:30 p.m., less than thirty minutes after the encounter, he Mexican troops attacked with musket and bayonet and lance. Hacking their way among the wounded and dying, the bloodlust was halted only the strong command of Carrasco, who knew that the battle had become a massacre.

Of the 53 Texans, thirty-six lay dead, including Dawson and Woods. Fifteen more, none unscathed, were taken prisoner. Remarkably, two Texans had escaped. Alsey Miller, Dawson’s scout, donned a sombrero and rode a fallen cavalryman’s horse away from the bloodbath and toward Seguin.

Zadock Wood’s son, Gonsalvo, reluctantly leaving his dead father and wounded brother behind, man-aged to crawl into some nearby high prairie grass, though seriously wounded by a Mexican lancer whom Gonsalvo pulled from his horse and killed. He used the lance as a crutch to make his escape, and was found unconscious but alive the next afternoon.

Situation untenable

By 6.00 p.m., Gen. Woll realized that his situation along the Salado was untenable, and that other Texan reinforcements would turn the tide of battle against him.

Cutting his losses, Woll ordered the playing of victory call by the buglers, and gathering up some of the bodies of his fallen soldiers, marched "with great fanfare and celebration" into San Antonio by sundown.

During the night, heavy rain engulfed the battlefield and Caldwell’s camp. The next morning, as reinforcements began arriving from the east and north. Hay’s scouts snuck into San Antonio to observe Woll’s preparations for departure to the Rio Grande. Out on the prairie, Dr. Caleb Brown and John Henry Brown discovered the mutilated bodies of the 36 Texans in the trees and brush. The bodies were buried somewhat hastily where they had fallen.

Leaving city

By Monday evening, Woll was marching southwest out of the city, with Texans giving chase. Harassed by snipers, the Mexicans nevertheless reached the Rio Grande and crossed into Mexico. The ensuing chase and escapades are part of the stories of the Somervell and Mier Expeditions, the Christmas Eve Battle at Mier, and the dreadful Black Bean Episode in February 1843.

At 7 p.m. Sunday evening, Mathew Caldwell sent this message to Texans everywhere: "Come and help me — it is the most favorable opportunity I have ever seen. I can whip (the Mexicans) on my own ground without help, but I cannot take prisoners. Huzza for Texas!"

His message reached President Sam Houston on the 22nd, and Houston returned a message to the Salado: "I render to you the thanks of my country and myself. You have won true glory - -. "In battle let your men be fierce and terrible as the storm — in victory remember-her mercy, where it would not be abused."

The thirty-seven Texans. who died in battle Sept. 18, 1842, helped win a resounding victory for their country, repulsed the invading enemy once and for all, and did not die in vain.

Spellman is a history professor at Texas A&I University in Kingsville.

Reenactment of the Battle of Salado 1842 ( 1999 ) | Map of the Battle of Salado | Battle of Salado According to James Nichols | Battle of Salado by SONS OF DEWITT COLONY TEXAS | The Vasquez and Wall's campains in Texas 1842 | Historical Survey--A Shared Experience--2nd Texas-Mexican War | William Hesskew - Participation in the Vasquez and Woll's Campain 1842

History of Castro's Colony | Raid into Gonzales and De WittCounties in 1848 | Fandango in Texas -
What it was like in San Antonio in 1846

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