Aug 16, 2015

Lone Star Rising -- The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic

On Wednesday, August 12, on a night marked by the display of the Perseid Meteor Showers, 15 of us met at the Kensington Row Bookshop.

We discussed Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic by William C. Davis.


The book describes how the insurgency developed on the coastal plane of what is now Texas in the early 19th century, and the battles that ensued from the Alamo to San Jacinto. The book reminds us that Spain, which had colonized Latin America, had been greatly weakened by the Napoleonic wars; the revolutions that created the United States of America and Haiti had spread a revolutionary fervor through the Americas. New Spain, the Spanish colony that included all the territory controlled by Spain from Panama north in Central and North America, was in revolt from 1811. The portion of New Spain that was Mexico -- which won its independence in 1821 and established a Constitution in 1824 -- was decimated by its revolutionary war, weakened by the independence of the Central American states to to its south, and traumatized by rapid changes in government and insurgencies in a number of its states.

Spain had difficulties attracting settlers from Mexico to the northern territories of New Spain. What was to become Texas was particularly problematic because the warlike Comanches, Kiowas and Apaches discouraged Mexican settlers; yet such settlement was desired as the region had been subject to filibusters who sought to create their own countries. With the Louisiana Purchase, the United States also was a threat on the Texas border.  In 1820 Spain opened Texas to non-Spanish immigration, and in 1821 newly independent Mexico continued the policy.  The Texas State Historical Association reports:
Anglo-Americans were attracted to Hispanic Texas because of inexpensive land. Undeveloped land in the United States land offices cost $1.25 an acre for a minimum of 80 acres ($100) payable in specie at the time of purchase. In Texas each head of a family, male or female, could claim a headright of 4,605 acres (one league-4,428 acres of grazing land and one labor-177 acres of irrigable farm land) at a cost about four cents an acre ($184) payable in six years, a sum later reduced by state authorities.
Immigrants receiving such land grants were to accept the Catholic religion and swear fealty to the Mexican state; slavery was outlawed by the 1824 Mexican Constitution.

The coastal plane of east Texas is suited to growing cotton, and in the early 19th century American cotton plantations with slave labor, using the cotton gin were beginning to produce cotton very efficiently. The industrial revolution had radically changed the process of production of cotton cloth, making it much faster and cheaper to produce cloth from cotton fiber. Thus, there was an almost inexhaustible market for the fiber, and the American plantation system could produce good cotton fiber inexpensively. Southerners bringing their slaves sought the land grants, were willing to feign the Catholic religion, to feign allegiance to the government in power, and to ignore the pretend that their slaves were merely contracted for life -- there was money to be made in Texas.

Republic of Texas
Showing How Small It Was Compared to the State of Texas
Source: Wikipedia
Territory in the upper right hand
portion of the map is part of the USA
It should be noted that the area discussed in this book (shown in yellow on the map) is much smaller than the modern state of Texas.

It is estimated that in 1836 there were some 30,000 Texicans (Anglo immigrants from the United States} in the region that would become the Republic of Texas; Tejanos (original Mexican residents) were leaving the region, and only some 3,000 remained.

The Club's Discussion Begins

One of the members began the discussion describing the book and his very negative view of its contents. He read from rather extensive notes. His criticism ranged from the books disagreement with other books on the subject, to the use of notes by author Davis, but appeared to be primarily due to what he perceived to be an unduly favorable treatment of the Texicans by Davis. Our member saw the Texicans as racist, slave owners who had moved to the region to take it from Mexico and make it part of the slave holding south of the United States (getting rich in the process).

Another member pointed out that racism was rife in Mexico as well: the Spanish looked down on the Criollos (of pure Spanish blood, but born in the Americas), the Criollos looked down on Africans, Indians, Mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian blood), Mulatos (of mixed Spanish and African blood), not to mention those combining European, Indian and African ancestors, and Anglos.

Stephen Austin (source)
Davis was seen by others as presenting a more nuanced view. Moses Austin received a land grant from the Spanish government in 1820 and began planning to create a Texican colony, but died before his plans could be implemented. His son, Stephen Austin, continued the project, renewed the grant from the new Mexican government, and brought 300 families and their slaves to found a colony near the Brazos river starting in 1821. These early colonists are described by Davis as more conservative than later immigrants. Indeed, immigrants arriving in the mid 1830s may well have come with the intent of participating in an insurgency that would separate Texas from Mexico, and have been willing to fight to achieve that end (and make their fortunes). Davis takes some pains to describe the policy disagreements that characterized the Texicans during the insurgency.

Sam Houston (source)
Another member mentioned that the small community of Texicans had little experience governing, with few exceptions such as Sam Houston (who had been a Congressman and Governor of Tennessee before moving to Texas) and Davy Crockett (a latecomer who had been a U.S. Congressman and who was killed at the Alamo). He felt it not surprising that when the settlers sought to start a Texican government they were not very good at it. Davis tells a great deal about the failures of that government.

We diverted into a side discussion of American filibusters, most notably among whom was William Walker who sought to create a personal state in California before invading Nicaragua and declaring himself its president.

The Indians

A member expressed surprise at how little the book focused on the Indians, who after all were probably the reason that the Americans had bee invited to settle the region and offered such advantageous land grants. The Cherokee are mentioned, but not the Comanches, nor the Apaches. The Comanches, were a warlike planes Indian tribe, mounted and well armed, that raided Texas territory throughout much of the 18th century, and we thought that the Texas Rangers were created later in part to fight them. (The club had previously read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen.) The Apaches were found to the west of the territory under discussion in this book and into Mexico, but were perfectly capable of raiding into east Texas. The book does mention a tribe of Indians, the Tlaxcalans, that lived in east Texas in the early 19th century, but fails to mention that they were introduced to the region by the Spanish. The tribe originated much further south, and were introduced as Spanish allies that might help deal with the local Indians.

The Comancheria

A member commented that Junipero Serra had been scheduled to serve in a mission in Texas that had been destroyed by Indians. After the military unit dispatched to retake the mission was defeated by Indians, Serra was instead sent to lead the missionary effort in California (which the Mexican government feared it would also lose to foreign powers. (We recently discussed a book about Serra.)

A member noted that the Spanish had better luck in colonizing New Mexico, creating a trail from El Paso (in Texas) to Santa Fe (in New Mexico). In contrast to the Texan Indians, the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico were farmers, with a corn and bean based farm culture and diet. This similarity with the Indians that the Spanish had encountered in highland Mexico might have enabled them to colonize the region more successfully. (The club read The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest by David Roberts in 2009.)

We diverted into a wider discussion of American Indians, perhaps in part because a new member of the club has published a set of histories of the Indian wars in the United States. We noted that Indian populations had been decimated by the introduction of diseases from Europe and Africa, diseases for which the American Indians had no resistance. As a result of disease, the planes Indians had much smaller populations than one might have imagined in the 19th century.

The Texican Military

The small Texican community appears to have had little military ability, and few members had built or led military units. However, many had aspirations to be military leaders. It was noted that the racial prejudice against Mexicans led many Texicans to believe that a small Texican force could defeat a much larger Mexican force. As the insurgency began, the Texicans did enjoy success, capturing key towns and their Mexican military garrisons. The Mexican soldiers were released on condition that they return to Mexico, but they were commandeered by Mexican General Santa Anna and returned with his force.

The More Serious Conflict

General Santa Anna, then the ruler of Mexico, decided to personally lead an army to put down the Texican insurrection. With a cadre of professional soldiers from the Mexican Army as his core force, he began the long march north to Texas, recruiting as he and his troops marched; we assumed that those recruits could not have received much training along the way, nor would they be very good troops. Not only were Santa Anna and his men marching through Mexican states experiencing insurgencies along the way, but Mexico was still very poor and suffering from the after effects of its long revolutionary war and subsequent instability. He divided his force in Texas. His troops may well have been in bad shape by the time that they arrived in San Antonio.

The Alamo and Goliad

The Alamo was defended by a couple of hundred men. These included some of the longer term, Anglo residents of the region as well as new recruits, many from the United States. Santa Anna  arrived with perhaps 1,500 men, including regulars from the Mexican Army. He had declared "no quarter" -- that all of those offering military resistance were to be killed. His troops flew the red flag indicating No Quarter. They laid siege to the Alamo.

The Alamo (as it is thought to have been before of the battle)
The discussion of the battle was led by several members who had read not only author Davis' treatment but other works; several had visited the site. A member had brought a book which included a diagram of the Alamo as it existed at the time of the battle. The large enclosed area shown above on longer exists, and today's tourists are left with what is basically the church on the extreme right of the picture above.

What happened on the final day of the battle seemed unclear to the group. Only one Texican escaped with his life, and his report of the battle was provided only years later, and then changed in the retelling. Various reports have been found from Mexican participants, including the formal post engagement report made to the government after the campaign. However, the Mexicans saw the battle only from their vantage points. After the battle the Mexican soldiers tried to identify the Texican dead, but we thought that the dead would have been difficult to recognize even by friends -- their bodies were wounded and powder blackened.

On March 6th, Santa Anna's elite unit attacked the a corner of the Alamo, and broke through. We noted that under the normal rules of warfare, at that point the defenders would have surrendered, but under the No Quarter rule established by the Mexicans the defenders had either to fight to the death or escape. Some of the defenders entered rooms in the Alamo and did indeed fight there to the death. An estimated 40 sought to escape, rushing out of the side of the fort away from the attack. There they were met by Mexican mounted lancers, riding down on them from out of the sunrise (and thus hard to see). The escapees too were massacred.

Linda Cristal, who played Flaca in The Alamo
(flaca means thin in Spanish)
If your understanding of the battle was formed by the John Wayne movie, you can now try to forget everything you thought you knew.

The Mexican troops continued on to the small town of Goliad, where the greatly outnumbered garrison surrendered. While some of his officers protested, Santa Anna enforced his No Quarter orders, and the Texican garrison was massacred after their surrender.

While the Alamo and Goliad were clearly victories for Santa Anna's forces, they were expensive victories. Mexican casualties were heavy, especially among the elite troops from the regular army that had been used to lead the assault on the Alamo.

The massacres of these Texican troops led to both panic in the Texican population and great anger against the Mexican forces.

The Battle of San Jacinto

After the Alamo and Goliad, there was a disorganized flight of Texican settlers fearing the Mexican army columns. Santa Anna, confident of the superiority of his troops, moved to confront the remaining Texican force. That force, led by Sam Houston, retreated and retreated, avoiding battle with the Mexicans.

Finally the two forces met at San Jacinto, not far from what is now the city of Houston, and perhaps more to the point, not far from what was then the boundary of the Louisiana territory of the United States. Confident of victory, apparently the Mexican army relaxed at siesta time in the late afternoon, and the Texicans attacked. In any case, the Texicans won a decisive victory and captured General Santa Anna. He. as a captive, agreed to peace terms and Texan independence as the price of his freedom. While the government in Mexico later repudiated the terms agreed to by Santa Anna as a hostage, the independence stuck.

General Santa Anna
The group did digress to discuss Antonio López de Santa Anna, a truly unique historical character. His public career spanned 40 years. He was several times a general in the Mexican Army. He served as president of Mexico for eleven non-consecutive terms over a period of 22 years. Santa Anna was exiled to the United States after the loss in the Texas rebellion, but later was allowed to return to Mexico. In 1838, fighting against the French, who had invaded Mexico, Santa Anna lost a leg as a result of his wounds. He had a cork artificial leg made and continued his adventurous life. That leg was in his luggage during a retreat in the Mexican American War and captured by the Americans; today it resides in the Illinois State Military Museum.

Why Are These Events Important Now?

A member asked why this revolution was important. After all, it was in what was then a very out of the way place, far from the capitols of Mexico and the United States. The region had only a few tens of thousands of people, and the "battles" appeared more like skirmishes when compared with other engagements in U.S. and Mexican history. We thought:
  • It is important largely because, after the annexation of Texas, the United States went to war with Mexico, justifying that war on the basis of a boundary dispute that went back to the creation of the Texas Republic. The Mexican American War of course led to a huge increase in U.S. territory. (The club read A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent by Robert W. Merry in 2011.)
  • It is important also because the events portrayed now live in Texas and American myth, shaping what peoples believe about themselves.
  • The story of the revolution that created the Texas Republic was chosen for this book club because it is part of the Hispanic heritage of America; Since the club has focused heavily on the Anglo heritage of the United States in its past readings, it was thought important to broaden our understanding of the Spanish and Mexican roots of South Western U.S. culture.
Who is William (Jack) Davis?

Since one of our members is a friend of author William Davis, we asked for his opinion of the historian. He mentioned that Davis is unusual as a senior academic historian in that he does not have a PhD. With a masters degree, he started his career as a magazine editor, but the magazine eventually went out of business. Davis retired a couple of hears ago from long held positions as professor of history at Virginia Tech and Director of Programs at that school's Virginia Center for Civil War Studies. Considered one of the best Civil War historians in the country, he has published or edited more than 50 books.

Another member, who originally recommended Lone Star Rising to the club, also knew Davis. He too had a positive impression of the man, noting especially his generosity in helping other authors and historians.

A Discussion on the First Atomic Bombs

The first Uranium based atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August, 1945; Nagasaki was destroyed by a Plutonium bomb three days later. Thus. it was not surprising that we devoted a portion of our discussion this August, marking the 50th anniversary of those sad events. A member noted that he had been surprised by information that he had recently learned:
  • The Los Alamos physicists had a pool on the yield of the Plutonium bomb that was experimental bomb, and all but one underestimated that yield; Edward Teller, the only expert to overestimate the yield, missed by a significant amount. (There had been no test of the Uranium bomb.) Thus understanding of the bombs' destructive impact was at best weak before their use, even by their designers.
  • The physicists had not understood the danger of radiation sickness that resulted from exposure to the radioactive fallout from the two bombs dropped on Japan. Perhaps 300,000 Japanese died as a result of radiation sickness, significantly exceeding the numbers killed by the original blasts. (A second member mentioned that it was the Bikini test blasts that showed the scientific community the true danger of the fallout radiation.)
  • The Japanese had correctly perceived the likely location of an invasion of the home islands, had millions of troops and 10,000 planes ready to meet an invading force, and had created a militia involving mandatory service for all Japanese adults in a large region.
  • The Japanese government apparently was quite worried about insurrection if the country was subject to blockade, bombing and invasion, even before it became convinced that the United States could drop a series of atom bombs on Japanese cities.
A member mentioned that in the 1950s, as a young man, he had seen an atom bomb explosion. He had been camping in the high desert east of Los Angeles when he and a friend witnessed what he described as a false dawn -- the dark pre-dawn sky had brightened in the east for some minutes, and then the dark had returned. The real dawn came a while later. The two later realized that there had been an above ground atom bomb test in Nevada, timed at the Nevada dawn, and they must have seen its illumination of the night sky. He remained impressed by the power of a bomb that could be seen a couple of hundred miles away. Another member mentioned that the original bombs dropped on Japan had similarly been seen from a great distance, and that must have added to the terror that the inspired.

Another member noted that after the war in Europe was won, American troops began to be moved to Asia and that those troops were convinced that they would be part of a force invading Japan. (It seems likely that such an invasion, were it to have occurred, would have been preceded by a naval blockade and bombardment, as well as by strategic bombing from many land airbases within striking distance, that would have both destroyed communications, especially railroads, and firebombed cities. There would have been famine in Japan and massive loss of life. The American forces involved in an invasion would also have been expected to suffer heavy losses, though less than those suffered by the Japanese military and civilian populations.)

This discussion could have continued, but the store was closing. We ended with a vote suggesting that many of the members still supported the use of atomic bombs in 1945.

Final Comments

The discussion was quite lively, with new members contributing fully to the sharing of information. As suggested above, there was some difference of opinion as to the merits of the book, with one member having gone out on a limb to recommend the book to the club members, and another very negative about its quality. Of course, everyone present knew about the Alamo, but some of use knew only the myths and popular culture view, while others were students of the events described in William Davis' book. It was noted that the book had a heavy load of names that were hard to track for the reader not expert in Texas revolutionary history.

One of our members posted several times on this book on his blog:


  1. "Japanese troops set to fight overseas for first time since World War Two|

    In January 2013 the club discussed Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower

    The new decision by the Japanese seems to overturn a key element in the Japanese Constitution. When we discussed the creation of that constitution (by the US occupation right after WWII). I did not think the book would be so topical so soon.

  2. Sam provided this to the club listserve after the meeting:

    This is the Tupac Amaru I was thinking of:

    As Wikipedia says, "Not to be confused with Túpac Amaru."

    Tupac Amaru (1545–1572) was the last Inka, or at least, the last ruler
    of the remnants of the Inka state.

    Tupac Amaru II (1742 – 1781) led an insurgency against the
    Spanish/criollo elite in Peru. He may have been a distant descendant
    of Tupac Amaru, but he took the name as a nom de guerre.

    But I was wrong about him being a criollo himself; Wikipedia says he
    was mestizo, which he would have to be (correct?) if he had indigenous

  3. Tupac Amaru II is actually mentioned in the Davis book under the name of José Gabriel Condorcanqui.

    I mentioned Tupac Katari, an Aymara indian for Ayo-Ayo in Bolivia who was also a leader in the indigenous rebellion against the Spanish Empire in the early 1780s. "He raised an army of some 40,000 and laid siege to the city of La Paz in 1781."

    According to Wikipedia:
    "Katari" means "serpent, large snake" in Aymara; "Amaru" means the same in Quechua, the language of Tupac Amaru. "Tupac" means "brilliant, resplendent" in both languages.

    Tupac Katari took that name in part to honor Tupak Amaru II, and collaborated with Tupak Amaru II's cousins who also took the name Tupak Amaru. Tupac Katari, like Tupac Amaru II was executed by the Spanish in 1781 (Tupak Amaru II in May and Tupak Katari in October) as the insurrection failed.

  4. Sorry, I should have shared these books that were mentioned during the discussion: Relating to our discussion of Lone Star Rising:

    Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History by Paul Horgan

    The Centuries of Santa Fe by Paul Horgan

    The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo--and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation by James Donovan

    And relevant to our discussion of the Atom Bomb:

    Japan's Longest Day by the Pacific War Research Society

    There is a nice summary of the latter book here.