SANTA ANNA AS MILITARY COMMANDER
Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is certainly one of the most decisive figures in Mexican history, active as a prominent military commander and constant political presence, ascending to the Mexican presidency eleven times during his career. Santa Anna’s military biography was as volatile as his political biography, constituted by significant victories and catastrophic defeats. When assessing Santa Anna’s overall reputation as a military commander, however, it is such defeats, particularly during the Mexican-American War, that define his career, insofar as the extent of such losses was manifested in significant losses of Mexican territory.
During the foreign and endemic conflicts that constituted Mexico’s eventual independence from Spain, Santa Anna proved capable at playing the Machiavellian game of acquiring and maintaining political power. For example, despite initially supporting Spanish rule, Santa Anna switched positions, breaking from Spain by “accusing the Spanish emperor of tyranny” and thus “declaring himself in favor of a federal republic.” Military coups and violent struggles for political power characterized this part of Santa Anna’s career, as he “demonstrated a ruthless ability to make and break alliances.” The ambivalence and volatility of Santa Anna’s political life suggest that his primary goal was political survival and the acquisition of power, as opposed to any commitment to a clear ideology. During this period Santa Anna was also largely successful as a military commander, leading “successful military campaigns against Spain and France, which heightened his national appeal and catapulted him into the presidency.” Yet Santa Anna’s political career continued to be volatile, for example, abdicating the presidency, only to thereafter re-claim it through the election process.
However, the military successes that marked the early part of his career, occurring during the chaotic period that marked Mexico’s pre- and immediate post-independence, soon evaporated. When Texas sought to separate from Mexico, Santa Anna’s forces violently suppressed the independence seekers, leading to the infamous battle of the Alamo that clearly demonstrated his ruthlessness. Such ruthlessness in command arguably provided a source of motivation for his opposition, as Sam Houston routed Santa Anna’s six thousand troop army. The Mexican leader was captured and released afterwards on the condition of exile in 1838. Yet the downfall of Santa Anna’s military career is most lucidly captured in his contributions to the Mexican-American war. Santa Anna’s entrance into the conflict is typical of his mastery of Machiavellian alliance building within the arena of the struggle for political hegemony. In 1846, Santa Anna was residing in Cuba as exiled former Mexican President. With the outbreak of the war Santa Anna was allowed passage into Mexico by U.S. President Polk in order to help the Americans, only to once again switch to the side of Mexican independence. Yet Santa Anna’s subsequent commanding efforts were a series of catastrophic defeats. Although Santa Anna had managed to comprise a force of twenty thousand soldiers, he was decisively routed in the Battle of Buena Vista by the outnumbered forces of Zachary Taylor. This led to the “loss of huge swathes of [Mexican] territory.” Nevertheless Santa Anna refused to surrender, which contributed to the first amphibious invasion in U.S. military history, culminating in the Americans’ capturing of Mexico City and the end of Santa Anna’s government.
According to the largely volatile career of Santa Anna, it is difficult to assess him as a pure military commander. Certainly, his contributions to Mexican independence as both a political and military figure convey his competence. Nevertheless, Santa Anna’s career suggests that his true success lay in his ability to remain politically relevant, as opposed to skill as a military commander. For example, Santa Anna’s victory at the Alamo certainly does not recall any innovation in military initiative, but rather can be viewed as the massacre of undermanned military forces. This victory was more a political statement than a military one, as Santa Anna’s ruthlessness suggests the act of a politician determined to crush any sign of opposition so as to maintain hegemony. His subsequent defeat at the hands of Sam Houston’s army further underscores this point. Moreover, Santa Anna’s contributions to the Mexican-American war can be viewed as nothing but disastrous. His switching of alliances upon returning to Mexico highlights the political cunningness that marked his career. Yet Santa Anna’s strategy was characterized by an aggression that his military capabilities could not match. The series of defeats throughout the Mexican-American war and his failure, for example, to surrender after Buena Vista, demonstrate that an irrational drive for power over-determined any stoic military rationality he may have possessed. When considering the nature of his various failures, the figure of Santa Anna recalls a politician bent on gaining control, as opposed to a strategic and military genius.
Certainly, Santa Anna’s multiple presidencies and his mastery of the art of breaking and forming alliances demonstrate his skill as a politician within the context of the game of political power relations. Nevertheless, the extent of his military defeats outweighs his victories, culminating in the disastrous Mexican-American war that led to enormous quantitative losses in Mexican territory. Santa Anna was an ambitious politician, and considering his persistent presence on the Mexican political scene, he can be considered a successful one. Yet the military aspect of his career was lacking, as clearly demonstrated by his great defeats.