Legacy in Loss: The Shrinking of Mexico’s Territory

Although he rebounded after defeats throughout his military career, today Santa Anna is “mainly remembered for his loss of Texas and other northern Mexican territories to the U.S” (48). His charge at the Alamo during the Texas Revolution is a famous Mexican victory, but his defeat at San Jacinto ultimately led to the state’s independence (1836) (49). Twelve years later, Santa Anna’s failed campaign in the Mexican-American War caused Mexico to cede half of its territory (50). He lost even more land to the U.S. in the 1853 Treaty of La Mesilla, a sale he personally benefited from while he was dictator (51).

“Mexico, Guatemala, and the West Indies”, T. G. Bradford (cartographer), Boston, MA: William D. Ticknor (publisher), 1830.

In this map, the top edge of the colored area reveals the Mexico-US border in the year 1830. The difference in Mexico’s northern boundary between then and today reveals all that was lost during Santa Anna’s career, as a result of: Texan independence (Treaty of Velasco, 1836), the Mexican-American War (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848), and the Treaty of Mesilla (also known as the Gadsden Purchase, 1853).

Through the image viewer above, you can adjust the opacity of the 1830 map to compare it to the current Mexico-US boundary. The map aligns to present-day geographic information through rectification, a process of applying image measurements to plane measurements (52).

When Texans rebelled in 1835, Santa Anna was quick to organize an expedition against them in defense of centralism (53). Texan colonists wanted to uphold federalism, a system that allowed for state sovereignty and enabled them to preserve slavery while Mexico at large enforced emancipation legislation (54). Santa Anna and several other Mexicans at the time advocated that a centralist government would better serve to unify their nation, after years of instability under federalism. A centralized authority could also sustain national privileges for the church and military, two interest groups that backed Santa Anna (55).

The Texan federalists became victors soon after they captured Santa Anna, and it was popular opinion in Mexico that he selfishly exchanged Texas for his freedom (56). Yet even his triumphs during the war dishonored his reputation. He was bloodthirsty and cruel in his victories. At the Battle of the Alamo, he took no prisoners and slaughtered every rebel. Two weeks later, he captured and executed over 400 Texans at Goliad (57). When Texans at last defeated Santa Anna’s forces, they did so to chants of “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” (58).

"Death to the Tyrant!," page 1, 1844-10-12.

This document exemplifies how several Mexicans reviled Santa Anna after his violent acts and defeat of the Texas Revolution. It states:

“[Santa Anna] highly compromised the good Mexican name in Texas...coldly and horribly murdering four hundred prisoners who had surrendered under the guarantee of life, after a Mexican general gave them his word. Made prisoner for inconceivable fault and carelessness as a soldier, he did not know how to preserve in disgrace the dignity that should be expected of an honorable man, and he vehemently issued orders for the Mexican army to withdraw….”

Despite Santa Anna’s shame after the Texas Revolution, both Mexican and US politicians discretely met with him for his backing at the onset of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The US annexed Texas in 1845 and argued that the state’s territory extended to the Rio Grande, while Mexico claimed it ended at the Nueces River (59). A commission of Mexican Federalists invited Santa Anna to lead the military defense over the border dispute, at a time when politicians had their hands full with domestic turmoil. Meanwhile, American President James Polk hoped that Santa Anna could help negotiate Mexico’s cession of territory (60).

"La Profesa, No.1: Collection of views taken in the revolution, call of los Polkos, in Mexico in the year of 1847", A. López (lithographer), 1847.

Santa Anna lost several battles during the Mexican-American War. Meanwhile, Mexican politicians bickered and used anti-American rhetoric to win over public appeal. But they had no substantial plans for national reform (61).

This print depicts “The Revolt of Los Polkos,” a revolt against Mexican President Valentín Gómez Farías, that added bloodshed and destruction to the American war. Mexicans called the rebels “Los Polkos,” after US President Polk, because they believed the rebels approved of the American cause. However, this was a civil dispute that did not involve American forces (62).

Considering this domestic context, what circumstances or individuals do you think are most accountable for Mexico’s loss of the American War? Why?

When the Mexican government signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) in defeat of the Mexican-American War, it blamed Santa Anna’s series of lost battles. The Mexican public eventually became aware of Santa Anna’s meetings with US politicians, and were suspicious that he accepted bribes to throw the war (63). Santa Anna was more undeniably accountable when, five years later, he sold away additional Mexican territory to the US. He and his corrupt comrades pocketed the $10 million payment that came with the Treaty of La Mesilla (Gadsden Purchase of 1853), which allowed him to financially sustain a dictatorship (64).

"Plan of the Mexican and United States positions in the battle field of Cerro-gordo the 18th April of 1847", Herman vander Linden (contributor) and José Severo Rocha (lithographer), circa 1890s.

This map depicts the march of American and Mexican forces at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, from which Mexicans fled in defeat. American troops pursued the fleeing soldiers and captured a booty that included Santa Anna's wooden prosthetic leg (65). The US currently displays the wooden leg at the state capitol of Illinois (66).

How might the Americans’ capture of Santa Anna’s wooden leg act as a metaphor for Mexico’s territorial history?

(48) Manickam, “‘El Seductor De La Patria’,” 17.

(49) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 164.

(50) Mexicans blamed Santa Anna’s failed campaigns for the government’s devastating acceptance of the Rio Grande as the US-Mexican border. They ceded upper California, upper New Mexico, and northeastern Mexico as far south as the Sierra Madre range. Paul Foos, Short, Offhand, Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict During the Mexican-American War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 6.

(51) Alexander S. Dawson, Latin America Since Independence: A History with Primary Sources (New York : Routledge, 2015), 46. Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 14.

(52) “Rectification,” GIS Dictionary, Esri, accessed November 16, 2020, https://support.esri.com/en/other-resources/gis-dictionary/term/a41310ac-0268-40f6-8a6e-bab98c081baa.

(53) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 164. Michael Costeloe, “Federalism to Centralism in Mexico: The Conservative Case for Change, 1834-1835,” The Americas (Washington. 1944) 45, no. 2 (October 1988), 173-185.

(54) Andrew J. Torget, Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850 (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 155.

(55) Costeloe, ““Federalism to Centralism in Mexico,” 173-185.

(56) James Presley, “Santa Anna in Texas: A Mexican Viewpoint,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 62, no. 4 (April 1, 1959): 508-9. Manickam, “‘El Seductor De La Patria’,” 18.

(57) Torget, Seeds of Empire, 168.

(58) Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 172.

(59) Foos, Short, Offhand, Killing Affair, 17.

(60) Ibid 132-133, 137. Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 12-13. Fowler, Santa Anna of Mexico, 382.

(61) Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 12.

(62) Fowler “Santa Anna of Mexico,” 263-64.

(63) Ibid 278-281. Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 12-13.

(64) Lynch, Caudillos in Spanish America, 354. Fowler, “Santa Anna and His Legacy,” 14.

(65) K. Jack Bauer, The Mexican War, 1846-1848 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 267-68.

(66) Ibid.