Antonio López de Santa Anna was one of the most consequential and controversial figures in Mexican history. The President of Mexico for six terms intermittently from 1833 and 1855, the historian Enrique Krause described him as “the Man of Destiny who loomed over his time like a melodramatic colossus, the uncrowned monarch” (Enrique Krause, Mexico: Biography of Power, p. 88).
Santa Anna had many strengths; he was a hero of Mexican War of Independence; an incredibly charismatic leader with hundreds of thousands of ardent followers; and a very wily negotiator and diplomat. He was also a survivor, as no matter how hard or how many times he got knocked down, he immediately picked himself up and continued to fight for power. However, Santa Anna was astoundingly corrupt (even by contemporary Latin American standards), and one of the ineptest administrators and military field commanders in the world during the 19th century.
He is best known for presiding over Mexico when it suffered its worst historical tragedies. He failed to quell a rebellion in Texas that led to its succession in 1836, and during the Mexican-American War (1846-8), he allowed the American army to capture Mexico City, which led the country surrenderinf 529,000 square miles (1,370,000 km2) of land, over a third of its territory, to the United States at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (February 2, 1848).
During the war, even before the Americans took Mexico City, the conduct of the Mexican Army under Santa Anna’s command was at best shambolic, even tragicomical, as his forces lost battles that many considered ‘unlosable’.
To many Mexicans, Santa Anna’s incompetence amounted to treason, he having led his country to ruin, while to his many amazingly resilient followers, he was merely a victim of circumstances, an extraordinary leader let down by the mediocrity of his subordinates.
One of the fiercest and most memorable ‘take downs’ of Santa Anna was mounted less than three weeks before the fall of Mexico City. On August 27, 1847, Deputy Ramón Gamboa tabled before to Congress a series charges against Santa Anna, essentially equating his conduct of the war to treason. On November 15, 1847, Gamboa would submit a supplementary report, doubling down on the charges.
Gamboa’s accusations hung like a dark cloud over Santa Anna as the Americans seized the capital during the Battle for Mexico City (September 8-15, 1847). This defeat forced Santa Anna to cede power and he was, in due course, forced into exile in Jamaica. From there, seemingly completely unbothered by having led his country to disaster, the former president plotted his return to power. Naturally, many powerful figures in Mexico were adamant that that should never happen.
The historian Hubert Howe Bancroft aptly summed up the former Mexican President’s predicament:
“Santa Anna’s late military efforts had failed, partly through the lack of morale among his troops; it had been beaten out of them by constant revolutions, or if not by these, certainly by their defeats in the northern campaign. But the blame falls also upon his own blunders and shortcomings, his uneven capacity and instability of purpose, manifested especially in the battle-field. He redeems himself, on the other hand, with many a diplomatic triumph, and shines with his energy, in rising indomitably after every disaster, in creating resources, forming armies, directing a number of admirable measures, and inspiring all around with zeal.” (Bancroft, p. 533).
In 1848 and 1849, a PR war broke out in Mexico City, pitting Santa Anna and his amazingly supporters against his growing number of opponents. This contest manifested itself in dueling books, pamphlets, newspaper articles and speeches.
It was during this time that Ramón Gamboa revived his 1847 charges against Santa Anna, seeking to mortally wound the former president’s reputation, such that he would not be able to return to reassume power.
Gamboa’s well-reasoned and, frankly, convincing arguments were published as the Impugnación al informe del señor general Santa-Anna, y constancias en que se apoyan las ampliaciones de la acusación del Sr Diputado Gamboa (Mexico City: Imprenta de Vicente Garcia Torres, 1849). Please see this link to read this text:
The Present Work in Focus
This is Santa Anna’s official and most detailed defense of his leadership during the Texas Revolution (1835-6) and the Mexican-American War. While he issued other defenses of his conduct in various formats, this work is by far and away preeminent, as it is the most thorough and authoritative. It was written by Santa Anna while his he was still in exile, with his preface dated Kingston, Jamaica, February 1, 1849. It was intended to be a direct response to Gamboa’s charges, submitted to the ‘Gran Jurado’ of the Mexican Congress that would consider the case and decide whether to ban the former president from holding public office for life.
The work consists of a lengthy thesis in which Santa Anna defends his actions, followed by the text of 13 documents that he carefully selected that paint him in a good light, being secret reports, decrees, generals’ testimonials, diplomatic circulars, and battlefield notes. These documents are historically important, as many of them had never been otherwise printed.
As Bancroft wrote, in the Apelación, Santa Anna “…addressed the…defence of his conduct to the president of the grand jury in Mexico. In it he reviews his career from the commencement of his campaign in Texas down to his departure from Mexico, and endeavors to refute Gamboa’s charges. He naturally repudiates the accusations of bad generalship and treachery, and enters into explanations of what he considered the causes of the disasters which attended the Mexican army. He supports his argument by a number of official documents, which occupy the last 184 pages of the Apelacion.” (Bancroft, p. 553).
While Santa Anna, being a master of rhetoric, provides what are, at first glance, strong arguments, when one analyses his reasoning, his thesis begins to fall flat. The totally unrepentant and self-assured former president selectively chooses topics and evidence that favour him. When he raises an unavoidable subject that might likely make him look bad (ex. a major military defeat), he conveniently finds anyone but himself to blame, casting (often ridiculous) accusations against his former subordinates. The implication is that Mexico would likely have defeated Texas and the United States if only his lieutenants had done their jobs and followed his orders, and that Santa Anna was always a tireless warrior for his nation.
For example, Santa Anna blamed his top lieutenant, General Vicente Filísola, for the loss of Texas (even though he did not serve on the front with Santa Anna where the war was lost, while he always followed the President’s orders faithfully). Santa Anna writes: “If General Vicente Filisola, with the army that was left under his orders, as second-in-command, inhibited the retreat to Matamoros the moment he heard of the debacle at San Jacinto, out if his own volition, instead of looking for the enemy, who was nearby, it is to his excellency that we must attribute the precited abandonment of Texas” (p. 6).
Regardless of the merits of their respective arguments, Santa Anna’s side ended up winning the PR war. The administrations that governed Mexico in the wake of the Mexican-American War were feckless and uninspiring, and many Mexicans came to long for a charismatic leader (even if it meant overlooking his recent past!).
In the spring of 1853, conservative forces loyal to Santa Anna took over the government and invited the former president to lead Mexico for the final time (Santa Anna’s last spell in office extended from April 20, 1853 to August 5, 1855). Santa Anna’ only major ‘achievement’ during this tenure was to sell what is today southern Arizona and the southwest corner of New Mexico to the United States in what was known as the Gadsden Purchase (1854). Santa Anna and his cronies embezzled the proceeds. Liberal forces regrouped and managed to depose Santa Anna in the summer of 1855. He spent the next 19 year in exile, only returning to Mexico in 1874, to live out his final two years, all the while plotting to regain power.
While we can trace a little over dozen institutional examples of the work, they only very seldom appear commerically. We can trace records for a couple of examples appearing on the Mexican market in the last 30 sears, while the last record we can find of an example offered outside Mexico was at a Texas auction in 1985.
References: University of Texas at Austin: LAC-Z Rare Book ; -Q- F 1232 S225 1849; New York Public Library: HTM (Santa-Anna, A. L. de. Apelacion al buen criterio); Yale (Beinecke Library): Zc50 849sa; OCLC: 35778065, 78471414; Palau, no. 141959; Hubert Howe BANCROFT, History of Mexico, vol. V: 1824-1861(1885), p. 533 and 553; Héctor DÍAZ ZERMEÑO, La culminación de las traiciones de Santa Anna (2000), p. 121; Will FOWLER, Santa Anna of Mexico (2007), pp. 178, 426, 467.