Why Did Sam Houston Spare the Life of Santa Anna at San Jacinto?

by Otho C. Morrow,Past Master Holland Lodge No. 1 Great-Grandson of Sam Houston

Over the years, articles regarding Houston’s treatment of Santa Anna at San Jacinto, reportedly taken from the files of early newspapers, have appeared in our Masonic publications. In the main, these articles have attributed Houston’s refusal to permit the execution of Santa Anna to his having given Houston the Masonic sign of distress. As a result of these articles, it now seems to be the accepted belief of many members of the fraternity that the humane treatment accorded Santa Anna by Houston was in direct response to the giving of the sign.

There is little doubt that if it occurred to him to do so, Santa Anna did give the sign, along with any persuasive promises which he believed might in any possible way contribute toward saving him from execution. His execution was urgently sought by some of the officers and many of the soldiers, some of whom had lost friends and relatives as well as their homes, as a result of Santa Anna’s insane desire to destroy everyone and everything that stood in the way of his subjugating all of Texas to his despotic rule.

While all of the many Houston biographies are replete with detailed accounts of Santa Anna’s capture and appearance before Houston, to the writer’s knowledge, none make reference to Santa Anna’s giving the sign of distress. There is, however, an interesting account of his appearance before Houston in Crane’s Life and Literary Remains of Sam Houston, as reported by Major M. Austin Bryan, who acted as interpreter for Houston and Santa Anna before Almonte appeared on the scene. According to Major Bryan’s report, “Santa Anna, laying his right hand on his heart and extending his left hand, said, `I am General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, President of the Mexican Republic, and I claim to be your prisoner of war.'” If the left arm was in the form of a square, members of the fraternity would recognize part of another sign which Santa Anna may have erroneously thought to be the sign of distress.

It is difficult to envision someone of Houston’s disposition responding to the sign of distress given to him by one whose conduct at the Alamo, and the massacre of Fannin and his men at Gollaid were adverted to by Houston on the same occasion on which Santa Anna was supposed to have given the sign. Houston, later characterizing Santa Anna’s conduct on those two occasions, said: “Manliness and generosity would sicken at the recital of the scenes incident to your success, and humanity itself would blush to class you among the chivalric spirits of the age of vandalism.”

Assuming that the sign was given, the question still remains, “Did Houston, who was so keenly aware of and had been so adversely affected by the atrocities so recently visited upon the people of Texas by Santa Anna, accord him recognition as a Mason; and, if so, to what extent, if any, did Houston’s Masonic affiliation influence his treatment of Santa Anna?”

Houston’s decision to keep Santa Anna alive was evidenced by orders given by him the night before Santa Anna’s capture, hours before he was brought before Houston, and before he had any opportunity to give Houston the sign. On learning that Santa Anna was not dead or among the captives, Houston issued orders that search for him be continued the following day. Knowing that his men would kill Santa Anna on sight, and realizing that he was worth far more to Texas alive than dead, he gave strict orders to those who were to continue the search that he was to be brought in alive. He believed, what later proved to be true, that with Santa Anna alive and held hostage, he could force him to issue orders to the generals commanding the other four Mexican armies then in Texas to stop the killing and destruction of property being perpetrated by them, and to withdraw all their troops beyond the Rio Grande.

Turning from conjecture to fact; Houston, though contrary to his general practice of ignoring those who sought to defame him and to discredit his accomplishments, and of declining to explain or justify his actions, did on two occasions give his reasons for the treatment of Santa Anna at San Jacinto and during the period of captivity which followed that event. Accounts of both are to be found in Crane’s Life and Literary Remains of Sam Houston.

The first of these appears in a letter dated March 21, 1842, written by Houston during his second term as President of the Republic of Texas, to Santa Anna, then President of the Republic of Mexico, in reply to derogatory statements about Texas and its people publicized by Santa Anna. In this letter, Houston writes, “You have presumed to arraign the conduct of the then existing Cabinet and to charge it with bad faith; and though you are pleased to commend the conduct of the illustrious Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, and myself for acts of generosity exercised toward you, you take care to insinuate that we only were capable of appreciating your proper merits. That you may no longer be induced to misconstrue acts of generosity and appropriate them to the gratification of your self-complacent disposition, I will inform you that they were acts of magnanimity characteristic of the nation to which we belong. They had nothing to do with your merits or demerits. The perfidy and cruelty which had been exercised toward our companions in arms did not enter into our calculation. Your sacrifice would not restore to our gallant companions their lives, nor to our country their services. Although the laws of war would have justified the retaliation of your execution, yet it would have characterized the acts of a nation by passion and revenge; and would have evinced to the world that individuals who had an influence on the destinies of a people were subject to the capricious impulses of vengeance, of which you had so recently set an example.

“So far as I was concerned in preserving your life and subsequent liberation, I was only influenced by considerations of mercy, humanity, and the establishment of a national character.

“Humanity was gratified by your preservation. The magnanimous of all nations would have justified your release, had they known how little its influence was dreaded by the Texans. If, upon your return to Mexico, you should have power, and a disposition to redeem the pledges you had voluntarily made to yourself, as well as this Government, of an earnest disposition to see the independence of Texas recognized by Mexico, I believed it would have a tendency to restore peace to the two nations, diminish the aggregate sufferings of their citizens, and promote the prosperity of both countries. In the event that you were not disposed to redeem the pledges thus given, but urge a prosecution of the war by Mexico against us, I wished to evince to mankind that Texans had magnanimity, resources, and confidence sufficient to sustain them against all your influence in favor of their subjugation.

“Your liberation was induced by such principles as these; and though you tendered pledges, doubtless to facilitate and insure your release, they were received, but not accepted, as a condition. I believe that pledges made in duress are not obligatory upon the individual making them; and if you intended to exercise the influence which you declared you would, the unconditional liberty extended to you would interpose no obstacle to their fulfillment.”

The second account is found in Houston’s farewell address of February 28, 1859, given before the Senate of the United States shortly before his retirement from that body, after serving some thirteen years as Senator from Texas. His speech is devoted almost entirely to “refuting calumnies produced and circulated against his character as Commander-in-chief of the army of Te
xas.” It reviews in detail the political and military history of Texas from December, 1835, the time of his appointment as Major General by the Consultation then in session at San Felipe, until shortly after the Battle of San Jacinto. It is interesting to note that Houston offers as a precedent for his refutation similar actions by both General Washington and General Jackson, adding that, “More humble in my sphere than they were, more circumscribed than they, I feel that it is more necessary for me to vindicate what may justly attach to me, from me to the fact that I leave a posterity, and from that circumstance I feel a superadded obligation.


Neither of those illustrious men left posterity. I shall leave posterity that have to inherit either my good name, based upon truth, or that which necessarily results to a character that is not unspotted in its public relations.” He further acknowledges, “I have been careless in replying to these things for years. I believe no less than ten or fifteen books have been written defamatory of me, and I had hoped, having passed them with very little observation, that, as I approached the close of my political term, and was about to retire to the shades of private life, I should be permitted to enjoy that retirement in tranquility; that my defamers would not pursue me there with the rancor and hatred with which they pursue an aspiring politician whom they wish to sink or depress.”

Houston then relates the following regarding his reception of Santa Anna and his reasons for the courteous treatment accorded him. “He was treated as a guest. No indignity was offered him by the Commander-in-chief. To be sure, there was some turbulence of feeling in camp, but no rude manifestations. Under these circumstances it was that Santa Anna was received. Propositions were made to the Commander-in-chief that he should be executed, but they were repelled in a becoming manner. No one has sought to claim the honor of saving him on that occasion; and did the General feel a disposition to claim any renown, distinction, or fame, for any one act of his life, stripped of all its policy, he might do it for his conduct on that occasion.

“But sir, there was reason as well as humanity for it. While Santa Anna was held prisoner his friends were afraid to invade Texas because they knew not at what moment it would cause his sacrifice. His enemies dared not attempt a combination in Mexico for invasion, for they did not know at what moment he would be turned loose upon them. So that it guaranteed peace to Texas so long as he was kept prisoner; and for that reason, together with reasons of humanity, his life was preserved. It is true, he had forfeited it to the laws of war. Retaliation was just; but was it either wise, or was it humane, that he should perish?”

Enumeration by Houston on these two occasions of the reasons which prompted his action should amply refute the “Masonic sign of distress” version; however, in depth consideration of Houston’s reference to Santa Anna’s “merits or demerits” gives rise to the interesting question of what attributes, either of character or accomplishment, Santa Anna could possibly claim, so soon after his sanction of the barbarous acts committed at the Alamo and Goliad, which Houston would recognize as having any semblance of “merit,” other than his Masonic affiliation. Could Houston have been saying to Santa Anna in a discreet way, “Your Masonic affiliation had nothing to do with my acts of magnanimity; nor were they influenced by your giving the sign of distress?” Houston’s positive statement, appearing shortly after his reference to “merits and demerits,” that “So far as I was concerned in preserving your life and subsequent liberation, I was only influenced by considerations of mercy, humanity, and the establishment of a national character,” lends support to an affirmative answer to the question; and also contradicts any representation that use of the Masonic sign of distress by Santa Anna was the motivating factor for the sparing of his life at San Jacinto.

Brother Morrow is a great-grandson of Sam Houston, and has contributed many Houston items to the Grand Lodge Library and Museum. He is a recognized authority on the life of General Houston.
At the request of the then editor, Past Grand Master Duncan Howard, the article was prepared for The Texas Freemason, former publication of the Grand Lodge.

It is appropriate that Brother Morrow’s Manuscript be the first published by the SAM HOUSTON HALL OF FAME.