On August 18, 1813 – 206 years ago today – the biggest, bloodiest battle in Texas history occurred near the Bexar-Atascosa County line.
The Battle of Medina pitted 1,830 Spanish Royalists under the command of a brutal but highly effective general named Joaquín de Arredondo against 1,400 Tejanos, Native Americans, and Anglo Americans, who called themselves the Republican Army of the North.
Broadly speaking, the Republican Army of the North was fighting for Mexican independence. Some of its members were veterans of Father Miguel Hidalgo’s army of insurgents who had first fought against Spanish rule. Indeed it was to San Antonio that Father Hidalgo had been fleeing in 1811 when he was captured. Yet, by 1813 the Republican Army of the North was almost all that remained of Father Hidalgo’s revolt.
More specifically, however, it seems that most of the men in the Republican Army of the North were fighting for self-government. That ideal appealed not just to Tejanos who had long suffered from royal neglect, but also to Native Americans accustomed to living free, and to Anglo Americans, many of whom joined the fight after leaving the United States in 1812 just as it was under attack from its old imperial master.
Despite the Republican Army of the North’s numerical disadvantage, it was probably the favorite going into the Battle of Medina. Over the previous year and over the course of a half-dozen encounters with the better-trained and better-equipped Royalist forces, the Republicans had not yet lost a fight. In April 1813, Texas had become the first of Spain’s New World colonies to both declare independence and clear its territory entirely of Spanish authorities. It is for this and other reasons that I call San Antonio the cradle of Mexican liberty, just as it is the cradle of Texas liberty.
If you’ve followed our series “Finding Medina” over the last six months, however, you already know that things didn’t end well for the Republican Army of the North. Though fiercely contested, the Battle of Medina turned into a rout and left as many as 1,000 Republicans dead on the field, where their bodies would remain unburied for nine years by the order of the victorious General Arredondo. And, yet, the soldiers in the Republican Army of the North got off easy.
San Antonio civilians bore the brunt of Arredondo’s vengeance. The men (327 of them!) were executed over the course of the next three months, the women were imprisoned for 54 days and forced to work in slave-like conditions while enduring the insults and assaults of their captors, and the children were cast into the street, where some starved to death within sight of their mothers.
Despite the carnage and despite the trauma – or maybe because of it – over time, the battle and the battlefield of Medina have been largely forgotten. My main motivation in undertaking this series was to try to locate the so-called “forgotten” battlefield of Medina, and if you want to find out whether I found it or not, you can listen to the final installment of Finding Medina.
But more important than finding a 200-year-old battlefield is identifying what lessons we can learn from an event that came to define an entire generation of Texans. You can’t understand the events of 1836 without understanding what happened in 1813. You can’t even understand Texas today if you don’t understand 1813.
It’s not always easy or appropriate to salvage redemptive lessons from the tragedies of the past, but there is something in particular that has always fascinated me about the events of 1813. In an age that we associate with so much bloodshed and bigotry, 1,400 people from wildly diverse backgrounds came together in San Antonio – the capital of the poorest province in New Spain on the most dangerous frontier on the continent – to fight for something.
This “something” was important enough to make Tejanos, Native Americans, and Anglo Americans look past differences in language, religion, and ethnicity to make common cause against an enemy that insisted on trying to classify them strictly on those bases.
If there’s inspiration to be found in the events of 1810-13 in Texas, it must come from identifying what that “something” was. Because it didn’t die in 1813. Texans drew inspiration from their trauma and doubled down on their commitment to self-government, carrying it forward in ways that would forever change the course of North American history.
Listen to our final episode of Finding Medina: Is this the Battlefield of Medina?