State Cemetery - Header Banner

The Runaway Scrape

One-hundred and seventy-six years ago Tuesday, the Alamo fell to Mexican forces under General Santa Anna. Following a string of Texas defeats, the Alamo debacle must have sounded like a death knell for a republic barely out of its birthing pangs. Texas had declared its independence just five days before the worst defeat the Republic had faced thus far. The Goliad Massacre occured twenty-one days later and was an even worse defeat than the Alamo with 342 men dead. Things couldn’t have looked more grim for Texans and their fledgling Republic.

Between the Alamo falling and the death of Colonel James Fannin and his men, Texas suffered defeats at the battles of Coleto and Refugio. Susanna Dickinson informed General Sam Houston of the Alamo’s fall on March 11. She told him the grim news before the defeats at Coleto and Refugio and still Houston knew he couldn’t face the Mexican Army as his forces stood at the time. After the fall of the Alamo, Houston had around 400 men to Santa Anna’s 1,400 and felt they were ill trained for the type of battle Santa Anna sought. The Mexican Army would form up in battle lines and fight in the European style. Houston did not know if his men had the discipline to stand toe to toe with the Mexican regulars.

Houston decided to retreat beyond the Colorado River, an easier to position to defend than Gonzales. Houston ordered a retreat, not just for his army, he told the civilians how things stood and they fled as well. Thus began the Runaway Scrape; a rearguard action that lasted for a month and a half as Houston jinked and jived his way across Texas until the army turned and fought at San Jacinto. But San Jacinto was more than a month away. The Runaway Scrape was devastating to the new Republic. The order of the day for the Mexican Army was ‘no quarter.’ Rebelling Texans were to be treated as pirates, no mercy, ignominious death and bodies burned without burial. Burning of farms, ranches, cities and pillage were acceptable tactics. Terror and death and wet, wet roads awaited the civilian population as they fled before the Mexican Army.

They fled with good reason; the Mexican Army was burning everything that could be found as they went. They burned Mina (Bastrop) and chased off all the colonists in the area. It was a wet spring and the wives and children of the men under Sam Houston’s command struggled to head east to the dubious safety beyond the Brazos River. Many men in Houston’s army deserted to go to their wives and children. The young and the old died on the road to safety.

Houston turned several times to escort groups of refugees, all the while the rank and file soldiers in Houston’s army grumbled and moaned, wanting their revenge. All the while, Houston drilled as much as he could. I’ll write about San Jacinto in a coming blog post, but what I really want to drive home was the desperate nature of the days after the Alamo fell. Try and picture yourself as a Texan hearing the news of the fall of the Alamo, Houston’s retreat, Gonzales and Mina burning, Fannin and his men massacred at Goliad, men women and children blindly fleeing in a panic before the merciless Mexican Army. It would be easy, even understandable to lose heart and faith in Houston and the promise of the Republic. The Republic seemed so fragile and even shattered.

Word of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence filtered outward from Washington-on-the-Brazos slowly by word of mouth. When word reached the fleeing masses waiting for a ferry to cross the Brazos, many must have laughed with grim humor as they saw the smoke of their homes and ranches reach into the air. The brilliant Texas writer and historianT.R. Fehrenbach summed up the Runaway Scrape in his work Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.

Any flight of refugees from war is attended by misery, tragedy and terror. There were hundreds of tales of heroism and self-reliance, as the women struggled over the muddy roads to the Sabine, without their men, abandoning their homes and the labor of years, with the smoke of the Mexican swathe of destruction rising behind them. Soon, there was hunger; fever and sickness spread, babies began to die.

Santa Anna broke up his Army into columns, thinking there was no large army of Texans remaining. He thought the Texans were broken and he just needed to sweep up the remains and chase the rest out of Mexican Texas. His was a punitive campaign, spreading his army wide for maximum destruction. He would come to regret that decision at a place named for Saint Hyacinth. In the meantime, the dawning of the Republic was dimmed by smoke, fire, death and disease.

- Will Erwin