Tuesday, April 21, 2015

*** Deaf Smith, hero of the Texas Revolution

     Erastus "Deaf" Smith did not wish to take sides in the Texas Revolution when it broke out in 1835. But the Mexican Army would force him to chose -- the Texas side. Before the revolution, he had led an adventurous but peaceful existence. He wanted that to continue, but history had other plans.
     A native of Dutchess County, New York, who had lived his teen and early adult years in Natchez, Mississippi, Deaf Smith had adapted to the Texan world, and was able to navigate between the Anglo and Mexican worlds.
     Deaf Smith had first worked in Texas in 1817, finally moving there for good in 1821. Smith brought along a herd of Muley, introducing hornless cattle in a state that is best known for its beloved longhorns. He drove his cattle 200 miles from Velasco to Mission San Jose. The cattle drive taught him the geography and terrain of the area, which would serve him well later when he worked as a guide, a scout, and even a spy. The fact that he had worked as a surveyor in Mississippi no doubt helped him understand the importance of geography when he made that initial cattle drive.
     In 1822, he settled in San Antonio de Bexar, where he married a Tejana widow with three children, Guadalupe Ruiz Duran, who bore him a son and three daughters. That was the year he lost his hearing due to an illness, earning him the name of Deaf Smith -- pronounced Deef.
     "Deaf Smith spent much time away from his family, off in the wilderness or on adventures. He enjoyed hunting, especially buffalo, and trained a dog to quietly warn him of danger. In 1825, Smith assisted in starting the development of land near Gonzales, Texas, that 400 families were going to colonize. Smith acted as a guide through the lands for the Texan colonists who began arriving in great numbers," historian Cody Ricewood wrote.
     Unguarded borders are the quickest way for a government to lose its territory, as Mexico would discover the hard way, which is why border security is so vital to national security. Nations that do not have border security will cease to exist in time; consider the plight of the native Americans.
     "The Mexican central government and the Texan colonists coming into the area began to struggle for control.  Deaf Smith, with his feet in both cultures, avoided picking a side. However, when Deaf Smith tried to ride home to evacuate his family from the danger of fighting, Mexican General Cos’s men tried to capture him, hitting him on the head with a saber and knocking off his hat as Smith was escaping. Because of this, Smith rode immediately to Army General Stephen Austin of the Texas Volunteers to offer his services as a scout and spy," Ricewood wrote.
     Deaf Smith was 48 at the time, hardly in his prime as soldier. But he had courage, and he had survival skills, which overcame the handicap of being a deaf spy, which really has to be one of the worst choices for an MOS (military occupational specialty) for a person who is hearing challenged. Nevertheless, Deaf Smith made it work. In fact, he became the chief spy of Austin's army, serving as the eyes of the army as he could still move between the Anglo and Mexican cultural spheres. Historian Thomas W. Cutrer explained the importance of Deaf Smith's work.
     "Although his loyalties were apparently divided at the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, when a Mexican sentry refused to allow him to enter San Antonio to visit his family, Smith joined Stephen F. Austin's army, which was then besieging the town. On October 15, 1835, Charles Bellinger Stewart wrote to Austin that Smith had learned that the troops of Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos were 'disaffected to the cause which they are serving.' Stewart assured Austin that he knew Smith well and found him to be 'perfectly disinterested' and trustworthy 'to any extent his abilities and infirmity may warrant," Cutrer wrote.
     Smith's assessment of the morale of the Mexican military, based on his first-hand knowledge of the Mexican culture, was accurate and gave Austin an advantageous insight. But Smith's scouting was equally important.
     "After reporting to Richard R. Royall, president of the council at San Felipe, who found him to be 'very importantly useful,' Smith returned to Austin's army and took part in the battle of Concepción on October 28, 1835. He was responsible for the discovery of the Mexican supply train involved in the Grass Fight. During the siege of Bexar Smith guided Col. Francis Johnson's men into the town. On December 8 he was wounded on top of the Veramendi Palace at almost the same moment that Benjamin R. Milam was killed at its door. Smith, whom Governor Henry Smith (no relation) called 'well known to the army for his vigilance and meritorious acts,' remained with the army despite his severe wounds, 'as his services as a spy cannot well be dispensed with," Cutrer wrote.
     The worst was yet to come for the Texans. Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna took personal control of the army. His soldiers may have been disaffected to the cause, but he was deeply invested in it. He laid siege to the Alamo on February 23, 1836, with 1,800 troops. The Texans guarded the fortress with 260 (or less) troops. The siege ended on March 6, successfully for Santa Anna, who allowed his men to bayonet and shoot everybody they came across, vengeance for the 600 troops the Mexicans lost. Santa Anna was a ruthless man who led a corrupt army. This was the second of the four battles in Santa Anna's Goliad campaign. He won each one.
     The final one was the Battle of Coleto. Upon learning of the fall of the Alamo, General Sam Houston -- who initially was indecisive and ill-equipped to lead during this campaign -- ordered Colonel James W. Fannin to fall back to Victoria and join the rest of the Texas Army.
     However, Fannin was in no hurry and he led his men on a leisurely retreat from Goliad. Mexican troops surrounded the Texans on March 19 before Fannin could reach the shelter of a grove of timber at Coleto Creek, some 400 yards away. Texans formed a square in the middle of the prairie and attempted to defend their position. Anyone who has seen a wagon train movie is familiar with this situation, although usually the besieged form a circle, not a square.
     Surprisingly, the irregular Texans held off the well-trained Mexican army. But the next day, the Texans ran out of water. Fannin and his army surrendered. Santa Anna ordered Mexican commander Jose Nicolas de la Portilla to kill every Texas prisoner -- 342 men. While nowadays we recall, "Remember the Alamo," the cry of "Remember Goliad" would inspire the Anglos in their victory in the final battle of the revolution, the Battle of San Jacinto.
     After the Goliad campaign, Texans jeered General Houston and Mexicans cheered Santa Anna.
     The Mexican dictator gallantly led a picket column of about 900 troops amid much pageantry, but failed to encounter the sought-after leaders. On April 20, he then counter-marched toward Lynch's Ferry, where Houston’s army had, earlier that morning, established a position in the woods along the confluence of the San Jacinto River and Buffalo Bayou. Santa Anna began setting up camp and defenses on a grassy field 1,000 yards below the Texans’ position.
     This presented a problem for the Texas forces, who were outnumbered 1,360 to 910. Enter Deaf Smith, who by now had recovered from his wounds.
     "Before the battle began, Smith was responsible for capturing a messenger sent by General Cos to Mexican General Santa Anna, giving away Santa Anna’s location. Next Smith went into Santa Anna’s encampment disguised as a poor Mexican to gather information. Then, on the orders of General Houston, Smith destroyed Vince’s Bridge to prevent any retreat or reinforcements. Smith also joined in the fighting at San Jacinto. The Mexicans, outnumbering the Texans by far, fled.  First, Santa Anna was captured and then Smith captured General Cos. Finally, General Houston relied on Smith to relay a message from Santa Anna to his general Filisola telling Filisola to retreat back to Mexico," Ricewood wrote.
     The Texas Army had caught Santa Anna with his pants down -- literally, according to legend. He had his men dig fortifications in preparation for a final battle on April 22. But the Texans had moved the date of the battle up by one day. The destruction of Vince's Bridge cut off any retreat or reinforcements for Santa Anna. It was an all-in move by Sam Houston that would turn the jeers into cheers. The Texans attacked in the afternoon during the Mexican siesta, catching the enemy napping, although some of the soldiers were bedding their wives or the camp followers. Indeed, Santa Anna was said to be bedding at the time of the attack a mulatto indentured servant named Emily D. West -- also named Emily Montgomery as that was the surname of the man to whom she was indentured for one year. Regardless of whether the story is true, she is "The Yellow Rose Of Texas" in the song of the same name. After the battle, she seemed to sink into the woodwork. Santa Anna escaped wearing red slippers and a blue gown as he rode away, only to be caught the next day.
     On May 14, 1836, Santa Anna signed the Treaties of Velasco, which ended hostilities and allowed the Republic of Texas to establish itself.
     Deaf Smith's final assignment was to monitor the Mexican Army's retreat. Santa Anna became the goat, and Sam Houston the hero. He later joined the Texas Rangers, but left and died on November 30, 1837, at last a Texan. The Texans put his portrait on the $5 bill and named a county Deaf Smith County.
     If you ever go there, remember it is pronounced Deef.


  1. I'd heard of him, but knew little.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.