Most people who follow Texas history presume the Mexican Army retreated to Mexico after the capture of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto.
The truth is, the war nearly continued and had it not been for a massive rainstorm and a couple swollen rivers, the place known today at Texas might still be a Mexican state and the Texas Revolution just a footnote in history.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s perspective of history, the core of the Mexican Army, in an attempt to regroup in Victoria, got bogged down in what is known as the Sea of Mud.
“The Mexican Army was withdrawing to Victoria until they got stuck in the mud. They weren’t obeying Santa Anna’s orders. They didn’t have their tails tucked between their legs. But by the time they got out of the mud they were pretty well whipped,” Gregg Dimmick, a pediatrician and amateur archeologist and historian, said during a meeting of the Fort Bend County Historical Commission last November.
An exhibit of artifacts lost and discarded by the Mexican Army during their two-week, 20-mile slog between branches of the San Bernard River in Wharton County are now on display at the new San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site Museum. It’s the first major exhibit to be displayed in the museum’s temporary exhibit hall.
“It’s a forgotten and unknown story that most Texans don’t resonate with,” said Site Manager Bryan McAuley.
He said he hopes the 100-piece exhibit that is on display through Labor Day will help shed light on a little-known chapter in Texas history.
“I think it’s useful for us to be able to say we’re trying to help people understand some of the stories that took place here and one of the visuals we don’t have in our own collection … is Mexican military stuff, so in that sense it’s a great story to bring,” McAuley said.
The story of the Sea of Mud and the recovery of thousands of artifacts back in the 1990s and early 2000s is the result of tireless work by Dimmick. After learning that Mexican Army artifacts had been discovered in Wharton County where he’s from, he began doing research and hunting with a metal detector. Years of work resulted in his book “Sea of Mud: The Retreat of the Mexican Army after San Jacinto, An Archeological Investigation” and an exhibit at Texas A&M University. San Felipe is the first museum to feature the artifacts outside of the university.
“Most of that we have on display, I think it’s safe to say, has not been seen in a public exhibit before,” McAuley said.
He said the exhibit is revolutionary in that it tells the story of the revolution from the Mexican perspective and reveals what could have happened had Mother Nature not intervened.
“We can bring in stuff that says maybe the end of the Texas Revolution could have had a different chapter; win or lose or whatever; there is more fighting that could have taken place. The battle of San Jacinto didn’t have to be the bookend that closed it all,” McAuley said.
Dimmick was at the opening of the exhibit and gave lectures the opening weekend at the end of March.
“We slowly put together archeologically and historically this fascinating story of the Mexican Army getting stuck in what is now Wharton County,” Dimmick said.
After San Jacinto, there were approximately 4,000 Mexican troops remaining in Texas, far more than the 1,200 men who were routed by Sam Houston’s army of about 900.
“Initially, despite our thought from a Texian perspective that you defeat Presidente and General Santa Anna and the war’s over, the troops in the field, that wasn’t their initial response,” McAuley said. “They certainly didn’t see any reason to believe that just because Presidente had been captured that it’s time to lay down our weapons right there. They’re strategizing and trying to figure out what are our options. Ultimately, it’s somewhat fascinating that Mother Nature would intervene in a way that, I think for a lot of these guys … they’re just exhausted at that point and it’s time to go home.”
With Santa Anna captured, the Mexican Army was in disarray.
“The Mexican generals who are subordinate to Santa Anna are clearly not big fans of each other, so they’re struggling, who’s in charge and who’s taking orders and are we waiting for word from Santa Anna or waiting for word from Mexico City? What’s going to happen to redirect things here?” McAuley said.
Eventually Texian scout Erastus “Deaf” Smith delivers a message from Santa Anna to the army ordering it to divide into two columns and regroup in Victoria and San Antonio.
“He (Santa Anna) didn’t order the Mexican Army to retreat out of Texas. That’s what the Texas history books are going to tell you and it’s not true,” Dimmick said.
Gen. Vicente Filisola’s men were camped in the Richmond/Rosenberg area and Gen. Jose de Urrea was camped down in Columbia and Brazoria.
“They had a big meeting on April 25,” Dimmick said. “Nobody knew if Santa Anna was dead or alive.”
The next day the combined forces, along with about 1,200 female camp followers, start on their way to Victoria to await orders and get re-supplied.
“They get across the San Bernard and as soon as they get across the San Bernard it starts raining and it rained and it rained and it rained,” Dimmick said. “The next day, on April 27, they went to the West Bernard but they couldn’t get across.”
So began the arduous trek across the muddy swamp.
“Filisola had 2,500 soldiers; he had 1,200 to 1,500 female camp followers. He had about 120 wagons and eight pieces of artillery and two blacksmith shops. He was taking 4,000 people through this mud. It took him about two weeks to make it through the mud and it was not pretty,” Dimmick said.
“Some of the most exciting things he (Dimmick) found were howitzer shells that were still powdered,” McAuley said. “I think in at least two cases they had fuses in place. That’s a pretty dangerous traveling situation, even as crappy as black powder was for the Mexican Army… That had to have been done in the field, so they must have had some idea of imminent threat that the Texans were coming or they had some report that they may have to stand their ground in the middle of this sea of mud.
“So they primed these howitzer shells in preparation for that. His additional speculation would be, once you’ve done that, you’re sunk. You’re either going to shoot them or you’re not. He thinks the shells they found were deliberately left behind,” McAuley said.
One of the howitzer shells, with the powder removed, is a centerpiece of the display. There are also gun parts, uniform parts, buttons, and other personal items that were found.
McAuley said that many of the artifacts have a direct connection to San Felipe, as they would have passed through the town while the Mexican Army was pursuing the Texas Army.
“Filisola and his men came through San Felipe … as Santa Anna is still here engaging the militia across the river. So there is a direct connection to some degree to the troops that were here that also end up caught in the sea of mud,” he said.
The Sea of Mud exhibit gives the museum a chance to showcase artifacts McAuley hopes is someday recovered in San Felipe.
“One of the things that has bothered us to date, knowing that Santa Anna’s army is here for about five days and that there’s an engagement across the river, knowing that there’s a second wave of Mexican troops that come through here with (Col. Jose Enrique) de la Pena and others, we have found very little archeological that is related to the Mexican army’s occupation,” he said. “We have a pretty good idea where we think they were, and we feel like we should be turning that kind of stuff up. The fact that we haven’t – this collection is one of just a handful that really gives us a chance to show what the sort of things we hope to find here would be.”