Young Santa Anna
In 1810, Mexico declared independence from Spain and 16 year old Antonio LĂłpez de Santa Anna enlisted â€“ on the Spanish side. After several years of fighting the independence movement, he switched sides, allying himself with the charismatic AgustĂn de Iturbide.He rose to the rank of general and was later instrumental in overthrowing Iturbide, who had declared himself emperor: Santa Anna preferred Mexico be a republic.
The Victor of Tampico
In 1824, at the age of 30, Santa Anna was made governor of the Yucatan. In 1829, Spain made one last-gasp effort to re-take Mexico. Santa Anna defeated the larger Spanish force at Tampico, for which he came to be considered a hero and a military genius. Santa Anna himself made the most of it, referring to himself ever after as "The victor of Tampico.â€ť
In 1833, Santa Anna was elected president for the first time. When several states rose up in rebellion, he would personally lead armies out to crush them. In 1835, he brutally put down a serious rebellion in Zacatecas before heading to Texas.
The Tussle for Texas
Texas, once a Mexican state, had been allowing American settlers to come for several years. These settlers eventually tired of Mexican rule and the state declared itself an independent republic in 1836.
Santa Anna moved his army north and fought several battles with the rebels, culminating with the famous battle of the Alamo in San Antonio in February and March of 1836. Although the battle was a victory for Santa Anna â€“ the fort was overrun and all of the roughly (no one knows for sure) 200 defenders were killed â€“ more than 1,000 Mexican soldiers perished attacking the heavily fortified Alamo.
In April, Santa Anna and his army were attacked by surprise by Texas rebels fighting under Sam Houston. It was a total rout: the Texans killed roughly 650 Mexican soldiers and captured another 600, including Santa Anna himself. Nine Texans were killed, and 18 were wounded.
Santa Anna, to secure his release, signed a treaty recognizing Texan independence. Back in Mexico, Santa Anna retired to his country ranch. But when the French invaded in 1838 to get compensation for unpaid loans, he returned to lead the counter-attack.
More Troubles for Santa Anna
The Mexicans eventually agreed to French demands, but Santa Anna was a hero again. His leg was amputated after a cannon shot crushed his ankle. He ordered his leg be buried with full military honors. Within a year, he was president again. In 1842, he attempted to re-take Texas but failed. He raised taxes, which made him unpopular. By 1845, his government had fallen apart and he was forced to escape and head into exile in Cuba.
His exile didnâ€™t last long, however: in 1846 the U.S. â€“ Mexican War broke out and he was welcomed back to lead the defense. The Mexicans lost the war, partly due to Santa Annaâ€™s military incompetence. Once again, Santa Anna went into exile.
The Final Years
By 1853 he was back for one last turn at the presidency. His conservative allies eventually abandoned him, however, and in 1855 he was overthrown by a group of liberals including the charismatic Benito Juarez. He was exiled again, and tried in absentia for treason due to the flagrant corruption of his administration.
He lived in several countries for the next two decades before being allowed back to Mexico in 1874, where he died two years later. All in all, Santa Anna was president of Mexico eleven times, and remains a fascinating historical character.
Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Mexico: History and Politics of Mexico, Juan Rulfo, The Ciudad Juarez Murders, The Aztec Sun Stone, The Mexican Revolution, Monumento a la Independencia, Oaxaca History, Porfirio Diaz, Subcomandante Marcos and Emiliano Zapata.