The "Victory or Death" Battle Flag

The Legend:

The legend, as taught to Texas school children at one time and popularized in literature and screen went something like this:

Sam Houston and his ragtag army ran from Mexican General Santa Anna’s until it became obvious to Houston that his men wouldn’t run any more. If he tried to make them continue running to the Louisiana border so that the US Army would be forced to intervene, they would mutiny. His little band of frontiersmen with guns was no match for the disciplined, trained Mexican army. Santa Anna’s armies had killed almost every Texian force they had encountered, Travis’s band at the Alamo, Fannin’s men at Goliad, and Captain King’s small band at Refugio. There had been no Texian victories.

Santa Anna had received reinforcements of 550 cavalry over Vince’s Bridge the night before, giving him a total force of 1360, and he was stopped on the banks of Buffalo Bayou resting the exhausted men and horses. Houston ordered Vince’s Bridge burned, which meant neither side could escape, and attacked in mid-afternoon, April 21, 1836. The Mexican Army was taking a siesta.

Santa Anna was distracted by a young slave girl, Emily Morgan, captured with the other slaves by his cavalry at the Morgan Plantation on Morgan’s Point. When the Texians attacked Santa Anna, who was known to take 5 grain opium pills, was in a post-coital and drug induced stupor and didn’t react.

His troops certainly didn’t react quickly enough. What should have been a suicidal attack across almost a mile of open field against expert troops behind breastworks turned into a total rout and virtual massacre.

The Texian flag had a fetching, bare breasted Goddess of Liberty pointing a sword in her left hand with the banner “Liberty or death” hung on its blade. Every Texian knew the truth behind the banner.

At 4:30 PM the Texians reached and breached the Mexican lines. Water blocked, the Mexicans had no escape. Their muskets had been stacked, and most of them never got theirs unstacked. The Texians attacked with unrelenting fury, avenging the Alamo and Goliad without mercy. The battle lasted 18 minutes, but the killing continued long after that.

According to Houston's official report, the casualties were 630 Mexicans killed and 730 taken prisoner. Against this, only nine of the 910 Texans were killed or mortally wounded and thirty were wounded less seriously.

General Santa Anna was captured wearing a private’s uniform, and bought his life by sending a letter to the Mexican generals still in Texas to retreat past the Rio Grande. Amazingly they did, despite the fact that Santa Anna, as a prisoner, had no authority over his army.

One of the eight inscriptions on the exterior base of the San Jacinto Monument reads "Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty."


According to The Handbook of Texas “Emily D. West, erroneously called Emily Morgan by those who presumed her a slave of James Morgan and the "Yellow Rose of Texas" by twentieth-century myth-makers, was born a free black in New Haven, Connecticut. She signed a contract with agent James Morgan in New York City on October 25, 1835, to work a year as housekeeper at the New Washington Association's hotel, Morgan's Point, Texas. Morgan was to pay her $100 a year and provide her transportation to Galveston Bay on board the company's schooner, scheduled to leave with thirteen artisans and laborers in November. She arrived in Texas in December on board the same vessel as Emily de Zavala and her children. On April 16, 1836, while James Morgan was absent in Galveston in command of Fort Travis, Mexican cavalrymen under command of Col. Juan N. Almonte arrived at New Washington to seize President David G. Burnet, who was embarking on a schooner for Galveston Island. As the president and his family sailed away, the troops seized Emily and other black servants at Morgan's warehouse, along with a number of white residents and workmen. Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived at New Washington the following day, and after three days of resting and looting the warehouses, he ordered the buildings set afire and departed to challenge Sam Houston's army, which was encamped about ten miles away on Buffalo Bayou. Emily was forced to accompany the Mexican army. With regard to the Yellow Rose legend, she may have been in Santa Anna's tent when the Texans charged the Mexican camp on April 21, but it was not by choice. She could not have known Houston's plans, nor could she have intentionally delayed Santa Anna. Moreover, in their official reports after returning to Mexico, none of his disaffected officers mentioned the presence of a woman or even that el presidente was in a state of undress. After the battle Emily found refuge with Isaac N. Moreland, an artillery officer, who later made his home in Houston and served as county judge. Strangers assumed Emily was James Morgan's slave because she was black.

A story was told around campfires and in barrooms that Emily had helped defeat the Mexican army by a dalliance with Santa Anna. The only discovered documentation for this in the nineteenth century was a chance conversation in 1842 between a visiting Englishman and a veteran on board a steamer from Galveston to Houston. William Bollaert recorded in his journal, "The battle of San Jacinto was probably lost to the Mexicans, owing to the influence of a Mulatta Girl (Emily) belonging to Col. Morgan who was closeted in the tent with G'l Santana." Bollaert does not identify the veteran or say Emily was Morgan's slave. The edited diary, published in 1956, included that notation as a footnote with Bollaert's name attached, a fact that led readers to believe the note was a footnote in the original manuscript. The editor's 1956 footnote launched prurient interest on the part of two amateur historians who concocted the modern fiction. Francis X. Tolbertqv, a prolific journalist, says in his The Day of San Jacinto (1959) that Emily was a "decorative long-haired mulatto girl...Latin looking woman of about twenty." No footnote documents this description or the author's statement that she was in Santa Anna's tent. Tolbert also presumptively identified Morgan as the informant. Henderson Shufflerqv, also a journalist, became a publicist for Texas A&M University in the 1950s, wrote historical articles for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, and made speeches while working at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in the 1960s. On one occasion he said Emily was "the M'latta Houri" of the Texas Revolution, a "winsome, light-skinned...slave of James Morgan." He added that she was a fitting candidate for the identity of the girl in the then-popular Mitch Miller version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Shuffler credited Tolbert for bringing Emily's story out into the open and then manufactured more fantasies, including the whim that "her deliberately provocative amble down the street [in New Washington was] the most exciting event in town." He added that her story was "widely known and often the 1840s." In closing, he suggested that a stone might be placed at the San Jacinto battleground "In Honor of Emily Who Gave Her All for Texas Piece by Piece."

In 1976 a professor of English at Sam Houston State University, Martha Anne Turner, published a small book, The Yellow Rose of Texas: Her Saga and Her Song, an outgrowth of a paper she delivered in 1969 at the American Studies Association of Texas. She credits Shuffler's speech and adds even more undocumented details before tracing the roots of the song. Thus the story was full-blown for the journalistic frenzy of the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986.

The real Emily D. West remained in Texas until early 1837, when she asked for and received a passport allowing her to return home. Isaac Moreland wrote a note to the secretary of state saying that he had met Emily in April 1836, that she was a thirty-six-year-old free woman who had lost her "free" papers at the battleground. She stated that she came from New York in September 1835 with Colonel Morgan and was anxious to return home. Although there is no date on the application housed in the Texas State Archives, Mrs. Lorenzo de Zavala, by then a widow, was planning to return to New York on board Morgan's schooner in March, and it seems possible that Morgan arranged passage aboard for Emily.”

Texans, of course, prefer the legend. In San Antonio one of the oldest hotels, dating from the 1920s, is the Emily Morgan Hotel. On top is the Santa Anna Suite because it is appropriate that Santa Anna be on top of Emily Morgan.