Historical Reminiscing with Robert B. Hitchings
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When Santa Anna Was In Norfolk, Virginia.

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

In the afternoon of January 31, 1837, a tall, rather handsome Spaniard arrived by ship on our shores. He had just visited our 7th President, old President Andrew Jackson, old Hickory (1767-1845), the noted Indian fighter and hero of the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. This man was no other than the famous Santa Anna, the General and President of Mexico. It was General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (1794-1876) the ruthless general who had given orders to take over the historic Spanish mission built in 1718. This mission became a fortress better known as the Alamo. It was a bloody 13-day siege ending on March 6, 1836, with thousands dead. Santa Anna made sure no fighters survived.

The Alamo was the most well-known battle of the Texas Revolution trying to break away from Mexico. It was the bravery of such men as Davy Crockett, William Travis and James Bowie that remained at the Alamo to fight for Texas independence. News traveled fast when those volunteers were slaughtered by Santa Anna. The words, "Remember the Alamo" were heard all over the United States.

When news broke that Santa Anna would be traveling to United States to visit President Jackson at the White House, the newspapers knew that the siege of the Alamo was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. That had been a brutal fight and Santa Anna was no friend of the people of the United States.

The newspapers of the day had printed several stories of Santa Anna visiting the United States. The Norfolk & Portsmouth Hearld on January 2, 1837, quickly reported that Santa Anna would “possibly pass through this city.” The motive of his visit was to meet with President Andy Jackson. Many Americans questioned this visit and asked what prompted him to visit Washington and have a conference with our President Jackson. Some wondered what this “Mystery meeting was all about.”

Also, another column of The Norfolk & Portsmouth Hearld reminded Americans that this President of Mexico was our guest and to treat him with respect and the same hospitality that one would show to any other foreign leader. The newspaper also reported that President General Santa Anna would be staying at the Boarding House on Main Street and Atlantic Street belonging to a Charles Wingfield (1800-1840). Behind his boarding house was a large body of water, better known as Back Creek, now City Hall Avenue. Norfolk was still a swampy place to live in those days before most of the tributaries were filled in.

Santa Anna arrived in the late afternoon with his aid, Colonel Juan Almonte (1803-1869), on the steamboat Pocahontas. He and Colonel Almonte were escorted by carriage to the Wingfield Boarding House.

That night crowds began to form outside thre boarding house to get a glimpse of the famous general who many called a villain. During the night the crowds got bigger and became angrier with their torches. I feel sure many angry mobsters shouted out, “Remember the Alamo.” In the Borough of Norfolk there was lots of hatred towards this man.

Apparently Santa Anna himself and a few Norfolk officials felt his safety was in jeopardy. Many worried that a large riot might take place and he would be killed. I am sure Charles Wingfield, owner of the Wingfield Board House, was worried too. He did not want to see his boarding house set on fire by an angry mob.

Popular hatred against Santa Anna was so intense that the violence erupted according to a local historian, an old Norfolk native Thomas B. Rowland. Santa Anna was taken out by the rear entrance to Back Creek, where City Hall Avenue is today. He was assisted in escaping in a small rowboat that was able to get under the old stone bridge and what is now at he intersection of Granby Street and City Hall Avenue. There he was taken onboard the ship Pioneer for safety.

On February 1, 1837, in the early morning hours, Santa Anna embarked from Norfolk on the Barque called the Pioneer. Lt. Commodore Josiah Tattnall, III (1795-1871) was the captain and had been given orders from the President to take Santa Anna home to Vera Cruz.

In reading Thomas Rowland’s, "Sidelights on Old Norfolk", in The Virginian-Pilot dated April 11, 1912, he wrote his memories in several installments. Thomas Rowland was only 11 years old when Santa Anna was in Norfolk and remembered the citizens talking about Santa Anna leaving Norfolk in the dead of night by a small rowboat on January 31, 1837. It is truly an interesting bit of Norfolk’s rich history. No one to my knowledge has ever reported this event here in Norfolk. Sad that Rowland does not give any dates when all of this occurred.

After Santa Anna left Norfolk, a story appeared in the Norfolk & Portsmouth Hearld about his escape at night. But the newspaper also tells another story about the mob on Maine & Atlantic Streets who were curiosity seekers that just wanted to get a glance at the famous Mexican leader. Here is what one Norfolk native had to say about the military leader Santa Anna.

“We were among the few who were ushered into his presence and at first glance at this person and features, gave us a more favorable impression of the man than we had imbibed from the leading incidents of his history. There was certainly nothing ferocious or repulsive in his countenance, which was placid and rather expressive of mildness. His complexion is similar to that of most European Spaniards, with a good, but not particularly striking set of features. He is about five feet nine inches in height, straight and well proportional. And he does not speak any English.”

Interestingly, nothing was ever said about Santa Anna's artificial leg. It was at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836 that he was wounded. Not only did he lose Texas to the Americans, but he also lost his leg which had to be amputated and was buried on the battleground with full military honors.

Santa Anna was a complex man, a tyrant and self-styled Napoleon of the West. His hero was the great Napoleon. His orders (policy) were to not take any prisoners at the Alamo and directed all executions of Texans and Goliad.

Revolution against Mexico had its beginning in the fall of 1835 and achieved its goal of independence after defeating General Santa Anna at the battle of Jacinito on April 21, 1836. Gen Sam Houston fought with his men, and all remembered the martyred heroes of the Alamo. It was truly a great victory of a small force against a much larger Mexican Army. The highlight of the day was when Santa Anna was captured while fleeing in an ordinary private’s uniform. On May 14, 1836, Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Valasco granting Texas her independence.

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Robert B. Hitchings is a seventh generation Norfolk resident, graduating with an Associate's Degree in Biology from Old Dominion University and BA in history from Virginia Wesleyan University. During his studies he was awarded a scholarship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England, and he was an exchange student at Brooks-Westminster College, Oxford, England. From 1999-2014 he worked as head of the Sargeant Memorial History Room at Norfolk Public Library, and since then has headed the Wallace History Room at Chesapeake Public Library. He is also the President of the Norfolk County Historical Society, and for six years was a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot. Robert may be reached at nchs.wallaceroom@gmail.com