08/15/2013 01:57 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

A Forgotten Battle in Texas

August 18, 2013 is the 200th anniversary of a battle that has largely been forgotten, but which could have turned North American history in a very different direction. The Battle of Medina took place near San Antonio on August 18, 1813. Texas was still part of the Spanish colonial empire and the battle was a part of the tumult that occurred during the early years of Mexico's War of Independence.

The events that led up to the battle were the sort of mixture of idealism and opportunism that Texas history is known for. As the Texas State Historical Association describes it:

Occurring during a very confused and turbulent period of world history, the battle of Medina affected the destinies of Spain, Mexico, the United States, England, and France. Mexico and Latin America were in revolt against Spain, whose king was Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who was on a rampage in Europe, and the United States was at war with England, later to be called the War of 1812. In this cauldron of world events, José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara and Augustus William Magee, abetted by the United States, organized an expedition to wrest Texas from Spain. Adopting a "Green Flag" for a banner, their Republican Army of the North crossed from the Neutral Ground in Louisiana into Texas on August 7, 1812, and soon captured Nacogdoches, Trinidad de Salcedo, La Bahía, where Magee died, and San Antonio, where a declaration of independence for the State of Texas under the Republic of Mexico was proclaimed on April 6, 1813.

Needless to say, this declaration of independence wasn't appreciated by the Spanish crown and an army was sent to crush the rebellion. The Republican Army of the North picked up hundreds of Tejano supporters and eventually around 1,400 men marched out of San Antonio in the hopes of sparing the city the ravages of a siege and in search of royalist forces. They found them somewhere around twenty miles south of San Antonio (the exact site has yet to be definitively identified).

The battle was a rout. Approximately 800 to 1,000 rebels were killed in the battle, with the royalists losing only 55 men. One of the leaders of the royalist troops was a young officer who would return to Texas in later decades named Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. It was the bloodiest battle in Texas history, with more deaths than any of the battles of the successful Texas Revolution in 1836 or any of the skirmishes of the American Civil War that took place on Texas soil.

One might ask why anyone in 2013 should care about this long-forgotten battle. It obviously hasn't loomed large in anyone's cultural imagination for centuries and is obscure even to Texas history buffs. One reason is, as Cindy Casares wrote in an article about the battle in the Texas Observer:

To prevent San Antonio from becoming a battlefield, the rebels marched south to meet the Spanish. The more than 1,400 men included more than 800 Tejanos and about 300 Anglos; there were also a handful of Native Americans and one African slave. The majority of rebels were not "filibusters," but residents of the place for which they were fighting. They were willing to die to defend their families from Spanish oppression, and die they did.

Texas was a sparsely-populated province at that time so the killing of around 1,000 men was a huge loss for the local population. One can argue that such a loss of life helped ensure that the local Tejano population would never be able to keep up demographically with the Anglo settlers that came later and who eventually organized the Republic of Texas. Further, while one obviously cannot know how history would have gone had the battle been won by the rebels, had Texas been able to maintain itself as a semi-independent part of a federal republic of Mexico (which might have prevented the development of the corrupt centralist state that arose because of the actions of people like Santa Anna) or had Texas been able to join the United States at a time when the political power of Southern slaveholders was much weaker, the entire course of North American history could have been altered.

Also, in many ways the loss of memory of the Battle of Medina is indicative of the loss of memory of the Spanish and Mexican history of Texas, a history which was often ignored or minimized until recent years. So while the Battle of Medina wasn't a legendary battle like Waterloo or Gettysburg, it was a moment in which a group of men stood their ground to fight against an oppressive empire and to try and create a better world for themselves and their descendants. For that, they should be remembered and celebrated.