“Santy Anno”


Shanty. Characteristic lines: "Heave Away/Hooray, Santy Anno/Anna... All on the plains of Mexico." The body of the song devotes itself to the Mexican War and/or the California Gold Rush and the sailor's desire to get married and participate


For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note.

According to Wheelan, p. 41, "The amazing career of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is so entwined with the early years of Texas and Mexico that it is impossible to tell their history without telling his. Born in 1794 in upland Jalapa into a venerable Spanish Castillian family, Antonio was a quarrelsome boy who matured into a fractious, luxury-loving man. Unquestionably courageous, he was also elegant and charming. His favorite amusements were... gambling, cockfighting, an dancing. He was ambitious, opportunistic, crafty, and egotistical."

Or how about this description from DeVoto, pp. 68-69, "Santa Anna is the set piece of Mexican history, complete with rockets, pinwheels, Greek fire, and aerial bombs. He had been president of Mexico, dictator, commander in chief, much too often and too variously for specification here. He had contrived to persuade a good many different factions that he was their soul, and never betrayed any of them till he had got their funds.... He had the national genius for oratory and manifesto, and a genius of his own for courage, cowardice, inspiration, and magnificent graft. [Since the Texas War for Independence,] he had procured further revolutions at home, had lost a leg defending his country against a French invasion, had established a new dictatorship, and had been overthrown by the uprising that put Herrera in power. His impeachment for treason and his banishment had followed."

Looking at his portrait in Wheelan, I can't help but think how much he looks like Adolf Hitler minus the mustache. And, indeed, he had a lot of the same traits, including clawing his way to power and then biting off more than he could chew.

Plus being utterly brutal. It showed in his treatment of Texas. Mexico had allowed American colonists into the area on conditions: They needed to be Catholic and not hold slaves (Wheelan, p. 43). Unfortunately, the Mexicans winked their eyes at slavery while trying to genuinely exclude Protestants. Eventually, when the Mexican government became strict about imposing its rule, the Americans decided they wanted out.

The result was the successful Texas rebellion. In which Santa Anna was the chief Mexican general. He had an army of five thousand "conscripts and prison inmates" (Wheelan, p. 46), with which he took the Alamo, and slaughtered the defenders, then captured and slaughtered the garrison of Goliad (Wheelan, p. 47). Then, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston's Texans routed the Mexican army at San Jacinto, capturing the general the next day (Wheelan, p. 48). Santa Anna saved his skin by giving the Texans independence, but of course his government could not withstand the blow.

The Mexican government never did really accept that Texas was independent. DeVoto, pp. 12-13, writes, "[I]t is a fundamental mistake to think of Mexico, in this period, or for many years before, as a republic or even a government. It must be understood as a late stage in the breakdown of the Spanish Empire. Throughout that time it was never able to establish a stability, whether social or political.... [N]o governing class arose, or even a political party, but only some gangs. Sometimes the gangs were captained by intelligent and capable men, sometimes for a while they stood for the merchants, the clergy, the landowners, or various programs of reform, but they all came down in the end to simple plunder."

Given that situation, border raiding was constant. In one of those border raids, Santa Anna captured a large force of Texas raiders -- and ordered every eleventh man shot, choosing the victims at random by having them pull white and black beans from a jar (Wheelan, p. 51).

Eventually the Mexicans got rid of Santa Anna, but the squabbles over Texas never ended. (This was to prove most unfortunate. Had Mexico recognized Texas independence, Britain and France would probably have guaranteed it, the United States would not have annexed Texas, and Mexico presumably would have kept California. Morison, p. 554, writes, "More sense of reality and less of prestige at Mexico City in 1844 might have changed the entire course of American expansion." But Mexico City had neither.)

DeVoto, p. 11, makes an interesting comparison to the Sudetenland. The parallels are there: Just as the Sudetenland had never been part of Germany proper (before the independence of Czechoslovakia, it was part of the Habsburg Empire), so Texas had never been part of the United States. But just as the Sudetenland was full of Germans who wanted to join Germany, so Texas was full of Americans at least open to joining the United States.

For, while Texas was independent, it was also sparsely populated and bankrupt. Various solutions were proposed -- there was actually a British idea of guaranteeing Texas independence if it would free its slaves (Morison, p. 554; Wheelan, p. 58). But the obvious answer was for Texas to join the United States.

This was more complicated than it sounded; President John Tyler tried get a treaty (actually, two different treaties) annexing Texas through the Senate, but could not command a two-thirds majority. He managed to pull it off at the very end of his term (after the 1844 election) by joint resolution of Congress (which required only a simple majority; Morison, p. 556).

The always-shaky Mexican government couldn't face this. It did not dare to admit that it had lost Texas, so naturally it could not admit that Texas had joined the United States. Their bluster might have worked against one of the weak American presidents of the 1850s. Unfortunately for Mexico, the new President was James K. Polk.

Polk was one of the most complex Presidents in American history -- literally; historians can't even agree on his legacy. I can't cite a source, because it was so long ago, but some time around the Reagan administration, a poll was taken among historians to determine the ten best and worst American presidents. Polk was the only president to make *both* lists.

He was a driven man. A sickly youngster, he was diagnosed at age 17 with urinary stones, and was subjected to an emergency operation without anesthetic to remove them; the operation in all likelihood left him sterile (Seigenthaler, p. 19). He had only the sketchiest of education in his early years, and grew up in a situation of religious controversy (Seigenthaler, pp. 12-13). The family came to be obsessed with obtaining as much property as possible (Seigenthaler, p. 17). It was a trait Polk would carry to an extreme; no other President except Thomas Jefferson acquired so much land for the United States, and there were no others who acquired so much by such vigorous means.

His methods were hardly the most honest; his enemies labelled him "Polk the Mendacious" (Wheelan, p. 54). And Seigenthaler, despite seeming to admire Polk overall, points up evidence of his deceptions, admitting that, to Polk, the end justified the means (pp. 100-101).

DeVoto, pp. 7-8, sums him up this way: "Polk's mind was rigid, narrow, obstinate, far from first-rate. He sincerely believed that only Democrats were truly American.... He was pompous, suspicious, and secretive; he had no humor; he could be vindictive; and he saw spooks and villains.... But if his mind was narrow it was also powerful and he had guts. If he was orthodox, his integrity was absolute and he could not be scared, manipulated, or brought to heel. No one bluffed him, no one moved him with direct or oblique pressure. Furthermore, he know how to get things one. He came into office with clear ideas and a fixed determination and he was to stand by them...."

On p. 201, in explaining why the American troops in the Mexican war were treated so badly, DeVoto adds, "He had no understanding of war, its needs, its patterns, or its results. The truth is that he did not understand any results except immediate ones." But he was very good at getting immediate results.

Polk made a career mostly as an ally of Andrew Jackson, who created his own controversies and was, if anything, even more prejudiced than Polk. (It is a bit ironic, in the face of current American politics, that Polk -- probably the most conservative America-is-always-right man of his generation -- was a near-agnostic who was not baptized until he was dying. The man who brought the conservative state of Texas into the Union could not possibly be supported by a Texas delegation today. Nor was he much of a glad-handler in the modern sense; he disliked social engagements and, once in office, rarely left the White House; Seigenthaler, p. 103; Wheelan, p. 54. He would very nearly work himself to death as President. Seigenthaler, p. 119, in summing up the notes he kept as President, calls him "brooding and humorless.... Sometimes he presents himself as demanding to the point of unreasonableness, determined to the point of stubbornness, self-righteous to the point of paranoia.... More than anything else, he comes across as intensely partisan, at times blindly so.")

As Speaker of the House, Polk had run that organization like clockwork. He had then gone on to serve as Tennessee governor 1839-1841, but was defeated in his attempts to run for re-election (DeGregorio, pp. 166-167).

Polk's path to becoming leader of his country was more legal than Santa Anna's, but only slightly less peculiar. Martin Van Buren had been voted out of office in 1840, just as Polk had been ousted from the Tennessee governorship, but was expected to run again in 1844. Polk had presidential ambitions, but for the moment, he just wanted to be Van Buren's vice president.

But several funny things happened on the way to the convention. For starters, Van Buren and the likely Whig nominee, Henry Clay, had published on the very same day similar announcements saying they did not stand for annexation of Texas (Seigenthaler, p. 76). To this day, it is not certain if they had agreed on this, or if they did it independently -- but it was widely thought that they had made an agreement. And the American people, firm believers in Manifest Destiny, wanted Texas. Clay still managed to become the Whig nominee. But it cost Van Buren. There were two main candidates going into the 1844 convention: Van Buren, and Lewis Cass. Van Buren had a majority of delegates on the first ballot, but the convention had adopted a two-thirds rule, and Van Buren never came close to that (Seigenthaler, p. 83). Polk didn't start getting votes until the eighth ballot, but once he had started, Polk's operators carefully manipulated the convention, and it became a bandwagon; he was nominated on the very next ballot. Polk, as a result, became the first "dark horse" presidential candidate -- though we should note that he was far better known nationally than such recent nominees as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The campaign which followed was pretty ugly -- e.g., though both candidates were slaveowners, Polk was accused (falsely) of branding his slaves (Seigenthaler, p. 96). And Clay made rather a hash of things, being very inconsistent in his utterances on topics such as Texas.

Unknown or not, slaveowner or not, Polk won -- if just barely; his margin in the popular vote was some 38,000 out of two and a half million ballots cast. As usual, the margin in the electoral college was much more decisive (Seigenthaler, pp. 98-99). And "probably no other President entered office with so clearly defined a program and accomplished so much of it as Polk (Current/Williams/Freidel, p. 364)

This was the man against whom the fragile Mexican government tried to negotiate. Or, rather, tried not to negotiate. It rejected Polk's attempts to buy California. Polk can't have been too unhappy; he was actually sending different teams with different instructions to various places to muddy the waters (Wheelan, p. 55).

Then, at the end of 1845, the Mexican government of President Herrera was overthrown by General Paredes (Morison, p. 560). The new government was no more willing to recognize the annexation of Texas than the old was willing to recognize its independence.

To make the whole situation worse, Polk wanted to annex not just the portion of Texas east of the Nueces (the part that was unquestionably independent) but greater Texas (all the way to the Rio Grande) and California (which not even the most arrogant Texan had claimed. Polk in fact made the absurd claim that Texas has always been a proper part of the United States! (Here again we see the analogy to the Sudetenland -- Texas was, in effect, the entering wedge.)

So Polk, in order to "ensure that Mexico [would] not" go to war, sent 3000 men under Zachary Taylor to Texas (Wheelan, p. 60). And Polk ordered General Taylor to cross the Nueces (the recognized border between Texas and Mexico, insofar as there was one). Initially he based himself at Corpus Christi, at the mouth of the Nueces, putting him just south of the border (DeVoto, p. 28). Then Polk pushed harder, ordering Taylor to head for the Rio Grande (Wheelan, p. 63).

So disorganized was Taylor's force that it took him a month to get moving (DeVoto, p. 105), and there was much squabbling among the Americans along the way; amazingly, in all their time in camp, they had not practiced maneuvering together (DeVoto, p. 107). But they finally arrived. Faced with that provocation, the Mexicans decided to fight.

There was no single incident which could be called "the first shot"; there had been some small skirmishing starting almost from the moment Taylor reached the Rio Grande. But on April 25, Taylor sent out a small force of horsemen on a reconaissance. This force managed to blunder its way into a fight and was overwhelmed (DeVoto, pp. 130-131), and from then on it was a full-blown shooting war.

This was rather fortunate for Polk; he had been preparing to declare war on Mexico without an incident, and it looked as if Congress might not consent. But he quickly gained a declaration of war after the shooting started (DeVoto, p. 184ff.) -- even though he had to undercut Secretary of State Buchanan, who wanted to avoid making any territorial claims (DeVoto, p. 187, who thinks this was one of Buchanan's periodic attempts to ensure his presidential nomination. Which failed, of course).

Most versions of this song credit Santa Anna with defeating Zachary Taylor, but -- as the historical record shows -- Taylor consistently beat the Mexicans, though some of the victories were expensive.

Although Taylor fought many battles in the Mexican campaign, few were against Santa Anna. Mexico at this time was anything but a stable nation. Santa Anna had been President of Mexico in 1836, when Texas rebelled, but had then been thrown out after the Texans won their battle for independence.

Most modern historians seem less than impressed with Taylor as a general, but, at age 61, he had been in the army for 37 years, having been commissioned in 1808 (Wheelan, p. 61). Despite a limited education (Wheelan, p. 62), he had fought bravely and risen steadily in the ranks while displaying a real concern for his men. Against a strong general, he might have been in trouble -- after all, his logistics were so bad that some of his soldiers actually suffered from scurvy! (DeVoto, p. 15) -- but against the rabble that formed the Mexican army, his steadiness was a great advantage.

(As DeVoto says on p. 189, Taylor "had no patience with textbook soldiers.... Well, what did he have? A sound priniple: attack. A less valuable one which would serve him just as well in this war: never retreat. Total ignorance of the art of war. And an instinct, if not for command, at least for leadership.")

The first battle of the war was at Resaca de la Palma. The Mexican general Arista had planned a maneuver to put him on Taylor's line of communication, but when it came to battle, he found that his ill-equiped conscripts just couldn't fight. Taylor's men fought in place, and eventually the Mexicans retreated (DeVoto, pp. 188-191). The next day, the armies met again, and after a hard slog in which neither general exercised much control, the ill-fed Mexicans broke (DeVoto, p. 192, who notes that in some ways the most important thing about this battle was the number of future Civil War generals who saw combat for the first time. One of them was U. S. Grant).

It wasn't quite what Polk wanted; he still hoped to take California by purchase or local revolution; DeVoto, p. 197, comments that "Mr. Polk had lighted a firecracker and had a bomb explode in his face." But at least he was able to adapt. He started to build up the United States army (though he did nothing to produce a genuinely professional force; DeVoto, pp. 198-199, notes how every officer in one regiment was a political appointee and confesses that at this time "out military system was the worst possible" and could not have succeeded against a stronger enemy than Mexico).

Given limited reinforcements, Taylor would win several more minor victories on the scale of Resaca de la Palma. He became very popular as a result, leaving Polk worried about his political influence (quite correctly, since Taylor, a Whig, would follow the Democrat Polk as President). Polk put Winfield Scott in charge of a second Mexican expedition (Morison, p. 563), and it was Scott who eventually took Mexico City (as DeVoto writes, p. 200, Scott's "egotism was colossal, his vanity was monstrous.... But he was a great soldier. The campaign he was permitted to make was brilliant and victorious. He won the war").

In any case, Polk had had another string for his bow. He also overthrew the Mexican government, helping Santa Anna return to Mexico in September 1846 (an agent for Santa Anna had promised to bring stability to Mexico for a price; Polk accepted the deal even though he distrusted the messenger; see DeVoto, p. 69). The former Mexican president promptly resumed power (as Morison tartly comments on p. 560, revolutions in Mexico at this time were just about certain to succeed).

To make Scott's expedition strong enough to make its amphibious assault, Polk had cut back Taylor's force, ordering it onto the defensive (see Current/Williams/Freidel, p. 375). Santa Anna, seeing an opportunity (and needing a victory to strengthen his government), tried to improve his reputation by attacking Taylor at Buena Vista. It was a close thing, but Santa Anna failed to destroy Taylor. He had little choice but to turn back to try to stop Scott; he failed again, and Santa Anna again gave up power. Eventually a government was formed which reluctantly gave up Texas, New Mexico, and California (Morison, p. 565).

It will tell you something about the organization of the United States Army that total deaths in the war were about 13,000 -- 1700 killed in combat and 11,000 killed by disease and other non-combat causes (Siegenthaler, p. 145).

The war had a rather ridiculous end: Polk sent a negotiator named Nicholas Trist, who sat down with Santa Anna to work out a deal. Polk then fired Trist, but he kept negotiating anyway and worked out a deal (Siegenthaler, p. 151). Polk wasn't entirely happy with the treaty, but he sent it to the Senate -- and, lo and behold, they approved it.

The choice of Taylor to be the Whig presidential nominee to suceed Polk was ironic; according to Nevins1847, p. 195, a Whig operative talked to Taylor's brother, and was told that Taylor had no political convictions and rarely voted. But a man with no record was precisely what was wanted, and so Taylor was nominated -- and easily elected. According to Hammond-Atlas, p. U-49, Taylor earned 47% of the popular vote, Democrat Lewis Cass 42%, and Free Soiler Martin Van Buren 10%; in the electoral college, Taylor had 163 votes, Cass 127. Call it another victory for Taylor over Santa Anna, since Taylor was now the American president and Santa Anna was nothing.

Santa Anna did get the last laugh in a few things: Taylor died in 1850, and Santa Anna survived until 1876. And Santa Anna would come back in Mexico yet again; in 1853, he sold the United States the area known as the Gasden Purchase (Nevins1852, pp. 61-62).

The last word, though, probably should belong to former president John Quincy Adams: "I have opposed [annexing Texas] for ten long years, firmly believing it tainted with two great crimes: one, the leprous contamination of slavery; and two, robbery of Mexico.... 'They have sown the wind...'" (Wheelan, p. 60). And the Democrats did indeed reap the whirlwind. Polk was dead by 1850, when the Compromise of 1850 temporarily patched up the wounds caused by the Mexican War. But eleven years later, with the wounds of the battle over slavery still fresh, a slave state which no longer considered itself part of the Union fired on Fort Sumter....

Bone calls this "the most peculiar of all Chanties," and speculates, "I wonder if it was not at one time a seaman's prayer to Saint Anne, a bountiful Patron to Breton sailors? It is not easy to connect that supposition with the words as sung in later days for, in them, a negro influence is plain."


Current/Williams/Friedel: Richard N. Current, T. Harry Williams, Frank Freidel, _American History: A Survey_, second edition (Knopf, 1966)

DeGregiorio: William A. DeGregorio, _The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents_, fourth edition (Barricade Books, 1993)

DeVoto: Bernard DeVoto, _The Year of Decision: 1846_ (Little, Brown and Company, 1943)

Hammond-Atlas: [No author listed], _The [Hammond] Atlas of United States History_ (Hammond, 1977)

Morison: Samuel Eliot Morison, _The Oxford History of the American People_ (Oxford, 1965)

Nevins1847: Allan Nevins, _The Ordeal of the Union: Fruits of Manifest Destiny 1847-1852_ [volume I of _The Ordeal of the Union_] (Scribners, 1947)

Nevins1852: Allan Nevins, _The Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing 1852-1857_ [volume II of _The Ordeal of the Union_] (Scribners, 1947)

Siegenthaler: John Seigenthaler, _James K. Polk_ [a volume in the _American Presidents_ series edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.] (Times Books, 2003)

Wheelan: Joseph Wheelan, _Invading Mexico: America's Continental Dream and the Mexican War, 1846-1848_ (Carroll & Graf, 2007) - RBW

Historical references

  • Apr 24, 1846 - skirmish between U.S. and Mexican forces in an area of Texas generally regarded as belonging to Mexico. On April 26, General Zachary Taylor reports to President James K. Polk that "hostilities may now be considered as commenced."
  • May 3 - Mexicans attack Taylor's position at Fort Texas. Taylor moves to the rescue
  • May 8 - Taylor wins a minor battle at Palo Alto against a superior Mexican force
  • May 9 - Taylor defeats the retreating Mexicans at Resaca de la Palma
  • May 13 - War declared with Mexico
  • May 18 - Taylor crosses the Rio Grande and occupies Matamoros
  • June 14 - American settlers in California declare independence from Mexico. American forces under John C. Fremont and John Sloat arrive to support them. Stephen Kearney moves to take over the lands between California and Texas
  • Aug 17 - David Stockton formally annexes California for the United States and assumes the role of governor
  • Sept 14 - Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who as president of Mexico had lost Texas, takes command of the Mexican army
  • Sept 20-24 - Taylor captures Monterrey, Mexico after a bloody battle
  • Nov 16 - Taylor captures Saltillo
  • Nov 25 - Kearney, now governor of California, begins a campaign to drive the Mexicans under Flores out of southern California. He secures the entire state by Jan 10, 1847
  • Jan 3, 1847 - General Winfield Scott assumes command in Mexico, superseding Taylor
  • Feb 5 - Taylor, at odds with the administration and Scott, moves west
  • Feb 22-23 - Santa Anna confronts Taylor's 5000 men with 15000 and demands surrender. Taylor refuses, then beats Santa Anna at the battle of Buena Vista
  • Mar 9 - Scott lands at Vera Cruz to begin a campaign against Mexico CIty
  • April 18 - Scott defeats Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo
  • Sept 14 - After many minor battles, Scott captures Mexico City
  • Feb 2, 1848 - Treaty of Gaudalupe Hidalgo ends the war between the U.S. and Mexico, with the U.S. gaining most of what is now Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah (the remainder is acquired via the Gadsden Purchase of 1853), plus portions of other states
  • Nov 7 - Zachary Taylor elected President as a Whig
  • July 9, 1850 - After a disappointing fifteen months in office, Taylor dies and is succeeded by Millard Fillmore

Cross references


  1. Doerflinger, pp. 78-80, "Santy Anna" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  2. Bone, pp. 129-130, "Santy Ana" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Colcord, pp. 84-85, "Santy Anna" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Harlow, pp. 40-41, "Santa Ana (On the Plains of Mexico)" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Hugill, pp. 82-87, "Santiana," "The Plains of Mexico," "Round the Bay of Mexico" (5 texts, some short and very mixed, 4 tunes) [AbEd, pp.76-80]
  6. Robinson/Bellman, Pt.3, 7/28/1917, "Santa Anna" (1 text-fragment only, 1 tune)
  7. Sharp-EFC, I, p.2, "Santy Anna" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Shay-SeaSongs, p. 79, "Santa Anna or The Plains of Mexico" (1 short text, 1 tune)
  9. Scott-BoA, pp. 186-187, "Santy Anno" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Lomax-FSUSA 40, "Santy Anno" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. Lomax-FSNA 26, "Santy Anno" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. Botkin-AmFolklr, p. 835, "Santy Anna" (1 text, 1 tune)
  13. SHenry H496, pp. 96-97, "Santy Anna" (1 text, 1 tune)
  14. Smith/Hatt, p. 27, "On the Plains of Mexico" (1 text)
  15. Mackenzie 99, "Santy Anna" (1 text)
  16. Darling-NAS, p. 314, "Santa Anna" (1 text)
  17. Silber-FSWB, p. 95, "Santy Anno" (1 text)
  19. ADDITIONAL: Captain John Robinson, "Songs of the Chantey Man," a series published July-August 1917 in the periodical _The Bellman_ (Minneapolis, MN, 1906-1919). A fragment of "Santa Anna" is in Part 3, 7/28/1917.
  20. Roud #207
  21. BI, Doe078


Alternate titles: “Santiana”; “The Plains of Mexico”; “Old Santy Ana”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1906
Keywords: shanty battle Mexico gold
Found in: US(MA) Ireland Canada(Mar)