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San Jacinto is being restored

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

LA PORTE — On April 21, 1836, a lush prairie here partly hid 800 troops led by Gen. Sam Houston as they marched toward a sleeping giant of 1,300 resting Mexican soldiers.

The afternoon sun was behind the Texians, and a small hill obscured their approach. Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had neglected to post guards before taking his siesta.

The mistake led to his capture and the death of 630 Mexican soldiers.

The Battle of San Jacinto marked the birth of Texas independence, which is celebrated in San Antonio during Fiesta Week.

But curators of the San Jacinto Museum of History here are the first to admit the legend has faded over the years, in part because the manicured park where the two armies clashed hardly resembles the original battlefield.

The knee-high prairie grass was replaced with a lawn and reflection pool, hindering visitors who try to visualize the battle. And the site languishes as a tourist spot hidden behind an oil refinery complex, said Bill Conner, board president of the San Jacinto Museum.

Continuing a nationwide trend in historically preserving important battlegrounds, museum officials and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department are in the middle of a $60 million project to restore San Jacinto and its 570-foot obelisk.

The five-year project, now in its second phase, entails removing the reflection pool, relocating the Battleship Texas memorial to another section of the park and planting native grasses and flora in the area.

Curators want to build a new museum to make room for about 100,000 Texas artifacts that have been stored for years in a basement. The museum’s master plan involves cataloging the historical items in a database and making the data and digital pictures available online.

The museum is trying to move away from commemorative structures, such as the reflection pool, to create a more historically accurate scene. Nationally known experts who worked on preserving other battlefields, such as Gettysburg, are involved in the San Jacinto project, Conner said.

With new exhibits and a restored battleground, officials hope the story of San Jacinto and its importance to Texas history become clearer.

“If you don’t understand the significance, then you can’t relate to it,” park manager Frank Dengler said.

San Jacinto was a curious and brutal battle. Santa Anna’s troops didn’t post guards as they took their siesta. When the first shots were fired, an afternoon sun blazed in their eyes.

“It almost seemed like the hand of providence helped” the Texians, Dengler said.

The battle lasted 18 minutes, but the killing went on for an hour as Mexican soldiers who tried to surrender were cut down, despite Houston’s orders to stop firing. More than 600 Mexican troops were killed, compared with nine Texians. Seven hundred Mexicans were captured.

The obelisk marking the site is the tallest such structure in the world, 15 feet taller than the Washington Monument.

Tucked away in its basement are collected artifacts from the battle and other items from Texas history. Curators’ three-year task of cataloging each item is nearly halfway done, and the exhibits eventually will go on display on the Internet and in a new museum to be built at the park.

The knee buckle used to clamp Santa Anna’s breeches is here. In a cabinet is a knife discovered near the body of Jim Bowie at the Alamo. Nineteenth-century jewelry woven from the hair of deceased relatives was being cataloged Thursday.

“This is the attic of Texas history,” said Brian Butcher, director of collection management. “We can’t show this to the public right now because there’s no space.

Today marks a San Jacinto Day celebration at the museum, which commemorates the historic battle and the ongoing project. Officials said they expect to raise around $30 million for the master plan from private sources, and the rest from public funds.

jtedesco @ express-news.net

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