This is a tale of two monuments, constructed a 70 years apart, in locations thousands of miles apart, both towering over historic battlefields, standing united in a single cause. The two are the Wallace National Monument in Scotland and the San Jacinto Monument in Texas.
I’ve noted before similarities I’ve found in the histories of my native birthplace, Texas, and my ancestral homeland, Scotland. Here again, in the stories of these two monuments I believe there are similarities…
William Wallace is considered by many to be Scotland’s greatest freedom fighter. His exploits are the stuff of legends, often erroneously over romanticized, but legend nonetheless. His story, if not previously known worldwide, became so after the success of Mel Gibson’s movie “Braveheart” some 20 years ago. A more lasting and dare I say authentic tribute to his memory can be found by visiting the Wallace National Monument in Stirling. Soon (24-26 June, 2016) celebrations will be held to honor the laying of the foundation stone of that monument some 155 years ago.
Wallace was a hero of the first Wars of Scottish Independence, an uprising to win independence from an oppressive “foreign” government in England. Though the uprising would fail in its quest to return the King of Scots to the throne, Wallace was not without success on the battlefield with no victory more striking than that at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. With Andrew Moray, Wallace led an outnumbered army of ragtag Scottish crofters and peasants to victory. It was a crushing defeat for the English and established Wallace as a Guardian of Scotland. Though 8 years later he would be branded an outlaw, captured, hanged, then drawn and quartered for high treason, he became a national hero in Scotland.
The Scottish would have to wait 600 years for a monument to Wallace’s memory. It was not until the mid-1800’s that renewed nationalism in Scotland led to plans for the monument and public fundraising began. The 67-meter (220ft) sandstone tower takes the form of a traditional Scottish tower house castle and tops it with a stone spire called “The Crown.” It is the only crown ever worn by Wallace. Today the monument offers visitors scenic views over the battlefield of Stirling Bridge.
Topping the monument is a stone spire called "The Crown". The monument design was selected in a contest and submitted by well known Scottish architect John Thomas Rochead.
The climb up the 246 step spiral staircase can be arduous but there are stops along the way. At the "Hall of Heroes" you can see Wallace's sword said to have been used in battle, all 6 pounds, 5 feet 4 inches of it. The Hall also includes busts of other notable Scots including King Robert the Bruce. Sword photo courtesy www.adventuresaroundscotland.com
In Texas, the San Jacinto Monument honors not a single man, but all who served in the Texas Revolution, an uprising to win independence from an oppressive “foreign” government in Mexico. Yet it could be argued the monument unquestionably honors one man especially, Sam Houston. Without his leadership there might well never have been a Texas.
Like Wallace, Houston led a ragtag band of farmers and ranchers against the far more seasoned and professional army of Mexico under the command of their ruler, President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. At San Jacinto, Houston won a decisive battle, captured Santa Anna, and in so doing won independence for the newly declared “Republic of Texas.”
Ironically at about the same time Scots were pushing for a monument to Wallace, the Texas Veterans Association began lobbying the (by then) state legislature for a memorial for those who served in the war for Texas’ independence. However the battlefield land was not purchased until 1897. The monument would come another 39 years with ground broken in 1936, as part of the state’s centennial celebrations. It was completed 3 years later. It is the world’s tallest monument column at 567.13 feet (172.92 meters). Constructed of concrete faced with limestone the monument is topped with a 34 foot (10 meter), 22-ton, 5-point star, the symbol of Texas. Like the Wallace Monument, it offers visitors sweeping views of the battlefield and beyond.
Left: The San Jacinto Monument sits very near to the City of Houston, TX, named for the man who led the Texians to victory here. Photo courtesy www.exploretexasblog.com
Center: Topping the world's tallest monument column (Hey, it is in TEXAS!), is a 34 foot, 22-ton, 5-point lone star, symbol of Texas. The spire is octagonal in shape, faced with Texas Cordova limestone quarried near the state capital of Austin. The architect was Texan Alfred C. Finn
Right: The base of the monument houses a museum and theatre. Exhibits include this bust of Houston and artifacts from his life. Photo courtesy www.exploretexasblog.com
Click each image to enlarge
But the similarities don’t end with the monuments. While I am certainly no historian there are some obvious similarities in the two battles…
At Stirling Bridge, the English were marching on Stirling, gateway to the north of Scotland, from the south. Wallace and his men, having arrived first, were encamped on Abbey Craig, high ground on the north of the River Forth. Wallace waited for the English to come to him. On 11 September, 1297, a direct assault by the English using a narrow wooden bridge across the River Forth (rather than fording the river in force two miles upstream, a key strategic error) played right into Wallace’s hands. The bridge slowed the English advance and crowded them into a lowland field backed by a large bend in the river. The bridge was the only way out. The heavily armored cavalry could not move quickly in the soft river bottomland. Once the onslaught began the Scots quickly gained control of the near side of the bridge, cut off the English retreat (and reinforcements) and the killing began. Those who escaped the killing ground are thought to have swum the river to safety. Rather than hold the line of battle at the River Forth, the English destroyed the bridge and retreated to the south. Wallace had achieved a stunning victory!
At San Jacinto, Houston’s Texian army had been making a series of strategic retreats gaining time for them to arm and train. Santa Anna had just destroyed the garrison at the Alamo and wanted to put down the rebellion for good. On 21 April, 1836, Houston was encamped along Buffalo Bayou, a wooded marshy wetlands. This type of terrain was familiar to the Texians but quite alien to the Mexican army more used to scrub desert lands. Here Santa Anna made the first of two strategic errors. Over the protests of his officers he camped on an open, vulnerable plain along the San Jacinto River bordered by woods on one side, marshes and the river to the rear. The camps were perhaps 500 yards (460m) apart.
On the day of the battle, a group of reinforcements had arrived about 9am after a 24-hour forced march. With no sign of action by the Texians, Santa Anna relented and allowed his men to sleep, strategic error #2. Again a bridge would come into play as Houston ordered the destruction of Vinces Bridge, about 5 miles away, behind enemy lines, in order to slow any further reinforcements.
At 4:30 pm the Texians attacked, surprised the sleeping enemy army and the battle was over in 18 minutes, though the killing went on for hours. As the English at Stirling Bridge, the Mexican army was trapped in a natural killing field with no means of escape. Many Mexican soldiers trudged through the marsh and tried to swim to safety but Texian riflemen had stationed themselves on the banks and it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Santa Anna was discovered the next day among a large group of prisoners. He surrendered and signed a treaty two weeks later sending the remaining Mexican armed forces back across the Rio Grande river and opening the history books to the establishment of the Lone Star Republic of Texas as a new and independent country.
The Wallace National Monument in Scotland. The San Jacinto Monument in Texas. Two men. Two battles. Two monuments. One cause --- FREEDOM!
Note: My sincere thanks to Susanne Arbuckle author of her "Adventures Around Scotland" travel blog, and Omar C. Garcia, author of his "Explore Texas" blog, for their generosity in sharing their photos with me. In my opinion their two blogs are among the very best and I highly recommend them if you've an interest in either Scotland or Texas.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of some of the key points of the two monuments:
Wallace National Monument:
• 67 meters (220 feet) tall
• Visitors must climb 246 steps to the top
• Constructed 1861-1869
• 100,000 visitors annually
• Architect: JT Rochead of Scotland
• Historical displays on 1st & 2nd levels
San Jacinto Monument:
• 567.13 feet (172.92 meters) tall
• Elevator carries visitors 500 feet to the top
• Constructed 1936-1939
• 250,000 visitors annually
• Architect: Alfred C. Finn of Texas
• A museum and 160-seat theatre are housed in the base