myth and legend of the Alamo is the creation story of Texas, central to
the Texas legend itself, and it is a legend which continues growing, capturing
the imagination of people around the world.
The entire siege lasted 13 days. Tuesday February 23 - Sunday March 6,
1836. The siege and final battle of the Alamo in 1836 constitute the most
celebrated military engagement in Texas history. The battle was conspicuous
for the large number of illustrious personalities among its combatants.
These included Tennessee congressman David Crockett, entrepreneur-adventurer
James Bowie, and Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna.
Although not nationally famous at the time, William Barret Travis achieved
lasting distinction as commander at the Alamo. For many Americans and
most Texans, the battle has become a symbol of patriotic sacrifice. Traditional
popular depictions, including novels, stage plays, and motion pictures,
emphasize legendary aspects that often obscure the historical event.
To understand the real battle, one must appreciate its strategic context
in the Texas Revolution. In December 1835 a Federalist army of Texan (or
Texian, as they were called) immigrants, American volunteers, and their
Tejano allies had captured the town from a Centralist force during the
siege of Bexar. With that victory, a majority of the Texan volunteers
of the "Army of the People" left service and returned to their
families. Nevertheless, many officials of the provisional government feared
the Centralists would mount a spring offensive. Two main roads led into
Texas from the Mexican interior. The first was the Atascosito Road, which
stretched from Matamoros on the Rio Grande northward through San Patricio,
Goliad, Victoria, and finally into the heart of Austin's colony. The second
was the Old San Antonio Road, a camino real that crossed the Rio Grande
at Paso de Francia (the San Antonio Crossing) and wound northeastward
through San Antonio de Béxar, Bastrop, Nacogdoches, San Augustine,
and across the Sabine River into Louisiana. Two forts blocked these approaches
into Texas: Presidio La Bahía (Nuestra Señora de Loreto
Presidio) at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio. Each installation functioned
as a frontier picket guard, ready to alert the Texas settlements of an
enemy advance. James Clinton Neill received command of the Bexar garrison.
Some ninety miles to the southeast, James Walker Fannin, Jr., subsequently
took command at Goliad. Most Texan settlers had returned to the comforts
of home and hearth. Consequently, newly arrived American volunteers-some
of whom counted their time in Texas by the week-constituted a majority
of the troops at Goliad and Bexar. Both Neill and Fannin determined to
stall the Centralists on the frontier. Still, they labored under no delusions.
Without speedy reinforcements, neither the Alamo nor Presidio La Bahía
could long withstand a siege.
Bexar had twenty-one artillery pieces of various caliber. Because of his
artillery experience and his regular army commission, Neill was a logical
choice to command. Throughout January he did his best to fortify the mission
fort on the outskirts of town. Maj. Green B. Jameson, chief engineer at
the Alamo, installed most of the cannons on the walls. Jameson boasted
to Gen. Sam Houston that if the Centralists stormed the Alamo, the defenders
could "whip 10 to 1 with our artillery." Such predictions proved
excessively optimistic. Far from the bulk of Texas settlements, the Bexar
garrison suffered from a lack of even basic provender. On January 14 Neill
wrote Houston that his people were in a "torpid, defenseless condition."
That day he dispatched a grim message to the provisional government: "Unless
we are reinforced and victualled, we must become an easy prey to the enemy,
in case of an attack."
By January 17, Houston had begun to question the wisdom of maintaining
Neill' s garrison at Bexar. On that date he informed Governor Henry Smith
that Col. James Bowie and a company of volunteers had left for San Antonio.
Many have cited this letter as proof that Houston ordered the Alamo abandoned.
Yet, Houston's words reveal the truth of the matter:
"I have ordered the fortifications in the town of Bexar to be demolished,
and, if you should think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and
other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon
the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers,
the sooner I can be authorized the better it will be for the country."
Houston may have wanted to raze the Alamo, but he was clearly requesting
Smith's consent. Smith did not "think well of it" and refused
to authorize Houston' s proposal.
On January 19, Bowie rode into the Alamo compound, and what he saw impressed
him. As a result of much hard work, the mission had begun to look like
a fort. Neill, who understood the consequences of leaving the camino real
unguarded, convinced Bowie that the Alamo was the only post between the
enemy and Anglo settlements. Neill's arguments and his leadership electrified
Bowie. "I cannot eulogize the conduct and character of Col. Neill
too highly," he wrote Smith; "no other man in the army could
have kept men at this post, under the neglect they have experienced."
On February 2 Bowie wrote Smith that he and Neill had resolved to "die
in these ditches" before they would surrender the post. The letter
confirmed Smith's understanding of controlling factors. He had concluded
that Bexar must not go undefended. Rejecting Houston's advice, Smith prepared
to funnel additional troops and provisions to San Antonio. In brief, Houston
had asked for permission to abandon the post. Smith considered his request.
He answered, "No."
Colonel Neill had complained that "for want of horses," he could
not even "send out a small spy company." If the Alamo were to
function as an early-warning station, Neill had to have outriders. Now
fully committed to bolstering the Bexar garrison, Smith directed Lt. Col.
William B. Travis to take his "Legion of Cavalry" and report
to Neill. Only thirty horsemen responded to the summons. Travis pleaded
with Governor Smith to reconsider: "I am unwilling to risk my reputation
(which is ever dear to a soldier) by going off into the enemy' s country
with such little means, and with them so badly equipped." Travis
threatened to resign his commission, but Smith ignored these histrionics.
At length, Travis obeyed orders and dutifully made his way toward Bexar
with his thirty troopers. Reinforcements began to trickle into Bexar.
On February 3, Travis and his cavalry contingent reached the Alamo. The
twenty six year old cavalry officer traveled to his new duty station under
duress. Yet, like Bowie, he soon became committed to Neill and the fort,
which he began to describe as the "key to Texas." About February
8, David Crockett arrived with a group of American volunteers.
On February 14 Neill departed on furlough. He learned that illness had
struck his family and that they desperately needed him back in Bastrop.
While on leave, Neill labored to raise funds for his Bexar garrison. He
promised that he would resume command when circumstances permitted, certainly
within twenty days, and left Travis in charge as acting post commander.
Neill had not intended to slight the older and more experienced Bowie,
but Travis, like Neill, held a regular army commission. For all of his
notoriety, Bowie was still just a volunteer colonel. The Alamo's volunteers,
accustomed to electing their officers, resented having this regular officer
foisted upon them. Neill had been in command since January; his maturity,
judgment, and proven ability had won the respect of both regulars and
volunteers. Travis, however, was unknown. The volunteers insisted on an
election, and their acting commander complied with their wishes. The garrison
cast its votes along party lines: the regulars voted for Travis, the volunteers
for Bowie. In a letter to Smith, Travis claimed that the election and
Bowie's subsequent conduct had placed him in an "awkward situation."
The night following the balloting, Bowie dismayed Bexar residents with
his besotted carousal. He tore through the town, confiscated private property
and released convicted criminals from jail. Appalled by this disorderly
exhibition, Travis assured the governor that he refused to assume responsibility
"for the drunken irregularities of any man", not even the redoubtable
Jim Bowie. Fortunately, this affront to Travis's sense of propriety did
not produce a lasting breach between the two commanders. They struck a
compromise: Bowie would command the volunteers, Travis the regulars. Both
would co-sign all orders and correspondence until Neill's return. There
was no more time for personality differences. They had learned that Santa
Anna's Centralist army had reached the Rio Grande. Travis did not believe
that Santa Anna could reach Bexar until March 15, but Santa Anna's arrival
on February 23 convinced him otherwise. As Texans gathered in the Alamo,
Travis dispatched a hastily scribbled missive to Gonzales: "The enemy
in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us.
We have 150 men and are determined to defend the garrison to the last."
Travis and Bowie understood that the Alamo could not hold without additional
forces. Their fate now rested with the General Council in San Felipe,
Fannin at Goliad, and other Texan volunteers who might rush to assist
the beleaguered Bexar garrison.
Santa Anna sent a courier to demand that the Alamo surrender. Travis replied
with a cannonball. There could be no mistaking such a concise response.
Centralist artillerymen set about knocking down the walls. Once the heavy
pounding reduced the walls, the garrison would have to surrender in the
face of overwhelming odds. Bottled up inside the fort, the Texans had
only one hope, that reinforcements would break the siege.
On February 24 Travis assumed full command when Bowie fell victim to a
mysterious malady variously described as "hasty consumption"
or "typhoid pneumonia." As commander, Travis wrote his letter
addressed to the "people of Texas & all Americans in the world,"
in which he recounted that the fort had "sustained a continual Bombardment
and cannonade for 24 hours." He pledged that he would "never
surrender or retreat" and swore "Victory or Death." The
predominant message, however, was an entreaty for help: "I call on
you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American
character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch." On March 1, thirty-two
troops attached to Lt. George C. Kimbell's Gonzales ranging company made
their way through the enemy cordon and into the Alamo. Travis was grateful
for any reinforcements, but knew he needed more. On March 3 he reported
to the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos that he had lost faith in
Colonel Fannin. "I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it
arrives soon, I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms."
He grew increasingly bitter that his fellow Texans seemed deaf to his
appeals. In a letter to a friend, Travis revealed his frustration: "If
my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in
the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for
On March 5, day twelve of the siege, Santa Anna announced an assault for
the following day. This sudden declaration stunned his officers. The enemy's
walls were crumbling. No Texan relief column had appeared. When the provisions
ran out, surrender would remain the rebels' only option. There was simply
no valid military justification for the costly attack on a stronghold
bristling with cannons. But ignoring these reasonable objections, Santa
Anna stubbornly insisted on storming the Alamo. Around 5:00 A.M. on Sunday,
March 6, he hurled his columns at the battered walls from four directions.
Texan gunners stood by their artillery. As about 1,800 assault troops
advanced into range, canister ripped through their ranks. Staggered by
the concentrated cannon and rifle fire, the Mexican soldiers halted, reformed,
and drove forward. Soon they were past the defensive perimeter. Travis,
among the first to die, fell on the north bastion. Abandoning the walls,
defenders withdrew to the dim rooms of the Long Barracks. There some of
the bloodiest hand to hand fighting occurred. Bowie, too ravaged by illness
to rise from his bed, found no pity. Mexican soldiers slaughtered him
with their bayonets. The chapel fell last. By dawn the Centralists had
carried the works. The assault had lasted no more than ninety minutes.
As many as seven defenders survived the battle, but Santa Anna ordered
their summary execution. Many historians count Crockett as a member of
that hapless contingent, an assertion that still provokes debate in some
circles. By eight o'clock every Alamo fighting man lay dead. Currently,
189 defenders appear on the official list, but ongoing research may increase
the final tally to as many as 257.
Though overlooked, a fascinating account of the Battle of the Alamo and
the Texas Revolution is the personal journal of Mexican Army Officer Lt.
Col. José Enrique de la Peña. De la Peña witnessed
the death of William B. Travis during the fight and the capture and execution
of Davy Crockett by Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. Below are
excerpts from de la Peña's account.
The Death of William Barret
"They had bolted and reinforced the doors, but in order to form trenches
they had excavated some places that were now a hindrance to them. Not
all of them took refuge, for some remained in the open, looking at us
before firing, as if dumbfounded at our daring. Travis was seen to hesitate,
but not about the death he would choose. He would take a few steps and
stop, turning his proud face toward us to discharge his shots; he fought
like a true soldier. Finally he died, but he died after having traded
his life very dearly. None of his men died with greater heroism, and they
all died. Travis behaved as a hero; one must do him justice, for with
a handful of men without discipline, he resolved to face men used to war
and much superior in numbers, without supplies, with scarce munitions,
and against the will of his subordinates. He was a handsome blond, with
a physique as robust as his spirit was strong."
The Death of Davy Crockett
"Some seven men survived the general carnage and, under the protection
of General Castrillón, they were brought before Santa Anna. Among
them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features,
in whose face there was the imprint of adversity, but in whom one also
noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor. He was
the naturalist David Crockett, well known in North America for his unusual
adventures, who had undertaken to explore the country and who, finding
himself in Béjar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge
in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected.
Santa Anna answered Castrillón's intervention in Crockett's behalf
with a gesture of indignation and, addressing himself to the sappers,
the troops closest to him, ordered his execution. The commanders and officers
were outraged at this action and did not support the order, hoping that
once the fury of the moment had blown over these men would be spared;
but several officers who were around the president and who, perhaps, had
not been present during the danger, became noteworthy by an infamous deed,
surpassing the solders in cruelty. They thrust themselves forward, in
order to flatter their commander, and with swords in hand, fell upon these
unfortunate, defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey. Though
tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining
and without humiliating themselves before their torturers."
Though Santa Anna had his victory, the common soldiers paid the price
as his officers had anticipated. Accounts vary, but best estimates place
the number of Mexicans killed and wounded at about 600. Mexican officers
led several noncombatant women, children, and slaves from the smoldering
compound. Santa Anna treated surviving enemy women and children with admirable
gallantry by not killing them. He pledged safe passage through his lines
and provided each with a blanket and two dollars. The most famous of these
survivors were Susanna W. Dickinson, widow of Capt. Almaron Dickinson,
and their infant daughter, Angelina Dickinson. After the battle, Mrs.
Dickinson traveled to Gonzales. There, she reported the fall of the post
to General Houston. The sad intelligence precipitated a wild exodus of
Texan settlers called the Runaway Scrape.
What of real military value did the defenders' heroic stand accomplish?
Some movies and other works of fiction pretend that Houston used the time
to raise an army. During most of the siege, however, he was at the Convention
of 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos and not with the army. The delay did,
on the other hand, allow promulgation of independence, formation of a
revolutionary government, and the drafting of a constitution. If Santa
Anna had struck the Texan settlements immediately, he might have disrupted
the proceedings and driven all insurgents across the Sabine River. The
men of the Alamo were valiant soldiers, but no evidence supports the notion,
advanced in the more perfervid versions, that they "joined together
in an immortal pact to give their lives that the spark of freedom might
blaze into a roaring flame." Governor Smith and the General Council
ordered Neill, Bowie, and Travis to hold the fort until support arrived.
Despite all the "victory or death" hyperbole, they were not
suicidal. Throughout the thirteen-day siege, Travis never stopped calling
on the government for the promised support. The defenders of the Alamo
willingly placed themselves in harm's way to protect their country. Death
was a risk they accepted, but it was never their aim. Torn by internal
discord, the provisional government failed to deliver on its promise to
provide relief, and Travis and his command paid the cost of that dereliction.
As Travis predicted, his bones did reproach the factious politicos and
the parade ground patriots for their neglect. Even stripped of exaggeration,
however, the battle of the Alamo remains an inspiring moment in Texas
history. The sacrifice of Travis and his command animated the rest of
Texas and kindled a righteous wrath that swept the Mexicans off the field
at San Jacinto. Since 1836, Americans on battlefields over the globe have
responded to the exhortation, "Remember the Alamo!"
"ALAMO, BATTLE OF THE." The Handbook of Texas Online. http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/AA/qea2.html