There are times when a defeat can become a triumph. Just as the heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae gave courage to the rest of Greece; so the last stand of a handful of brave Texians in a fortified Mission became a rallying cry for Texas’ independence: Remember the Alamo!
IN the predawn hours of March 6, 1836, the Mexican army of President and GeneralissimoAntonio López de Santa Anna stormed the battlements of the Alamo; slaying the defending Texan garrison to a man.
This battle, though neither final or decisive, was the seminal moment in the Texas War of Independence. It bloodied the Mexican army and lent the Texans both a band of martyred heroes and an immortal rallying cry: “Remember the Alamo”!
Antonio López de Santa Anna attempted to establish a benevolent dictatorship in Mexico in the 1830s. Originally a believer in republican government, he soon came to believe that his fellow Mexicans were unready for self-governance. After putting down revolts in Mexico against his government, he turned his attention to the break-away province of Texas.
Following Santa Anna’s seizure of power and revocation of the Mexican Constitution of 1824 in early 1835, the English-Speaking (mostly American) majority of Texans (called “Texians“, to distinguish them from the Spanish-Speaking “Tejanos”) revolted in the face of his dictatorial policies. These American immigrants, originally invited by previous governments to settle in Texas as a counter to Comanche raids, were now the majority of the population; and brought with them the American distaste for tyranny. Expelling what few Mexican garrisons existed in the territory, the Texians began drafting a constitution for the new nation they envisioned; and building an army in preparation of Mexican reprisals.
Near San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio) was an 18th century Spanish Mission. Abandoned at the end of that century, it was briefly turned into a garrison for Spanish troops; who gave it the name, “Alamo“. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the Alamo was held by a Mexican garrison; till this force was expelled by Texians under the famous knife-fighter James “Jim” Bowie, a land-owning resident of San Antonio, in December of 1835.
Bowie was at first ordered by the new Texian Army commander, Sam Houston, to dismantle the fort and retrieve the 19 cannons of various caliber left behind by the Mexicans. Instead, upon finding he had insufficient transport to effectively evacuate the guns, Bowie decided to improve the defenses (with the aid of engineer Green B. Jameson) and hold the Alamo. Bowie felt strongly that the Alamo could be a bastion defending Texas from Santa Anna’s coming attack. In a letter to Henry Smith, a leader of the Texas War or Independence Party, Bowie argued that “the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar (San Antonio) out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march towards the Sabine.”
Bowie shared command of the mixed “regulars” and “volunteers” with Colonel James C. Neill. Neill sent to Houston and the provisional government for supplies and additional men; but at this stage both the Texas government and Houston’s incipient army were in disarray; and no help was sent to the Alamo.
James “Jim” Bowie, famous knife-fighter and local landowner, had ties to the Mexican “Tejano” community; having married a Mexican bride and settled in San Antonio. Sent by Houston to evacuated the garrison and cannon from the Alamo, he instead chose to strengthen the Alamo’s defenses and hold it against Santa Anna.Bowie’s famous knife, proto-type for all future “Bowie Knives”
On February 3, 1836 Lt. Colonel William Barret Travis arrived at the Alamo with 18 cavalrymen of the new Texan army; to take over as Neill’s second-in-command. Travis was a young lawyer from Alabama, recently come to Texas to build a new life. Five days after Travis’ arrival, another group of volunteers, these from Tennessee arrived at the Alamo. They were led the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman, David (“Davy”) Crockett; a man who was already a legend in his own time; famous for his abilities as a sharpshooter.
When on February 11th Neill had to absent himself from the Alamo because of family matters, he left Travis, the highest-ranking “Regular” army officer in command of the garrison. Bowie, who led a band of 30 “Volunteers”, would act as his co-commander. Bowie and Travis detested each other, and as they prepared the fort against eventual attack, tension between the two men was high. But all supposed that Santa Anna would not attempt a winter campaign, and long before he arrived in the spring Neill would have returned; likely with reinforcements.
William Barret Travis was a lawyer from Alabama, who like many Americans had come to Texas to make his fortune. Commissioned as a cavalry officer in the new Texas army, he was appointed co-commander at the Alamo with Jim Bowie, till Bowie fell ill the second day of the siege; after which Travis was the sole commander.
However, Santa Anna, who fancied himself as “the Napoleon of the West”, was doing what all great generals attempt: the unexpected. In the dead of winter, he was marching north toward Texas, at the head of an army of 6,019 soldiers. This force had set out in December, even as Bowie was capturing the Alamo in the first place. Their progress was slow as the army worked its way over difficult and sometimes frozen terrain; encumbered by artillery, supply wagons, and numerous camp followers. Santa Anna had spent 1835 putting down rebellions and fighting battles in Mexico against well-armed local militias; and the core of his army was comprised of loyal veterans. However, many of the soldiers were newly recruited replacements, and their officers used the march north to train their men. On February 12, Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande, undetected by the Texian defenders. It was not till the morning of February 23 that Travis’ scouts reported the approach of Santa Anna’s 1,500 strong advance guard, when it was only 1.5 miles outside of town.
Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Bexar on the February 23, 1836; and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Alamo. Here, his entry is depicted in the very accurate 2004 film, “The Alamo”.
While the surprised and unprepared Texians hurried into the Alamo, the Mexican army occupied San Antonio Bexar. A parlay soon followed, in which Bowie sent his engineer, Green B. Jameson, to ask terms. According to Mexican sources, he was informed by Santa Anna’s aid, José Bartres, that El Presidente demanded unconditional surrender (“on discretion”):
… according to the order of His Excellency… the Mexican army cannot come to terms under any conditions with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, than to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations.
This was in keeping with Santa Anna and the Mexican government’s official position toward the Texian rebels: In late December 1835, the Mexican Congress passed the Tornel Decree, declaring foreigners fighting in Texas against Mexico “pirates”, to be treated with summary justice. Santa Anna had in the previous year shown no clemency to rebels in Mexico, and his reputation preceded him. Even had the Texian garrison within the Alamo been so inclined, they were under no illusions that they could expect mercy at the hands of Santa Anna…