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 Generalissimo Antonio López de Santa Anna stormed the battlements of the Alamo and slew 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 Lopez de Santa Anna attempted to establish a benevolent dictatorship in Mexico in the 1430s. Originally a believer in republican governance, he came to believe that his fellow Mexicans were unready for self-government. After putting down revolts and consolidating his rule over Mexico, 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 early in 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 began 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, the “Alamo“. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the Alamo was held by a Mexican garrison till this force, commanded by Santa Anna’s own brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cos, 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 around San Antonio-Bexar; having married a Mexican bride and settled in San Antonio. Ordered by Houston to remove the garrison and cannons from the Alamo, Bowie instead chose to strengthen the defenses and hold the Alamo against Santa Anna. (Below) Bowie’s famous knife, the prototype 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, also 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, Crockett was almost as famous for his skills as a story-teller as he was for his legendary 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 an Alabama lawyer who like many Americans came to Texas to make his fortune. Commissioned as an officer in the new Texas army, he was appointed co-commander at the Alamo alongside Jim Bowie; till Bowie fell ill the second day of the siege. After this Travis was in sole command.
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 marched 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.
Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande on February 12th, undetected by the Texian defenders. There he linked up with his vanguard brigade commanded by Generals Cos (lately expelled from the Alamo) and Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma; composed of 1,000 infantry and 500 cavalry. On February 21 his vanguard was only 25 miles from San Antonio-Béxar. Still blissfully unaware of the approaching danger, the majority of the Alamo garrison joined the town’s residents at a fiesta. Learning of the planned celebration, Santa Anna ordered Sesma’s brigade to immediately seize the virtually undefended Alamo. The history of the Texas revolt would have been very different, and the defense of the Alamo stillborn, had not a sudden rain turned the roads into a muddy morass, preventing the night raid.
On the following morning, February 23, the skies now clear beneath a brilliant rising sun, Travis’ scouts reported the approach of Sesma’s 1,500 strong advance guard, just 1.5 miles outside of town.
Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Bexar on February 23, 1836; and demanded the unconditional surrender of the Alamo. Here his entry is depicted in the very accurate 2004 film.
While the surprised and unprepared Texians rushed 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 scant 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.
Not that they were so inclined:
To this demand for unconditional surrender, Travis and Bowie answered with a blast from the fort’s 18 pounder cannon, signaling their defiance.
Clip from the 1960 film, “The Alamo”, in which Travis (herein portrayed by Lawrence Harvey) answers Santa Anna’s demand for unconditional surrender with a cannon shot.
In response, Santa Anna ordered the raising of a blood-red flag over the highest tower in the town, and the playing of the Degüello; a bugle call used by Spanish armies, signaling “no quarter” to their opponent. The name “Degüello” derives from the Spanish verb for the act of throat-slitting; and so the tune was also known as the “cut throat” song!
The coming battle would be to the knives.
“The Alamo” (2004): as the Mexican play the “Deguello”, Travis (Patrick Wilson) explains its meaning to Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton).
Over the next 12 days, as the Mexican army prepared and more troops marched into their camp, the defenders of the Alamo waited. Night after the night, Santa Anna subjected them to a desultory bombardment by cannon, meant to harass and deprive the garrison of sleep. For their part, the defenders responded with occasional sallies and sniping, in which they killed small numbers of besiegers. During this time, the long rifles of the Americans (most famously Davy Crockett) proved superior in fire-fights to the aging smooth-bore Brown Bess muskets of the Mexican troops.
The Mexican soldiers at the Alamo were armed with the venerable but inaccurate Brown Bess musket; the standard weapon of the British Army from 1722-1838. Like all muskets it was a smooth-bore; out-ranged and less accurate than the American Long Rifles used by many of the Alamo defenders.
On the second day, Bowie fell ill and Travis took over effective command. That same day, a company of Mexican soldiers occupied some abandoned huts near the walls. A two hour skirmish battle erupted, in which the Texians drove the Mexicans out, and fired the huts.
On February 24 Travis sent out a dispatch informing the Texas government and Sam Houston of his situation, and pleading for reinforcements and supplies. Travis addressed this stirring missive (the most famous of several he sent before the end) “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World”; writing:
As news of the Alamo’s plight spread, Texans gathered at Gonzales preparing to go to their aid. The nearest garrison of any strength was 90 miles away at Goliad, commanded by Colonel James Fannin. The men gathering at Gonzales waited impatiently for days for Fannin to march and join them in going to Travis’ succor. Fannin finally set out on February 26 with 320 men, four cannons, and several wagons filled with much needed supplies. However, only a mile out they returned to Goliad. Why Fannin failed to move is unknown. He blamed his officers, and they his indecision. Some 32 men from those in Gonzales, tired of waiting for Fannin to act, rode to the Alamo; where, after a brief skirmish with a Mexican cavalry patrol, they arrived at the Alamo on the night of the 27th. They were greeted with joy by the beleaguered garrison.
Unbeknownst to the men in the Alamo celebrating this small reinforcement, that same day Mexican General José de Urrea had defeated Texian Colonel Frank W. Johnson in a skirmish to the east. This engagement is referred to (rather grandiosely) as the Battle of San Patricio; in which 200 Mexicans defeated a force of less than 50 Texians. On March 3, three more battalions (some 1,000 Mexican troops) marched into San Antonio in parade uniforms. These newcomers brought with them news of the engagement at San Patricio, and the Mexicans (now at approximately 3,100 men) celebrated this minor victory throughout the night.
(Hearing this celebration, along with the parading soldiers that day in their splendid dress uniforms, led the defenders of the Alamo to believe this all heralded the arrival of Santa Anna; who had actually been in San Antonio since the first day. This mistaken impression, of Santa Anna arriving just days before the end with rest of his army, entered the vast store of myth and legend surrounding the Alamo, and was perpetuated in the 1960 film.)
Travis sent out Crockett and two others to try and find Fannin’s much awaited reinforcements. Instead, they returned in the early hours of the 4th with some 50 men they had found camped 20 miles away, who’d left Fannin and were riding to the Alamo. This would be the last reinforcement of the garrison (others attempting to reach the Alamo were intercepted and driven off by Mexican patrols); which now numbered between 185 and 260 men.
David “Davy” Crockett was already a living legend when he arrived at the Alamo with a party of Tennessee volunteers. A former Congressman and famed sharp-shooter, he and his Tennesseans held the wooden palisade along the south side of the Alamo. Despite being the lowest and weakest section of the defenses, Crockett and his back-woods markesmen defended their wall longer than any others.
That same night Santa Anna presented his plan of assault to his senior staff. Several of his battalion commanders argued for a delay till March 7, to allow the Mexican heavy artillery (12 pounder “Napoleon Guns”) to arrive; at which time they could stand off and pound the fortifications into ruin. But an impatient Santa Anna had no wish for a “bloodless victory”, but instead demanded the fortress be stormed with bayonet. The date for the assault was set for the pre-dawn hours of March 6.
The plan of attack was for the assault force, in 4 columns of 1,800 men, to storm the fortress from as many directions. General Cos would lead one column consisting of the Aldama Battalion and three companies of the San Luis Battalion against the northwest corner of the Alamo. Colonel Francisco Duque would lead the Toluca Battalion and the remaining rifle companies of the San Luis Bn against the north wall; where a repaired breach seemed to present a weakness in the defenses. Colonel José María Romero commanded the third column, comprised of the rifle companies from the Matamoros and Jiménez Battalions, whose target was the east wall. The fourth column, to attack the low wooden parapet by the Chapel on the south side, was composed of the light companies of the Matamoros, Jiménez, and San Luis Battalions, and commanded by Colonel Juan Morales. Santa Anna himself would command the reserve force, 400 elite men of the grenadier companies from each of the battalions (and, presumably, the men of his elite Presidential Guard).
On March 5, according to the legend (disputed by many historians, but verified by one of the lone survivors, Susanna Dickenson, wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson) Travis held a meeting for all of the garrison. He informed them that help was unlikely to arrive in time to save them. Travis gave each the choice to leave the fortress by whatever means they chose (either throwing themselves on the mercy of Santa Anna or attempting to infiltrate through the Mexican lines in the darkness); or to stay and likely die fighting. The legend has Travis drawing a line in the sand with his saber, asking those willing to die for the Texian cause to cross and stand alongside him. Alternatively, Susannah Dickinson recalled Travis announcing that any men who wished to escape should let it be known and step out of ranks. In either case, only one (according to legend, and that disputed) chose to leave the Alamo (a man named Moses Rose).
Clip from the 2004 film, “The Alamo”; in which Travis (Patrick Wilson) gives the garrison the option to leave or stay and die.
That night (5 March) the Mexican artillery was silent for the first time in 12 nights, and the sleep-deprived garrison in the Alamo slept soundly. Outside, at midnight, Santa Anna’s army began assembling for the pre-dawn assault. At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of March 6, the attacking troops advanced silently; their bayonets and the brass-work on their shakos glittered coldly in the frosty night. Finding a trio of advance pickets outside the walls fast asleep, these three men were quietly dispatched, giving the defenders no alarm. It was not until the heads of the Mexican columns were within musket range that the defenders were awakened by the (imprudent) shouts of “Viva Santa Anna!” and bugle calls that now sounded from all around as the storm columns surged toward the walls.
Leaping to their posts, the Texians began pouring fire into the dense masses outside their walls. The columns wavered under the withering fire, and whole files were mowed down by grape shot from the fort’s many guns. According to one Mexican officer, José Enrique de la Peña, “a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs (light infantry) from (Duque’s) Toluca battalion”, assaulting the north wall. Colonel Duque himself was struck a mortal wound in the hip, and fell beneath the feet of and was trampled by his onrushing soldiers. His command was taken over by Santa Anna’s aide-de-camp, General Manuel Fernández Castrillón.
The fire was so intense from the west wall and from the eastern side that the columns attacking those places veered away, moving to join instead the attack on the weak north wall. Here they followed the gallant example of General Juan Amador (allegedly the first to scale the 12′ wall) and carried the position, hoisting each other up and onto the parapet.
All along the walls, Texians leaned forward to fire into the ranks below. However, exposing themselves in the process, many were killed by fire from the massed musket fire of the attacking forces. Travis himself, on the gun platform defending the beleaguered north wall, leaned over to discharge a shotgun into the faces of attackers attepting to climb the walls. He was fatally shot in the process (though one version has him surviving long enough to kill a Mexican officer in a sword duel before succumbing to his wound).
As the north wall was overrun, the Mexicans turned the captured Texian guns upon the defenders of the west and east walls; helping to clear these as the assault force advanced into the fortress. Along the south wall, where Crockett and his sharp-shooting back-woods Tennesseans held off all attack, the cry went up “Behind us! Their over the wall!!” Turning their guns about, they attempted to stem the tide. But this diversion of their fire only allowed Morales’ men, hitherto stalled, to at last breakthrough on the southwest corner of the fort and also gain entrance.
Crockett and others attempted to defend a hastily erected barricade in front of the chapel. But Morales’ men turned the captured 18 pounder on the southwest corner against them, blasting their barricade into splinters. The storm columns pressed forward with bayonet. Crockett’s Tennesseans battled them in a desperate close-quarters struggle, using their rifles as clubs, or fighting with knives or hatchets. But they were unable to stem the glittering tide of steel, and fell back fighting towards the church.
Bowie was killed laying in his sick bed. A popular account grew up of how he died fighting, discharging a brace of pistols into the first Mexicans entering his room; then killing two more with his famous “Bowie Knife” before being bayoneted.
Outside the fort, some survivors were intercepted by Mexican cavalry, attempting to flee into the darkness. Others were captured, to be taken before Santa Anna for final justice. Those laying on the ground or on the walls were shot or bayoneted repeatedly by Mexican soldiers, whose blood-lust was aroused by the terror of the assault.
Scenes from The Alamo (2004); including some (but not all) of the final storming.
By dawn the fighting at Alamo was over. All but a handful of the defenders were dead. One story, related by Mexican sources, states that Crockett was among the handful of prisoners; that he was spared by General Castrillón when his final band of Texians was overwhelmed in the chapel. Castrillón asked Santa Anna to pardon them and give them their lives, but Santa Anna refused. Crockett and the other prisoners were executed on the spot.
Only Susanna Dickenson, a handful of Tejano women from San Antonia, two negro slaves, and her daughter were allowed by Santa Anna to go free. He showed some gallantry, offering even to adopt her daughter and raise her in Mexico City. Susanna refused, and as she and the others departed the Alamo, Santa Anna paraded his army, ordering the troops to render arms and salute them as they passed.
The exact casualty count among Santa Anna’s assault force is disputed. But Mexican sources put it at over 300, and others as high as twice that number: full a third of the the assault force that attempted to storm the fortress in the pre-dawn darkness.
When news reached Houston of the Alamo’s fate, he ordered an immediate retreat eastward, away from Santa Anna’s victorious army. With him went the government of the new Texan state and many hundreds of Texian civilians, fearful of Mexican reprisals. As he marched eastward, he used his time to build an army. The words, “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry of all.
Pursued by Santa Anna, Houston finally stopped and turned on the Mexicans on April 21st at the Battle of San Jacinto. In 18 minutes, the Mexican camp was overrun and their army shattered. Santa Anna was captured the following day, dressed as a common soldier.
The “Napoleon of the West” had met his Waterloo.