13 DAYS OF GLORY: THE ALAMO, 1836

  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…

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BREACHING THE ALPS: HANNIBAL’S ICY ORDEAL

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DEFYING  THE ODDS, HANNIBAL CROSSES THE ALPS LATE IN THE SEASON, AND BY SO DOING TURNS THE TABLES ON ROME

On a bitterly cold late autumn morning, high atop the Western Alps, a polyglot army of Spaniards and North Africans gathered to hear the inspirational words of their twenty-nine year old commander. Bone-weary and increasingly ragged, the host was a skeleton of the force that had entered the mountains from the Rhone Valley only eleven days earlier. Twice they’d been ambushed by hostile Celtic tribesmen, in the process loosing thousands of men and hundreds of pack animals. For the last two days they had been camped here, at the top of the pass leading to Italy; recouping and allowing stragglers to catch-up.

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It was the beginning of November, 218 BC[1]. This army, the creation of one man’s implacable will, was attempting to accomplish the seemingly impossible: cross the snow-girded Alps and enter Italy, from whence to make war upon Rome in its own backyard.

That man was Hannibal Barca, and this was his war.

What we know as the Second Punic War was called by Roman writers the “Hannibalic War”. It was Hannibal, following in his father Hamilcar’s very large footsteps, who carefully prepared his nation for this struggle. Continuing the conquest of Spain begun by Hamilcar, he had honed the multi-ethnic Carthaginian army into his personal instrument of revenge against the Romans, who had humiliated Carthage in the First Punic War. It was he who’d defied Rome and attacked their ally, the town of Saguntum in Spain; the casus bellum of this new war.

Standing now on a promontory and facing his tired, shivering soldiers, the indefatigable Hannibal pointed to the vista below: there, Italy beckoned. Five months before they had left New Carthage (Qart Hadasht to the Carthaginians, and Carthago Nova in Latin) in Spain[2]; now their goal was in sight. Below, the Celtic tribes of the Po Valley waited as allies to welcome and supply them. He told them that they should imagine that they “were now scaling the ramparts not only of Italy, but of Rome itself…and after one, or, at the most, two battles, they would have in their hands and in their power the citadel and capital of Italy.”[3] Years later, old veterans imagined they had actually seen Rome itself in the distance. Only one more effort was needed, and this downhill. Their spirits buoyed, the army prepared for the final push on into the valley below.

It had been a long, history-making trek.

Hannibal had prepared all winter, setting off in early spring. He crossed the Pyrenees with 50,000 infantry, 10,000 horse and 40 elephants[4]. His course was carefully arranged in advance, with guides….

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GREAT CAPTAINS: JULIUS CAESAR

c julius-caesarThis is the eighth in a series of posts in which we examine the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusually, we do this in video format; posting compelling biographical material; as well as images and a brief narrative.

Few great generals are better known than Julius Caesar. As the only Great Captain of antiquity to write his own campaign memoirs, both the general public of his day and history students today know of his exploits in more detail, albeit perhaps somewhat subjective details, than is the case with any of his fellow greats. This is deliberate: Caesar was not only a great general; he was also a very gifted politician and statesman.

Born in 100 BC, he was the nephew by marriage of another commander of great ability,Gaius Marius. His family was a poor branch of the Julii, a venerable patrician family claiming descent from Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas; who supposedly brought the survivors of Troy to Latium. Aeneas was, in legend, the son of the goddess Venus; and Caesar certainly behaved as though he was descended from the goddess of love, always cutting a swath through the ladies of Rome.

He spent the first half of his life struggling to find financial security and to carve out a place for himself in the rough-and-tumble politics of his day. As the heir to Marius’ place as political champion of the plebeians and military veterans, Caesar built a strong connection with the “people”; who remained loyal to him till the end of his life. He used this political strength with the voters to win election to one political office after another; climbing the ladder known in Roman society as the cursus honorum. But because by Roman law he could not get an opportunity to show his metal as a general until reaching the appropriate age and standing for those offices which granted the recipient military command. It was not till he was 39 that he received his first independent command. This was as propraetor of Hispania Ulterior. This gave him the opportunity to campaign against the Lusitanians; in which he began to exhibit his gift for command.

He forged a strong alliance with two of the leading men in the Rome of his day: Pompey the Great, Rome’s most respected military leader; and Marcus Licinius Crassus, its leading financier and business leader. Between them, this Triumvirate controlled Roman politics and were able to effectively advance each other’s interests. Caesar was able to win election as Consul in 59 BC; and from there to be appointed governor of the Roman territories abutting Gaul….

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END OF THE CALIPHATE: MONGOL SACK OF BAGHDAD

On February 10, 1258 a Mongol army sacked Baghdad, capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. Shortly after, the Khan ordered the death of the last Abbasid Caliph, Al-Musta’sim. Though hardly remembered, it was an event that rocked the Muslim world in its days; the repercussions of which are still felt today.

Hulagu Khan, commander of the Mongols in the Middle East and founder of the Persia-based Il-Khanate, was the grandson of Genghis Khan and brother to both China’s Kublai Khan, and to another Kha-Khan (“Great Khan”, the title carried by the overlord of the entire Mongol Empire), Khan Möngke. At its peak, the realm Hulago created included Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan; and parts of Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.

The sack of Baghdad culminated the initial phase of the Mongol attempt to conquer the Middle East; begun with Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarezmia in 1221. A project abandoned after Genghis Khan’s death, his grandson took up the task; supported by perhaps the largest Mongol army ever assembled: by order of his brother, Great Khan Möngke, two-tenths of the empire’s fighting men were allocated to the task. Not less than 100,000 fighting men formed Hulago’s horde; and likely many more than that.

Hulago opened the campaign by attacking Alamut; the chief stronghold of the fearedAsasiyun (Assassins) . This fortress citadel, thought at the time to be impregnable, lay in the mountains of Iran, about 60 miles from modern Tehran. Seeing the “handwriting on the wall”, the Assassins surrendered on condition their lives were spared. But Alamut was destroyed, and with it the power of the Assassin cult, which had terrorized the Middle East since the 11th century.

The ruins of lofty Alamut. From here, the “Old Man of the Mountain”, leader of the Assassin cult, directed an army of dedicated killers throughout the Middle East for almost two centuries. Hulagu Khan destroyed the citadel on his way to the sack of Baghdad.Baghdad was then the ancient seat of the Abbasid Caliphate; a secular and religious authority within Islam that dated back to the 8th century. Established after the overthrow of the original Caliphate of the Umayyads in 750, the first Abbasid….

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THE AGE OF ARTHUR: PART TWENTY-ONE

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Unique among the territories of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Britain succeeded in holding back and even reversing the tide of Germanic conquest for nearly two centuries. This was an age of heroes… It was the Age of Arthur!

This is the twenty-first-part of our discussion of Britain in the so-called Age of Arthur: the 5th though the mid-6th Century A.D. It is a fascinating period, with the Classical civilization of Greece and Rome giving way to the Germanic “Dark Ages”. It was the sunset of Celtic-Roman culture in Britain; it was the Age of Arthur!

(Read Part Twenty here. Or start from the beginning, with Part One!)

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Arthur had arrived at Badon Hill (Mons Badonicus), come fresh from his victories in the North against outlaws and Angle pirates (remembered by Nennius as the 10th and 11th of “Arthur’s Twelve Battles”: the Battles of the River Tribruit and the Hill of Agned).  AtopSolsbury/Badon Hill, he could clearly see the Saxons swarming below the walls of Badon, less than two miles away.

1-solsbury-hill-viewing-bathBath (Badon) viewed from atop Solsbury Hill

For Ælle, Arthur’s sudden arrival must have come as an unpleasant shock. The Bretwaldawould have heard that Arthur and his vaunted horsemen were in the north, supposedly too far away to interfere with his move against Badon (Bath); the keystone to his strategy aimed at driving a wedge between the northern and southern British kingdoms. Now Arthur was on the high ground behind the Saxon army, dominating Ælle’s line of communications.

Strategically, it was an unacceptable situation for the Saxon.

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Ælle’s reaction was likely to have pulled back from the bloody, all-out assault on Badon’s walls; and to regroup his warriors to face the new threat.

The stage was now set for the Battle of Badon Hill, the last of Nennius 12 Battles of Arthur.

But before laying out a plausible description of the battle, let us reexamine the forces and leaders involved.

THE SAXONS

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle,  Ælle was the first king to be called Bretwalda(“Britain Ruler”). While more a “first among equals” than a true king of all the Anglo-Saxons, he likely had the auctoritas to call a great number of the disparate Saxon kings and warlords to his standard when required. The army he brought to Bathon was undoubtedly one which included warbands from all of the Saxon (and possibly Angle) “kingdoms” in Britain.  It must have included a great number of the Anglo-Saxon warriors of Britain; in that its defeat proved decisive, stopping (and in fact pushing back) the Saxon advance in Britain for sixty years. Clearly, no small affair.

The core of Ælle’s host was composed of the elite warriors of his own household, hisGesith (what the Roman writer Tacitus called a “comitatus”). Every Germanic warlord maintained a retinue of young “hearth warriors” who ate, slept, and fought beside him. These would die before deserting their lord, and in battle they provided the professional edge of well-equipped fighting men for every Saxon army. Ælle’s three sons, Cissa, Cymen and Wlencing likely fought beside their father as well; though the eldest and heir, theÆtheling Cissa may have had a smaller Gesith of his own.

Anglo-Saxon chieftain or member of Gesith; and Saxon ceorl. (Art by Jason Pope)

The “Gesith” of a great chieftain such as Ælle may have numbered as many as 300 proven warriors. Later Scandinavian kings and Jarls maintained such bodyguards, calledhirðmenn/hirthmen; numbers ranging from just 60 men for a Jarl to as many as several thousand for a wealthy and powerful king such as Cnut the Great. Most Anglo-Saxon chieftains in this earlier, poorer period would have had much smaller retinues; perhaps based upon the “keel”, or ship’s crew of between 30 and 60 men.

Along with the professional warriors of his household, Ælle would have brought the levy of free-born Saxon farmers (ceorls) of his own realm, Sussex (Kingdom of the South Saxons). In later Anglo-Saxon society, this would be called the fyrd. In these early days of constant raid-and-counter-raid between Saxon and Briton, every Saxon was a warrior: land would only be given to warriors capable of defending it and supporting their king in time of war. Sussex under Ælle was a dynamic and aggressive newcomer in Britain; born in blood with the sacking of Romano-British Anderitum (Pevensey Castle)), traditionally dated 491 [1]. At least some of older warriors in his host may have been veterans of Ælle’s first great victory over the hated “Welsh”.

Along with his own South Saxons, the horde Ælle brought west to Badon included the men of Kent (Cantaware), led by their own king, Oisc “Big Knife” , son or grandson of the famedHengist .(Alternate sources call him “Octha of the Bloody Knife“). Geoffrey of Monmouth(hardly a reliable source) names the Saxon leaders as Cheldric, Colgren and Balduph; but these names should be considered mere placeholders for unknown (to him) Anglo-Saxon warlords . From up-and-down the east coast of Britain, every Anglo-Saxon pirate and petty-king joined Ælle in this great campaign against the Britons.

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SABRES IN THE SNOW: MURAT AT EYLAU, 1807!

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AS DEFEAT LOOMS, MURAT’S CAVALRY SAVES THE DAY IN PERHAPS THE GREATEST CAVALRY CHARGE IN MILITARY HISTORY

In October of 1806, Napoleon decisively defeated the Prussians in a lightning campaign that culminated at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. This campaign was in response to Prussia joining Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain in the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon; following his defeat of Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

Following Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon overran much of Prussia in a blitzkrieg-like advance, destroying the remnants of the Prussian army at the Battles of Prenzlau and Lübeck. On the 25th of October, the French captured Berlin.

With the Prussian forces scattered, only Russia still had an army in the field to oppose him. Napoleon continued the campaign; marching the Grande Armee (75,000 strong) into East Prussia. Here he sought to bring the Russians, under General Leonty Leontyevich, Count von Bennigsen, to decisive battle.

As was normal practice, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched widely dispersed; each Corps its own independent army; the overall movements coordinated by the Emperor’s headquarters through an efficient staff, headed by the talented Marshal Berthier. With his army scattered in a broad net, Napoleon now attempted to cast this over and bag Bennigsen’s Russians.

Galloping couriers were sent to all Corps commanders, ordering them to concentrate against and envelop the Russians. However, one such courier in-route to Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps was captured by Russian Cossacks. Thus, warned that he was thrusting his head into a noose, Bennigsen began withdrawing away from the oncoming French. Napoleon pursued, and Bennigsen was brought to heal on the 7th of February, 1807, at the village of Eylau.

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“13 HOURS” MAY BE THE BEST WAR MOVIE IN 15 YEARS!

Not since 2001’s “Black Hawk Down” has there been a film that captures modern combat so well as the new film by Director Michael Bay, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”.

Much like that earlier film by Ridley Scott, depicting a similar incident in recent history, “13 Hours” is the tale of Americans isolated in a North African city, desperately fighting for their lives without the support and reinforcement from home they require.

As a former Special Forces Operator, I both love such films and tend to judge them critically. With any film in which the viewer has a deep familiarity of the subject matter, one can’t help but notice flaws in the narrative or details. It’s both a blessing and a curse to know too much about the subject; and I go to every war movie prepared to be disappointed, and to make allowances for minor mistakes.

But with “13 Hours“, there were no moments that made me mentally “wince”. Instead, from the opening to the end I was riveted to the screen; and at no time did my finely-tuned “bullshit meter” go off.

The real Benghazi survivor John “Tig” Tiegen shows actor Dominc Fumusa (who portays “Tig” in the film) how to handle his weapon. The film gained great realism from the presence of these veterans on set

Since “Black Hawk Down“, there have been a handful of movies similar in style and subject: “We Were Soldiers” (2002), “Act of Valor” (2012), and “Lone Survivor” (2013). All shared the same theme: American fighting men put into deadly peril without proper support…

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