FEBRUARY 23, 1836, began the siege of the Alamo, a 13-day moment in history that turned a ruined Spanish mission in the heart of downtown San Antonio, Texas, into a shrine known and revered the world over. But what is it that makes this one battle so different from any other battle fought in the name of freedom? The people involved? Yes, that's part of it. The issues at hand? Yes, that's another part. Or can it be that the mysteries, myths and legends surrounding it are still tantalizing minds even today? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of these things have made the battle stand apart and have caused it to be so well remembered throughout the nation 160 years later. Yet, as historian Walter Lord said in 1960, "It is...a rash man indeed who claims he has the final answer to everything that happened at the Alamo."
History records three revolutions that led to the Battle of the Alamo. The first, the Spanish revolt against French occupation of Spain, occurred in 1808. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, and it took six years for Spanish resistance forces to oust the French emperor and restore Ferdinand VII to the throne. The fires of the Spanish revolt crossed the ocean, and in Mexico Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bells of his small church in Dolores at midnight on September 15, 1810, to herald the beginning of the second revolution. This Mexican revolt against Spanish occupation traveled quickly across Mexico and into the northern frontier of the Mexican territory of Texas. San Antonio de Béxar, the capital of Texas, became a center of revolutionary activity and a haven for resistance fighters. One revolutionary, Captain Jose Menchaca, was captured by Spanish troops, shot and beheaded. His head was then stuck on a pole in front of the Alamo. Instead of setting an example for the other insurgents, however, Menchaca's execution only added fuel to the revolt.
After an 11-year struggle, Mexico gained its freedom in 1821. Within that same year, Agustin de Iturbide, a Spanish general turned rebel and a hero of the revolution, became emperor of the new nation. But his regime was too extravagant for some tastes, and in no time a revolt led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna brought about Iturbide's downfall and established a Mexican republic.
Under Iturbide, American colonists had been allowed to settle in Texas. About the only condition to owning land was that all immigrant landowners had to be Catholic, an easy enough problem to overcome for non-Catholics. William Travis, for instance, became Catholic to purchase land, but remained a staunch Methodist until the day he died at the Alamo.
Unfortunately, the fledgling Republic of Mexico was born bankrupt and ill-prepared for self-government. In fact, during its first 15 years of independence, it had 13 presidents. All of them struggled for power, shifting between the liberal-leaning Federalists and the dictatorial Centralists. The first president was a Federalist, General Guadalupe Victoria, a hero of the revolution who had changed his name from Miguel Felix Hernandez to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, for his victory. It was he who established the liberal Constitution of 1824 that so infuriated Santa Anna and that would lead to the Battle of the Alamo 12 years later.
It was also during this tumultuous struggle for control of Mexico's presidency that the northern territory of Texas was mostly neglected. When Mexico redefined its territories in 1824, Texas was the only separate territory to lose its independence. It was joined to Coahuila and the capital was moved from San Antonio de Béxar to Saltillo. Armed citizens gathered in protest. In September 1835, they petitioned for statehood separate from Coahuila. They wrote out their needs and their complaints in The Declaration of Causes. This document was designed to convince the Federalists that the Texans desired only to preserve the 1824 Constitution, which guaranteed the rights of everyone living on Mexican soil. But by this time, Santa Anna was in power, having seized control in 1833, and he advocated the removal of all foreigners. His answer was to send his crack troops, commanded by his brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cós, to San Antonio to disarm the Texans.
October 1835 found San Antonio de Béxar under military rule, with 1,200 Mexican troops under General Cós' command. When Cós ordered the small community of Gonzales, about 50 miles east of San Antonio, to return a cannon loaned to the town for defense against Indian attack--rightfully fearing that the citizens might use the cannon against his own troops--the Gonzales residents refused. "Come and take it!" they taunted, setting off a charge of old chains and scrap iron, shot from the mouth of the tiny cannon mounted on ox-cart wheels. Although the only casualty was one Mexican soldier, Gonzales became enshrined in history as the "Lexington of Texas." The Texas Revolution was on.
On December 5, 200 Texan volunteers commanded by Ben Milam attacked Cós' troops in San Antonio de Béxar, which was about 400 yards from the Alamo compound. The fighting in Béxar raged with a house-to-house assault unlike anything the Mexican army had ever before experienced. Cós finally flew the white flag of surrender from the Alamo on December 9. More than 200 of his men lay dead, and as many more were wounded. He signed papers of capitulation, giving the Texans all public property, money, arms and ammunition in San Antonio, and by Christmas Day, the Mexican army was back across the Rio Grande. To the Texans, who lost about 20 men, including Ben Milam, the victory seemed cheap and easy.
The siege of Béxar and Cós' surrender brought immediate retaliation from Santa Anna. He whipped together a force of 8,000 men, many of them foreign adventurers from Europe and America. One of his deadliest snipers was an Illinois man named Johnson! Santa Anna, the self-styled "Napoleon of the West," marched at the head of the massive army; he was determined to stamp out all opposition and teach the Texans a lesson. The word went out to his generals: "In this war, you understand, there are no prisoners."
Although it was midwinter, Santa Anna pushed his army mercilessly toward Texas. The frigid, wind-battered deserts of northern Mexico took their toll. Men and animals died by the hundreds and were left on the trail, and the brigades strung out for uncounted miles. When the big siege guns bogged down in one of the many quagmires, Santa Anna pushed on without them. Nothing would stop him. Meanwhile, after the defeated Mexican force under General Cós had left San Antonio, Colonel James C. Neill had assumed command of the Alamo garrison, which consisted of about 80 poorly equipped men in several small companies, including the volunteers. The rest of the soldiers had returned home to their families and farm chores. In this command were an artillery company under Captain William R. Carey known as the Invincibles, two small infantry companies known as the New Orleans Greys under Captain William Blazeby, and the Béxar Guards under Captain Robert White.
On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, the commander of the revolutionary troops, sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 25 men to San Antonio with orders to destroy the Alamo fortifications and retire eastward with the artillery. But Bowie and Neill agreed that it would be impossible to remove the 24 captured cannons without oxen, mules or horses. And they deemed it foolhardy to abandon that much firepower--by far the most concentrated at any location during the Texas Revolution. Bowie also had a keen eye for logistics, terrain, and avenues of assault. Knowing that General Houston needed time to raise a sizable army to repel Santa Anna, Bowie set about reinforcing the Alamo after Neill was forced to leave because of sickness in his family.
Colonel William Travis arrived in San Antonio on February 2 with a small cavalry company, bringing the total number of Alamo defenders to about 130. Although spies told him that Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande, Travis did not expect the dictator before early spring. He sent letter after letter, pleading for supplies and more men. He and Bowie also competed for command of the garrison before it was decided that Bowie would command the volunteers and Travis the regular army. On February 9, David Crockett and the 14 other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers (only three were actually from Tennessee) rode into San Antonio. Alarmed by the Mexican army on the outskirts of town, Travis vigorously renewed his pleas for help. His February 24 letter, "To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World....I shall never surrender or retreat....Victory or Death!" is considered one of the most heart-wrenching pleas ever written. Travis sent the message out with Captain Albert Martin.
The day before, February 23, Santa Anna had reclaimed San Antonio. To the triumphant music of a military band, he took possession of the town, set up headquarters on the main plaza, and began the siege. He had his standard-bearers climb to the top of the bell tower of San Fernando Church and unfurl the scarlet flag of "no quarter." Inside the Alamo, Travis and the Texans fired their message to Santa Anna with a blast from their 18-pounder. They had their music, too, with Davy Crockett's fiddle and John McGregor's bagpipes. In fact, Davy's fiddle-playing and outlandish storytelling kept up the spirits of the besieged defenders.
Santa Anna ordered his men to pound the fortifications with cannon and rifle fire for 12 days and nights. His idea was to wear out the defenders inside, giving them no chance for rest or sleep. He reasoned that a weary army would be an easy one to defeat. But the noise worked on his own army, too. Unable to hear clearly through the din, they allowed courier after courier to escape from the Alamo. On March 2, racing through the enemy's lines, the last group to reinforce the Alamo arrived. These men were the relief force from Gonzales, the only town to answer Travis' pleas to send help. The total number of Alamo defenders now stood at between 180 and 190.
At 4 o'clock on the morning of March 6, 1836, Santa Anna advanced his men to within 200 yards of the Alamo's walls. Just as dawn was breaking, the Mexican bloodcurdling bugle call of the Deguello echoed the meaning of the scarlet flag above San Fernando: no quarter. It was Captain Juan Seguin's Tejanos, the native-born Mexicans fighting in the Texan army, who interpreted the chilling music for the other defenders.
Santa Anna's first charge was repulsed, as was the second, by the deadly fire of Travis' artillery. At the third charge, one Mexican column attacked near a breach in the north wall, another in the area of the chapel, and a third, the Toluca Battalion, commenced to scale the walls. All suffered severely. Out of 800 men in the Toluca Battalion, only 130 were left alive. Fighting was hand to hand with knives, pistols, clubbed rifles, lances, pikes, knees and fists. The dead lay everywhere. Blood spilled in the convent, the barracks, the entrance to the church, and finally in the rubble-strewn church interior itself. Ninety minutes after it began, it was over.
All the Texans died. Santa Anna's loss was 1,544 men. More than 500 Mexicans lay wounded, their groans mingling with the haunting strains of the distant bugle calls. Santa Anna airily dismissed the Alamo conquest as "a small affair," but one of his officers commented, "Another such victory will ruin us."
As many of the Mexican dead as possible were given the rites of the church and buried, but there were so many that there was not sufficient room in the cemetery. Santa Anna ordered all the bodies of the Texans to be contemptuously stacked like cord wood in three heaps, mixed with fuel, wood and dry branches from the neighboring forest, and set on fire--except one. Jose Gregorio Esparza was given a Christian burial because his brother Francisco was a member of General Cós' presidio guards.
Six weeks after the Alamo, while the Mexican wounded still languished in San Antonio, Santa Anna met his Waterloo at San Jacinto. The men who died inside the walls of the Alamo had bought with their lives the time needed for General Sam Houston to weld a force that won Texas its independence. The great sacrifice would not be forgotten by history, nor would the Alamo's many legends and stories, most of which can never be proved or disproved because all the defenders died.
One of the most enduring questions is whether Travis really did draw a line in the earth, the "grand canyon of Texas," and ask all to step over who were willing to die for the cause. It is probably based on fact. Travis anticipated a battle to the death. Since he was also one for fairness, it's logical to believe that he would give the men an opportunity to leave the ill-fated garrison. It is a fact that one man did leave. Louis Rose was from France, and he had already served in one bloody war as a noncommissioned officer in Napoleon Bonaparte's army. Before the final assault on the Alamo he left, sustaining many leg wounds from cactuses and thorns during his escape that plagued him the remainder of his life. Asked why he chose not to stay with the rest, he replied, "By God, I wasn't ready to die." It is Rose's tale of the line in the dust that has become legend.
Two of Santa Anna's earliest opponents were Erasmo Seguin and his son Juan, of San Antonio. In fact, it was Juan who became one of the staunchest fighters for Texas freedom, forming his own band of Tejanos to stand alongside his Anglo counterparts. Juan Seguin was on a courier mission for Travis when the Alamo fell, but he vowed to one day honor the Alamo dead in a church ceremony, a ceremony that had been denied by Santa Anna. Legend claims that Seguin collected the ashes and placed them in a casket covered with black. Inside the lid, he had the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett engraved. He then buried the casket. Where? No one knows. Shortly before his death, when he was in his 80s, Juan Seguin stated that he had buried the casket outside the sanctuary railing, near the steps in the old San Fernando Church. In 1936, repair work on the altar railing of the cathedral led to the unearthing of a box containing charred bones, rusty nails, shreds of uniforms and buttons, particles of coal, and crushed skulls. From that discovery arose a controversy that continues to this day. Are they the bones of the Alamo defenders? Many believe yes, but since the defenders did not wear uniforms, many others think not.
Questions also still remain about the death of David Crockett, who, without doubt, was the most famous defender of the siege. Shortly after the capture of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, rumors began to circulate that 49-year-old Crockett had not died alongside his men in the final moments of the Alamo. Conflicting testimony claimed that Crockett and a handful of others--including Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, who rode back into the Alamo on March 3 knowing full well that it was a death trap--survived the siege, only to be destroyed on the orders of an enraged Santa Anna a few minutes later. True...or not? No one may ever really know. But most people prefer to believe that Crockett died a heroic death inside the Alamo.
Davy Crockett was a national folk hero long before the events of the Alamo. Born August 17, 1786, in an East Tennessee wilderness cabin in what is now Greene County, he struck out on his own at the tender age of 12 to help drive a herd of cattle to Virginia. By 1813, he was serving as one of General Andrew Jackson's scouts in the Creek War. He apparently did not enjoy fighting Indians and returned home as soon as his 90-day enlistment was up. In 1821, he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature for the first time, representing a district of 11 western counties in the state. He later served two terms in the United States Congress.
Crockett was always one for adventure. When defeated at the polls for a third term in Congress in 1835, he turned in typical Crockett fashion to the cause of Texan freedom as a way to completely cut off one phase of his life and begin another. Before leaving for Texas, however, he gave his constituents one last speech. He concluded "...by telling them that I was done with politics for the present, and that they might all go to hell, and I would go to Texas." After arriving in San Antonio in early February 1836, Crockett and the other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers eventually retreated into the Alamo.
The old fortress spread over three acres as it surrounded a rough rectangle of bare ground, about the size of a gigantic city block, called the plaza. On the south side of this plaza and detached from the church by a distance of some 10 feet was a long one-story building called the "low barracks." Adobe huts spread along the west side, which was protected by a 12-foot-high stone wall. A similar wall ran across the north side. A two-story building called the "long barracks/convent/hospital" covered the east side, along with the church, which sat in the southeast corner, facing west.
Crockett and his men defended a low wooden palisade erected to breach the gap between the church and the low barracks of the south wall. The position of the low barracks was in front of, and perpendicular to, the right side of the church--an area that is now covered in flagstone. This palisade consisted of two rows of pointed wooden stakes with rocks and earth between the rows. All combatants considered the position to be the most vulnerable and hardest to defend area of the fortress. But Crockett and the other Tennesseans were expert marksmen, the best the small Texan army had. They most likely held their position until death.
As news of Crockett's death swept across America, some stories portrayed him as standing in the thickest of the fighting, using his trusty flintlock rifle "Old Betsy" like a club, until being cut down by Mexican bayonets and bullets. Well...maybe that's the way it really happened. Then again...maybe not.
Minutes after the fighting ceased, Santa Anna instructed Alcalde Francisco Ruiz to identify the bodies of the dead Texans, especially those of the leaders. According to the alcalde, "Toward the west and in a small fort opposite the city, we found the body of Colonel Crockett...and we may infer that he either commanded that point or was stationed there as a sharpshooter." The only logical explanation is that the small courtyard bounded by the palisade on the south, the church on the east and the hospital on the north, where Crockett and the Tennesseans were stationed, was considered a small fort all its own.
But one month later, the imprisoned General Cós told Dr. George Patrick that Davy Crockett had survived the battle. According to Cós, Crockett had locked himself in one of the rooms of the barracks. When the Mexican soldiers discovered him, Crockett explained that he was on a visit and "had accidentally got caught in the Alamo after it was too late to escape." Cós further said that Crockett wanted him to intercede with Santa Anna, asking for mercy, which Cós agreed to do--only Santa Anna had ordered "no quarter" and was incensed at such a request. The Mexican leader refused to spare Crockett's life.
In 1878, writer Josephus Conn Guild offered a similar version in which Crockett and five others survived the siege. When overrun by the Mexican soldiers, the Alamo survivors surrendered to General Manuel Castrillón under promise of his protection, "...but being taken before Santa Anna, they were by his orders instantly put to death. Colonel Crockett fell with a dozen swords sheathed in his breast." Actually, much of the same story had appeared as far back as 1836, when the diary of Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña was published in Mexico City. When the diary was finally published in English in the 1970s, it stirred up those Americans who felt the heroic Crockett never would have surrendered.
Another account, from Mexican Sergeant Felix Nunez, related details of the death of a Texan on the palisade: "He was a tall American of rather dark complexion and had a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill, made of fox skin with the long tail hanging down his back. This man apparently had a charmed life. Of the many soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary, he never missed a shot." He may not have been describing Davy Crockett, but who else dressed in that fashion?
Susanna Dickinson (sometimes spelled Dickerson), one of the noncombatant survivors of the battle, stated in her memoirs that she saw Crockett and a handful of others lying mangled and mutilated "between the church and the two-story barrack building, and even remembered seeing his peculiar cap laying by his side," as she was led from the scene by a Mexican officer. Perhaps she had seen Crockett after his execution, which supposedly occurred near the front of the church. But some people just won't buy a capture-execution scenario. And perhaps Reuben Marmaduke Potter had it right all along when he wrote, "David Crockett never surrendered to bear or tiger, Indian or Mexican."
There is also a controversial story about the Alamo's secondmost legendary figure (see "James Bowie's Knife" in the June 1994 issue of Wild West). That story, which has never been proved one way or the other, says that Bowie was the last to die in the fighting at the Alamo.
Jim Bowie, whose exploits made his name familiar in almost every American home during his lifetime, was born about 1796 (in either Tennessee, Kentucky, or Georgia--sources vary). When Jim was in his teens, the family settled at Bayou Boeuf, Rapides Parish, La., where he later operated a sugar plantation with his brother Rezin. It was his involvement with the pirate Jean Lafitte in the slave trade, though, that earned him a measure of notoriety. In September 1827, he killed a man with his huge knife during a brawl on a Mississippi sandbar just above Natchez. It was the Vidalia sandbar fight that firmly established him as a legendary fighter throughout the South.
Bowie left for Texas in 1828 to settle in San Antonio de Béxar, where his land dealings made him modestly wealthy almost overnight. Bowie also became a Mexican citizen and married into the Mexican aristocracy, which, more than anything else, gained him the friendship, confidence and support of the Mexican population. By 1831, he was fluent in Spanish.
Since he had been a colonel in a Texas Ranger company in 1830, he carried this title and authority when he answered the call for Texan volunteers. The 40-year-old frontiersman and Indian fighter was described as a "normally calm, mild man until his temper was aroused." Absolutely fearless, he gave orders to the volunteers at the Alamo while 26-year-old Colonel Travis, a disciplinarian, took charge of the regulars and cavalry. The difference in their personalities, coupled with the difference in their ages, resulted in the two men sharing a somewhat antagonistic competition for command of the entire garrison. On one point they did agree: The Alamo was the most important stronghold of Texas.
Sometime around February 21, 1836, Bowie decided to help construct a lookout post or gun garrison along one of the walls. Although there are conflicting opinions on what actually happened, most accounts think that he lost his balance on the scaffold and fell 8 feet to the ground, breaking either his hip or his leg. This incident has also been called hogwash by other historians, who claim that Bowie never suffered any accident while at the Alamo. Whether or not he also suffered from tuberculosis, diphtheria, or the dreaded typhoid pneumonia is also a matter of conjecture. In any event, Bowie's incapacitation left Travis with full authority from that point onward.
Bowie took to his sick bed in the low barracks on or about the second day of the siege, and there's little doubt that he would have succumbed to his illness in a matter of days had not the Mexican soldiers dispatched him when they did.
On the final day of the 13-day siege, legend claims that it was Crockett who stole into Bowie's room and gave the sick man two pistols to be used for defense. Most accounts agree that Bowie was found dead on his cot, but since his nurse, Madame Candelaria, never told the exact same story twice about the sequence of events, who really knows what happened that day? Bowie probably participated in the battle, dying in the fall of the Alamo with the other defenders. But was he the last to fall? Everyone agrees that the last position to fall was the church, and Bowie wasn't even close to the church. As the Mexican soldiers stormed over the walls of the compound, the defenders raced to the long barracks, where there was no exit, and to the church. None of them ferried a sick man on a cot.
Still, the Mexican soldiers could have taken pity on Bowie when they saw him more dead than alive, prostrate on his cot in his room in the low barracks. In fact, an odd report claims that as the funeral pyres blazed high and soldiers heaped dead Texans on the pile, some soldiers carried out a man on a cot, a man the captain of the detail identified as "no other than the infamous Bowie." Although the man was still alive, Santa Anna ordered him thrown into the fire along with the rest. Would Santa Anna be so cruel? Yes, especially if the man were a Mexican citizen fighting in the Texan army.
Although the fact remains that no one knows why some 188 men chose to die on the plains of Texas in a ruined Spanish mission that required at least 1,200 men to adequately defend all its acreage, their sacrifice brought Texas independence, which paved the way for expansion to the Pacific and added more than a million square miles to the American nation at that time. And because of their sacrifice, the Alamo is now a shrine respected and revered throughout the world. "Remember the Alamo" became the battle cry that broke Santa Anna's back.
Author Lee Paul, a Texas native who recently moved to Tulsa, Okla., says, "I know San Antonio and the mission corridor like the back of my hand, having acted as private tour guide for many years." For further reading: Rendezvous at the Alamo, by Virgil E. Baugh; Heroes of the Alamo and Goliad and The Alamo, both by Mary Ann Noonan Guerra; and A Time to Stand, by Walter Lord.
There's an old rumor that suggests the mission now known as the Alamo isn't really the Alamo. Texans would like to see such rumors squashed. They know the Alamo always has been the Alamo. It just has another Christian name.
San Antonio has always been predominantly Spanish. In 1691, a Spanish missionary expedition stopped under a spreading cottonwood tree in central Texas and surveyed the surrounding hills and a gently flowing river. The military commander, Domingo Teran de los Rios, called the spot "the most beautiful part of New Spain." Father Damien Massanet agreed, and since it was June 13, the feast day of Saint Anthony, he promptly named it: "I call this place San Antonio de Padua, because it was his day."
Once back in Mexico, they talked of building a mission at the San Antonio de Padua site. Father Massanet insisted it should be a presidio, a fort built and manned by enough armed men to force respect for the missionaries. Shocked church authorities sent Father Massanet a letter, part of which said, "The [church] marvels at the proposal of violence and the use of the force of arms in the conversion of these savages to our holy faith...."
Seven years later, the Franciscan Seminary in Mexico City was mulling over the idea of building missions like stepping stones across the isolated outposts and the colonized parts of New Spain--with an army contingent, of course. In 1699, construction began on San Juan Bautista on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande at Laredo. A presidio also went up nearby for the Spanish soldiers. On New Year's Day, 1700, San Francisco Solano was begun about 10 miles farther upriver.
By the time civilization crept into San Antonio de Padua in 1718, a new mission stood near the river. It was San Francisco Solano, moved from below the Rio Grande to its new site and renamed San Antonio de Valero, after the viceroy of New Spain, the Marqués de Valero. The San Antonio de Béxar presidio, named in honor of the viceroy's father, was built nearby. The area grew to become the capital of New Spain.
At first, the mission was situated on the east bank of the San Antonio River at the junction with San Pedro Creek, but when the river flooded a year later, the fathers wisely decided to move it to the west bank and farther away from the meandering course of the stream. Whiplash winds from one of the notorious Gulf Coast hurricanes flattened the flimsy structures, and the mission was moved once again, this time upstream and to the east side of the river where it now stands.
Twenty years later, the crumbling adobe walls were replaced with stone and the stone church was constructed, a measure that saved the fathers and Christian Indians within the fortifications of the church from certain death from marauding Apache on the warpath. Directly across the river on the west bank, the city of San Antonio de Béxar flourished around the presidio.
With the success of San Antonio de Valero, the river corridor through the central Texas hills all the way to the Gulf Coast soon became dotted with missions. One mission thought by the fathers of San Antonio de Valero to be in direct competition with their own lay not quite four miles downriver on the west bank. It was the customary practice to establish missions two leagues apart (about seven miles), but the fathers of Mission San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo convinced the New Spain authorities that by following the twisting and turning San Antonio River, their mission was two leagues away. Ironically, San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo was destined to be the "Queen of Missions" in Texas--until her shoddy sister upriver achieved infamy years later.
By 1758, the San Antonio area boasted five missions, all of which are within nine miles of each other and still in use today. One, Nuestra Senora de la Purísima Concepción, became the site of the Battle of Concepción (in October 1835), in which Stephen Austin, Jim Bowie, James Fannin, Juan Seguin and a detachment of 90 volunteers took on a force of at least 230 regulars of the Mexican army under General Martín Perfecto de Cós. The Texans lost one man, the Mexican army about 60.
Eventually, the Spanish began secularizing their missions, beginning with San Antonio de Valero in 1793. When Mexico began its campaign for independence 10 years later, Spanish troops from the city of San José y Santiago del Alamo de Parras moved into the now abandoned mission and stayed for many years. Since it was the common practice to identify the men by the full name of their town, and their town was named after a landmark cottonwood tree (alamo is Spanish for cottonwood) growing on a ranch near Parras, the Spanish soldiers became known as "los Hombres del Alamo." San Antonio de Valero became known as El Alamo. (Parras today is called Viesca and is located in Coahuila, Mexico.)
Whether or not this is the sole reason why the old fortress achieved such an informal name is still a matter of debate. Some claim the nickname really stemmed from the cottonwood trees that lined the river in front of the church. In any event, by the time the Texans got there, the old fortress had long been known as "the Alamo," although its official, Christian name is still San Antonio de Valero. L.P.
Unsheathing his sword during a lull in the virtually incessant bombardment, Colonel William Barret Travis drew a line on the ground before his battle-weary men. In a voice trembling with emotion, he described the hopelessness of their plight and said "those prepared to give their lives in freedom’s cause, come over to me."
Without hesitation, every man, save one, crossed the line. Colonel James Bowie, stricken with pneumonia, asked that his cot be carried over.
For twelve days now, since February 23, when Travis answered Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s surrender ultimatum with a cannon shot, the defenders had withstood the onslaught of an army which ultimately numbered 4,000 men.
Committed to death inside the Alamo were 189 known patriots who valued freedom more than life itself. Many, such as the 32 men and boys from Gonzales who made their way through the Mexican lines in answer to Travis’ plea for reinforcements, were colonists. Theirs was a fight against Santa Anna’s intolerable decrees. Others were volunteers such as David Crockett and his "Tennessee Boys" who owned nothing in Texas, and owed nothing to it. Theirs was a fight against tyranny wherever it might be. A handful were native Texans of Spanish and Mexican descent who suffered under the same injustices as the other colonists.
Now with the ammunition and supplies all but exhausted, yet determined to make a Mexican victory more costly than a defeat, those who rallied to the Texas cause awaited the inevitable.
It came suddenly in the chilly, pre-dawn hours of March 6. With bugles sounding the dreaded "Deguello" (no quarter to the defenders) columns of Mexican soldiers attacked from the north, the east, the south and the west. Twice repulsed by withering musket fire and cannon shot, they concentrated their third attack at the battered north wall.
Travis, with a single shot through his forehead, fell across his cannon. The Mexicans swarmed through the breach and into the plaza. At frightful cost they fought their way to the Long Barrack and blasted its massive doors with cannon shot. Its defenders, asking no quarter and receiving none, were put to death with grapeshot, musket fire and bayonets.
Crockett, using his rifle as a club, fell as the attackers, now joined by reinforcements who stormed the south wall, turned to the chapel. The Texans inside soon suffered the fate of their comrades. Bowie, his pistols emptied, his famous knife bloodied, and his body riddled, died on his cot.
Santa Anna, minimizing his losses which numbered nearly 600, said, "It was but a small affair," and ordered the bodies of the heroes burned. Colonel Juan Almonte, noting the great number of casualties, declared, "Another such victory and we are ruined."
The Texans’ smoldering desire for freedom, kindled by the funeral pyres of the Alamo, roared into flames three weeks later at Goliad when Santa Anna coldly ordered the massacre of more than 300 prisoners taken at the Battle of Coleto Creek.
On April 21, forty-six days after the fall of the Alamo, less than 800 angered Texans and American volunteers led by General Sam Houston launched a furious attack on the Mexican army of 1,500 at San Jacinto. Shouting "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!", they completely routed the Mexican army in a matter of minutes, killing six hundred and thirty while losing nine. Santa Anna was captured. Texas was free; a new republic was born.
An independent nation for nearly 10 years, Texas was officially annexed to the United States on December 29, 1845. With the change in government, and the lowering of the Texas flag on February 19, 1846, outgoing President Anson Jones declared, "The final act in the great drama is now performed; the Republic of Texas is no more."
This article is revised from the Texas Alamo Website.
Commandancy of the Alamo
Bexar, Feby. 24th 1836
To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world –
Fellow citizens & compatriots – I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna – I have sustained a continual bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man – The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken – I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls – I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch – The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country –
Victory or Death.
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt.
Most Americans are familiar with the battle cry "Remember the Alamo." This has come to be a rallying cry for people to come together with a common goal of avenging past injustices. The Alamo was burned into American consciousness over 150 years ago in the town of San Antonio, then located in the Mexican province of Texas.
In 1835 the Anglo-American colonists in the Mexican province of Texas revolted against Mexican rule. They intended to separate Texas from Mexico and establish an independent Republic of Texas; however, the Mexican Central Government had other ideas. An expeditionary force of 6000 plus soldiers, led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, was sent to put down the rebellion and throw the American colonists out of Texas.
A force of 145 American (Texan) rebels, commanded by William Travis and James Bowie, gathered in the town of San Antonio. On February 23, 1836, General Santa Anna's army appeared on the out-skirts of San Antonio and the Texas rebels retreated into the stout-walled Alamo Mission within the town. Santa Anna demanded surrender. The Texans answered with a cannon shot, signaling defiance. Couriers rode out of the Alamo racing through Mexican lines with messages calling on all Texans to come aid them in this great struggle. The message from William Travis read in part: "... I have sustained a continued bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man... Our flag still proudly waves from the wall. I shall never surrender or retreat... VICTORY OR DEATH."
Reinforcements were few and far between and by the eighth day of the siege the number of fighters in the Alamo numbered only 187. The siege went on for 13 days. At 4 a.m. on the morning of March 6, 1836, the Mexicans led by Santa Anna stormed the Alamo. With bugles sounding the "Deguello" (signaling no quarter to the defenders) the Mexican troops attacked the adobe walls from all four sides. The first and second assaults were broken up. On the third try the Mexican soldiers breached the walls and a fierce battle ensued. The defenders fought fiercely from building to building and room to room but by 8 a.m. all 187 of the Texas troops were dead. This included such notables as Jim Bowie, William Travis, James Bonham and David Crockett. The cost for the Mexicans was high, as well over 1500 men were lost in the battle.
The first effect of the massacre was to sow panic throughout Texas among the Anglos. The Anglo civil population as well as the rebel government fled eastwards towards U.S. soil. Six weeks later, however, an army of Texas rebels, led by Sam Houston, defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Houston rallied his men before the battle with an impassioned speech to "Remember the Alamo." This defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto established the independence of the Texas Republic.
News of the Fall of the Alamo was slow in reaching the outside world. Even though all of the Alamo's defenders were killed on March 6, 1836, a small group of women, children, and slaves were spared by General Santa Anna. Principle among them were Susan Dickinson, wife of slain defender Almeron Dickinson. She was released on March 11 and instructed by Santa Anna to travel by foot back to the Texas colonists at Gonzales. Once there she was told to spread the word -- resistance was hopeless and Texas must succumb to Mexican rules once again. By noon of March 13, Mrs. Dickinson was 20 miles from Gonzales when she met up with a Texan scouting party lead by "Deaf" Smith. The party was riding out from Gonzales to check on the Alamo and its defenders. Mrs. Dickinson gave the bare details where upon a scout named Henry Karnes dashed back to Gonzales to tell the others the bad news.
At Gonzales the news came as no surprise. On the evening of March 11 two Mexicans who lived near San Antonio turned up in town with the appalling news of the Fall of the Alamo. Even though they were not personally present at the massacre they were told of it by a Mexican friend who was nearby. At the time Sam Houston was unsure of whether or not to believe this second-hand report. However, that evening of the 13th when Mrs. Dickinson arrived, she confirmed the news and gave Houston a complete and detailed account of the Alamo's fate.
The first newspaper account of the Fall of the Alamo was in the Telegraph and Evening Register of March 17, 1836. The full details including the names of the dead were printed in the next issue, that of March 24, 1836.
The Telegraph and Texas Register was first issued at San Felipe de Austin on October 10, 1835. It was established by Gail Borden, Jr., Thomas H. Borden, and Joseph Baker. The Telegraph was published at San Felipe from October 10, 1835 through March 24, 1836. With the Mexican invasion, the publisher fled with their press to Harrisburg, Texas where they published one issue, that of April 14, 1836. As the first issues of that date were being printed, Mexican forces arrived in Harrisburg and threw the printing press into the local stream, Buffalo Bayou. The Borden's, however, escaped. Gail Borden traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he purchased a new press. On August 1, 1836 the Telegraph was once again in print. Publication continued in Columbia from August 1, 1836 through April 11, 1837 when once again it moved -- this time to Houston.
From initial reports in the Telegraph and Texas Register of March 17, 1836, the news of the Alamo spread throughout the country reaching the east coast newspapers during the second week of April. The eastern press headlined the news with large column heads: "IMPORTANT FROM TEXAS -- FALL OF SAN ANTONIO AND MASSACRE OF THE TEXIAN (sic) TROOPS." These sort of headlines crystallized support for the Texas settlers and helped contribute to further aid in establishing Texas as a republic.
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