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"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

The Battle of the Alamo

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt

After the defeat of General Martin Perfecto de Cos at the siege of San Antonio in December 1835, no Mexican troops remained in Texas. Texans thought their independence was won, and the majority of the volunteers who made up the “Army of the People” left service and returned to their families. Some members of the provisional government were so confident of victory that they foolishly planned an expedition to capture the Mexican border town of Matamoros.

The Texans failed to understand that Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was enraged over the capture of Captain Tenorio during the disturbances at Anahuac and the subsequent surrender of General Cos’s at San Antonio de Bexar. Determined to reestablish Mexican control in Texas, Santa Anna planned to either kill every Anglo American and Tejano rebel who openly defied his rule, or drive them across the Sabine River and out of Texas for good. By the time General Cos and his men crossed the Rio Grande and reentered Mexico, Santa Anna was marching north with a large army to meet him.

Oleo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
Wikimedia Commons

Unaware that the Mexican army was on the march, the Texans believed that if an attack was to come at all, Santa Anna would surely wait until spring. As a result, against the advice of a few men like Sam Houston, the Texas forces remained unorganized and scattered. To make matters worse, since the men who contributed to the victory at the siege of San Antonio had returned to the comforts of home and hearth, newly arrived volunteers from the United States constituted the majority of Texas troops in the field. The total lack of preparation would cost the Texans dearly.

In 1836, there were two main invasion routes from Mexico into Texas; the Atascosito Road, and the Old San Antonio Road (also known as the Camino Real). The Atascosito Road crossed the Rio Grande at Matamoros and ran north through Goliad and Victoria, before continuing on to the Louisiana border. The old San Antonio Road crossed the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, continued northeast to San Antonio de Bexar, and then on to Nacogdoches, before entering Louisiana.

Colonel James Walker Fannin commanded the Texans who occupied the Presidio La Bahia in Goliad. It was his responsibility to deny the Atascosito Road to the Mexican army. The forces blocking passage on the old San Antonio Road, as it passed through Bexar, were commanded by Colonel James C. Neill. General Santa Anna divided his forces as he moved north, sending one column under the command of General Jose Urrea up the Atascosito Road, and taking personal command of the other column on the long march to San Antonio.

Drawing of the Alamo
First printed in 1854 in Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion
Wikimedia Commons

The Presidio of La Bahia was well constructed and defensible, but Colonel Neill realized the Alamo would have to be strengthened considerably before it could serve as a fortress. With the assistance of engineer Green B. Jamison, Neill reinforced the crumbling walls of the old mission and replaced a missing section of wall with a log palisade. Twenty-one cannons, most of them captured from General Cos after his surrender at the siege of San Antonio, were them emplaced along the mission’s walls, making the Alamo the most heavily defended fortress in western North America.

Colonel Neill also requested reinforcements for his meager Bexar garrison, but Sam Houston, the commander of the Texas army, had begun to question the wisdom of maintaining the Alamo. Finally, in mid-January, Houston ordered Colonel James Bowie to San Antonio with a company of volunteers to blow up the old mission and remove all the cannons and munitions to Gonzales. However, when Bowie arrived in Bexar on January 19, he was impressed by the efforts of Neill and Jamison to fortify the Alamo.

As a result of their hard work, the old mission was beginning to look like a fortress. Colonel Neill soon convinced Bowie that the Alamo was the only obstacle on the Camino Real that stood between the enemy and the Anglo settlements further to the east, and that it must be defended at all costs. On February 2, Bowie wrote to Governor Henry Smith that he and Neill had resolved to “die in these ditches” before they would surrender the Alamo.

William Barrett Travis

William Barrett Travis
Wikimedia Commons

Governor Smith realized that if the Alamo were to function as a blocking position on the Camino Real, it would have to be reinforced. Colonel Neill would also need cavalry to act as outriders to give early warning of Santa Anna’s approach. Therefore, to meet both needs, Smith directed Lt. Col. William B. Travis to take his “Legion of Cavalry” and report to San Antonio. However, when only thirty men answered Travis’s call for duty, he pleaded with Governor Smith to reconsider his order, threatening to resign his commission rather than stain his reputation with the possibility of failure.

Smith wisely ignored Travis’s threats and, at length, he obeyed the Governor’s orders, reporting to Bexar on February 3. Though he reported under duress, Travis, like Bowie, soon became committed to the Alamo as the “key to the defense of Texas.” David Crockett, a former volunteer colonel and Congressman from Tennessee, arrived at the Alamo on February 8, with a dozen men eager to win their own promised share of Texas.

Davy Crockett, By John Gadsby Chapman
Portrait of Davy Crockett
By John Gadsby Chapman

Wikimedia Commons

In mid-February Colonel Neill was forced to leave San Antonio due to a family emergency. He placed Travis, who like Neill was a member of the regular Texas army, in command. James Bowie, though older and more experienced, was a volunteer. The decision did not sit well with Bowie and his men, and they demanded an election of officers, a tradition among volunteer forces. The decision was split with the volunteers supporting Bowie and the regulars choosing Travis. After much heated debate, the two men agreed to set aside their differences and share a joint command. Then less than two weeks later, Bowie was taken seriously ill and surrendered the command to Travis.

Travis did his best to recruit additional defenders, sending Juan Seguin and James Butler Bonham to Goliad, Gonzales, and other communities across Texas asking for help. A few men arrived, but never in the numbers that were required to properly defend the Alamo. Colonel Fannin, the only source of meaningful reinforcement available, was reluctant to abandon his post at Goliad. His constant waffling would eventually lead to the meaningless death of most of his men.

Then on February 23, Santa Anna’s troops arrived in Bexar, after a brutal winter march across the barren landscape of south Texas, and the 13-day siege of the Alamo began. Travis’s appeals for aid suddenly carried more weight. By now growing desperate for assistance, he penned his famous message that has become known as the most heroic document in Texas history. The letter began “To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world — Fellow citizens & compatriots — I am besieged, by a thousand or more Mexicans under Santa Anna…” and ended “VICTORY OR DEATH.” John William Smith slipped through the Mexican lines and delivered the message to Gonzales.

Why did Santa Anna risk his army by attacking the Alamo instead of bypassing the old mission and marching straight for the heart of the Anglo settlements further to the east? Such a small garrison would have posed little threat to his rear. Most historians would argue that he besieged the old mission and launched his ill-fated assault for political, not military reasons. The dictator promised the Mexican people that he would sweep the rebels out of Texas. If he dared to bypass the fortress, his enemies in Mexico City could claim that he avoided a fight.

Battle of the Alamo, a painting
Photo courtesy Texas State Library & Archives
Battle of the Alamo

The siege of the Alamo began with an artillery bombardment, while the Mexican infantry slowly encircled the old mission. Travis continued to send messages pleading for reinforcements, but the only meaningful assistance to arrive came on March 1, when Lt. George C. Kimbell and his 32-man Gonzales ranging company rode through the Mexican cordon surrounding the Alamo and entered the beleaguered mission. Although he was grateful for the assistance, Travis knew he needed more men if he was to properly defend the Alamo. He revealed his frustration with the lack of support in a letter to a friend. “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”

By March 5, day 12 of the siege, about 1800 Mexican troops surrounded the Alamo. The walls of the old mission were crumbling from the constant bombardment, and no Texan relief column had appeared. To warn the Texans of the fate that awaited them, Santa Anna’s soldiers raised the red flag, and the band played the “Deguello”, the cut throat song, traditional symbols of no mercy.

Santa Anna’s Generals argued against an attack. Why risk the casualties that would surely result from the Texans’ artillery and accurate fire from their long rifles? Soon the walls would be down anyway, and the Texans would be forced to surrender. Determined to make an example of the rebels, Santa Anna ignored these reasonable objections and ordered an attack for dawn on the morning of March 6.

The exhausted Texans were sleeping when the blare of Mexican bugles launched the assault. In his diary, Mexican officer Jose Enrique de la Pena described the beginning of the epic battle: “… a bugle call to attention was the agreed signal and we soon heard that terrible bugle call of death.” Awakened by the cry “The Mexicans are coming!” Travis leaped from his bed and ran to the north wall. He was among the first defenders to die. Texas cannons roared their defiance, canister shot ripping great holes in the oncoming Mexican lines, but their overwhelming numbers enabled the Mexicans to reach the Alamo’s walls in spite of the deadly artillery fire and the constant barking of the Texas long rifles.

James Bowie Death - Illustration by Charles A. Stephens

James Bowie's Death
Illustration by Charles A. Stephens
Wikimedia Commons

Bravely scrambling up the scaling ladders into the face of direct fire, the Mexicans burst through the Texas defenses on the walls and pored into the Alamo, bayonets eager and ready to deal death. Deadly hand-to-hand fighting raged throughout the old mission, bayonets against Bowie knives and rifles used as clubs. Jim Bowie was killed on his sickbed, though some credit him with fighting even there. By eight o’clock in the morning, not much more than 90 minutes after the attack began, resistance ceased. The bodies of hundreds of soldiers, Texan and Mexican alike, lay intermingled in bloody heaps all across the compound.

There is no exact count of casualties suffered during the Battle of the Alamo. Most historians hold the number at 189 defenders and about 600 Mexican soldiers. Legend had it that David Crockett was among the last of the Alamo defenders to die, and that he died fighting. However, Jose Enrique de la Pena wrote in his diary that Crockett and six others were put to death by order of Santa Anna after they tried to surrender.

Susanna Dickinson
Susanna Dickinson
Texas State Library & Archives Commission
Not all the defenders of the Alamo were Anglo Americans. Nine Tejano defenders also bravely gave their lives for the cause of Texas independence. Among those spared were Susanna Dickenson, widow of artillery commander Almeron Dickenson; their 15-month old daughter, Angelina; and Travis’s slave, Joe. Santa Anna ordered them released in hopes that they would spread fear across Texas.
Alamo Cenotaph, San Antonio Texas
TE Photo
The Alamo Cenotaph
Memorial to Alamo Defenders

The heroic sacrifice of the Alamo defenders accomplished little of military value. Some have claimed that the stand provided Sam Houston with the time he needed to raise and begin to train an army, but Houston spent most of his time during the 13 day siege at Washington-on-the-Brazos participating in the Convention of 1836, not with the army. However, the delay did allow the Texans to form a government and declare their independence; both necessary steps before any nation would recognize Texas. Had Santa Anna been permitted to advance straight into the eastern settlements, he may well have disrupted the proceedings and driven the rebels into Louisiana before the government was formed.

Musings of history aside, there is one thing that cannot be denied. The sacrifice of Travis, Bowie, Crockett and the other gallant defenders of the Alamo united the Texans once and for all behind the idea of independence, and kindled a righteous wrath of “Remember the Alamo” that swept the Mexicans off the field at San Jacinto. Unfortunately, before Santa Anna could be lured to that fateful plain, a final tragedy was yet to unfold at Presidio La Bahia in Goliad.


© Jeffery Robenalt
, January 27, 2012 Column
jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com
References >

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References for "Battle of The Alamo"

  • Barr, Alwyn (1996), Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas, 1528-1995 (2nd ed.), Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-2878-X
  • Barr, Alwyn (1990), Texans in Revolt" The Battle of San Antonio, 1835, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, ISBN 0-292-77042-1
  • Edmundson, J.R. (2000), The Alamo Story-From History to Current Conflicts, Plan, TX: Republic of Texas Press, ISBN 1-55622-678-0
  • Groneman, Bill (1996), Eyewitness to the Alamo, Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press, ISBN 1-55622-502-4 • Hardin, Stephen L. (1999), Texan Illiad, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, ISBN 0-292-73086-1
  • Hopewell, Clifford (1994), James Bowie Texas Fighting Man: A Biography, Austin, TX: Eakin Press, ISBN 0-89015-881-9
  • Meyers, John (1948), The Alamo, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0-8032-5779-1
  • Tinkle, Lon (1985), 13 Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo, College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, ISBN 0-89096-238-3
  • Todish, Timothy J.; Todish, Terry; Spring, Ted (1998), Alamo Sourcebook, 1836: A Comprehensive Guide to the Battle of the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, Austin, TX: Eakin Press, ISBN 978-1-57168-152-2



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