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
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
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
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.
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
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
|Drawing of the
printed in 1854 in Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion
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.
also requested reinforcements for his meager Bexar garrison, but
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
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.
|Portrait of Davy
By John Gadsby Chapman
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,
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.
courtesy Texas State Library & Archives
siege of the
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
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
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.
Illustration by Charles A. Stephens
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
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.
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
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.
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.
January 27, 2012 Column
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for "Battle of The Alamo"
(1996), Black Texans: A History of African Americans in Texas,
1528-1995 (2nd ed.), Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press,
(1990), Texans in Revolt" The Battle of San Antonio, 1835,
Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, ISBN 0-292-77042-1
J.R. (2000), The Alamo Story-From History to Current Conflicts,
Plan, TX: Republic of Texas Press, ISBN 1-55622-678-0
(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
Clifford (1994), James Bowie Texas Fighting Man: A Biography,
Austin, TX: Eakin Press, ISBN 0-89015-881-9
(1948), The Alamo, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press,
(1985), 13 Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo, College
Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, ISBN 0-89096-238-3
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
by Jeffery Robenalt