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Alamo Cowards

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
History has been kind to the men who died in the Alamo, according them immortality as martyred heroes.

Besides the Texas Trinity – Jim Bowie, David Crockett and William Travis – 32 men from Gonzales joined the other defenders a week after the Mexican Army lay siege to the old mission. By daylight on March 6, 1836, the Gonzales men and all the others – roughly 200 Texians – lay dead.

The names of many of these men are carved in stone on the Alamo monument in downtown San Antonio. Some who fell that Sunday morning did not get listed on the granite cenotaph, though subsequent research has assured their place in history as “Alamo defender,” two words that stand strong in the collective consciousness of Texans. But for an altogether different reason, seven other men deserve scrutiny.

A little-known letter from Travis written early on the morning of Jan. 28, 1836 provides the sketchy details of a less noble story. From his camp at Burnam’s Crossing on the Colorado River (present-day La Grange), the 26-year-old lieutenant colonel penned a private letter to Texas’ provisional governor, Henry Smith.

As soon as Travis dispatched his report, he broke camp and resumed his “march to the relief of Bexar.” With 30 men, Travis was on his way to bolster the Texas garrison at San Antonio, which General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was expected to attempt to retake when he arrived from the interior.

“Our affairs are gloomy indeed,” Travis wrote. “The people are cold & indifferent. They are worn down & exhausted with war, & in consequence of dissensions between contending & rival chieftains, they have lost all confidence in their own Govt. & officers.”

The revolution had begun the previous October with the seizure of a cannon at Gonzales. Two months later, Texans had taken San Antonio from the Mexican army, sending General Martin Perfecto de Cos in disgrace and retreat toward the Rio Grande.

Since that December 1835 victory, many volunteer Texas soldiers had gone home. “The patriotism of a few has done much,” Travis wrote, “but that is becoming worn down.” Unless the government raised enough money to fund a strong regular army and began drafting men to serve in the militia, he continued, “war cannot be carried on in Texas.”

Indeed, Texans seemed to have lost their appetite for independence. Too, what modern military strategists call “command and control” was anemic at best. Travis certainly was giving the cause his best efforts. He had used his personal credit to obtain horses and equipment and “have neither slept day nor night” since receiving orders to join the Texas garrison at San Antonio.

Not only was Travis astute in his assessment of conditions in Texas, he seems to have been prescient. He had no enthusiasm for his assignment, but wrote: “I shall however go on & do my duty; if I am sacrificed, unless I receive new orders.” A modern writer would have said “EVEN if I am sacrificed,” but that is clearly what Travis meant.

Some of his men may have had the same premonition. For whatever reason, Travis listed nine men as having deserted his command since he left San Felipe for San Antonio.

Those nine men could not have saved the Alamo, but they most assuredly would have died there had they not gone AWOL.

Travis’ list, as compiled by his sergeant:
– A. White
– John Cole
– Baker (no first name given)
– Andrew Smith
– Ginnings (the sergeant surely meant to spell Jennings)
– William Smith
– Solomon Bardwell
Alfonso Steele
– Wiley (no first name given)


Baker, Andrew Smith and Ginnings/Jennings also made off with government-owned horses. In addition, Smith took a saddle, bridle, blanket, rifle, and shot pouch owned by the military.

How these men reacted when they heard that the Alamo had fallen with every defender killed is better left to the imagination. Maybe they praised God that they had chosen to chicken out. Perhaps they felt a crushing guilt, a survivor reaction psychologists today say is common.

In fairness, Travis’ list constitutes little more than an indictment. Record keeping back then left much to be desired, as the use of four incomplete names suggests. Historians need to do more work before these men can be written off with certainty as cowards.

At least two of the men on the list did redeem themselves. Both Bardwell and Steele rejoined the Army and fought under Sam Houston at San Jacinto, the April 21, 1836 battle that assured Texas’ independence.

Not only did Steele fight, he caught a Mexican musket ball. Beyond that, he left his written recollections of the battle, an important contribution to Texas history. But nowhere in his memoir does he own up to deserting Travis on the way to the Alamo.



© Mike Cox

"Texas Tales" May 26, 2004 Column
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