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Line in the Sand

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
By March 5, 1836, Col. William Barrett Travis had known for several days that his situation inside the old Spanish mission called the Alamo had become hopeless.

Several thousand soldiers under the command of Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had Travis and some 189 other defenders surrounded.

The young Texas colonel - only 26 - was a lawyer, not a professional military man, but Travis knew enough history to understand that in a siege, the army on the outside usually prevails over the army on the inside.

So he gathered his fellow defenders that Saturday afternoon and gave them a speech.

"We must die," he began. "Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death."

He saw three possibilities: Surrender and summary execution, trying to fight their way out only to be "butchered" by Mexican lancers or "remain in this fort…resist every assault, and to sell our lives as dearly as possible."

Then, with a flourish, Travis drew his sword and slowly marked a line in the dirt. "I now want every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line."

Young Tapley Holland made his decision quickly, proclaiming "I am ready to die for my country!" as he jumped over the line. It's hard to picture it as a stampede - the men knew they were voting to die - but all but two of them walked over the line. Co-commander Jim Bowie, lying sick on a cot, asked some of his men to carry him across. Only Louis Moses Rose, a French soldier of fortune, remained behind.

That night, Rose slipped out of the Alamo and managed to make it through the enemy lines. He ended up in Louisiana and supposedly lived until 1850.

Every Texan knows what happened the morning after Rose made his escape. In the predawn of March 6, Santa Anna's forces breached the walls and killed every Texas combatant.

No one disputes the outcome of the battle, but historians are still fighting over whether the sword story is true. Unfortunately for die-hard Texans, the current thinking is that it probably did not happen. On the other hand, so far as is known, anyone who could have vouched for the story died in the final assault that morning 170 years ago this March 6.

The dramatic tale did not appear in print until 1873, nearly 40 years after the battle. The man who wrote the story for the Texas Almanac - William Physick Zuber - later admitted that while he reconstructed major portions of Travis' speech, he included only one paragraph of fiction. Unfortunately, he did not say which paragraph that was.

Zuber might have been inspired by what happened in December 1835. Ben Milam, during the Texian siege of San Antonio de Bexar, did draw a line and urge his fellow revolutionaries to follow him in attacking the soldiers of Mexican Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos.

"Who will follow old Ben Milam?" he asked.

The Texans won the battle but Milam lost his life in the effort.

But other than Zuber's telling of the tale, which he said he heard from his parents, who had given Rose shelter for a time after his escape from the Alamo, no documentation has been found to support it.

hat is irrefutable is that the story of Travis drawing a line with his sword - be it truth or legend - gave Texas, America and eventually, the world, one of its most enduring metaphors.

Travis' line in the dirt - people did not start saying sand until the first President Bush used the term in 1990 before the first Gulf War - is a story equal to Homer or Shakespeare, as compelling as almost anything in the Bible or from the best Hollywood screen writer.

As J. Frank Dobie put it, "It is a line that not all the piety nor wit of research will ever blot out. It is a grand canyon cut into the bedrock of human emotions and historical impulses."

The line-in-the-sand metaphor gets its power because it represents something that is absolutely true: Making a courageous decision often comes with a high price.

On the upside, that courageous decision usually proves to be the right one, even if it takes years for people to appreciate it. Think Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. It might cost your life or your office, but chances are, someday you will be remembered for doing the right thing by crossing that figurative line in the sand.

© Mike Cox - February 22, 2006 column
More "Texas Tales"

See The Alamo | Battle of the Alamo

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