lawyer with an eye for the ladies, William Barrett Travis could write
good letters, you have to give him that. The missives he composed
and sent by messenger from the
Alamo constitute much of what is known about the 13-day siege,
and the courage and determination shown in his writing inspire Texans
Whether truly brave or simply fool-hardy, Travis died in joint command
of the old Spanish mission at San
Antonio de Bexar along with an older but likely terminally ill
James Bowie, former U.S. Congressman David
Crockett and some 200 of their men.
But anyone with a passing knowledge of Texas
history knows all that.
Most Texans also know that Texas declared its independence from Mexico
on March 2, 1836, that the
Alamo fell four days later, and that the pivotal Battle
of San Jacinto unfolded the following month on April 21.
What most do not know is what happened three days before the fight.
On April 18, dead only 43 days, Travis, the young firebrand who may
or may not have drawn a
line in the sand at the
Alamo had one final impact of Texas
history. A big one.
put what happened that day into perspective, when word spread that
the Alamo and its defenders had been lost, many Texans figured the
notion of independence was as dead as those who fell in San
Antonio or the men under Col. James Fannin massacred near Goliad
on March 27. Most Anglo families pulled up stakes and fled eastward
in what came to be called the Runaway
Fortunately for the future of Texas, the losses at the hands of the
Mexican army had another impact – an intense desire for revenge. That
had a cohesive effect on what passed as Texas’s army.
Even so, that army, under the command of Sam
Houston, was in full retreat that spring. Historians have continued
to debate whether Houston
was really trying to avoid a fight or merely waiting for the best
opportunity to engage Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Santa Anna had divided his army to cut through Anglo Texas like a
pitchfork plunged into a hay bale. While some of his generals and
their troops fanned out across the rebellious province, Santa Anna
led 950 soldiers toward Harrisburg, where Texas’s provisional government
had relocated. After sacking that place, and likely executing President
David G. Burnet and other officials, the general would march on Galveston.
Houston, however, did not know exactly where Santa Anna was or that
he had split his command. That changed on April 18, when Houston
– and those fighting for Texas independence – finally had some good
About 12 miles from Buffalo Bayou on the road toward the Brazos River,
Texas scouts under Capt. Henry Karnes captured three Mexican couriers.
One of them had a nice pair of saddlebags hanging from his horse with
the name “W.B. Travis” stamped in the leather. Clearly, the saddlebags
had belonged to the late commander of the
wanted to string up the prisoners, but Houston
succeeded in channeling their outrage. Hanging the couriers would
be easy. The challenge was defeating Santa Anna.
While the hog-tied trio brought in by Karnes escaped a noose, the
ranking member of the party, a Mexican captain recently arrived from
the interior with letters for Santa Anna, did lose his nice clothes
to scout Deaf
Smith. The embarrassed officer, having no choice but to don Smith’s
threadbare coat, pants and holes-in-the-toes shoes, took a lot of
ribbing from the Texans.
had several of his bilingual soldiers pouring over every letter found
in Travis’ saddlebags. The correspondence ranged from love letters
from soldiers to their wives and lovers to intelligence-laden letters
from officers, including Santa Anna.
The treasure trove revealed where Santa Anna was and how many men
he had with him. Though the Mexican general expected more troops to
rejoin his command soon, the numerical difference between the Texas
force and Santa Anna’s force was as narrow as it was likely to get.
Noticeably uplifted, Houston
finally became convinced it was time to fight.
Three days after the opportune seizure of Travis’s saddlebags, Houston’s
Army annihilated Santa Anna’s troops in the brief but bloody Battle
of San Jacinto.
What became of the Alamo commander’s saddlebags is not known, nor
is the ultimate fate of the three prisoners captured by Karnes and
his men. What is well known is that on the afternoon of April 21,
enraged Texans, their fervor further fanned by the recent recovery
of Travis’s stolen property, remembered the
Alamo and changed the history of North America.
© Mike Cox
- April 16, 2014 column
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