Last month, I attended Wild Wicked Weekend, an amazing reader and author event in San Antonio, Texas. Across the street from The Menger, our hotel, sat The Alamo. I’d heard of the building, but knew very little about it. After spending a few hour learning the story of the battle waged at The Alamo, the men who sacrificed themselves for a noble cause, I realized how profoundly it affected the course of US history. Since March 6 was the anniversary of the overthrow of The Alamo, I’m pleased to share with you the basic story:
The Mission San Antonio de Valero, established in the early 18th century, was situated along the San Antonio River. By 1800, the Missionaries were displaced and their land was seized for military purposes. Occupying soldiers called the Mission-turned-garrison El Alamo after the cottonwood trees surrounding it. Eventually the mission was officially renamed The Alamo. First Spanish soldiers occupied The Alamo, then Mexico gained independence from Spain by the early 1820s. Under the Republic of Mexico, settlers from other states began flocking toward Texas.
The only condition to owning land was that all immigrant landowners had to be Catholic, an easy enough problem to overcome for non-Catholics. William Travis, for instance, became Catholic to purchase land, but remained a staunch Methodist until the day he died at the Alamo.
Unfortunately, the fledgling Republic of Mexico was born bankrupt and ill-prepared for self-government. In fact, during its first 15 years of independence, it had 13 presidents. All of them struggled for power, shifting between the liberal-leaning Federalists and the dictatorial Centralists. The first president was a Federalist, General Guadalupe Victoria, established the liberal Constitution of 1824 that so infuriated Antonio López de Santa Anna Santa Anna and that would lead to the Battle of the Alamo 12 years later.
It was also during this tumultuous struggle for control of Mexico’s presidency that the northern territory of Texas was mostly neglected. When Mexico redefined its territories in 1824, Texas was the only separate territory to lose its independence. It was joined to Coahuila and the capital was moved from San Antonio de Béxar to Saltillo. In September 1835, armed citizens gathered in protest, petitioning for statehood separate from Coahuila. They wrote out their needs and their complaints in The Declaration of Causes. This document was designed to convince the Federalists that the Texans desired only to preserve the 1824 Constitution, which guaranteed the rights of everyone living on Mexican soil. But by this time, Santa Anna was in power, having seized control in 1833, and he advocated the removal of all foreigners. His answer was to send his crack troops, commanded by his brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cós, to San Antonio to disarm the Texans.
October 1835 found San Antonio de Béxar under military rule, with 1,200 Mexican troops under General Cós’ command. When Cós ordered the small community of Gonzales, about 50 miles east of San Antonio, to return a cannon loaned to the town for defense against Indian attack–rightfully fearing that the citizens might use the cannon against his own troops–the Gonzales residents refused. Come and take it! they taunted, setting off a charge of old chains and scrap iron, shot from the mouth of the tiny cannon mounted on ox-cart wheels. Although the only casualty was one Mexican soldier, Gonzales became enshrined in history as the beginning of The Texas Revolution.
On December 5, 200 Texan volunteers commanded by Ben Milam attacked Cós’ troops in San Antonio de Béxar, which was about 400 yards from the Alamo compound. The fighting in Béxar raged with a house-to-house assault unlike anything the Mexican army had ever before experienced. Cós finally flew the white flag of surrender from the Alamo on December 9. More than 200 of his men lay dead, and as many more were wounded. He signed papers of capitulation, giving the Texans all public property, money, arms and ammunition in San Antonio, and by Christmas Day, the Mexican army was back south of the Rio Grande. The Texans lost about 20 men, including Ben Milam.
The siege of Béxar and Cós’ surrender brought immediate retaliation from Santa Anna. He whipped together a force of 8,000 men. One of his deadliest snipers was an Illinois man named Johnson. Santa Anna, the self-styled Napoleon of the West, marched at the head of the massive army, determined to stamp out all opposition and teach the Texans a lesson. The word went out to his generals: In this war there are no prisoners.
Although it was midwinter, Santa Anna pushed his army mercilessly toward Texas. The frigid, wind-battered deserts of northern Mexico took their toll. Men and animals died by the hundreds and were left on the trail, and the brigades strung out for uncounted miles. When the big siege guns bogged down in one of the many quagmires, Santa Anna pushed on without them. Nothing would stop him. Meanwhile, after the defeated Mexican force under General Cós had left San Antonio, Colonel James C. Neill had assumed command of the Alamo garrison, which consisted of about 80 poorly equipped men in several small companies, including the volunteers. The rest of the soldiers had returned home to their families and farm chores. In this command were an artillery company under Captain William R. Carey known as the Invincibles, two small infantry companies known as the New Orleans Greys under Captain William Blazeby, and the Béxar Guards under Captain Robert White.
On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, the commander of the revolutionary troops, sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 25 men to San Antonio with orders to destroy the Alamo fortifications and retire eastward with the artillery. But Bowie and Neill agreed that it would be impossible to remove the 24 captured cannons without oxen, mules or horses. And they deemed it foolhardy to abandon that much firepower–by far the most concentrated at any location during the Texas Revolution. Bowie also had a keen eye for logistics, terrain, and avenues of assault. Knowing that General Houston needed time to raise a sizable army to repel Santa Anna, Bowie set about reinforcing the Alamo after Neill was forced to leave because of sickness in his family.
Colonel William Travis arrived in San Antonio on February 2 with a small cavalry company, bringing the total number of Alamo defenders to about 130. Although spies told him that Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande, Travis did not expect the dictator before early spring. He sent letter after letter, pleading for supplies and more men. He and Bowie also competed for command of the garrison before it was decided that Bowie would command the volunteers and Travis the regular army. On February 9, David Crockett and the 14 other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers (only three were actually from Tennessee) rode into San Antonio. Alarmed by the Mexican army on the outskirts of town, Travis vigorously renewed his pleas for help. His February 24 letter, To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World….I shall never surrender or retreat….Victory or Death! is considered one of the most heart-wrenching pleas ever written. Travis sent the message out with Captain Albert Martin.
The day before, February 23, Santa Anna had reclaimed San Antonio. To the triumphant music of a military band, he took possession of the town, set up headquarters on the main plaza, and began the siege. He had his standard-bearers climb to the top of the bell tower of San Fernando Church and unfurl the scarlet flag of no quarter. Inside the Alamo, Travis and the Texans fired their message to Santa Anna with a blast from their 18-pounder. They had their music, too, with Davy Crockett’s fiddle and John McGregor’s bagpipes. In fact, Davy’s fiddle-playing and outlandish storytelling kept up the spirits of the besieged defenders.
Santa Anna ordered his men to pound the fortifications with cannon and rifle fire for 12 days and nights. His idea was to wear out the defenders inside, giving them no chance for rest or sleep. He reasoned that a weary army would be an easy one to defeat. But the noise worked on his own army, too. Unable to hear clearly through the din, they allowed courier after courier to escape from the Alamo. On March 2, racing through the enemy’s lines, the last group to reinforce the Alamo arrived. These men were the relief force of 32 rangers from Gonzales, the only town to answer Travis’ pleas to send help. The total number of Alamo defenders now stood at between 180 and 190.
At 4 o’clock on the morning of March 6, 1836, Santa Anna advanced his men to within 200 yards of the Alamo’s walls. Just as dawn was breaking, the Mexican bloodcurdling bugle call of the Deguello echoed the meaning of the scarlet flag above San Fernando: no quarter. It was Captain Juan Seguin’s Tejanos, the native-born Mexicans fighting in the Texan army inside the Alamo, who interpreted the chilling music for the other defenders.
Santa Anna’s first charge was repulsed, as was the second, by the deadly fire of Travis’ artillery. At the third charge, one Mexican column attacked near a breach in the north wall, another in the area of the chapel, and a third, the Toluca Battalion, commenced to scale the walls. All suffered severely. Out of 800 men in the Toluca Battalion, only 130 were left alive. Fighting was hand to hand with knives, pistols, clubbed rifles, lances, pikes, knees and fists. The dead lay everywhere. Blood spilled in the convent, the barracks, the entrance to the church, and finally in the rubble-strewn church interior itself. Ninety minutes after it began, it was over.
All the Texans died. Santa Anna’s loss was 1,544 men. More than 500 Mexicans lay wounded, their groans mingling with the haunting strains of the distant bugle calls. Santa Anna airily dismissed the Alamo conquest as a small affair, but one of his officers commented, Another such victory will ruin us.
As many of the Mexican dead as possible were given the rites of the church and buried, but there were so many that there was not sufficient room in the cemetery. Santa Anna ordered all the bodies of the Texans to be contemptuously stacked like cord wood in three heaps, mixed with fuel, wood and dry branches from the neighboring forest, and set on fire–except one. Jose Gregorio Esparza was given a Christian burial because his brother Francisco was a member of General Cós’ presidio guards.
Nearly twenty women and children, who had suffered and survived the bombardment and siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. The best-known Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to Sam Houston and the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.
Six weeks after the Alamo, while the Mexican wounded still languished in San Antonio, Santa Anna met his end at San Jacinto. The men who died inside the walls of the Alamo had bought with their lives the time needed for General Sam Houston to weld a force that won Texas its independence. The great sacrifice would not be forgotten by history, nor would the Alamo’s many legends and stories, most of which can never be proved or disproved because all the defenders died.
Juan Seguin of San Antonio was on a courier mission for Travis when the Alamo fell, but he vowed to one day honor the Alamo dead in a church ceremony, a ceremony that had been denied by Santa Anna. Legend claims that Seguin collected the ashes and placed them in a casket covered with black. Inside the lid, he had the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett engraved. He then buried the casket. Shortly before his death, when he was in his 80s, Juan Seguin stated that he had buried the casket outside the sanctuary railing, near the steps in the old San Fernando Church. In 1936, repair work on the altar railing of the cathedral led to the unearthing of a box containing charred bones, rusty nails, shreds of uniforms and buttons, particles of coal, and crushed skulls. From that discovery arose a controversy that continues to this day. Are they the bones of the Alamo defenders? A small stone coffin containing these remains currently resides in the vestibule of the Cathedral.
Their sacrifice brought Texas independence, which paved the way for expansion to the Pacific and added more than a million square miles to the American nation at that time. And because of their sacrifice, the Alamo is now a shrine respected and revered throughout the world. Remember the Alamo became the battle cry that broke Santa Anna’s back.
I hope you’ll have the opportunity to visit San Antonio and The Alamo. It’s an important and fascinating piece of American history.
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This article was written by Lee Paul and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Wild West Magazine.