The Alamo: A Fight to the Death

On 2 October, 1835, 100 Mexican Troops arrived at the town of Gonzales in Texas to retrieve, a cannon that had been provided for the local townspeople to protect themselves from marauding Indians. Texas was at the time a province of Mexico and because of an increasingly unstable political situation the Governor had decided to remove a deadly piece of ordinance from potentially untrustworthy hands. A militia was hastily formed to resist them and after a short fire-fight that left two Mexicans dead the troops withdrew – the Texan Revolution had begun.

In the years immediately preceding the outbreak of hostilities Texas had witnessed a large influx of American migrants, some of them were genuine settlers, others adventurers, but they were all hungry for land. They were also not willing to be dictated to by a distant and remote power and disobedience of the law was not only widespread but talk of independence from Mexican rule became commonplace.

In no time at all militias were being formed and following the incident at Gonzales many felt that perhaps the Mexicans would not resist any serious an attempt to break away. If so, they had badly misjudged the man who ruled Mexico.

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Antonio de Pedua Maria Severino Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de Lebron, or, the Napoleon of the West as he preferred to call himself, had abolished the Mexican Congress and assumed dictatorial powers. He was a man who revelled in the grandeur of his status and never doubted for a moment his right to it. He now set out to impose his will in every province of the country and those who resisted, or defied him in any way, he was determined to crush.

Following the incident at Gonzales, Santa Anna sent his brother-in-law Martin Perfecto de Cos, with reinforcements to San Antonio de Behar in the hope that their presence would help restore order. Many of these troops were reluctant conscripts however, morale was low and by 16 October, they found themselves surrounded and besieged by a larger force of Texian militia.

In the wake of a number of unsuccessful and costly attempts to break the siege desertions began to mount until finally in early December four companies of cavalry, some 175 men in total, deserted en-masse and with his position increasingly untenable on 11 December, General Cos ordered those troops remaining in the town to surrender.

It was most significant victory so far with more than 100 Mexican troops killed for the loss of just 4 Texians and the fact that within weeks of the defeat at San Antonio de Behar all Mexican forces had been withdrawn from Texas just seemed to reinforce the view that they were not willing to fight.

Santa Anna, however, was merely biding his time concerned as he was that the United States Government was behind an attempt to absorb Texas and he did not want to risk a diplomatic incident or indeed possible direct interference by the U.S Military. In the meantime, he had formed the Army of Operations to restore order by force.

At the town of San Antonio de Behar was a ramshackle old Catholic Mission Station with a Church that had previously been used as a fort known as the Alamo. Although, it was largely derelict the Texians did their best build up its defences.

Little could they have guessed as they dug their trenches and put up ramparts that their little Mission Station would become an epic of heroic sacrifice?

Political moves towards an independent Texas had been led in large part by Steve Austin, a Virginia lawyer who had done more than anyone else to encourage Americans to settle in Texas and to lay the legal framework for the declaration of a Sovereign Republic. But how to do so when Santa Anna refused to negotiate and the United States Government refused to intervene posed a problem. They could fight of course. After all, America had won its independence by force of arms, but they had no army. One had to be formed from scratch.

All they had in the meantime were some hastily formed militias and a handful of volunteers and the task of recruiting, forming, and training an army ready to fight fell to Sam Houston.

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Samuel Houston was a hard drinking, plain speaking Virginia born, ex-Congressman from Tennessee who did not suffer fools easily. He was also an experienced soldier, ambitious, determined, and single-minded.

The Siege of the Alamo itself will be forever associated with the names of three men: David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. Two were legends in their own lifetime the other would become so after his death.

They were very different men who shared no great love for one another but were thrown together as comrades in a life and death struggle which perhaps none of them at the time could have foreseen.

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Davy Crockett was born on 17 August 1786, in East Tennessee to poor parents who carved out a precarious existence in the wilderness and he was to learn the arts of the backwoodsmen hunting, trapping, and skinning animals from an early age.

At the age of thirteen fearing expulsion from the school his father had saved hard to send him to for beating up another boy he ran away from home. He was to stay away for three years and much of his legend was born during this time, as the young boy surviving alone in the wilderness.

In September 1813, he enlisted in the Tennessee Volunteers and served with distinction in the Creek Indian War where his reputation as a brave and audacious man deadly with a musket and ruthless with a knife was only enhanced. Upon his discharge he was promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Tennessee State Militia.

By this time his life was being sensationalised in Dime Novels, some financed by, himself; and a successful stage show based on the story of his life was touring the country and all kinds of heroic deeds were now being accredited him, almost all of them mythical such as being able to ride a lightning bolt, leap the Mississippi in a single bound, or kill a bear in unarmed combat. With his legend firmly fixed in the public imagination a career in politics now beckoned.

In 1826, he was elected to Congress for the first time as Representative for the State of Tennessee. He lost his seat in 1830 but won it back again two years later. Though always much more than the simple backwoodsman he liked to portray himself as he was also a better hero than he was a politician. When it became inevitable that he would lose the forthcoming election he told his constituents: “You may go to Hell, I’m going to Texas, and he did just that, his destination – San Antonio de Behar and The Alamo.

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Jim Bowie, the legendary knife-fighter, was born in Kentucky in 1796, the ninth of ten children whose upbringing unlike Crockett’s was fairly conventional and comfortable with his father a prosperous farmer and slave-owner who ensued that his children were provided with a good education.

Young Jim was both literate and articulate, and could speak French and Spanish fluently. He also befriended the local Indians and learned to hunt, trap, plant, and become proficient in the use of the knife and the gun.

By 1812, the family had settled in Opelousas, Louisiana, and the sixteen year old Jim, had grown to be a resourceful and in many ways unscrupulous young man. In 1818, he and his older brother Rezin developed a relationship with the pirate Jean Laffite for the illicit importation of slaves. This made them both rich and they were to use their money to move into land speculation.

Jim Bowie was a short tempered, hard drinking man ruthless in business who made enemies easily and knew how to hold a grudge. When the Sheriff of Rapides Parish, Louisiana, Norris Wright, who was also a Bank Governor had been instrumental in refusing Bowie a loan he vowed revenge.

They had already had more than one physical altercation when on 19 September, 1827 they both attended a duel on a sandbar just outside Natchez, Mississippi, and though they were not the protagonist they soon would be.

The duel itself ended amicably enough with neither of the competing parties being hurt but a fight soon broke out amongst the attendants, gunfire was exchanged and Bowie was shot in the hip but drawing his knife went for his assailant. Wright seeing this, intervened and hit Bowie so hard over the head he broke his pistol. A stunned Bowie fell to the ground and Wright now fired at him but missed. He then drew his sword cane and thrust it into Bowie’s chest but as he went to remove it from the body of his seemingly helpless opponent Bowie dragged him to the ground and disemboweled him with his knife.

As Bowie rose to his feet with the sword still protruding from his chest he was stabbed and shot again by the now dead Wright’s associates. He miraculously survived.

The fight at the Sandbar made Jim Bowie famous, and the knife he used that day designed by his brother Rezin, with its blade more than 9 inches long and one and a half inches wide, became even more famous.

In 1828, a year after the fight at the Sandbar, Jim Bowie moved to Texas very much a man on the make and was determined to assimilate himself into Mexican society and culture.

As Roman Catholicism was the only permitted religion he converted and in 1830 applied for and received Mexican citizenship. He then married Maria Ursula de Veramendi, the 19 year old daughter of his business partner and by 1832 owned more than 700,000 acres and had an estimated personal fortune of $225,000.

Earlier on 2 September 1831, he set out with his brother Rezin and nine others to find the legendary silver mine of San Saba. On 1 November they were attacked by a party of 150 Indians and in a sustained 13 hour fire fight they killed more than 30 of the hostiles forcing them to withdraw.

News of the attack had leaked back to San Antonio de Behar and no one had expected to see any of the party alive again. When they returned a few days later everyone was astounded.

The incident only served to reinforce Bowie’s reputation as a fierce fighter and a hard man but Jim Bowie was not immune to tragedy. Between the 6th and 14th of September 1832, his wife and young children all died in a cholera epidemic. He had earlier sent them away to what he thought was a place of safety. Traumatised and guilt-ridden the death of his family affected him greatly and he became bitter, ever more aggressive, and was rarely seen sober.

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William Barret Travis, who would command the Texian forces at the Alamo, was born in South Carolina on 9 October 1809, though he was actually raised and educated in Alabama. He was from a comfortable background and had already qualified as a lawyer by the time he was 19.

On 26 October 1828, he married Rosanna Cato but the marriage was not a success and early in 1831 he abandoned his wife and two young children and fled to Texas.

Believing himself the quintessential southern gentleman, though his behaviour thus far would appear to indicate otherwise as would the detailed diary of his sexual exploits he kept prodigiously updated, he was an arrogant and pompous man with a high opinion of himself that was shared by few who knew him.

In January 1835, he was commissioned Lieutenant-Colonel in the Texian Cavalry, the problem was there wasn’t a Texian Cavalry and he soon found himself responsible for finding people to serve in one. By the time of the outbreak of hostilities with Mexico he had built it into a force of 384 Officers and men.

In 1835, the Alamo was garrisoned by fewer than 100 men and provided a weak defensive position considered to be of little or no strategic significance. It did, though, have 19 cannon, and Sam Houston, in command of the Texian Army who had neither the men nor resources to sufficiently reinforce the Alamo, did want the cannons. He sent Jim Bowie with 30 men to dismantle the Mission and bring away the guns. The Alamo’s Commander Colonel James Neill argued vehemently that the Alamo stood directly in the way of Santa Anna’s march into the heart of Texas. Defending it would buy valuable time for Sam Houston.

On 3 February, Travis arrived at the Alamo with 25 soldiers of the Texian Army. Five days later to great fanfare Davy Crockett turned up with 14 men of the Tennessee Mounted Rifles.

On 11 February, Colonel Neill announced that he had to leave his post temporarily to sort out some legal problems at home and handed over command to Travis as the senior ranking Officer remaining at the Mission.

The volunteers however refused to serve under Travis and elected Jim Bowie to lead them. Bowie immediately celebrated his election by getting drunk with his men and going on the rampage in nearby San Antonio de Behar. The always sober Travis deplored Bowie’s behaviour and told him so.

There had always been a great deal of friction between the two men, Travis considering Bowie a lout, Bowie considering Travis a pompous dandy. No doubt Bowie would have been willing to sort out their differences man-to-man, Travis no doubt thought otherwise, so they instead agreed to joint-command of the Alamo.

Any internal disputes and personal rancour became secondary when to everyone’s surprise on 23 February, 1,500 troops of the Mexican Army closed in on San Antonio de Behar and panic ensued as Travis ordered the abandonment of the town and surrounding area.

His troops, gathering up their belongings and some their families retreated into the Alamo.

Later that same day the Mexicans raised the ‘Bloody Flag.’

Santa Anna had declared all those in a state of rebellion in Texas to be pirates and outside the normal rules of war. There would be no quarter given. In response, Travis ordered the firing of the Alamo’s largest cannon.

A furious Jim Bowie, who knew the Mexican Army’s senior commanders and had been trying to negotiate a settlement, believed Travis had acted hastily and confronted him over the issue. When he was informed however, that Santa Anna would only accept unconditional surrender and that the treatment of prisoners would be at his discretion, he stood firmly by Travis.

The following day, Travis wrote his famous Open Letter to the People of Texas and all Americans in the World:

“Fellow citizens and compatriots – I am besieged, by a thousand or more Mexicans under Santa Anna – I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken – I have answered that command with a cannon shot and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of liberty and patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his honour and that of his country – Victory or Death.”

It is estimated that there were 189 defenders at the Alamo most of whom originated from the Southern States but 34 also came from overseas including 27 from Britain. Only 9 could be described as natives of Texas and most of these were of Mexican descent. Almost all were volunteers.

For the first few days of the siege there was very little activity except for a near continual bombardment. At first Travis answered like with like but then decided to conserve his ammunition for what he knew would be the inevitable assault.

At times he would call upon Crockett’s Tennesseans to fire upon the Mexican lines. Such was their accuracy of shot that he considered it to be as good as any artillery bombardment.

On 24 February, Jim Bowie was confined to his bed suffering from tuberculosis Travis in sole command.

Later in the day the Texians made a sortie from the walls to force 200 Mexicans who had taken shelter in some nearby huts to withdraw. The huts were then burned.

Travis was constantly sending out couriers with messages pleading for assistance and news of the siege quickly spread. Volunteers began to gather in Gonzales hoping to join up with Colonel James Fannin. He was garrisoned at Goliad some 90 miles from the Alamo with 450 men and it was expected that he would embark on a mission to relieve the Alamo.

On 26 February, he ordered 320 men with 4 cannon to march for the Mission Station but they had travelled no more than a mile from Goliad when Fannin revoked the order and they were forced to return. The men in Gonzales unaware of this continued to the Alamo arriving on 27 February, all 32 of them. Travis could barely disguise his disappointment.

It was becoming increasingly clear to Travis that there would be no Relief Column and he had earlier sent Crockett on a scouting mission to see if there were any signs that Fannin was on his way, there was none. He had maintained morale by telling the garrison that Sam Houston would not allow them to die in the Alamo. He now had to face the reality, and so would his men.

Aware that most of his men were volunteers on the afternoon of 5 March, Travis ordered them to assemble where he informed them that no reinforcement was likely, that an attack was imminent, a Mexican victory inevitable, and that no quarter would be given. He then drew a line in the sand and said that any man who wished to remain with him at the Alamo should cross the line. Those who wished to make their escape as best they could, would be allowed to do so without recrimination. Only one man refused to cross the line, Louis ‘Moses’ Rose, an illiterate Frenchman who spoke barely a word of English and was a veteran of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. He was to later escape over the Alamo’s walls before the final battle began and has been known ever since as the coward of the Alamo.

Later that day Travis sent his last courier, James Allen, little more than a boy, with dispatches and letters from the men to their families.

At 05.30 on 6 March, whilst it was still dark, the Mexican Army began its assault on the Alamo.

The Texian sentries posted outside the walls had their throats cut as they slept before suddenly the garrison were awoken by cries of Viva Santa Anna! Viva Mexico! Despite being ordered not to do so.

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Travis rushed to his post shouting as he did so “Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us, let’s give them hell.” As he passed his Mexican volunteers he said “No rendirse, muchachos” (No surrender, boys).

The Texians loaded their cannon as quick as they could and with anything they could find, nails, bolts, horse shoes. It all made for effective grapeshot, good at close range.

Travis, however, was one of the first men to die when leaning over the wall to fire upon the advancing Mexicans he was killed by a single bullet to the head.

The fighting was fierce as the Texians pushed away the Mexican scaling ladders and forced those already on the walls to retreat, and with little time to reload much of the fighting was hand-to-hand. Even so, the Texians repulsed not just one but two Mexican assaults. But they quickly regrouped and attacked again.

The simple fact was the Texians did not have the manpower to effectively defend all of the ramparts and as casualties mounted gaps began to appear and the Mexicans soon began to flood into the Alamo’s interior and as had been agreed earlier once the walls were breached the Texians withdrew to the barracks and the Chapel for a last stand.

Those who could not reach the inner-defences now began to try and flee, some made for the San Antonio River, others for the East Prairie but Santa Anna had ringed the Alamo with 500 cavalry with the express purpose of preventing any such attempt to escape. The fleeing men were cut down and killed.

The last group still defending the outer-walls were Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans.

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The accuracy of their fire had taken a terrible toll on the advancing Mexicans but now with no time to reload they were reduced to using their rifles as clubs and fighting with knives. It was a desperate struggle, but by now the battle was quickly nearing its denouement.

Meanwhile, Jim Bowie, barely conscious, was propped up in his bed against the wall. As the Mexican troops burst into his room he fired the pistols that had been placed in his hands and was bayoneted to death as he reached for his famous knife. An eyewitness said that they thrust the bayonets so hard and deep into his body that they were able to lift him up by them.

The Battle for the Alamo, with little organised defence remaining, had descended into a massacre. Many Texians fought on, others tried to flee, and some tried to surrender, all were killed and such was the fury and bloodlust of the Mexicans that they continued to fire at and bayonet the bodies of the Texians long after they were dead.

Some now believe that Davy Crockett and a small number of his Tennesseans were taken prisoner and executed after the battle on the express orders of Santa Anna; and that after pleading for the life of his men and it becoming evident that his pleas would be ignored he faced his death with fortitude and courage.

A former slave named Ben however, who was working as a cook in the Mexican Army, reported seeing the body of Davy Crockett amidst the bodies of numerous of his foes.

It had been a desperate and bloody struggle but now it was all over.

There were just a handful of survivors.

One was believed to be Henry Wardell, who escaped over the wall during the assault and managed to hide long enough to make his escape.

Another was Brigido Guerrero, a deserter from the Mexican Army who had joined Juan Seguin’s volunteers. He had locked himself in one of the Alamo’s cells and made out to the invading troops that he had earlier been taken prisoner.

A number of women and children, who had been hiding in the Sacristy, also survived. Among these were Jim Bowie’s two sisters-in-law and Susanna Dickinson (the wife of Almaron Dickinson, one of the last to die in the fighting) and her daughter.

She was to be one of the more reliable witnesses to events, until the bottle took hold of her in later life.

Both Bowie’s slave Sam, and Travis’s slave Joe, were also spared.

Santa Anna, who had shown little respect for the fallen enemy denying them a Christian burial and instead having the bodies piled in heaps and burned was at least more gracious towards the survivors and after interviewing each one provided them with a blanket, two silver pesos, and had them escorted from the camp.

Some 220 Texians had been killed at the Alamo. Mexican casualties were probably not as high as legend suggests but even so are believed to have been around 250, though no precise figure exists, which suited Santa Anna for as he saw it the more blood spilt the greater the victory.

News of the Alamo’s fall shook the Texian confidence in ultimate victory and worse news was to follow when less than three weeks later the man who had failed to come to the Alamo’s assistance, James Fannin, now found himself in his own life and death struggle. He had been forced to withdraw from Goliad but during his march north had been caught in the open and attacked by a superior Mexican army. Having suffered around 150 casualties unlike the defenders of the Alamo he decided to negotiate surrender. Believing that he had secured an assurance that none of his men would be harmed they laid down their arms.

On 27 March, Palm Sunday, 1836, the 342 survivors of his force, including Fannin himself, were marched back into Goliad and executed.

In what now became known as the “Runaway Scrape”, Sam Houston withdrew all his forces to avoid any contact with Santa Anna’s army. He also gave up most of Texas in doing so.

As far as Santa Anna was concerned the war was as good as won and he became complacent. The ambitious, determined Houston was just waiting for the right time to strike, however.

At around 17.00 on 21 April 1836, Sam Houston ordered his army, some 900 men, to attack the Mexican encampment across open ground in broad daylight. It was brave and it was audacious, but Houston knew that the Mexicans would be taking their siesta. He was right.

Some of the Mexican troops were washing their clothes in the river many more were asleep, whilst the Officers were taking the opportunity to spend a little more time with their wives. Santa Anna, who had posted no guards, was taken completely by surprise.

What was to become known as the Battle of San Jacinto was a massacre as bloody and brutal as anything that had occurred at the Alamo and Goliad as with cries of Remember the Alamo! And Remember Goliad! On their lips the Texians fought like furies.

The fighting, for what it was, was all over in 18 minutes but the bloodletting continued for a long time after with more than 600 Mexicans killed most after surrendering, 730 captured, and the remainder fleeing. The Texians had lost just 9 dead and 30 wounded.

Santa Anna who had shed his grand uniform for that of a private soldier was recognised when captured he was brought to the camp and saluted by his troops. His silk underwear only confirmed his identity. Taken before Sam Houston he said:

“That man may consider himself born to no common destiny who has conquered the Napoleon of the West; and now it remains for him to be generous to the vanquished.”

To which Houston replied:

“You should have remembered that at the Alamo.”

Despite Houston’s men screaming for Santa Anna to be hanged, his life was spared. Houston needed him to negotiate a proper legal separation of Texas from Mexico.

Texas had its Martyrs, its Myth, now it had its freedom, and its first President would be Sam Houston.

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