On March 6, 1836, at San Antonio de Bexar (today San Antonio, Texas) a Mexican army of 6,000 overwhelmed the fortress known as the Alamo defended by about 188 Texans; all were either killed in battle or captured and executed, under the order of Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. From that day on, the Texan defenders became immortalized in history. And myth, legend, and romanticized embellishment and fabrication.
Like other events of Western Americana, we know generally what happened. Details, however, have become intertwined with myth. Even the factual details get muddled by differences among sources.
San Antonio de Valero was originally a Spanish mission established in 1724.
In the early 1800s, the Spanish soldiers stationed at the fortress referred to the old mission as the Alamo (the Spanish word for “cottonwood”) in honor of their hometown Alamo de Parras, Coahuila.
On December 21, 1835, Colonel James C. Neill received orders to take command at San Antonio de Béxar. The garrison consisted of about 100 men.
On January 14, Neill approached Sam Houston, for assistance in gathering supplies, clothing, and ammunition. Houston could not spare the number of men necessary to mount a successful defense.
On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, the commander of the revolutionary troops, could not spare the number of men necessary to mount a successful defense. Instead, he sent Colonel James Bowie with 30 men to remove the artillery from the Alamo and destroy the complex.
Houston had begun to question the wisdom of maintaining Neill’s garrison at Bexar. He informed Governor Henry Smith that Col. James Bowie and a company of volunteers had left for San Antonio. Many have cited this letter as proof that Houston ordered the Alamo abandoned. Yet, Houston’s words reveal the truth of the matter:
“I have ordered the fortifications in the town of Bexar to be demolished, and, if you should think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers, the sooner I can be authorized the better it will be for the country.”
Houston may have wanted to raze the Alamo, but he was clearly requesting Smith’s consent. Ultimately, Smith did not “think well of it” and refused to authorize Houston’ s proposal.
On January 19, Bowie arrived to investigate the military situation for Governor Henry Smith and General Sam Houston. Neill soon persuaded Bowie that the location held strategic importance.
In a letter to Governor Henry Smith, Bowie argued that “the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Béxar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet [picket] guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine.” The letter to Smith ended, “Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.” Bowie also wrote to the provisional government, asking for “men, money, rifles, and cannon powder”.
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. 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.
On February 2 (another source says February 3) Few reinforcements were authorized; Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis arrived with 30 men.
On February 9 former Congressman David Crockett and the 14 other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers (only three were actually from Tennessee) arrived in San Antonio de Béxar.
On February 11, Neill left the Alamo, likely to recruit additional reinforcements and gather supplies. He transferred command to Travis, the highest-ranking regular army officer in the garrison.
On February 14 Travis and Bowie agreed to share command at San Antonio de Béxar after Colonel Neill received a temporary leave of absence.
Volunteers comprised much of the garrison, and they were unwilling to accept Travis as their leader. The men instead elected Bowie, who had a reputation as a fierce fighter, as their commander. Bowie celebrated by getting very intoxicated and creating havoc in Béxar. To mitigate the resulting ill feelings, Bowie agreed to share command with Travis.
Hollywood generally portrayed Travis as a fussy, formal martinet. True, Travis was an educated gentleman of his time; contrasted with Bowie’s ribald character. Records indicated the election was not a contest of personalities. The citizen volunteers simply preferred to be commanded by one of their own. Travis was a regular army officer. The volunteers respected Travis as an able commander.
On February 23 General Antonio López de Santa Anna and the Centralist (Mexican) forces arrived and 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.
February 24, 1836 Bowie fell ill, was bed ridden, and full command passed to Travis.
Badly outnumbered, Travis sent out riders asking for reinforcements.Alarmed by the Mexican army on the outskirts of town, Travis vigorously renewed his pleas for help. His 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.
On March 2, racing through the enemy’s lines, the last group to reinforce the Alamo arrived. These men were the relief force 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.
On March 5, day twelve of the siege, Santa Anna announced an assault for the following day. This sudden declaration stunned his officers. The enemy’s walls were crumbling. No Texan relief column had appeared. When the provisions ran out, surrender would remain the rebels’ only option. There was simply no valid military justification for the costly attack on a stronghold bristling with cannons. But ignoring these reasonable objections, Santa Anna stubbornly insisted on storming the Alamo.
According to legend, with the possibility of additional help fading, Colonel Travis drew a line on the ground and asked any man willing to stay and fight to step over and all except one did. He was Louis Rose. (Susannah Dickinson would later misidentify him as “Ross.”) It was Rose who related the story of Travis drawing a line in the dirt with his sword and asking those who were willing to stand, and die, with him to cross the line. All but Rose crossed the line. When asked years later why he didn’t cross the line, he replied, “By God, I wasn’t ready to die!”
That night Rose slipped over the walls and started working his way through enemy lines. He spoke fluent Spanish, which served him well. He wandered for weeks, dodging Mexican patrols and sleeping on the ground. Finally, he turned up at the home of William P. Zuber in Grimes County, asking for a meal and a chance to rest. He had traveled almost two hundred miles.
As an Alamo survivor, he frequently was asked to verify claims of the heirs of Alamo defenders who were trying to collect land for a deceased family member’s service to Texas. Whenever someone approached him regarding the Battle of the Alamo, he would tell them honestly that he was the “coward of the Alamo”.
Records show that Louis Rose was in fact at the Alamo. Mrs. Dickinson said that Travis did gather his men and excused any man who wished to leave. She did not mention a line in the sand, though Travis could have done so.
Juan Nepomuceno Seguin was born in Bexar (San Antonio), Texas. He was proud to join the Texas Revolution and became the leader of 24 Tejanos who were in favor of a rebellion. These same 24 would perish in the Battle of the Alamo. Seguin escaped that fate as it occurred while he was in Gonzalez trying to recruit volunteers to go to the aid of the Alamo defenders. When he returned, the battle was over and all the defenders were dead. Seguin would later avenge and vindicate his men at San Jacinto.
On March 6, around 5:00 A.M. about 1,800 assault troops advanced into range, canister ripped through their ranks.
Staggered by the concentrated cannon and rifle fire, the Mexican soldiers halted, reformed, and drove forward. Soon they were past the defensive perimeter. Travis, among the first to die, fell on the north bastion. Abandoning the walls, defenders withdrew to the dim rooms of the Long Barracks. There some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand fighting occurred. Bowie, too ravaged by illness to rise from his bed, found no pity. The chapel fell last. By dawn the Centralists had carried the works. The assault had lasted no more than ninety minutes. As many as seven defenders survived the battle, but Santa Anna ordered their summary execution. Many historians count Crockett as a member of that hapless contingent, an assertion that still provokes debate in some circles. By eight o’clock every Alamo fighting man lay dead. Currently, 189 defenders appear on the official list, but ongoing research may increase the final tally to as many as 257.
On March 6, Travis’ final request of help (dated March 3) reached the convention. Houston, who had been reconfirmed in his role of commanding-general of the Texas Army, told his fellow delegates to continue their important work and that he would help the men of the Alamo.
Santa Anna spared only a small number of the fort’s inhabitants from death; these included Susanna Dickinson and her infant daughter, Angelina, and Bowie’s slave known only as Joe.
According to Mrs. Dickinson:
“There were eighteen guns mounted on the fortifications, and these, with our riflemen, repulsed with great slaughter two assaults upon them before the final one. At this moment a Mexican officer came into the room, and addressing me in English, asked: “Are you Mrs. Dickinson?’ I answered “Yes.’ Then said he, ‘If you wish to save your life, follow me.’ I followed him, and although shot at and wounded, was spared. “I recognized Col. Crockett lying dead and mutilated between the church and the two story barrack building, and even remember seeing his peculiar cap lying by his side.
“Col. Bowie was sick in bed and not expected to live, but as the victorious Mexicans entered his room, he killed two of them with his pistols before they pierced him through with their sabres.
“Col. Travis and Bonham were killed while working the cannon, the body of the former lay on the top of the church.
“In the evening the Mexicans brought wood from the neighboring forest and burned the bodies of all the Texans, but their own dead they buried in the city cemetery across the San Pedro [creek].”
Mrs. Dickinson apparently could neither read nor write, therefore, all of her accounts of the battle were written down by other people.
Bowie’s slave known only as “Joe” and also illiterate was interviewed and transcribed:
“The enemy twice applied their scaling ladders to the walls, and were twice beaten back. Bowie is said to have fired through the door of his room, from his sick bed. He was found dead and mutilated where he lay. Crockett and a few of his friends were found together, with twenty-four of the enemy dead around them. The negroes, for there were several negroes and women in the fort, were spared. Only one woman was killed, and Joe supposes she was shot accidentally, while attempting to cross the Alamo. She was found lying between two guns. ”
Nearly twenty women and children, who experienced the twelve days of siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.
As many as seven defenders survived the battle, but Santa Anna ordered their summary execution. Many historians count Crockett as a member of that hapless contingent, an assertion that still provokes debate in some circles. By eight o’clock every Alamo fighting man lay dead. Currently, 189 defenders appear on the official list, but ongoing research may increase the final tally to as many as 257.
On March 11 Houston and his staff arrived at Gonzales on where he found a relief party already gathered. Within hours of reaching the town, however, word of the Alamo’s fall arrived.
In March-May 1836 the Alamo was reoccupied by Centralist forces.
May-June1836 – Centralist forces are ordered out of Texas following Santa Anna’s capture at the Battle of San Jacinto – the Alamo’s fortifications are destroyed by the Centralist garrison.
On June 4 Juan Seguín accepted the Mexican surrender of San Antonio on June 4, 1836, and served as the city’s military commander through the fall of 1837; during this time he directed burial services for the remains of the Alamo dead. The coffin with the collected ashes are said to be interned at the San Fernando Cathedral. This is disputed by some. (In my own opinion, as the Mexican casualties were buried—not cremated—the casket of recovered ash and charred body parts at the Alamo belonged to somebody. If not the defenders, then who?)
What of real military value did the defenders’ heroic stand accomplish? Movies and other works of fiction pretend that Houston used the time to raise an army. During most of the siege, however, he was at the Convention of 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos and not with the army. The delay did, on the other hand, allow promulgation of independence, formation of a revolutionary government, and the drafting of a constitution. If Santa Anna had struck the Texan settlements immediately, he might have disrupted the proceedings and driven all insurgents across the Sabine River.
The men of the Alamo were valiant soldiers, but no evidence supports the notion that they “joined together in an immortal pact to give their lives that the spark of freedom might blaze into a roaring flame.” Governor Smith and the General Council ordered Neill, Bowie, and Travis to hold the fort until support arrived. Despite all the “victory or death” hyperbole, they were not suicidal. Throughout the thirteen-day siege, Travis never stopped calling on the government for the promised support. The defenders of the Alamo willingly placed themselves in harm’s way to protect their country. Death was a risk they accepted, but it was never their aim.
The provisional government could not deliver on its promise to provide relief, and Travis and his command paid the cost of that dereliction. Even stripped of chauvinistic exaggeration, however, the battle of the Alamo remains an inspiring moment in Texas history.
The original Alamo mission was a dilapidated adobe building before the battle. It was little more than rubble afterward, and locals scavenged that for building material. The preserved building that is a shrine in San Antonio today is an embellished reconstruction with little if any original features.