“I shall never surrender or retreat.” – William Barret Travis at the Alamo
When Lt. Col. Travis wrote this in a letter addressed to the people of Texas, he was facing anywhere from 1800 – 6000 Mexican troops led by their charismatic and unforgiving general, Santa Anna. Travis’ own troops numbered a mere 189. The Alamo defenders asked Sam Houston for reinforcements but he had his own problems to deal with. Houston and his small band of troops were at present no match for a decisive battle with the Mexican Army so he continued to retreat. He had no idea if his ragtag Texas Army would completely disintegrate during his continual retreating across Texas. Col. Travis and his small band of men were on their own and would go down fighting until the last man.
5. The Battle of the Alamo did not need to take place
On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston instructed militia colonel Jim Bowie to remove the canon and “blow up the Alamo.” But Houston couldn’t control Bowie any better than he controlled the rest of the army. When Bowie reached Béxar, he discovered that Green Jameson, the chief engineer under commander James C. Neill, had converted the old mission compound into what he proudly called Fortress Alamo. Jameson acknowledged that the garrison needed more men, but stated, “we heard of 1000 to 1500 men of the enemy being on their march to this place . . .in case of an attack we will move all into the Alamo and whip 10 to 1 with our artillery.”
Bowie took orders as recommendations, and now he disregarded Houston’s directive entirely. Bowie, writing to the Texas Governor, Henry Smith, expressed his desire to hold the Alamo. Governor Smith then vetoed Houston’s command. Houston had no recourse against this ill-conceived and disingenuous judgment. Smith and the General Council couldn’t agree on the smallest matters, let alone where the defense of Texas ought to begin, and without the support of the civilian officials, Houston couldn’t enforce his views regarding military strategy.
Every few days Bowie, Jameson, or Neill wrote to Houston, Smith, or the council pleading for reinforcements. In his book, Exodus from the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth, Phillip Thomas Tucker thinks Houston’s unwillingness to send relief to the Alamo may have been from his chronic drunkenness (and likely opium stupefaction). He also considers part of his reluctance as a way for him and other politicians in Washington-on-the-Brazos to remove from the scene several political rivals, Crockett foremost.
4. Col. Travis meets Jim Bowie
Governor Smith ordered Lieutenant Colonel William Travis to join Bowie and the others at the Alamo. Travis asked for five hundred men to accompany him; Smith said he could have one hundred and would have to raise those himself. Travis mustered three dozen from his own pocket. Perhaps deciding that his reputation as a soldier would suffer from refusing this assignment, Travis reluctantly headed towards San Antonio with his small company.
Travis’ mood would get worse when he discovered he ranked below Commander James C. Neill. Neill nominally commanded the entire garrison but in reality controlled only those soldiers who had enlisted in the regular army or the organized volunteers. About half the garrison was made up of individuals who had never enlisted in anything and who followed Bowie, a man after their own independent hearts. Bowie got along with Neill but refused to defer to Travis, who inherited the regular command when a family illness called Neill away. The result was a split in the garrison, with the enlisted men following Travis and the volunteers, Bowie.
Things were even more complicated by Bowie’s irrational behavior. Travis complained to Governor Smith, “He has been roaring drunk all the time, has assumed all command, and is proceeding in a most disorderly and irregular manner. If I did not feel my honor and that of my country compromised, I would leave here instantly.” Eventually Bowie sobered up and agreed to share command with Travis. This tense situation was solved by three events: the advance of the Mexican army, Bowie’s illness just before the battle and the arrival of Davy Crockett.
3. “You can all go to Hell, I’m going to Texas!” – Davy Crockett
Where do we even start with this character? Davy Crockett was born in Tennessee and ran away from home at age 13. He joined the Tennessee militia at 27 and fought in the Creek Indian War and then later in the War of 1812. Crockett soon discovered he would rather kill bears instead of Indians and began stalking black bears in the woods of Tennessee and selling their pelts, meat and oil for profit. Supposedly he once killed a bear in pitch-black darkness by stabbing it in the heart with a butcher knife.
In 1826, Crockett was elected to the first of three non-consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He alienated many of his constituents with his fierce opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and his feud with Jackson would eventually play a key role in his final election defeat in 1835. Crockett had grown bored in Washington and was usually absent from his duties. In fact, during six years in Congress, he failed to get a single bill passed.
Despite their political differences, Crockett famously came to President Andrew Jackson’s aid during an assassination attempt in 1835. A crazed gunman named Richard Lawrence emerged from a throng of spectators one day and shot at Jackson with two pistols, both of which miraculously misfired. “Old Hickory” supposedly responded by whacking Lawrence with his cane. Crockett, meanwhile, was one of several bystanders who disarmed the would-be assassin and wrestled him to the ground. Shortly after losing his final bid for Congress in 1835, Crockett quit politics and drifted west, famously telling his former constituents “you may all go to hell, I’m going to Texas.”
Crockett arrived at the Alamo on February 8, 1836 with about 5 other men. Crockett’s dynamic and energetic personality played a big part in motivating the defenders at the Alamo. He played a role in smoothing over the tensions between Travis and Bowie but refused offers by the volunteers to take on a formal leadership role. According to reports, during the first bombardment Crockett was everywhere in the Alamo “animating the men to do their duty.” Other reports told of the deadly fire of his rifle that killed five Mexican gunners in succession, as they each attempted to fire a cannon bearing on the fort, and that he may have just missed Santa Anna, who thought himself out of range of all the defenders’ rifles. One of the survivors of the Alamo, Susanna Dickinson, recalled Crockett entertaining the garrison defenders on his violin, though he also had his fatalistic moments. “I think we had better march out and die in the open air,” Mrs. Dickinson reported Crockett as saying. “I don’t like to be hemmed up.”
There is some dispute about how Crockett died at the Alamo. Susanna Dickinson said Crockett was one of the earliest to fall. Joe, Travis’s slave and the only male Texan to survive the battle, reported seeing Crockett lying dead with slain Mexicans around him and stated that only one man, named Warner, surrendered to the Mexicans (Warner was taken to Santa Anna and promptly shot). Enrique Esparza, who was 8 years old during the Alamo siege, remembered Crockett, not Travis, who was effectively in charge of the garrison and even calls the men together on the last day of the siege to inform them of Santa Anna’s unacceptable terms for surrender.
The publication in 1975 of the diary of Lt. José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican soldier at the Alamo, says Crockett and five or six others were captured when the Mexican troops took the Alamo at about six o’clock that morning, even though Santa Anna had ordered that no prisoners be taken. The general, infuriated when some of his officers brought the Americans before him to try to intercede for their lives, ordered them executed immediately. They were bayoneted and then shot. Crockett’s reputation and that of the other survivors was not, as some have suggested, sullied by their capture. Their dignity and bravery was, in fact, further underscored by Peña’s recounting that “these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers.”
2. The Battle itself
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, who interpreted the chilling music for the other defenders.
The Mexican Army’s first charge was repulsed, as was the second, by the deadly fire of Travis’ artillery. On 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 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.
1. It inspired the Texans to win the following Battle of San Jacinto
For the Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became a symbol of heroic resistance and a rallying cry in their struggle for independence. On April 21, 1836 Houston led his 783 troops in an attack on Santa Anna’s force of nearly twice that number near the confluence of Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. With the famous cry, “Remember the Alamo,” the Texans stormed the surprised Mexican forces. After a brief attempt at defense, the Mexican soldiers broke into a disorganized retreat, allowing the Texans to isolate and slaughter them in a stunning victory. Only two Texans were killed and 30 wounded.
Sam Houston’s army succeeded in killing or capturing nearly the entire Mexican force. Houston had three horses shot out from under him and had his left ankle shattered by a musket ball. As the afternoon turned to evening, the Texans led columns of Mexican prisoners into camp, but there was no sign of Santa Anna. The next day, Santa Anna was discovered hiding in tall grass. Dirty and wet, he was wearing a Mexican private’s blouse, but Mexican prisoners recognized him as he was led to where the wounded Texas general was lying at the base of a large live oak, in considerable pain from his ankle. “El Presidente!” they gasped as the dictator passed by.
Waking from an opiated nap, Houston raised up on one elbow and greeted Santa Anna courteously. The general took a seat on a black box and asked for a bit of opium for himself. The two men chatted the rest of the afternoon. “Pleasantly teased by their hits of opium,” historian Jeff Long writes, “the Anglo-Saxon chieftain and the Hispanic caudillo set up the continental chessboard in positions that would still be playing out a century and a half later.” The victory ensured the success of Texan independence: In mid-May, Santa Anna signed a peace treaty at Velasco, Texas, in which he recognized Texas’ independence in exchange for his freedom.