In this episode, I discuss perhaps the most famous of all battles, the Alamo.
In previous episodes, I’ve discussed the battles that took place Gonzales, Goliad (La Bahia), and the Siege of Bexar (or San Antonio) which took place from October through December of 1835. I’ve discussed a group of Texans who were very important in the revolution, the Tejanos, the Mexican Texans. Now it’s time to look at the actual battle of the Alamo.
Before I get too much into the actual story, I need to mention that there have been at least 8 movies made about the alamo, with the 1st being produced in 1915. It was a silent movie called Martyrs of the Alamo and it was produced by D.W. Griffith. Now, let’s be honest and fair. Most of the movies about the battle of the Alamo are nonsense. The first of them, the one by D.W. Griffith was total garbage. Griffith, whose contributions to the movie industry cannot be denied, was a well-known white supremacist whose movies all reflected that. Now the 2004 version is probably the most accurate of the movies made about the battle, but even it took what we call literary license with the events that took place, especially in the use of dialogue. So what really happened?
One thing that the movies do get correct is there were some big-name folks who fought there. One of them was David Crockett, from Tennessee, (by the way his actual fiddle is in the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and I once had a chance to hear it played during a recording session that took place in the Alamo Chapel). On different sides of the battle were two men who had once been friends adventurer James Bowie, and Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna.
For a large number of Americans and almost all Texans, the battle for the Alamo has become a symbol of patriotic sacrifice and bravery. The men and women who were in the battle were indeed brave and as I mentioned in the beginning, the traditional popular novels, stage plays, and motion pictures, obscure the actual historical event.
To understand the reality of the battle, we have to look at why San Antonio and the Alamo itself was strategic. Remember how in December 1835 a Federalist army of Texan (or Texian, as they were called) immigrants, American volunteers, and their Tejano allies had captured San Antonio from the Mexican Army, or the Centralist forces that were there during the siege of Bexar. As I said in the episode about the Siege of Bexar after the victory, a majority of the Texan volunteers of the “Army of the People” left service and returned to their families. Even though the siege itself was over many members of the provisional government feared the Centralists would mount a spring offensive. The main issue with that is there were only two main roads leading into Texas from the interior of Mexico.
The first was the Atascosito Road, which stretched from Matamoros on the Rio Grande northward through San Patricio, Goliad, Victoria, and finally into the heart of Austin’s colony. The second was the Old San Antonio Road, a Camino real that crossed the Rio Grande at Paso de Francia (the San Antonio Crossing) and wound northeastward through San Antonio de Béxar, Bastrop, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and across the Sabine River into Louisiana.
Each of these roads were blocked by forts. Presidio La Bahía at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio. Each spot served almost like an early warning system, ready to alert the Texas settlements of any enemy advance. The Bexar garrison, or the Alamo was commanded by James Clinton Neill. While James Walker Fannin, Jr., took over the forces at Goliad. Many of the settlers had returned to home and that meant that some newly arrived American volunteers made up a majority of the troops at Goliad and Bexar. Both Neill and Fannin were determined to stall the Centralists on the frontier and not let them easily move inland, but they were not delusional. Without speedy reinforcements, neither the Alamo nor Presidio La Bahía could withstand a long-term siege.
Neill was the logical choice to lead the forces at Bexar because he had been in the artillery in the regular army and Bexar had about twenty-one artillery pieces. Neill spent most of January trying to fortify the mission and had Maj. Green B. Jameson, chief engineer at the Alamo, install most of the cannons on the walls. With their usual arrogance Jameson boasted to Gen. Sam Houston that if the Mexican forces attacked the Alamo, the defenders could “whip 10 to 1 with our artillery.”
Of course in the long run those types of predictions proved incredibly optimistic and frankly ignorant. Not only was the garrison understaffed they also lacked sufficient provisions. Neill was aware of the overall situation and on January 14 he wrote Houston that his people were in a “torpid, defenseless condition.” At the same time he sent a message to the provisional government: “Unless we are reinforced and victualled, we must become an easy prey to the enemy, in case of an attack.”
As January progressed, Houston began to question the wisdom of even keeping Neill’ s garrison at Bexar. On January 17th, he informed Governor Henry Smith that Col. James Bowie and a company of volunteers had left for San Antonio. There are those historians and casuals researchers who cite this letter as proof that Houston ordered the Alamo abandoned. They’re wrong because they gleefully ignore Houston’s exact words, “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.” In other words, Houston may have wanted to raze the Alamo, but he did not ORDER it and he was clearly requesting Smith’s consent. Ultimately, Smith did not “think well of it” and refused to authorize Houston’ s proposal.
Two days later on January 19, Bowie rode into the Alamo compound, and he was impressed by what he saw. Due to the hard work of the men at the mission it had begun to actually resemble a fort. Neill understood the consequences of leaving the Camino Real unguarded, and he was able to convince Bowie that the Alamo was the only post between the enemy and Anglo settlements. Neill’s arguments and his display of leadership impressed Bowie. He wrote to Smith saying: “I cannot eulogize the conduct & character of Col. Neill too highly, no other man in the army could have kept men at this post, under the neglect they have experienced.” Finally on the 2nd of February Bowie wrote Smith that he and Neill had resolved to “die in these ditches” before they would surrender the post. The letter confirmed Smith’s understanding of the reality of the situation, he believed that Bexar must not go undefended. This information caused Smith to prepare to send additional troops and provisions to San Antonio.
One issue the defenders of San Antonio and the Alamo faced, well in addition to not having enough men was as Colonel Neill said, “for want of horses,” he could not even “send out a small spy company.” What this meant, was that if the Alamo were to indeed fulfill its designed job as an early-warning station, Neill had to have outriders. He needed people who could travel outside the mission and into the surrounding countryside.
Since Smith was now completely committed to enhancing and supporting the Bexar garrison, he order Lt. Col. William B. Travis to take his “Legion of Cavalry”, go to San Antonio, and once there report to Neill. Unfortunately, only thirty horsemen responded to the summons this caused Travis to plead with the Governor to reconsider his orders: He wrote: “I am unwilling to risk my reputation (which is ever dear to a soldier) by going off into the enemy’ s country with such little means, and with them so badly equipped.” Travis threatened to resign his commission, but Smith ignored him and finally Travis obeyed orders and traveled to Bexar with his thirty troopers.
By this time reinforcements had begun to slowly trickle into Bexar. On February 3, Travis and his cavalry reached the Alamo; now while the 26 year-old had initially objected to going to Bexar, like Bowie, he soon became committed to Neill and the fort. He actually began describing the Alamo as “key to Texas.” Sometime on or around February 8th, David Crockett arrived with a group of American volunteers.
About a week after Travis and Crockett arrived at the Alamo Commander Neill had to leave. He returned to Bastrop where illness had struck his family. Even though he was on leave, Neill worked to raise funds for the garrison. He had left Travis in charge and he promised that he would return and resume command as soon as possible. His decision to appoint Travis did not sit well with the Alamo’s defenders who were mostly volunteers and used to selecting their own leaders. Now Neill had been in command since January; and even though he was a regular his decisions had won the respect of both regulars and volunteers. The volunteers, who didn’t know Travis, demanded an election, and Travis complied with their wishes. The vote was split among what we would call party lines: the regulars voted for Travis, the volunteers for Bowie.
In a letter to Smith, Travis claimed that the election and Bowie’s subsequent conduct had placed him in an “awkward situation.” The night following the balloting, Bowie surprised the residents of Bexar with drunken behavior. He tore through the town, confiscated private property and released convicted felons from jail. Travis was taken aback by this and even though Bowie was part of the garrison Travis refused to assume responsibility “for the drunken irregularities of any man”-not even Bowie.
While this could have destroyed the morale of the entire garrison it did not produce a lasting breach between the two. They decided to compromise with Bowie commanding the volunteers and Travis the regulars. Both would co-sign all orders and correspondence until Neill’s return. There was a practical reason for this, they had learned that Santa Anna’s Centralist army had reached the Rio Grande.
Travis initially did not believe that Santa Anna could reach Bexar until March 15, but by February 23 Santa Ana was nearby. The Texans gathered in the Alamo, and Travis sent a hastily scribbled note to Gonzales: “The enemy in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the garrison to the last.” Both Travis and Bowie knew the Alamo could not hold without additional forces. That meant their fate and that of the men with them was in the hands of the General Council in San Felipe, Fannin at Goliad, and other Texan volunteers who might travel to San Antonio to help the vastly outnumbered Bexar garrison.
When Santa Anna sent a courier with a note demanding that the Alamo surrender, Travis replied by firing a cannon. There was no mistake about his response. At this point in time the Mexican artillerymen began firing with the intention of knocking down the Alamo walls. Their belief was that once the walls were reduced to rubble, the garrison would have to surrender. Inside the fort, the Texans only hope was that reinforcements would arrive to break the siege.
Jim Bowie fell sick on February 24 and that put Travis in full command of the garrison. Bowie is thought to have come down with an illness described as either “hasty consumption” or “typhoid pneumonia.” Acting now as the sole commander, Travis wrote his now famous letter that he addressed to the “people of Texas & all Americans in the world.” He told how the fort had “sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours.” He also pledged that he and the defenders would “never surrender or retreat” and swore “Victory or Death.”
The real purpose of the letter was a cry for help. He wrote, “I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch.” There was some positive response, and on March 1, thirty-two troops from Gonzales who were part of Lt. George C. Kimbell’s Gonzales company slipped through the enemy lines and made their way into the Alamo. While grateful, Travis also knew full well that he needed more fighters. So on March 3rd he sent a report to the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos that he had lost faith in the ability of Colonel Fannin to come to his aid. He wrote, “I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it arrives soon, I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms.”
As it seemed that the majority of his fellow Texans were ignoring his appeal he grew increasingly bitter. He wrote to a friend, “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”
The siege continued and on the 12th day on March 5, Santa Anna announced plans for an assault for the next day. His officers were stunned by this decision, because the walls of the fort were crumbling and no relief had appeared. His officers believed that when the provisions ran out, surrender would remain the only option available to those inside the fort.
They believed there was no valid military justification for an attack on a fort that bristled with cannons. Santa Anna ignored his officers and insisted on storming the Alamo. The assault began around 5:00 A.M. on Sunday, March 6, when he ordered his army to attack the fort from four directions. The Texan gunners stood by their artillery and their aim was accurate and the cannon fire deadly. About 1,800 troops advanced into cannon range, and canister after canister tore through their ranks. The sheer amount of devastating cannon and rifle fire, caused the Mexican soldiers to halt, where they then reformed, and moved forward. This time they made it past the defensive perimeter.
Along the north wall Travis was among the first to die. The defenders began to abandon the walls and retreated to the dim rooms of the Long Barracks. It was in the barracks that some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand fighting took place. Bowie, even though he had been ravaged by illness and was unable to get out of his bed was not spared.
The last building to fall was the chapel. The entire assault lasted no more than ninety minutes. Not all the defenders were killed in the initial battle and historians believe that as many as 7 survived. However, Santa Anna ordered them executed. There are many historians who believe that Crockett was among the group who were executed. Regardless, by eight o’clock every Alamo fighting man lay dead. Thre are currently, 189 defenders on the official list of the Alamo dead, but as more research is completed it is believed that the final tally may increase to as many as 257.
Santa Anna’s army won the day, but the price his men paid was high. It is estimated that approximately 600 of his men were either killed or wounded.
After the fighting Mexican officers led several noncombatant women, children, and slaves from the destroyed fort and damaged buildings. Santa Anna promised safe passage through his lines and provided each with a blanket and two dollars. Susanna W. Dickinson, widow of Capt. Almeron Dickinson was the most famous of these survivors and after the battle, she traveled to Gonzales. She reported the fall of the Alamo to General Houston and the news of the fall and Santa Anna’s movement East caused an exodus of Texan settlers called the Runaway Scrape.
So exactly what did the defenders’ fight to the death accomplish? There are movies that say it gave Houston time to gather an army, the reality is he spent most of the siege and battle at the Convention of 1836 at Washington-on-the-Brazos and not with the army. The battle did give the fledgling government the time to form a revolutionary government and draft a constitution.
While there is no doubt that the men of the Alamo were brave soldiers, there is no evidence to support the movie and fictional version that they “joined together in an immortal pact to give their lives that the spark of freedom might blaze into a roaring flame.” The reality is that Governor Smith and the General Council ordered Neill, Bowie, and Travis to hold the fort until support arrived. Which never came. They were not suicidal and throughout the thirteen-day siege, Travis continually called on the government to send support. The provisional government torn by petty jealousies and struggle for power could not and did not deliver on its promise to provide relief. As a result of their ineptitude Travis and his command paid the highest cost imaginable, they paid with their lives.
The sacrifice of Travis and his command did in fact light a fire under the rest of Texas and that fire is what helped Houston’s army finally defeat the army of Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Since 1836, Americans on battlefields over the globe have responded to the exhortation, “Remember the Alamo!” Next episode I’ll follow General Sam Houston and discuss what really happened at San Jacinto, the battle that secured Texas independence from Mexico.
Remember if you want more information on Texas History, visit the Texas State Historical Association. I also have two audiobooks on the Hidden History of Texas one which deals with the 1500s to about 1820, and the other one 1820s to 1830s. You can find the books pretty much wherever you download or listen to audiobooks. Links to all the stores are on my publishers website https://ashbynavis.com.
Stephen L. Hardin, Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994). John H. Jenkins, ed., The Papers of the Texas Revolution, 1835–1836 (10 vols., Austin: Presidial Press, 1973). Walter Lord, A Time to Stand (New York: Harper, 1961; 2d ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978).