The Battle of the Alamo

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

We tend to think of the "Old West" as the years between the Civil War and 1900, but I would suggest it actually began several decades earlier when Spain's grip on its New World empire slipped away in the 1820s. The vast territories of New Spain, including a quarter of what is now the continental United States, were suddenly ruled by a Mexico that was hardly prepared to manage its new wealth and power.

Even Spain had hardly penetrated that vast area in the three hundred years of the empire. Lonely missions and villages were isolated by hundreds or thousands of hard, rocky miles from the government in Mexico City. The authorities were terrified of foreign incursion and the difficulty of defending their vast domain. Only a few padres and traders were out there with the savage Comanche and Apache and Kiowa, who had been a fearsome resistance to their presence. Spain had tried in vain to impress its religion and culture on those Stone Age nomads for over a hundred years. Their few missions were built like forts. Constant warfare existed between the tribes and the few but increasing number of white settlers. Santa Fe stood alone near the far north as one of the few contacts with traders from the east and north.

With the Mexican Revolution came the turmoil of establishing a new government. Unlike America to the north, Mexico lacked the good fortune to have brilliant men who could both wage a successful war and build a lasting democracy. Two political factions emerged by 1830: Centrists, who believed in a central government that controlled from the capital, and the Federalists, who favored a decentralized government (modern history has extreme examples of these two concepts of government). Obviously, the wealthy preferred the former, which they could control and count on to protect their interests; the peasantry dreamed of a government in which they could participate and perhaps improve their impoverished life. After all, they had seen that very thing happen in their neighbor to the north.

Few leaders emerged during the tumultuous years following the Spanish expulsion – except Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who was to prove one of Mexico’s most disastrous leaders and set a precedent for decades of oppressive leadership.. There is little to recommend him: vain, charismatic, cruel, treacherous, cowardly, Santa Anna, ever the opportunist, originally had fought for the Spanish in the rebellion, but craftily changed his allegiance when he saw the impending outcome. Gaining a generalship with the new government, he was in a position to place himself into the presidency in 1833 under the guise of a Federalist. Once elected, he quickly showed his true colors, abolished the 1824 Constitution and became first a political and then a military dictator of Mexico, including all that land to the north.

Meanwhile, the well-known Texas rebellion grew unabated, as the Texians (Anglo settlers) filibustered the land and engaged both the Comanche and the Mexican government. Santa Anna knew he had to act quickly. The Mexican Army had been driven from Texas once already and he felt he must reclaim the lost territory. The outcome was the infamous Battle of the Alamo and his subsequent humiliating defeat at San Jacinto. The Battle of the Alamo has been burned into the American memory since early March, 1836. Though it was an unnecessary, even foolish, battle that should not have happened, it sparked the Texas Revolution as surely as the colonial farmers sparked the American Revolution at that bridge in Concord, two thousand miles away and some 60 years earlier.

There is no excuse for the myths that have developed around the Battle of the Alamo, for the battle has been well documented. Hollywood and fiction writers have had their way with the telling of the story, needlessly so; the truth is as interesting as any myth.

For one used to the compact California Missions, the Texas Missions are a surprise. The church was located along one side or corner of an enclosure facing into an enormous area of four to five acres; the exterior walls rise to a defensive eight to ten feet or more. The Mission San Antonio de Valero – the Alamo – was never even finished, even though it had been used as a military post since its abandonment by the church in the 1790s, just as the California Missions were beginning. The exterior walls had been fortified after a fashion with emplacements for small cannon and the interior barracks were fitted with firing ports.

A close look at the Mission's familiar façade reveals a change in the size of the stones in the wall's construction. The larger ones show the outline of the front of the church at the time of the battle; the current, well-known profile was added later by the U. S. Army when the Mission was used as a supply depot after Texas became part of the United States.

The siege mentality of the day led to the walled enclosure being viewed as a place of defense against Santa Anna's advancing army. The Mission building we call the Alamo was only a tiny part of the massive defensive structure in those fateful days. One can only imagine the vast courtyard in front of the church, the original dimensions now obscured by today’s business and government buildings facing the Mission across a wide plaza. Aside from the tactical impossibility of defending against Santa Anna's thousands, the mere 189 defenders were defeated by the very size of their defensive perimeter – it was said that a thousand men could not have held it.

Actually, the Battle of the Alamo should never have happened. The defenders were not even supposed to be there. Jim Bowie had been sent by General Houston to gather the men at San Antonio, destroy the Alamo's walls and return with the men and artillery. Bowie took it upon himself to ignore Houston’s orders and attempt to save the city by defending the Alamo with a rag tag band of volunteers led by Bowie and enlisted men led by William Travis, a 26 year-old South Carolina attorney with dreams of glory – two leaders who disliked and distrusted each other. There were several Mexicans, called Tejanos, among them who detested Santa Anna for what he had become following the revolution, and a number of European immigrants.

It was only the approach of a common enemy and the presence of the diplomatic David Crockett that brought any cohesion to the doomed army. Bowie's rapidly failing health, said to be typhoid, removed him from any role of leadership, leaving Travis in command.

Interestingly, the defenders could have escaped unscathed had they wished; Santa Anna waited for several days after arriving on the scene before beginning his bombardment and the Texians could have easily ridden away in the night. They stayed out of a sense of defiance and self-confidence – and a mistaken belief that reinforcements were on the way.

Travis sent several couriers with pleas for help, to no avail. Houston had neither the men nor the materiel to support such an impossible mission. Travis' letters are today prized artifacts in museums at the Alamo and the State Capitol. Two of those couriers, Deaf Smith and Sam Maverick, were to become well-known names in Texas history.

Despicable a man as Santa Anna was, he was a competent, inspiring military tactician. Surrounding the Mission, he began an artillery bombardment that had no intent other than to rob the defenders of rest and sleep. The exploding shells killed no one but they had the desired effect. At 10:30 p.m. on the night of March 5, the bombardment ceased. The silence was overwhelming. Exhaustion did its work and most of the defenders – even the sentinels – fell into deep sleep in spite of the impending danger.

The assault began just before dawn, as 1,500 Mexican troops began to approach the walls in long columns from every directin, expecting to quickly overcome the defenses. However, one over-enthusiastic Mexican soldier could not hold his excitement.

"Viva Mexico! Viva Santa Anna!"

The cry was quickly joined by his comrades and the element of surprise was lost. The aroused Texians sprang to their guns and opened fire into the darkness – with good effect. Twice the Mexican troops were driven back in turmoil, but were pressed on by their officers. Advancing in columns meant that only those in the front ranks could fire and many Mexican troops were killed by their own men firing behind them. Still, on they came.

Travis' office was located near the center of the west wall of the compound. He quickly grabbed his double-barreled shotgun and ran to the north wall, the most weakly defended part of the stockade (an area now covered by the huge U. S. Post Office building), where Mexican troops were already spilling over the top and through a breach in the wall. He got off two shots and fell dead, struck in the forehead by a .69 caliber ball from a Mexican soldier's Brown Bess musket. He was one of the first to die.

As the battle commenced, the defending Texians fought like demons with their long rifles against impossible odds. The Mexican cavalry managed to break through the breach in the north wall and made short work of the defenders attempting to retreat to the stone building, now known as the Low Barracks, with it’s narrow passageways and small rooms. So quick was the Mexican advance that the defenders had no time to disable their own cannons, which were now turned into the compound to fire upon the barricaded barracks. Many of the Texian's deaths resulted from fire from their own guns.

Inside the barracks, defenders were cornered, trapped, and bayoneted by the swarming Mexican infantry. Driven from his post along the palisade adjacent to the church, Crockett was last seen wielding "Old Betsy" as a club just to the left of the church; a flowering tree marks the spot today. Inside the church the last defenders were herded against the back wall and slaughtered. The battle was over in less than 45 minutes.

There were survivors. Travis' slave, Joe, was spared – Mexico had outlawed slavery years earlier. Several women, wives of defenders, were similarly spared and freed to tell the story of the futility of resistance to Santa Anna, who arrogantly referred to the battle as "a small affair."

In all the fury, tales of the deaths of Crockett and Bowie have been told and retold, fabricated, and embellished. Bowie’s knife was never found or been identified as his. The real truths will never be known and conjecture is pointless. One can only say they died as proud, stubborn, brave men, their bodies were burned with the rest. The ashes lay where they had burned for several months before being gathered into a single coffin and buried in an unmarked grave.

The defenders took their toll; Mexican dead were near 600, nearly 40 percent of Santa Anna's army – frightful loss by any standards. For that, Santa Anna was severely criticized and his popularity fell dramatically. It was only through his own cunning that he managed to be re-elected to the presidency eleven times, even after his loss of Texas and his own shameful defeat at San Jacinto, where he sold his country out to save his own life. He was to continue his tyrannical ways for many years.

Following the battle, the Alamo's exterior walls were destroyed to prevent their further use as a fortress. The barracks were used for commercial shops and the old Mission was nothing more than a relic. It was only in the early 20th Century that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas formed and saved the Alamo for the shrine to human courage that it is.

History's greatest lesson, should we choose to learn it, is the relationship of cause and effect. What we do today will affect tomorrow; today is affected by yesterday's actions. Those who have not learned that will continue to wonder, "what happened?" and never understand why.

It is interesting to play a game of "What if . . ." to apply the idea of cause and effect. In the case of the Alamo:

What if . . . the Texians had followed the example of the fearsome Comanche and fought Santa Anna's army with guerilla-style warfare. To a man, they must have been expert and well-mounted horsemen, and well-armed marksmen. They knew the countryside and had the support of the populace. They could have drawn more guns to their support. Could they not have harassed the Mexican Army into a disheartened retreat as the Colonials did the British from Concord? Could they have captured badly needed munitions and stores? What adventures and stories would we have of those heroes lost to martyrdom.

And as for Santa Anna himself, what if General Houston had, instead of extracting a promise from the shivering little despot that was not to be kept, had hanged him from that tree under which he received the general – or at least given him the honor of a firing squad. How would Mexico's history and tradition of government been different? Would there have been leaders suppressed by Santa Anna who might have arisen to create a government that would have better served its people?

What if . . .

In recognition of the Anglo entrance into Texas in those years, perhaps we should consider that the "Old West" began as early as 1830 by men and women who set the standards for rugged courage and vision that fostered the concept of "Manifest Destiny" and the shore to shore expansion of our country.

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