February 23, 1836, began the siege of the Alamo, a 13-day moment in history that turned a ruined Spanish mission in the heart of downtown San Antonio, Texas, into a shrine known and revered the world over. But what is it that makes this one battle so different from any other battle fought in the name of freedom? The people involved? Yes, that’s part of it. The issues at hand? Yes, that’s another part. Or can it be that the mysteries, myths and legends surrounding it are still tantalizing minds even today? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of these things have made the battle stand apart and have caused it to be so well remembered throughout the nation 160 years later. Yet, as historian Walter Lord said in 1960, ‘It is…a rash man indeed who claims he has the final answer to everything that happened at the Alamo.
History records three revolutions that led to the Battle of the Alamo. The first, the Spanish revolt against French occupation of Spain, occurred in 1808. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, and it took six years for Spanish resistance forces to oust the French emperor and restore Ferdinand VII to the throne. The fires of the Spanish revolt crossed the ocean, and in Mexico Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bells of his small church in Dolores at midnight on September 15, 1810, to herald the beginning of the second revolution. This Mexican revolt against Spanish occupation traveled quickly across Mexico and into the northern frontier of the Mexican territory of Texas. San Antonio de Béxar, the capital of Texas, became a center of revolutionary activity and a haven for resistance fighters. One revolutionary, Captain Jose Menchaca, was captured by Spanish troops, shot and beheaded. His head was then stuck on a pole in front of the Alamo. Instead of setting an example for the other insurgents, however, Menchaca’s execution only added fuel to the revolt.
After an 11-year struggle, Mexico gained its freedom in 1821. Within that same year, Agustin de Iturbide, a Spanish general turned rebel and a hero of the revolution, became emperor of the new nation. But his regime was too extravagant for some tastes, and in no time a revolt led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna brought about Iturbide’s downfall and established a Mexican republic.
Under Iturbide, American colonists had been allowed to settle in Texas. About the only condition to owning land was that all immigrant landowners had to be Catholic, an easy enough problem to overcome for non-Catholics. William Travis, for instance, became Catholic to purchase land, but remained a staunch Methodist until the day he died at the Alamo.
Unfortunately, the fledgling Republic of Mexico was born bankrupt and ill-prepared for self-government. In fact, during its first 15 years of independence, it had 13 presidents. All of them struggled for power, shifting between the liberal-leaning Federalists and the dictatorial Centralists. The first president was a Federalist, General Guadalupe Victoria, a hero of the revolution who had changed his name from Miguel Felix Hernandez to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, for his victory. It was he who established the liberal Constitution of 1824 that so infuriated Santa Anna and that would lead to the Battle of the Alamo 12 years later.
It was also during this tumultuous struggle for control of Mexico’s presidency that the northern territory of Texas was mostly neglected. When Mexico redefined its territories in 1824, Texas was the only separate territory to lose its independence. It was joined to Coahuila and the capital was moved from San Antonio de Béxar to Saltillo. Armed citizens gathered in protest. In September 1835, they petitioned for statehood separate from Coahuila. They wrote out their needs and their complaints in The Declaration of Causes. This document was designed to convince the Federalists that the Texans desired only to preserve the 1824 Constitution, which guaranteed the rights of everyone living on Mexican soil. But by this time, Santa Anna was in power, having seized control in 1833, and he advocated the removal of all foreigners. His answer was to send his crack troops, commanded by his brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cós, to San Antonio to disarm the Texans.
October 1835 found San Antonio de Béxar under military rule, with 1,200 Mexican troops under General Cós’ command. When Cós ordered the small community of Gonzales, about 50 miles east of San Antonio, to return a cannon loaned to the town for defense against Indian attack–rightfully fearing that the citizens might use the cannon against his own troops–the Gonzales residents refused. Come and take it! they taunted, setting off a charge of old chains and scrap iron, shot from the mouth of the tiny cannon mounted on ox-cart wheels. Although the only casualty was one Mexican soldier, Gonzales became enshrined in history as the Lexington of Texas. The Texas Revolution was on.
On December 5, 200 Texan volunteers commanded by Ben Milam attacked Cós’ troops in San Antonio de Béxar, which was about 400 yards from the Alamo compound. The fighting in Béxar raged with a house-to-house assault unlike anything the Mexican army had ever before experienced. Cós finally flew the white flag of surrender from the Alamo on December 9. More than 200 of his men lay dead, and as many more were wounded. He signed papers of capitulation, giving the Texans all public property, money, arms and ammunition in San Antonio, and by Christmas Day, the Mexican army was back across the Rio Grande. To the Texans, who lost about 20 men, including Ben Milam, the victory seemed cheap and easy.
The siege of Béxar and Cós’ surrender brought immediate retaliation from Santa Anna. He whipped together a force of 8,000 men, many of them foreign adventurers from Europe and America. One of his deadliest snipers was an Illinois man named Johnson! Santa Anna, the self-styled Napoleon of the West, marched at the head of the massive army; he was determined to stamp out all opposition and teach the Texans a lesson. The word went out to his generals: In this war, you understand, there are no prisoners.
Although it was midwinter, Santa Anna pushed his army mercilessly toward Texas. The frigid, wind-battered deserts of northern Mexico took their toll. Men and animals died by the hundreds and were left on the trail, and the brigades strung out for uncounted miles. When the big siege guns bogged down in one of the many quagmires, Santa Anna pushed on without them. Nothing would stop him. Meanwhile, after the defeated Mexican force under General Cós had left San Antonio, Colonel James C. Neill had assumed command of the Alamo garrison, which consisted of about 80 poorly equipped men in several small companies, including the volunteers. The rest of the soldiers had returned home to their families and farm chores. In this command were an artillery company under Captain William R. Carey known as the Invincibles, two small infantry companies known as the New Orleans Greys under Captain William Blazeby, and the Béxar Guards under Captain Robert White.
On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, the commander of the revolutionary troops, sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 25 men to San Antonio with orders to destroy the Alamo fortifications and retire eastward with the artillery. But 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–by far the most concentrated at any location during the Texas Revolution. 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 after Neill was forced to leave because of sickness in his family.
Colonel William Travis arrived in San Antonio on February 2 with a small cavalry company, bringing the total number of Alamo defenders to about 130. Although spies told him that Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande, Travis did not expect the dictator before early spring. He sent letter after letter, pleading for supplies and more men. He and Bowie also competed for command of the garrison before it was decided that Bowie would command the volunteers and Travis the regular army. On February 9, David Crockett and the 14 other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers (only three were actually from Tennessee) rode into San Antonio. Alarmed by the Mexican army on the outskirts of town, Travis vigorously renewed his pleas for help. His February 24 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.
The day before, February 23, Santa Anna had 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. In fact, Davy’s fiddle-playing and outlandish storytelling kept up the spirits of the besieged defenders.
Santa Anna ordered his men to pound the fortifications with cannon and rifle fire for 12 days and nights. His idea was to wear out the defenders inside, giving them no chance for rest or sleep. He reasoned that a weary army would be an easy one to defeat. But the noise worked on his own army, too. Unable to hear clearly through the din, they allowed courier after courier to escape from the Alamo. 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.
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.
Santa Anna’s first charge was repulsed, as was the second, by the deadly fire of Travis’ artillery. At 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 airily 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.
Six weeks after the Alamo, while the Mexican wounded still languished in San Antonio, Santa Anna met his Waterloo at San Jacinto. The men who died inside the walls of the Alamo had bought with their lives the time needed for General Sam Houston to weld a force that won Texas its independence. The great sacrifice would not be forgotten by history, nor would the Alamo’s many legends and stories, most of which can never be proved or disproved because all the defenders died.
One of the most enduring questions is whether Travis really did draw a line in the earth, the grand canyon of Texas, and ask all to step over who were willing to die for the cause. It is probably based on fact. Travis anticipated a battle to the death. Since he was also one for fairness, it’s logical to believe that he would give the men an opportunity to leave the ill-fated garrison. It is a fact that one man did leave. Louis Rose was from France, and he had already served in one bloody war as a noncommissioned officer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Before the final assault on the Alamo he left, sustaining many leg wounds from cactuses and thorns during his escape that plagued him the remainder of his life. Asked why he chose not to stay with the rest, he replied, By God, I wasn’t ready to die. It is Rose’s tale of the line in the dust that has become legend.
Two of Santa Anna’s earliest opponents were Erasmo Seguin and his son Juan, of San Antonio. In fact, it was Juan who became one of the staunchest fighters for Texas freedom, forming his own band of Tejanos to stand alongside his Anglo counterparts. Juan Seguin was on a courier mission for Travis when the Alamo fell, but he vowed to one day honor the Alamo dead in a church ceremony, a ceremony that had been denied by Santa Anna. Legend claims that Seguin collected the ashes and placed them in a casket covered with black. Inside the lid, he had the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett engraved. He then buried the casket. Where? No one knows. Shortly before his death, when he was in his 80s, Juan Seguin stated that he had buried the casket outside the sanctuary railing, near the steps in the old San Fernando Church. In 1936, repair work on the altar railing of the cathedral led to the unearthing of a box containing charred bones, rusty nails, shreds of uniforms and buttons, particles of coal, and crushed skulls. From that discovery arose a controversy that continues to this day. Are they the bones of the Alamo defenders? Many believe yes, but since the defenders did not wear uniforms, many others think not.
Questions also still remain about the death of David Crockett, who, without doubt, was the most famous defender of the siege. Shortly after the capture of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, rumors began to circulate that 49-year-old Crockett had not died alongside his men in the final moments of the Alamo. Conflicting testimony claimed that Crockett and a handful of others–including Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, who rode back into the Alamo on March 3 knowing full well that it was a death trap–survived the siege, only to be destroyed on the orders of an enraged Santa Anna a few minutes later. True…or not? No one may ever really know. But most people prefer to believe that Crockett died a heroic death inside the Alamo.
Davy Crockett was a national folk hero long before the events of the Alamo. Born August 17, 1786, in an East Tennessee wilderness cabin in what is now Greene County, he struck out on his own at the tender age of 12 to help drive a herd of cattle to Virginia. By 1813, he was serving as one of General Andrew Jackson’s scouts in the Creek War. He apparently did not enjoy fighting Indians and returned home as soon as his 90-day enlistment was up. In 1821, he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature for the first time, representing a district of 11 western counties in the state. He later served two terms in the United States Congress.
Crockett was always one for adventure. When defeated at the polls for a third term in Congress in 1835, he turned in typical Crockett fashion to the cause of Texan freedom as a way to completely cut off one phase of his life and begin another. Before leaving for Texas, however, he gave his constituents one last speech. He concluded …by telling them that I was done with politics for the present, and that they might all go to hell, and I would go to Texas. After arriving in San Antonio in early February 1836, Crockett and the other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers eventually retreated into the Alamo.
The old fortress spread over three acres as it surrounded a rough rectangle of bare ground, about the size of a gigantic city block, called the plaza. On the south side of this plaza and detached from the church by a distance of some 10 feet was a long one-story building called the low barracks. Adobe huts spread along the west side, which was protected by a 12-foot-high stone wall. A similar wall ran across the north side. A two-story building called the long barracks/convent/hospital covered the east side, along with the church, which sat in the southeast corner, facing west.
Crockett and his men defended a low wooden palisade erected to breach the gap between the church and the low barracks of the south wall. The position of the low barracks was in front of, and perpendicular to, the right side of the church–an area that is now covered in flagstone. This palisade consisted of two rows of pointed wooden stakes with rocks and earth between the rows. All combatants considered the position to be the most vulnerable and hardest to defend area of the fortress. But Crockett and the other Tennesseans were expert marksmen, the best the small Texan army had. They most likely held their position until death.
As news of Crockett’s death swept across America, some stories portrayed him as standing in the thickest of the fighting, using his trusty flintlock rifle Old Betsy like a club, until being cut down by Mexican bayonets and bullets. Well…maybe that’s the way it really happened. Then again…maybe not.
Minutes after the fighting ceased, Santa Anna instructed Alcalde Francisco Ruiz to identify the bodies of the dead Texans, especially those of the leaders. According to the alcalde, Toward the west and in a small fort opposite the city, we found the body of Colonel Crockett…and we may infer that he either commanded that point or was stationed there as a sharpshooter. The only logical explanation is that the small courtyard bounded by the palisade on the south, the church on the east and the hospital on the north, where Crockett and the Tennesseans were stationed, was considered a small fort all its own.
But one month later, the imprisoned General Cós told Dr. George Patrick that Davy Crockett had survived the battle. According to Cós, Crockett had locked himself in one of the rooms of the barracks. When the Mexican soldiers discovered him, Crockett explained that he was on a visit and had accidentally got caught in the Alamo after it was too late to escape. Cós further said that Crockett wanted him to intercede with Santa Anna, asking for mercy, which Cós agreed to do–only Santa Anna had ordered no quarter and was incensed at such a request. The Mexican leader refused to spare Crockett’s life.
In 1878, writer Josephus Conn Guild offered a similar version in which Crockett and five others survived the siege. When overrun by the Mexican soldiers, the Alamo survivors surrendered to General Manuel Castrillón under promise of his protection, …but being taken before Santa Anna, they were by his orders instantly put to death. Colonel Crockett fell with a dozen swords sheathed in his breast. Actually, much of the same story had appeared as far back as 1836, when the diary of Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña was published in Mexico City. When the diary was finally published in English in the 1970s, it stirred up those Americans who felt the heroic Crockett never would have surrendered.
Another account, from Mexican Sergeant Felix Nunez, related details of the death of a Texan on the palisade: He was a tall American of rather dark complexion and had a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill, made of fox skin with the long tail hanging down his back. This man apparently had a charmed life. Of the many soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary, he never missed a shot. He may not have been describing Davy Crockett, but who else dressed in that fashion?
Susanna Dickinson (sometimes spelled Dickerson), one of the noncombatant survivors of the battle, stated in her memoirs that she saw Crockett and a handful of others lying mangled and mutilated between the church and the two-story barrack building, and even remembered seeing his peculiar cap laying by his side, as she was led from the scene by a Mexican officer. Perhaps she had seen Crockett after his execution, which supposedly occurred near the front of the church. But some people just won’t buy a capture-execution scenario. And perhaps Reuben Marmaduke Potter had it right all along when he wrote, David Crockett never surrendered to bear or tiger, Indian or Mexican.
There is also a controversial story about the Alamo’s secondmost legendary figure. That story, which has never been proved one way or the other, says that Bowie was the last to die in the fighting at the Alamo.
Jim Bowie, whose exploits made his name familiar in almost every American home during his lifetime, was born about 1796 (in either Tennessee, Kentucky, or Georgia–sources vary). When Jim was in his teens, the family settled at Bayou Boeuf, Rapides Parish, La., where he later operated a sugar plantation with his brother Rezin. It was his involvement with the pirate Jean Lafitte in the slave trade, though, that earned him a measure of notoriety. In September 1827, he killed a man with his huge knife during a brawl on a Mississippi sandbar just above Natchez. It was the Vidalia sandbar fight that firmly established him as a legendary fighter throughout the South.
Bowie left for Texas in 1828 to settle in San Antonio de Béxar, where his land dealings made him modestly wealthy almost overnight. Bowie also became a Mexican citizen and married into the Mexican aristocracy, which, more than anything else, gained him the friendship, confidence and support of the Mexican population. By 1831, he was fluent in Spanish.
Since he had been a colonel in a Texas Ranger company in 1830, he carried this title and authority when he answered the call for Texan volunteers. The 40-year-old frontiersman and Indian fighter was described as a normally calm, mild man until his temper was aroused. Absolutely fearless, he gave orders to the volunteers at the Alamo while 26-year-old Colonel Travis, a disciplinarian, took charge of the regulars and cavalry. The difference in their personalities, coupled with the difference in their ages, resulted in the two men sharing a somewhat antagonistic competition for command of the entire garrison. On one point they did agree: The Alamo was the most important stronghold of Texas.
Sometime around February 21, 1836, Bowie decided to help construct a lookout post or gun garrison along one of the walls. Although there are conflicting opinions on what actually happened, most accounts think that he lost his balance on the scaffold and fell 8 feet to the ground, breaking either his hip or his leg. This incident has also been called hogwash by other historians, who claim that Bowie never suffered any accident while at the Alamo. Whether or not he also suffered from tuberculosis, diphtheria, or the dreaded typhoid pneumonia is also a matter of conjecture. In any event, Bowie’s incapacitation left Travis with full authority from that point onward.
Bowie took to his sick bed in the low barracks on or about the second day of the siege, and there’s little doubt that he would have succumbed to his illness in a matter of days had not the Mexican soldiers dispatched him when they did.
On the final day of the 13-day siege, legend claims that it was Crockett who stole into Bowie’s room and gave the sick man two pistols to be used for defense. Most accounts agree that Bowie was found dead on his cot, but since his nurse, Madame Candelaria, never told the exact same story twice about the sequence of events, who really knows what happened that day? Bowie probably participated in the battle, dying in the fall of the Alamo with the other defenders. But was he the last to fall? Everyone agrees that the last position to fall was the church, and Bowie wasn’t even close to the church. As the Mexican soldiers stormed over the walls of the compound, the defenders raced to the long barracks, where there was no exit, and to the church. None of them ferried a sick man on a cot.
Still, the Mexican soldiers could have taken pity on Bowie when they saw him more dead than alive, prostrate on his cot in his room in the low barracks. In fact, an odd report claims that as the funeral pyres blazed high and soldiers heaped dead Texans on the pile, some soldiers carried out a man on a cot, a man the captain of the detail identified as no other than the infamous Bowie. Although the man was still alive, Santa Anna ordered him thrown into the fire along with the rest. Would Santa Anna be so cruel? Yes, especially if the man were a Mexican citizen fighting in the Texan army.
Although the fact remains that no one knows why some 188 men chose to die on the plains of Texas in a ruined Spanish mission that required at least 1,200 men to adequately defend all its acreage, their sacrifice brought Texas independence, which paved the way for expansion to the Pacific and added more than a million square miles to the American nation at that time. And because of their sacrifice, the Alamo is now a shrine respected and revered throughout the world. Remember the Alamo became the battle cry that broke Santa Anna’s back.
This article was written by Lee Paul and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!