Wednesday, March 6, 2013

13 Days of Glory: Battle for the Alamo

The Alamo in San Antonio, Texas
Not much more can be said about the 1836 battle for the Alamo that has not been previously stated. However, the story needs to be re-told on occasion, so that we may remind ourselves not only of the great sacrifices others have made, but also as a way to illustrate the sort of fortitude sometimes required to change the world. We should never forget the men of the Alamo.

In late February and early March of 1836, Colonel William B. Travis, James Bowie, Davy Crockett, and 185 other Texan volunteers defended an old Spanish mission for 13 days against a superior force led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna. The Texans perished in a full assault on March 6th.

Located in San Antonio, Texas, the Alamo was originally a Catholic mission founded in 1724. Called Misión San Antonio de Valero, construction of its iconic facade began in 1744 and the keystone over the front doorway is inscribed with the year 1758. Built from blocks of locally-quarried limestone, construction of its iconic facade was begun on May 8th in 1744. In the beginning, the Alamo was designed to have two bell towers and a domed roof. Everything but the outer walls of the building collapsed during construction so the towers and vaulted roof were never completed. It was used as a church until 1793 when Spain closed the mission and handed the surrounding land over to the native Indians. Spanish soldiers from Alamo de Parras in Coahuila, called the old mission the Alamo, or in English, “cottonwood,” after their home. During Mexico’s long struggle for independence from Spain, the Alamo was occupied by Spanish soldiers, revolutionary fighters, and Mexican soldiers. By March of 1836, the building and its surrounding grounds had been transformed into a fort where 188 soldiers of the Texas Revolution manned its walls against a two thousand man army from Mexico led by General Santa Anna.

Col. William Barret Travis
In the early hours of February 23, 1836, residents began fleeing San Antonio de Béxar, in the face of 1500 soldiers from Santa Anna’s advance guard. Colonel William Travis ordered a soldier to the San Fernando church bell tower as a lookout. Not long afterwards, scouts reported Mexican troops a mile and a half from town. The Texians gathered inside the walls of the Alamo after scrounging for food in the abandoned houses of San Antonio. Several members of the garrison who had been living in town brought their families with them when they reported to the Alamo.

The Mexican troops came into the city and subsequently surrounded the fort. Colonel James Bowie and Travis had agreed to a joint command over the Texians, but were still at odds. When the Mexican troops raised a red flag signifying no mercy for the rebellious Texans, Travis ordered a single round fired from the Alamo's largest cannon. Albert Martin and Green Jameson were sent as emissaries to speak with Mexican Colonels Juan Almonte and José Bartres. Almonte reported that the Texians asked for an honorable surrender but were told any surrender must be unconditional. Bowie and Travis responded by firing the cannon again.

Mexican soldiers positioned cannons about 1,000 feet from the walls both to the south and the east and moved them closer every night, firing more than 200 shots the first week of the siege. When possible, the Texans recovered the cannonballs and often shot them back at the Mexican lines.

Lt. Col. James Bowie
On February 24, Colonel Bowie grew too ill to lead and Travis took sole command. Later that afternoon, the first Mexican soldier was killed, apparently by cannon fire. The next day, a force of Mexican soldiers took positions in shacks close to the Alamo walls, but the shacks were burned by the Texans and the Mexicans retreated. No Texans were injured in the skirmish but two Mexican soldiers were killed and four were reported wounded.

Temperatures dropped the following day, adding to the discomfort.

By then, Travis was sending out couriers with letters asking for reinforcements. Among these letters was one in particular that is succinct but shows the state of mind of the Texan defenders:

To the People of Texas; All Americans in the World:
Fellow citizens & compatriots—I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, 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—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily; will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country—Victory or Death.
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. comdt
P.S. The Lord is on our side—When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn—We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.

Ninety miles away, in Gonzales, Colonel James Fannin attempted to reinforce the Alamo defenders with a force of 320 men and four cannons, but the effort stalled. After being outnumbered and surrendering to Mexican forces at the Battle of Coleto Creek, Fannin and most of his men were executed on March 27 at Goliad, Texas. Fannin was the last to be executed. He was taken to a courtyard before the chapel in Goliad, blindfolded, and placed in a chair because he could not stand because of a leg wound received in battle. The Texas Army Colonel asked that his personal effects be sent to his family and to be shot in his heart rather than his face. Additionally, Fannin asked for a Christian burial. None of his requests were granted and his body was burned along with the soldiers under his command. Fannin was 32 years old.

On March 3, 1,000 additional Mexican troops marched into Béxar, prompting Travis to send a party of three men, including Davy Crockett, to search for Fannin. The scouting party found a group of Texans camped 20 miles from San Antonio. Prior to dawn on March 4, a portion of the group broke through Mexican lines and entered the Alamo.

Gen. Santa Anna
The day after the Mexican reinforcements arrived, Santa Anna unveiled his assault plan. Some senior officers wanted to wait for two 12-pound cannons expected to arrive on March 7. Later that night, a member of Bowie’s extended family, Juana Navarro Alsbury asked Santa Anna to allow the Texans to surrender. It is speculated that the request only served to strengthen Santa Anna’s resolve. The next morning, the Mexican General told his staff the attack would occur early in the morning on March 6. Santa Anna arranged for Mexican troops from Béxar to be excused from the fight so they would not be forced to encounter their own families on the battlefield.

A story repeated often enough to hold legitimacy is that on March 5, Travis spoke plainly to his men about the coming attack. Using his sword, he drew a line in the sand and asked for anyone willing to die to cross and stand with him. As the story goes, only one man declined. According to official records, the last Texan to leave was courier James Allen.

To the relief of the Texans, the Mexican cannons ceased their bombardment on the Alamo at 10 p.m. on March 5. It was, however, a clever ploy by Santa Anna. After being bombarded for eleven days, the relieved Texans fell asleep -- for many, it was the first sleep they had since entering the fort. While the Texans slept, the Mexicans made their preparations.

Mexican troops were divided into four columns, each commanded by Colonels Cos, Duque, Romero and Morales. The experienced soldiers were placed on the outside in order to control the less-experienced troops in the middle. 400 were kept in reserve while 500 Mexican cavalry were distributed around the Alamo to catch any soldiers, whether Mexican or Texan, running from the field of battle.

At 5:30 in the morning of March 6, the Mexicans crept forward. The first casualties of the battle were three Texan guards killed while they slept at their posts outside the walls. When Mexican soldiers began to shout, "¡Viva Santa Anna!" and buglers blew the call to battle, the Texans were roused to the fight. Those few not involved went to the church sacristy. It is purported that Travis shouted out, "Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us and we'll give them hell!"

Without proper munitions, the Texans filled their cannon with any sort of metal -- door hinges, nails, and chopped-up horseshoes. According to the diary of Jose Enrique de la Peña, "a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs [light infantrymen] from Toluca.”

Under withering fire, the Mexican front ranks wavered but were pushed forward by those behind. The Texans had to lean over the walls to fire and so it was with Travis as he became one of the first to die, killed while firing his shotgun into the soldiers below. Even with the element of surprise on their side, no Mexican was able to breach the walls in that first attack. They withdrew and, at the urging of their officers, launched a second attack. It too was repelled.

The third attack exposed weaknesses in the northern wall. General Juan Amador was one of the first to climb the 12 foot wall. At his urging, the men in his command followed. Amador managed to find and open a hidden gate which allowed Mexican soldiers to fairly pour into the fort. By then, the west wall had been breached as well. The Texans rushed from the north wall as Texan gunners on the southern side faced their cannon to the north and fired into the melee. This action allowed Mexican soldiers to climb the southern walls. They killed the Texan gunners and captured the 18-pounder cannon. On the eastern wall, Colonel Romero's men began to pour through.

The remaining Texans retreated to the barracks and chapel. Those unable to make it to the barracks ran toward the San Antonio River. The cavalry that had been stationed at positions around the Alamo killed them all after a brief fight. Another group of Texans ran to the east. As the Mexican cavalry bore down on that group, Almaron Dickinson and his artillery crew fired their cannon into the cavalry. At the most, it only gave the escaping Texans only a few more seconds of life.

The last Texans in the courtyard were Crockett and his men, who defended a low wall before the front door of the church. Unable to reload quickly enough, they turned their rifles into clubs and used knives in close fighting. As the Mexicans overwhelmed them a few managed to escape into the church.

Now in control of the Texans’ cannon, Mexican soldiers blasted open the doors of the barracks. Each time, Santa Anna’s men would fire a volley into the opened room, then charge inside.

Jim Bowie was in one of those rooms. There are various accounts of his exact death, but it is generally agreed that in the end, the Louisiana knife-fighter took a number of Mexican lives before he was overwhelmed.

Almaron Dickinson
The last to die fighting were 11 Texans inside the chapel. They had pulled the two 12-pounder cannon into the chapel and waited until a blast from the captured 18-pounder cannon opened a path into the church. As Mexican soldiers poured inside, Dickinson's men fired into the group. After a brief, bloody fight, Dickinson, Gregorio Esparza and James Bonham were killed.

The son of Texan Anthony Wolf was also killed in the church. One man, Brigido Guerrero, convinced the soldiers he was a prisoner and was spared.

As is so often the case after such an intense battle, Mexican soldiers continued to shoot and bayonet bodies. The officers were unable to stop their troops, even when the buglers blew a retreat and for minutes after the battle was over, the carnage continued.

Davy Crockett
Most accounts claim between five and seven Texans surrendered and were summarily executed. Some say David Crockett was among that handful of men, but to this day, historians still disagree on how Crockett died.

Captain Almaron Dickinson’s wife, Susanna, and their infant daughter, Angelina, were spared by Santa Anna. The Mexican General even offered to adopt the child, but Mrs. Dickinson refused. Instead, she was given a blanket and two silver pesos, then sent to Gonzales, ostensibly to spread fear among the rebellious Texans about the Mexican Army. Travis’ slave, Joe, was also spared and accompanied Mrs. Dickinson to Gonzales.

Alamo Expert Phil Collins
Mexican casualties have been estimated to be between 400 to 600 -- a third of the force involved in the final attack. It is said Henry Warnell did escape from the battle although he died months later from wounds received at the Battle of San Jacinto or possibly from wounds received during his escape from the Alamo.

Deceased Mexican soldiers were buried honorably at Campo Santo, a local cemetery.

The bodies of the Texans were burned in a pile, except for Gregorio Esparza, whose brother Francisco, an officer in Santa Anna's army, gained permission to bury Gregorio.

Nearly a year later, in February of 1837, Juan Seguin returned to the scene of the battle and retrieved ashes from the site of the immolation. He placed the ashes in a simple coffin which was inscribed with the names of Travis, Crockett, and Bowie. An article in the Telegraph and Texas Register, dated March 28, 1837, stated that Seguín buried the coffin in an unmarked spot in a peach tree grove near the Alamo. Seguín himself claimed he took the coffin to the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, the same church where Bowie married Ursula de Veramendi and the same church where Santa Anna ordered the red flag of “no quarter” to be flown from the bell tower so the Texans would know his intent.

The mission was severely damaged during the battle. Rebuilt by the U.S. Army in 1850, the building was bought by the state of Texas in 1905 and later given to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who presently maintain the property as a public monument and shrine.

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