Several months previously, Texans had driven all Mexican troops out of Mexican Texas. Approximately 100 Texans were then garrisoned at the Alamo. The Texan force grew slightly with the arrival of reinforcements led by eventual Alamo co-commanders James Bowie and William B. Travis. On February 23rd, approximately 1,500 Mexican troops marched into San Antonio de Béxar as the first step in a campaign to re-take Texas. For the next twelve days the two armies engaged in several skirmishes with minimal casualties. Aware that his garrison could not withstand an attack by such a large force, Travis wrote multiple letters pleading for more men and supplies, but fewer than 100 reinforcements arrived.
In the early morning hours of March 6th, the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. After repulsing two attacks, Texans were unable to fend off a third attack. As Mexican soldiers scaled the walls, most of the Texan soldiers withdrew into interior buildings. Defenders unable to reach these points were slain by the Mexican cavalry as they attempted to escape. Between five and seven Texans may have surrendered; if so, they were quickly executed. Most eyewitness accounts reported between 182 and 257 Texans dead, while most historians of the Alamo agree that 400-600 Mexicans were killed or wounded. Several noncombatants were sent to Gonzales to spread word of the Texan defeat. The news sparked a panic, known as “The Runaway Scrape“, in which the Texan army, most settlers, and the new Republic of Texas government fled from the advancing Mexican Army.
In terms of ethnicity among the Texan defenders, 13 were native-born Texans, with 11 of these 13 being of Mexican descent. The rest of the Alamo defenders consisted of 41 men born in Europe, 2 Jews, 2 blacks, and the remainder were Americans from states other than Texas. Santa Anna's forces were a conglomeration of former Spanish citizens, Spanish-Mexican mestizos, and indigenous Mexicans.
Under President Santa Anna,, the Mexican government began to shift away from a federalist model. The increasingly dictatorial policies, including the revocation of the Constitution of 1824 in early 1835, incited many federalists to revolt. The Mexican border region of Texas was largely populated by immigrants from the United States. These were accustomed to a federalist government and to extensive individual rights, and they were quite vocal in their displeasure at Mexico's shift towards centralism. Already leery of previous American attempts to purchase Texas, Mexican authorities blamed much of the Texan unrest on American immigrants, most of whom had made little effort to adapt to the Mexican culture.
The Texans systematically defeated the Mexican troops already stationed in Texas. The last group of Mexican soldiers in the region - commanded by Santa Anna's brother-in-law, General Martin Perfecto de Cos - surrendered on December 9th following the siege of Béxar By this point, the Texan army was dominated by very recent arrivals to the region, primarily adventurers from the United States. Many Texas settlers, unprepared for a long campaign, had returned home. Angered by what he perceived to be American interference in Mexican affairs, Santa Anna spearheaded a resolution classifying foreigners found fighting in Texas as pirates. The resolution effectively banned the taking of prisoners of war: in this period of time, captured pirates were executed immediately. Santa Anna reiterated this message in a strongly worded letter to United States President Andrew Jackson. This letter was not widely distributed, and it is unlikely that most of the American recruits serving in the Texan Army were aware that there would be no prisoners of war.
When Mexican troops departed San Antonio de Béxar (now San Antonio, Texas, USA) Texan soldiers established a garrison at the Alamo Mission, a former Spanish religious outpost which had been converted to a makeshift fort. Described by Santa Anna as an irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name, the Alamo had been designed to withstand an attack by native tribes, not an artillery-equipped army. The complex sprawled across 3 acres, providing almost 1,320 feet of perimeter to defend. An interior plaza was bordered on the east by the chapel and to the south by a one-story building known as the Low Barracks. A wooden palisade stretched between these two buildings. The two-story Long Barracks extended north from the chapel. At the northern corner of the east wall stood a cattle pen and horse corral. The walls surrounding the complex were at least 2.75 feet thick and ranged from 9 to12 ft. high.
To compensate for the lack of firing ports, Texan engineer Green B. Jameson constructed catwalks to allow defenders to fire over the walls; this method, however, left the rifleman's upper body exposed. Mexican forces had left behind 19 cannons, which Jameson installed along the walls. A large 18-pounder had arrived in Texas with the New Orleans Greys. Jameson positioned this cannon in the southwest corner of the compound. He boasted to Texan Army commander Sam Houston that the Texans could whip 10 to 1 with their artillery.
Houston could not spare the number of men necessary to mount a successful defense. Instead, he sent Colonel James Bowie with 30 men to remove the artillery from the Alamo and destroy the complex. Bowie was unable to transport the artillery since the Alamo garrison lacked the necessary draft animals. Neill soon persuaded Bowie that the location held strategic importance. In a letter to Governor Henry Smith, Bowie argued that the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Béxar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine. The letter to Smith ended, “Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.” Bowie also wrote to the provisional government, asking for men, money, rifles, and cannon powder. Few reinforcements were authorized; cavalry officer William B. Travis arrived in Béxar with 30 men on February 3rd. Five days later, a small group of volunteers arrived, including the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman Davey Crokett of Tennessee.
On February 11th, Neill left the Alamo, likely to recruit additional reinforcements and gather supplies. He transferred command to Travis, the highest-ranking regular army officer in the garrison. Volunteers comprised much of the garrison, and they were unwilling to accept Travis as their leader. The men instead elected Bowie, who had a reputation as a fierce fighter, as their commander. Bowie celebrated by getting very intoxicated and creating havoc in Béxar. To mitigate the resulting ill feelings, Bowie agreed to share command with Travis.
Progress was slow. There were not enough mules to transport all of the supplies, and many of the teamsters, all civilians, quit when their pay was delayed. The large number of soldaderas - women and children who followed the army - consumed the already scarce supplies. The soldiers were soon reduced to partial rations. On February 12th they crossed the Rio Grande. Temperatures in Texas reached record lows, and by February 13th an estimated 15-16 inches of snow had fallen. Hypothermia, dysentery, and Comanche raiding parties took a heavy toll on the Mexican soldiers.
On February 21st, Santa Anna and his vanguard reached the banks of the Medina River, 25 miles from Béxar. Unaware of the Mexican Army's proximity, the majority of the Alamo garrison joined Béxar residents at a fiesta. After learning of the planned celebration, Santa Anna ordered General Joaquin Ramirez y Sesma to immediately seize the unprotected Alamo, but sudden rains halted that raid.
By late afternoon Béxar was occupied by about 1,500 Mexican troops. When the Mexican troops raised a blood-red flag signifying no quarter, Travis responded with a blast from the Alamo's largest cannon. Believing that Travis had acted hastily, Bowie sent Jameson to meet with Santa Anna. Travis was angered that Bowie had acted unilaterally and sent his own representative, Captain Albert Martin. Both emissaries met with Colonel Juan Almonte and José Bartres. According to Almonte, the Texans asked for an honorable surrender but were informed that any surrender must be unconditional. On learning this, Bowie and Travis mutually agreed to fire the cannon again.
The first night of the siege was relatively quiet. Over the next few days, Mexican soldiers established artillery batteries, initially about 1,000 feet from the south and east walls of the Alamo. A third battery was positioned southeast of the fort. Each night the batteries inched closer to the Alamo walls. During the first week of the siege more than 200 cannonballs landed in the Alamo plaza. At first the Texans matched Mexican artillery fire, often reusing the Mexican cannonballs. On February 26th Travis ordered the artillery to conserve powder and shot.
Two notable events occurred on Wednesday, February 24. At some point that day, Bowie collapsed from illness, leaving Travis in sole command of the garrison. Late that afternoon, two Mexican scouts became the first fatalities of the siege. The following morning, 200-300 Mexican soldiers crossed the San Antonio River and took cover in abandoned shacks near the Alamo walls. Several Texans ventured out to burn the huts while Texans within the Alamo provided cover fire. After a two-hour skirmish the Mexican troops retreated to Béxar. Six Mexican soldiers were killed and four others were wounded. No Texans were injured.
Santa Anna posted one company east of the Alamo, on the road to Gonzales. Almonte and 800 dragoons were stationed along the road to Goliad. Throughout the siege these towns had received multiple couriers, dispatched by Travis to plead for reinforcements and supplies. The most famous of his missives, written February 24th, was addressed To The People Of Texas & All Americans In The World. According to historian Mary Deborah Petite, the letter is considered by many as one of the masterpieces of American patriotism. Copies of the letter were distributed across Texas, and eventually reprinted throughout the United States and much of Europe. At the end of the first day of the siege, Santa Anna's troops were reinforced by 600 men under General Joaquin Ramirez y Sesma, bringing the Mexican army up to more than 2,000 men.
As news of the siege spread throughout Texas, potential reinforcements gathered in Gonzales. They hoped to rendezvous with Colonel James Fannin, who was expected to arrive from Goliad with his garrison. On February 26th, after days of indecision, Fannin ordered 320 men, four cannon, and several supply wagons to march toward the Alamo, 90 miles away. This group traveled less than 1 mile before turning back. Fannin blamed the retreat on his officers; the officers and enlisted men accused Fannin of aborting the mission.
|William B. Travis|
On March 3rd, the Texans watched from the walls as approximately 1,000 Mexican troops marched into Béxar. The Mexican army celebrated loudly throughout the afternoon, both in honor of their reinforcements and at the news that troops under General Jose de Urrea had soundly defeated Texan Colonel Frank W. Johnson at the Battle of San Patricio on February 27th. Most of the Texans in the Alamo believed that Sesma had been leading the Mexican forces during the siege, and they mistakenly attributed the celebration to the arrival of Santa Anna. The reinforcements brought the number of Mexican soldiers in Béxar to almost 3,100.
The arrival of the Mexican reinforcements prompted Travis to send three men, including Davy Crockett, to find Fannin's force, which he still believed to be en route. The scouts discovered a large group of Texans camped 20 miles from the Alamo. Lindley's research indicates that up to 50 of these men had come from Goliad after Fannin's aborted rescue mission. The others had left Gonzales several days earlier. Just before daylight on March 4th, part of the Texan force broke through Mexican lines and entered the Alamo. Mexican soldiers drove a second group across the prairie.
On March 4th, the day after his reinforcements arrived, Santa Anna proposed an assault on the Alamo. Many of his senior officers recommended that they wait for two 12-pounder cannons anticipated to arrive on March 7th. That evening, a local woman, likely Bowie's cousin-in-law Juana Navarro Alsbury, approached Santa Anna to negotiate a surrender for the Alamo defenders. According to many historians, this visit probably increased Santa Anna's impatience; as historian Timothy Todish noted, there would have been little glory in a bloodless victory. The following morning, Santa Anna announced to his staff that the assault would take place early on March 6th. Santa Anna arranged for troops from Béxar to be excused from the front lines, so that they would not be forced to fight their own families.
The last Texan verified to have left the Alamo was James Allen, a courier who carried personal messages from Travis and several of the other men on March 5th.
At 10 p.m. on March 5th, the Mexican artillery ceased their bombardment. As Santa Anna had anticipated, the exhausted Texans soon fell into the first uninterrupted sleep many had gotten since the siege began. Just after midnight, more than 2,000 Mexican troops began preparing for the final assault. Less than 1,800 troops were divided into four columns, commanded by Cos, Colonel Francisco Duque, Colonel José María Romero and Colonel Juan Morales. Veterans were positioned on the outside of the columns to better control the new recruits and conscripts in the middle. As a precaution, 500 Mexican cavalry were positioned around the Alamo to prevent escape of either Texan or Mexican soldiers. Santa Anna remained in camp with the 400 reserves. Despite the bitter cold, the soldiers were ordered not to wear overcoats, which could impede their movements. Clouds concealed the moon, and thus the movements of the soldiers.
The three Texan sentinels stationed outside the walls were killed in their sleep, allowing Mexican soldiers to approach undetected within musket range of the walls. At this point, the silence was broken by shouts of “Viva Santa Anna” and music from the buglers. The noise woke the Texans. Most of the noncombatants gathered in the church sacristy for safety. Travis rushed to his post yelling, “Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us and we'll give them hell!” and, as he passed a group of Tejanos, “No rendirse, muchachos” (Don’t surrender, boys”)
In the initial moments of the assault Mexican troops were at a disadvantage. Their column formation allowed only the front rows of soldiers to fire safely. Unaware of the dangers, the untrained recruits in the ranks blindly fired their guns, injuring or killing the troops in front of them. The tight concentration of troops also offered an excellent target for the Texan artillery. Lacking canister shot, Texans filled their cannon with any metal they could find, including door hinges, nails, and chopped-up horseshoes, essentially turning the cannon into giant shotguns. According to the diary of Jose Enrique de la Pena, a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs from Toluca. Duque fell from his horse after suffering a wound in his thigh and was almost trampled by his own men. General Manuel Castrillon quickly assumed command of Duque's column.
Mexican soldiers withdrew and regrouped, but their second attack was repulsed. Fifteen minutes into the battle, they attacked a third time. During the third strike, Romero's column, aiming for the east wall, was exposed to cannon fire and shifted to the north, mingling with the second column. Cos's column, under fire from Texans on the west wall, also veered north. When Santa Anna saw that the bulk of his army was massed against the north wall, he feared a rout; panicked, he sent the reserves into the same area. The Mexican soldiers closest to the north wall realized that the makeshift wall contained many gaps and toeholds. One of the first to scale the 12-foot wall was General Juan Amador; at his challenge, his men began swarming up the wall. Amador opened the postern in the north wall, allowing Mexican soldiers to pour into the complex. Others climbed through gun ports in the west wall, which had few defenders. As the Texan defenders abandoned the north wall and the northern end of the west wall, Texan gunners at the south end of the mission turned their cannon toward the north and fired into the advancing Mexican soldiers. This left the south end of the mission unprotected; within minutes Mexican soldiers had climbed the walls and killed the gunners, gaining control of the Alamo's 18-pounder cannon. By this time Romero's men had taken the east wall of the compound and were pouring in through the cattle pen.
As previously planned, most of the Texans fell back to the barracks and the chapel. Holes had been carved in the walls to allow the Texans to fire. Unable to reach the barracks, Texans stationed along the west wall headed west for the San Antonio River. When the cavalry charged, the Texans took cover and began firing from a ditch. Sesma was forced to send reinforcements, and the Texans were eventually killed. Sesma reported that this skirmish involved 50 Texans, but Edmondson believes that number was inflated.
The defenders in the cattle pen retreated into the horse corral. After discharging their weapons, the small band of Texans scrambled over the low wall, circled behind the church and raced on foot for the east prairie, which appeared empty. As the Mexican cavalry advanced on the group, Almaron Dickinson and his artillery crew turned a cannon around and fired into the cavalry, probably inflicting casualties. Nevertheless, all of the escaping Texans were killed.
For the next hour, the Mexican army worked to secure complete control of the Alamo. Many of the remaining defenders were ensconced in the fortified barracks rooms. In the confusion, the Texans had neglected to spike their cannon before retreating. Mexican soldiers turned the cannon toward the barracks. As each door was blown off Mexican soldiers would fire a volley of muskets into the dark room, then charge in for hand to hand combat.
Too sick to participate in the battle, Bowie likely died in bed. Eyewitnesses to the battle gave conflicting accounts of his death. Some witnesses maintained that they saw several Mexican soldiers enter Bowie's room, bayonet him, and carry him alive from the room. Others claimed that Bowie shot himself or was killed by soldiers while too weak to lift his head. According to historian Wallace Chariton, the most popular, and probably the most accurate version is that Bowie died on his cot, back braced against the wall, and using his pistols and his famous knife. (Hence the term, “Bowie knife”) The first two Mexican soldiers that stormed into the room were shot and killed by Bowie's pistols, and drawing his knife, Bowie killed one or two other soldiers before the rest repeatedly stabbed him with their bayonets.
The last of the Texans to die were the 11 men manning the two 12-pounder cannon in the chapel. A shot from the 18-pounder cannon destroyed the barricades at the front of the church, and Mexican soldiers entered the building after firing an initial musket volley. Dickinson's crew fired their cannon from the apse into the Mexican soldiers at the door. With no time to reload, the Texans, including Dickinson, Gregorio Esparza and James Bonham, grabbed rifles and fired before being bayoneted to death. Texan Robert Evans, the master of ordnance, had been tasked with keeping the gunpowder from falling into Mexican hands. Wounded, he crawled toward the powder magazine but was killed by a musket ball with his torch only inches from the powder. Had he succeeded, the blast would have destroyed the church and killed the women and children hiding in the sacristy.
As soldiers approached the sacristy, one of the young sons of defender Anthony Wolf stood to pull a blanket over his shoulders. In the dark, Mexican soldiers mistook him for an adult and killed him. Possibly the last Texan to die in battle was Jacob Walker, who attempted to hide behind Susannah Dickinson and was bayoneted in front of the women. Another Texan, Brigido Guerrero, also sought refuge in the sacristy. Guerrero, who had deserted from the Mexican Army in December 1835, was spared after convincing the soldiers he was a Texan prisoner.
According to many accounts of the battle, between five and seven Texans surrendered. Incensed that his orders had been ignored, Santa Anna demanded the immediate execution of the survivors. Weeks after the battle, stories circulated that Crockett was among those who surrendered. However, Ben, a former American slave who cooked for one of Santa Anna's officers, maintained that Crockett's body was found surrounded by no less than sixteen Mexican corpses. Historians disagree on which version of Crockett's death is accurate.
Santa Anna reportedly told Captain Fernando Urizza that the battle was but a small affair. Another officer then remarked that with another such victory as this, we'll go to the devil. In his initial report Santa Anna claimed that 600 Texans had been killed, with only 70 Mexican soldiers killed and 300 wounded. His secretary, Ramón Martínez Caro, later repudiated the report. Other estimates of the number of Mexican soldiers killed ranged from 60-200, with an additional 250-300 wounded. Most Alamo historians place the number of Mexican casualties at 400-600. This would represent about one-third of the Mexican soldiers involved in the final assault, which Todish remarks is a tremendous casualty rate by any standards. Most eyewitnesses counted 182 Texans killed. Some historians believe that at least one Texan, Henry Warnell, successfully escaped from the battle. Warnell died several months later of wounds incurred either during the final battle or during his escape as a courier.
Mexican soldiers were buried in the local cemetery, Campo Santo. Shortly after the battle, Colonel José Juan Sanchez Navarro proposed that a monument should be erected to the fallen Mexican soldiers. Cos rejected the idea. The Texian bodies were stacked and burned. The only exception was the body of Gregorio Esparza. His brother Francisco, an officer in Santa Anna's army, received permission to give Gregorio a proper burial. The ashes were left where they fell until February 1837, when Juan Seguin returned to Béxar to examine the remains. A simple coffin inscribed with the names Travis, Crockett, and Bowie was filled with ashes from the funeral pyres. According to a March 28th, 1837, article in the Telegraph and Texas Register, Seguín buried the coffin under a peach tree grove. The spot was not marked and cannot now be identified. Seguín later claimed that he had placed the coffin in front of the altar at the San Fernando Cathedral. In July 1936 a coffin was discovered buried in that location, but according to historian Wallace Chariton it is unlikely to actually contain the remains of the Alamo defenders. Fragments of uniforms were found in the coffin, and it is known that the Alamo defenders did not wear uniforms.
In an attempt to convince other slaves in Texas to support the Mexican government over the Texan rebellion, Santa Anna spared Travis's slave, Joe. The day after the battle, he interviewed each noncombatant individually. Impressed with Susanna Dickinson, Santa Anna offered to adopt her infant daughter Angelina and have the child educated in Mexico City. Dickinson refused the offer, which was not extended to Juana Navarro Alsbury for her son who was of similar age. Each woman was given a blanket and two silver pesos. Alsbury and the other Tejano women were allowed to return to their homes in Béxar; Dickinson, her daughter and Joe were sent to Gonzales, escorted by Ben. They were encouraged to relate the events of the battle, and to inform the remainder of the Texan forces that Santa Anna's army was unbeatable.
This was later proven wrong at the battle of San Jacinto where Santa Anna was captured, which would eventually lead to Santa Anna turning Texas over to Sam Houston in exchange for his life to be spared, and released. (Hence the saying: "Don't mess with Texas!)
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