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Battle of the Alamo

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Battle of the Alamo; 19th century battle and thirteen day siege, San Antonio, Texas, USA. It was a tactical defeat in which all Texan defenders died, but a strategic victory in that it allowed the Texan forces to regroup for the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.

Background

The Battle of the Alamo is a microcosm of the larger saga of Texas Independence from Mexico. In 1832 General Antonio López de Santa Anna led a Federalist revolt against Mexican President Anastasio Bustamante. Political events in Mexico changed rapidly and Santa Anna changed his political views and marched to Mexico City and deposed acting president Gómez Farías. In 1833 he disbanded the national congress and replaced it with a Centralist regime. The Constitution of 1824 was abandoned with the Plan of Cuernavaca.

The new Centralist government was viewed by many Mexican states as unacceptable. Texas was joined with the other state of Coahuila. The fight for Texas independence was an off shoot of the Mexican civil war. As states voiced their opposition the Santa Anna’s government, he made plans to silence their ideals of independent rule. The first state to fall was Zacatecas in 1835 and Texas was next. Trouble had been brewing in Texas since 1832.

Revolt

On 11 October 1835 CE, Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cós arrived in San Antonio with five hundred soldiers to reinforce the garrison. The Texans moved in and began a fifty-six day siege of the town of San Antonio. Cos was forced to surrender the town and the Alamo on 10 December to the Texan rebels.

Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill was left in command of the Alamo with one hundred men. Making Neill’s ability to hold the Alamo were the actions of Frank W. Johnson and Dr. James Grant. The two men had stripped the Alamo of clothing and provisions for their planned march to Matamoros, Mexico. They also persuaded nearly two hundred men to follow them. On 14 January 1836 CE, Neill penned a letter to the Provisional Government stating, “There can exist but little doubt that the enemy is advancing on this post, from the number of families leaving town today”. Neill’s forces had dwindled to about seventy-five effective fighting men.

Santa Anna was at the head of a 6,000 man “Army of Operations”, moving north into Texas from San Luis Potosi by late December.

Siege Nears

On 19 January 1836 CE, James Bowie rode into San Antonio with a small contingent of reinforcements. Bowie wrote to the Provisional Government that he and Neill would “die in these ditches’ before they would surrender their post.

Alamo garrison spirits were raised by the arrival of William Travis and another small unit of volunteers on 3 February. Emotions were raised even higher with the arrival of former Tennessee congressman David Crockett on 8 February. His speech of “I have come to aid you all that I can in your noble cause…and all the honour that I desire is that of defending as a high private..” caused the men to throw a ‘fandango’ in his honor. The dynamics of the Alamo garrison changed with the departure of Colonel Neill on 14 February. He promised to return in twenty days after tending to his family who had become ill. Neill appointed twenty-six year old Travis as Alamo commander since he was the next highest ranking regular officer. Bowie would command the volunteers and Travis the regulars and all orders would be signed by both men.

Siege Begins

Advanced scouting party of General Ramirez y Sesma crossed the Medina River on 22 February 1836 CE and reached Alazan Heights, just west of San Antonio; Santa Anna lead approximately 1,600 troops with him when he entered Plaza de Isleta the next day. Immediately upon entering the town, Santa Anna ordered the raising of a red flag to fly from the highest point in town, the San Fernando Church. The flag was a sign of ‘no quarter’ was to be given to the rebels. The rebels would have to throw themselves upon the mercy of the Mexican government and surrender their arms. Travis quickly sends a courier to Gonzales with the message, “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 Alamo to the last”.

The Mexican Army immediately began digging a series of fieldworks in preparation of surrounding the Alamo garrison and preventing escape or outside reinforcements.

Sole command of the Alamo garrison is turned over to Travis on 24 February as Bowie becomes greatly ill and unable to command. It is not known for sure what his ailment was, but it was described as “hasty consumption” and “typhoid pneumonia”. He is confined to his quarters in the south or Main gate. Travis pens his most famous letter during the siege, stating; 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 not 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 his honor & that of his country. VICTORY or DEATH

On 1 March, an estimated thirty-two men from Gonzales made it through the Mexican lines and joined the Alamo garrison. Travis was hoping for more support from James W. Fannin and his four hundred soldiers only ninety-five miles away at Goliad. Two days later Travis had his answer as courier James Butler Bonham arrived with word from Fannin that he wasn’t coming.

Final Assault

After twelve days of constant siege and bombardment of the Alamo, Santa Anna called a meeting of his senior staff. He outlined his plans for the final assault of the fort. Despite many objections from his officers that such an ill-planned attack was necessary; Santa Anna went ahead with his plans. Inside the Alamo, legend states that Travis assembled his men, drew a line in the sand with his sword and asked the men to stay and fight, or leave with no ill feelings towards them. One combatant, Louis Rose, accepted the offer and left before the final assault. Mexican accounts differ slightly with a woman leaving the Alamo after the speech and conveying to Santa Anna that Travis sought a surrender to spare the lives of all inside the fortress. If not, then they would sell their lives dearly. Santa Anna wanted a quick and bloody finale to create glory for his presidency back in Mexico City.

Travis sends out one last courier, sixteen year old Jim Allen, with a plea for assistance from the Texas colonies and government.

By 5:00 A.M., the Mexican army had assembled outside the Alamo. The mission was totally surrounded. At 5:30 A.M. the silent order was given to the ranks to move quietly forward. Colonel Cos came from the northwest corner, Francisco Duque; slightly from the northwest aimed at the breach in the north wall. Colonel Jose M. Romero attacked from the east and Colonel Juan Morales moved on the low wall by the chapel. The advancing ranks lost the element of surprise when a Mexican soldier, over come with anxiety, yelled out, “Viva Santa Anna!’ “Viva la Repulica!” Other soldiers joined in the battle yell and rushed the Alamo walls. Travis was awakened by Adjutant John Baugh who had the night watch inside the compound, grabbed his weapons and rushed to the north wall shouting, “ Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us and we’ll give them Hell!” He does get off a few shots from his shotgun before he is shot in the forehead by a Mexican Brown Bess rifle. The Texans reek horrific carnage on the tightly packed columns of Mexican soldiers with their make-shift grapeshot cannon fire. The screams and bashing bodies told the story of casualties being inflicted. Jose de la Pena wrote, “ a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs from Toluca.” The Mexican advance was stopped momentarily, regrouped, and kept coming. Cos and Duque were forced to combine their columns into one massive one. Morales's attack was beaten back by the fierce and accurate rifle and cannon fire from Crockett's men. Santa Anna ordered in his reserve units. The Texans began to take heavy losses as the rapidly on rushing Mexican soldiers made their way to the base of the Alamo walls. The Texan advantage of their slow loading long-rifles was gone; now they were forced to stand up, lean over and expose themselves to deadly Mexican shots.

Through the carnage and mass confusion, General Juan Amador and his soldiers finally scaled the twelve foot north wall, opened a postern and allowed their comrades to rush in.

The Texans, the ones able to make it, fell back to the Long Barracks as a final defense. Mexican soldiers now used the Texans own cannons to blast away the doors and cow-hide packed barriers to get at the Texans. Mexican soldiers rushed into the dark and unlit rooms and killed the Texans in fierce hand to hand combat. According the battle report of Joaquin Ramirez y Sesma, about fifty Texans jump the Alamo walls and fled on foot. The Dolres Cavalry unit under Lt. Colonel Juan Herrera and Captain Cayetano Montero,chased them down and killed them on the spot.

Crockett, Bonham and Almeron Dickenson and any other surviving men took refuge inside the Alamo chapel. The Mexicans turned around the Texans own powerful eighteen pound cannon and blasted away the cow-hide and dirt barrier inside the doorway to gain easy access to the chapel.

The final assault lasted about thirty minutes. According to de la Pena, after the final carnage was over, General Manuel Fernandez Castrillon brought forth about six Texan survivors. One was allegedly Crockett. Castrillon had pledge their safety and presented them to Santa Anna who by now had entered the Alamo. Upon seeing the helpless prisoners, Santa Anna with a ‘gesture of indignation’ ordered their execution on the spot. Several officers refused to murder the prisoners who had surrendered in good faith. But nearby staff officers stepped up, unsheathed their swords and hacked Crockett and the others to death. De la Pena stated, ‘these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers”.

Loses

  • The Mexican Army losses were an estimated 600 killed and wounded out of an attacking force of 1,800 men.
  • The Texans lost an estimated 180-250 men. A handful of woman, children and slaves did survive the assault. One local Tejano, fighting for the Texan rebels, Brigido Guerrero, did survive the battle by convincing the Mexican soldiers that he had been held prisoner by the Texans.

Side Note

  • On 2 March 1836 CE, the Provisional Government did declare and sign, a Texas Declaration of Independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
  • All the bodies of the defeated Texas rebels were stacked and burned per the orders of Santa Anna. The Mexican soldier bodies were to be given a proper burial in the town cemetery by Francisco Antonio Ruiz, the town mayor. He attempted to bury the bodies of the officers first, and quickly ran out of room in the town cemetery. He decided to toss the remaining bodies into the swiftly flowing river until the number of dead bodies choked the stream. The bodies were dislodged by hand and floated down stream.