March 6th, 1836, San Antonio de Bexar Texas. Thirteen days prior Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna Perez de Lebron, the self styled Napoleon of the West, had arrived in Bexar and invested the old Catholic mission Alamo and it’s Texian defenders. The Alamo had been occupied by the Texians on December 9th 1835 after a five day battle in the streets and a brief siege of General Cos’s Mexican forces inside it’s walls. It had been the second armed clash of the Texas Revolution, the first taking place at Gonzalez when Mexican troops had attempted to repossess a cannon given to the Texians to defend themselves against Indian attack. The Texans had famously risen a homemade flag emblazoned with a crude cannon and the words “Come and Take It.” General Santa Anna, fresh from brutally crushing a rebellion in Zacateras, decided to destroy the head strong Texians in an equally vicious campaign.
Most of Mexico was rebelling against Santa Anna because he had dissolved the 1824 Constitution. Stephen Austin and the other Texian “emprasario’s”, Americans and other nationalities who had accepted land grants from the Mexican government in order to populate and settle large tracts of inhospitable land, were sincere in their pledges of loyalty to the new Mexican government when they first began settling there in the 1820’s. American beliefs in republican ideals and strong independence streaks had caused problems with the Mexican religious and political institutions, but armed conflict didn’t break out until Santa Anna seized power and tossed out the 1824 Constitution, which was modeled after and very similar to the U.S. Constitution. There was a civil war going on in Mexico between the centralistas (Santa Anna) who wanted a strong central government in control, and the federalistas who wanted a republic with power delegated to the states. Texas was just the latest of many rebellious states Santa Anna had to subdue, and one he swore to crush with a bloody and “glorious” demonstration of his power and military prowess.
The Alamo lay astride one of only two arteries from Mexico into Texas proper. Both were vital to Santa Anna’s grand plan to smash the fledgling republic in a crushing pincers movement. To the east the Atascosito Road ran north along the Gulf of Mexico from Matamoros on the Rio Grande through Goliad and into the heart of the Texas settlements. Further inland the El Camino Real wound itself northeast from the Rio Grande all the way to Nacogodoches, and into American Louisiana. The Alamo mission lay astride the El Camino Real, blocking Santa Anna’s line of advance into Texas. To his east the Presidio La Bahia blocked General Urrea’s march on the Atascosito at Goliad.
Santa Anna reasoned that the Alamo was the lynch pin to his campaign. “Bexar was held by the enemy and it was necessary to open the door to our future operations by taking it.” Bexar would serve as a staging point and supply depot for his 1836 campaign he rationalized. But there was more to his desire to take the Alamo. General Cos had suffered a humiliating defeat there, and Mexican pride and prestige had to be avenged.
Col. James Clinton Neill had taken command of the Alamo after General Cos’s defeat and had set about fortifying it properly. A regular army officer with extensive artillery experience, he had festooned the fort with enough artillery that when Col. James Bowie rode into it on January 19th he was dutifully impressed and vowed to “die in the ditches” with Col. Neill rather than relinquish it to Santa Anna.
Col. William Barret Travis and his “legion” of 30 cavalrymen were ordered to the Alamo and arrived on February 3rd. Col. Travis had obeyed his orders under duress, not wishing to tie down his cavalry in defense of a fixed position. But once he was there, he became committed to Col. Neill and called the Alamo the “Key to Texas.” On February 8th the redoubtable backwoods legend David Crockett and his group of Tennessee volunteers also rode into the fort. Shunning any rank, he preferred to serve as a “high private”, allowing his reputation as the “Lion of the West” to cement his leadership among the rank and file.
With the furloughed departure of Col. Neill on 14 February due to an illness in his family, command of the Alamo was given to Col. Travis. Col. Neill’s men were apprehensive over his leaving and would miss their beloved colonel, despite his vow to return within 20 days. It would not be soon enough.
Tejano scouts had advised Col. Travis and Col. Bowie, (now sharing command after a boisterous election, drunken Bowie carousal, and an agreement that Bowie would command the volunteers while Travis commanded the regulars), that Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande. Neither had expected him to arrive in Bexar so soon. Santa Anna had driven his army hard, and the El Camino Real was littered with the corpses of dead Mexican soldados. His men had force marched through a raging blizzard, expected to “live off of the land” by a detached Generalissimo who either did not care, or was blissfully ignorant, that his army was marching through a barren desert during the height of a brutal winter. Comanche and Apache warriors raided their camps, sweeping in to seize cattle, arms and scalps. The braves would scour behind the army, picking over the remains of each nights camp, venting their cruelty on stragglers, deserters and the sick.
On February 23rd the Mexican army occupied San Antonio de Bexar and began the siege. For the next 12 days they bombarded the fort’s limestone walls with solid shot from their arrayed artillery while Zapadores dug a series of trenches, zigzagging closer each night. The Mexican artillerymen however soon learned that venturing within 200 yards drew unwelcome attention form Texian riflemen. They were awed with fearful respect of the frontiersmen’s amazing marksmanship, falling prey to shots thought impossible in an age where most musket engagements were fought at ranges of 50 yards or less.
On March 1st, the eighth day of the siege, 32 horseman of Lt. George Kimball’s Gonzalez ranging company, the “Immortal 32″, hacked their way through the Mexican lines and entered the Alamo, bringing the total defenders to nearly 200 men. It would be the only reinforcements Travis would receive.
On the 11th day of the siege, March 4th, Santa Anna sounded an officer’s call. The Alamo’s walls had been weakened by the intense bombardment. The defenders were near the end of their tether having suffered nearly continuous artillery fire, there was no Texan relief column in sight, and it was only a brief matter of time before they would surrender. In fact, Travis had already sent an emissary to discuss terms. Santa Anna had replied “They should surrender unconditionally, without guarantees, not even for life itself, since there should be no guarantee for traitors.” Even after this brusque rejoinder, Santa Anna’s announcement to his officers over dinner that night stunned them; he had set the date for the assault for Sunday March 6th. Santa Anna was throwing away a chance for a bloodless capitulation in exchange for a bloody, glorious victory. To his officers there was no justification for wasting the lives of the soldados in a frontal assault on a defended fortress bristling with artillery, but His Excellency demonstrated to his assembled officers the disregard he held for the lives of his own men. Flourishing a chicken leg he said “What are the lives of soldiers than so many chickens? I tell you, the Alamo must fall, and my orders must be obeyed at all hazards. If our soldiers are driven back, the next line in the rear must force those before them forward, and compel them to scale the walls, cost what it may.” Santa Anna had decided.
There would be a blood bath.
The assault was scheduled for 0500 on the morning of March 6th. Towards the end of March 5th the Mexican cannon fell silent. The Alamo defenders, dulled by 12 days and nights of continuous bombardment took advantage of the lull to catch some much needed sleep. While they slept in exhausted heaps, the Mexican army quietly formed ranks in the darkness of the fields of scrub brush surrounding the mission and stealthily crept forward.
At 0530 Santa Anna ordered the assault. Under the bright moon the massed formations made for excellent targets, but there was no response from the Alamo walls. The silence on the field as nerve racking, and eventually one Mexican soldier could no longer bear the tension. “Viva Santa Anna!” he yelled, and soon thunderous roars of “Viva la Republica!” bellowed forth from the ranks.
The groggy defenders were roused from their exhausted stupor and raced to their posts. Grabbing his double barrel shotgun, Travis yelled “Come on boys the Mexicans are upon us, and we’ll give them Hell!”
Cannoneers loaded their pieces with canister shot, rusty scraps of nails, bits of horseshoes, links of chain, any chunk of metal they could lay hands on. The jagged shot tore through Mexican ranks like a giant scythe, a single blast sweeping away half the company of Toluca cazadores. Solid shot tore into the densely packed formations; shattering men and launching shards of their bones onto deadly trajectories of their own which felled the men behind them.
Entire columns were swept asunder by the savage fire, but still they pressed forward, pouring fire of their own against the wall’s defenders. At the north battery 400 men of Col. Francisco Duque slammed against the wall like a wave crashing on the rocks. Atop the parapet Col. Travis unloaded his shotgun straight down at the soldados, and then fell dead, slammed back by a slug which blew through his forehead and into his brain.
The assault surged forward, the men bent over at the waist like a person running through a rain storm. But the rain in this thunderstorm was hot spheres of lead and jagged chunks or iron. Sheer numbers overcame the fierce resistance on the walls. Mexican soldados, pressed by their advancing comrades behind them could die from the relentless fire pouring form the Alamo’s walls, could be crushed by their own men, shot in the back by the Mexican soldiers trying to engage the Texans from too great a range; or they could scale the walls and face the knives, bayonets, and axes of the desperate Texans. Santa Anna actually ordered the Zapadores forward against the north wall knowing that they would crush Col. Duque’s men huddled against the wall. They fired a volley that killed more Mexicans then Texans. Gen. Vincent Filisola said that “…most of our dead and wounded were caused by this misfortune…”. More chickens for Santa Anna’s slaughter.
Spurred on by the example of General Juan Amador at the north wall, they scaled the grueling, deadly 12 feet and charged into the beleaguered Texans. General Amador dropped into the courtyard, the first Mexican to do so, and swung open a door. The Mexicans swarmed in and at that moment the outcome of the battle was no longer in doubt.
As each of the walls were breached, the Texans fell back inside the fort. Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans retreated into the church at the southeast corner, while the majority of the men fell back into the “Long Barracks” running along the eastern side of the compound. It was here that the most vicious fighting would occur, with the Mexicans rooting out the Texan defenders one bloody room at a time. The Texans made them pay dearly for each foot they gained. In the darkness the combatants grappled with bayonets, and axes, butcher knives and tomahawks. The slaughter was relentless.
Along the south wall soldados’ broke into a room by the main gate and found a Texian too sick and delirious to raise his head from his death bed. They mercilessly killed him where he lay. It was the exact treatment that Jim Bowie had expected.
The church was the last redoubt to fall. Battered by fire form the Texans own artillery tubes, the sandbags blocking the main entrance were blown aside and the Mexicans pushed inside. All but a handful of the defenders were slaughtered, the remaining men too exhausted or wounded to resist further.
General Santa Anna surveyed his bloodily won trophy, savoring his moment of glory. His officers begged for humane treatment of the prisoners, but His Excellency only responded with a “gesture of indignation” and ordered them executed.
Jose Enrique de la Pena, an officer under Santa Anna, minced no words and swore that Davy Crockett was among those murdered. Others claimed that it was unconscionable that he would have died in any way other than atop a pile of dead Mexicans, swinging his empty musket until shot dead.
In the final sense, how or when Crockett died is of no importance. What truly matters is where.He, and all the defenders of the Alamo; Mexicans, Americans, Irish, Scotch, Englishmen, Germans and Danes, died fighting under the flag of the 1824 Constitution to which they had sworn an oath of allegiance. They died defending republican institutions against the centralist dictatorship of a savage, narcissistic usurper. They died for kith and kin. They died for freedom. They died for Texas. In so doing they transcended history into the realm of myth and legend. And they left a lasting legacy for us to follow. As my good friend Rurik once told me, “The Alamo is not a place, it’s a state of mind.”
As you enter the Alamo church today, the “Shrine” as the Daughters of Texas prefer to call it, there is a bronze plaque admonishing our generation to remember the sacrifices made for us;
Be silent, friend
Here heroes died
To pave the way
For other men.