The Alamo – ‘Key To Texas’

Sam Houston would become an icon of American history, but, like many military heroes, he’d see the darkest of human nature before he got...

Sam Houston would become an icon of American history, but, like many military heroes, he’d see the darkest of human nature before he got there.

On April 21, 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto was the final showdown of Texas’ war with Mexico, at which the Texians (‘Texans’ came into use later), who were largely ‘Anglo’ American colonists, decisively defeat the Mexican army.

Though victory was not a given. 

Antonio de Padua Maria Severino Lopez de Santa Anna y Perez de Lebron, or Santa Anna, had appointed himself military dictator of Mexico and had pursued Houston’s force doggedly.

The Texians had crossed the San Jacinto River, and in a daring act, a scout named ‘Deaf Smith’ had taken six scouts and destroyed the bridge at Lynch’s Ferry behind the Mexicans, sealing off only part of Santa Anna’s force. Now, there could be a fair fight.

Battle of San Jacinto, with the Texians in blue and Mexicans in red (from The Texas War of Independence by Alan C Huffines)

On guard against possible attack all night, the Mexican soldiers were exhausted when the Texians rushed them the next morning. 

Ignoring artillery fire from the one Mexican cannon, Houston’s men dashed to within firing range, unleashed their own artillery and muskets, and then charged the enemy line. 

It was then that Houston and his officers lost control of their forces, his protest falling on deaf ears:

“Gentleman, gentlemen, gentlemen. I applaud your bravery, but damn your manners”.

The trouble was, while Houston might have been appointed commander-in-chief in March, the same constitutional convention had also seen Thomas Jefferson Rusk dubbed Secretary of War.

Sam Houston (left) and Thomas Jefferson Rusk (right)

And he over-ruled Houston, yelling at subordinates:

“If we stop, we are cut to pieces. Don’t stop – go ahead, give them hell”.

And they did.

While even by the most brutal standards of the time the ‘soldados’ might have been thought of as fair game, the fact was, the Mexican army also had non-combatants in their ranks. The men had become accustomed to having their ‘soldaderas’ with them – wives, mistresses, mothers, folk healers, laundresses, and whores - fulfilling both their usual feminine roles, and acting as cooks, foragers, and nurses when needed.

Describing the slaughter that followed, Alan C Huffines writes in ‘The Texas War of Independence 1835-36’ that:

“At least one soldadera… was not spared the bloodbath, nor were the children who performed roles as musicians… one soldier when ordered to halt, replied, “If Jesus Christ were to come down and tell me to stop killing yellowbellies, I would refuse””. 

What had driven these men to such frenzy? 

The Battle of San Jacinto

The war had started well, with a string of victories, but on February 23, 1836, a siege was begun by Santa Anna that would see the Texians completely annihilated. The place was the Alamo.

It had started life as a Catholic mission station – there were a number of them all over Mexican territory because the Spanish had tried, rather unsuccessfully, to convert the indigenous population.

Later on, it had been converted to a fort, and when war broke out between Mexico and the Texians, both sides had realised its importance. Remarkably strong, and situated not too far into Texian territory, it could, if taken, act as a stepping stone to taking all of Texas.

Houston, knowing he didn’t have enough men to fortify all the territory he needed to defend, had tried to get the fort razed to the ground, thus denying it to Santa Anna. But the council that formed the Texians provisional government had not approved this.

Instead, it had been given a small garrison. But commanders JC Neill and William Travis (Neill would get ill and have to relinquish command to Travis) had not expected the Mexicans to be ready for a large-scale attack before the winter was over in March or April. Winters in Texas weren’t known for being especially cold, but the winter of 1836 was one of the coldest and wettest in memory. The Texians reasoned that the enemy surely wouldn’t attack in that, but they were about to get a nasty shock.

Mexican soldiers (image from 'The Alamo and the War of Texan Independence' © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

That’s because generalissimo Santa Anna was more concerned with the summer, which in Texas, regularly sees temperatures above 100°F from May to September. He reasoned:

“A long campaign would have undoubtedly consumed our resources and we would have been unable to renew them”.

His completion schedule for the campaign was thus calibrated to race against a four-month clock.

It drove everything that followed and drove his men to near collapse as they took minimal supplies and tried to live off the land. The desert, though, didn’t have much food. What it did have was dirty water that made the soldados sick when they were forced to drink it, Apache Indians that threatened to leap out and scalp them, and flash floods of at least one river they had to ford.

The textbook strength of a Mexican infantry battalion had been eight companies of 80 men apiece, but the 1836 campaign frequently saw companies with a mere 40 men. Such was the damage inflicted by the elements.

Despite the difficulties, Santa Anna drove on, and by February 23, his men surrounded the Alamo, outnumbering the 200 odd men inside by more than 10 to one.

This would be no Rorke’s Drift, with well-armed defenders repelling spear-wielding Zulus – the Mexicans had muskets and cannons of their own. They carried the British .753 caliber India Pattern “Brown Bess” musket, and were trained to use it well. Unfortunately, it was innately shorter ranged than the enemy’s Kentucky long rifles, and poor quality gunpowder made it less effective still.

Texas War of Independence
Brown Bess Muskets and Kentucky Long Rifles (by Antique Military Rifles)

Despite the numbers, and Santa Anna’s promise to execute any survivors, the defenders were defiant. 

They were led by two hot-heads who’d been in contest with each other for command. 39-year-old James Bowie, whose conspicuous usage of a hunting blade gave rise to the name “Bowie knife” was, according to Stephen L Harding in ‘The Alamo 1836’, a “true son of the frontier”.

As a boy, he’d apparently broken horses, trapped bears, and ridden alligators in the Mississippi River valley, and had grown up to be a slave trader. A later move into ‘shady dealings’ such as land fraud made him enemies and got him involved in the 1827 “Sandbar Fight”, which saw him shot and stabbed before he knifed his opponent, Norris Wright, to death.

He moved to Texas in 1830 and tried to settle down, reinventing himself as a “gentleman of style and substance”, a “sham (that) won him the hand of Ursula de Veramendi, the daughter of a wealthy and influential Tejano (Mexican-Texan) family”. But the dream was broken when cholera killed his wife and in-laws, and he got dragged into the increasingly bitter Mexico-Anglo politics.  

His big head almost got him into trouble with Travis, who’d been appointed lieutenant colonel. As a natural cavalier, he was already in a rather bad mood at having to assume the ‘boring’ static post at the Alamo in Neill’s stead. The next thing he knew, Bowie, who, according to biographer Clifford Hopewell, considered himself a colonel, had shown up and demanded to be in charge.

The 26-year-old William Barret ‘Buck’ Travis had passed the Alabama bar to become a lawyer at the very young age of 20. He’d taught at a local academy to earn money while studying and fallen for and then married one of his students, 16-year-old Rosanna Cato. They’d had a baby and embarked on 'marital bliss', but, unable to manage his finances, the congenitally restless Travis had abandoned his family and set off in search of a new life in Texas.

The Alamo, 'dull' posting for Travis

When war had begun with Mexico in late 1835, his military talent soon became apparent while serving with distinction at the Siege of Bexar, one of a string of early victories for the colonists.  

Defaulting to the egalitarian spirit of the Texians, Travis and Bowie agreed to let an election settle things, and Travis was soon confirmed as the men’s choice of leader. The following night, Bowie got drunk and made a fool of himself, though later apologised for ‘being an ass’, and the two agreed that Travis would lead the regular troops while Bowie would command the volunteers.

The Volunteer Auxiliary Corps (VAC) augmented the militia and regular army units, much as the hastily created volunteer units (and most famous amongst them, the ‘Rough Riders’) did in the Spanish-American War.

It was formed mostly by volunteers streaming down from the US.

The intention had been for Houston to have a regular force as the main building block of his army that would consist of a single 1,120-strong brigade with a regiment of artillery, and another of infantry.

Each regiment was to have two battalions, the first headed by a lieutenant-colonel, and the second by a major. Companies would have 56 men each.

In reality, the regular army never managed to build up more than one infantry company, and a hodgepodge of regulars, militia, and volunteers would make up Houston’s force.

Huffines informs us that, although frontier life was tough, starting again in Texas gave men a second chance in life, and the wilderness types who filled the army there brought the frontier spirit into the ranks with them. According to Hardin:

“Texians were wonderful fighters, but poor soldiers. Once they sniffed gunpowder they were ferocious, but persuading them to stay around for battle regularly proved a problem. Independent and insubordinate, they were an officer’s nightmare. Yet, volunteers demonstrated initiative, marksmanship, and remarkable physical courage. Jacksonian “common men”, they mirrored the vices and the virtues of their age”.

One man who could testify to Jacksonian vices, or more specifically, the vices of President Andrew Jackson, was his erstwhile ally turned political enemy David ‘Davy’ Crockett. 

The 49-year-old had had a successful political career in the House of Representatives until Jackson’s ‘Trail of Tears’ removal of native Americans had made him turn on the president. Voted out in the ensuing uproar, Crockett left for Texas.

As a widely reputed bear hunter and Indian fighter (this, paired with his opposition to the Indian Removal Act, appears to have been part of the dichotomy of the man), Crockett’s ‘common man’ heroism engendered him to many on the frontier.

A saying developed based on the notion that if an object was large and impressive enough, it might be ‘sinful’ in that it could potentially eclipse Crockett’s awesome reputation. Hardin lists a typical exchange:

“Lordy, Zeb, that’s the biggest steamboat I ever seen on this river!” “Yep, Luther, she’s a big ‘un alright. A regular sin to Crockett”.

The Alamo
Bowie (left), Travis (centre) and Crockett (right)

The motley crew of plucky defenders were optimistic. They thought they’d be relieved, as Travis had sent word out that they were surrounded and needed help. 

Unfortunately, the chaos of the shifting war and Santa Anna’s push into Texas had caused Texian leaders to move the seat of government and they never got his message.

Time was on the Mexicans’ side, and Santa Anna’s elite Zapadores, pioneer troops, continued to coordinate with artillery and work out how to breach the fort. Outside, the fusilero companies, and elite cazadores (riflemen, like Prussian Jagers) and granaderos (grenadiers) were kept encircling the walls, ready to be flung at the defenders when the opportunity came.

Like the colonists, the Mexicans had their regulars, the more dependable permanentes, and auxiliary units, the activo, packed with reluctant draftees. 

Model of the Alamo by Cindy Underhill
Model of the Alamo (image: Cindy Underhill)

Bowie fell ill, instructing his men to submit themselves to Travis.

Day after day, as the outer walls were slowly battered by the Mexican cannon, the defenders reinforced them with whatever timber they could salvage.

They’d also salvage whatever metal they could to blast at the Mexicans from their own guns.

Of course, heavy artillery would have finished the fort off more quickly, but Santa Anna didn’t have any.

While his artillery units were better equipped than the Texians, years of political turmoil had damaged the army, and the artillery had borne the brunt of this.

He had a mere 17 field artillery pieces – 4, 6, 8, and 12 pounders – with four 7-inch howitzers. 

During the 19th Century, Mexico, along with the rest of the rest of the countries in Central and South America, became independent from Spain (and Portugal, in the case of Brazil).

South American history
San Martín proclaims the independence of Peru from Spain

At the time, Texas was sparsely populated, and Spain had encouraged people to immigrate to it so that it could be economically developed.

The plan was for it to become an official state once there were enough people living there.

Many Americans flocked to it, but they soon found themselves at odds with their Mexican neighbours.

To begin with, they wanted to know that Mexico was going to honour the agreement set up by Spain, for Texas to be a state with some degree of autonomy.

There were also cultural differences that led each side to rub each other up the wrong way.

Mexicans were irritated by the lack of deference shown by the Anglo colonists, who of course were famously egalitarian and defiant of authority.

For their part, the American settlers resented the Mexican policy of placing Mexican convicts in Texas (or Tejas) as seed for future generations.

They didn’t appreciate being forced to be neighbours with the likes of such people.

There were also very serious political differences. The Texian settlers were stalwart slave owners, something that made the Mexicans uneasy.

Additionally, there was an internal dispute within Mexico about what the best kind of government was following independence from Spain.

The centralists wanted to concentrate power in the capital; the federalists favoured devolving power to local states, a position shared by the American settlers. 

Santa Anna had originally been a federalist, but he became a centralist and this set him on a collision course with the Texians.

He began to view their politically savvy nature with suspicion and saw them as insolent subjects.

Stephen Austin, the father of Texas, would ultimately be thrown in jail - his attempts to try and organise a lobbying effort for statehood were seen as insurrection.

The Alamo
Santa Anna - a strict centralist

Santa Anna was determined to stamp out these ‘impertinent’ Americans and to do so properly. Merely starving them out would not be enough.

But when he heard the generalissimo planned an unnecessary attack, General Manuel Fernandez Castrillon, his deputy, was horrified.

According to Hardin, he “insisted that a frontal assault was in violation of all accepted custom and would surely result in the needless loss of many soldados”.

Over dinner, Santa Anna is said to have held up a chicken leg and proclaimed: 

“What are the lives of the 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 their rear must force those before them forward, and compel them to scale the walls, cost what it may”.

On the early hours of March 6, the Mexican infantry sneaked up on the fort.

The defenders, exhausted by almost two weeks of relentless artillery pounding, were asleep, and were almost taken completely by surprise.

But the nervous Mexican troops outside found the nerve-wracking silence hard to bare, and eventually one snapped, screaming “Viva Santa Anna!” and another “Viva la Republican!”

Roused, the defenders rushed to their cannons and unleashed all manner of improved shot, bludgeoning the attackers with door handles, bits of horseshoes, links of chain, nails, and bits of rusty scrap.

Texan war of independence
Inside the Alamo - the site as it looks today (image: John Tornow)

Those that could crouch in dead ground did so, but eventually, the elite Zapadores led the assault up ladders and over the outer walls.

As the Mexicans poured in, Travis unleashed both barrels of his shotgun, but was hit in turn by musket fire and killed.

His slave Joe, considered to not be a responsible member of the ‘insurrection’ because of his servitude, was one of those released after the battle, and was able to relate what happened.

With fire coming in from the north and south battlements, defenders dashed into the church and barracks.

Texas War of Independence
Crockett before falling back to the church (image from 'The Alamo 1836' by Stephen L Hardin © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Some of the defenders saw a gap and tried to escape over the walls, but all were lanced or shot.

Now, as the enemy closed in, the remaining Texians prepared to make their last stand.

Santa Anna’s men turned the cannons on the church and barracks and blasted the doors open before pouring inside.

Hand-to-hand fighting erupted in the darkness, James Bowie unloading his pistols before being shot where he lay in bed.

All but six or seven of the defenders were overwhelmed and killed, and the remaining men, unarmed and helpless, were taken captive by General Castrillon, who turned them over to Santa Anna.

Cruelly, he immediately had them executed. Some reports put Crockett among them, though there is no hard evidence of this, and it’s also highly likely he died in the fighting.

Whatever the case, the bodies of the dead were hauled ignominiously into heaps along with firewood and set ablaze as a warning.

Santa Anna’s ruthless scourge continued, and prisoners taken elsewhere were also marched out and shot in droves. 

Amazingly, a few also survived, and the tales they brought back contributed to the rage that caused the Texian rage unleashed at San Jacinto.

Battle of San Jacinto
Santa Anna surrenders to a wounded Sam Houston

When Santa Anna was captured the following day, and presented to Sam Houston, he said:

“He was born to no uncommon destiny who was the conqueror of the Napoleon of Mexico (Santa Anna’s nickname). For the same troops who yesterday fled in dismay and terror… the day before… myself and officers could scarcely restrain them from attacking you; they were old soldiers, fought bravely with me… and had been fearless of danger… It was destiny. And now it remains for you to be generous to the vanquished”. 

Houston responded:

“You should have remembered that at the Alamo”.

Texas was incorporated into the US in 1845 as a slave state, and the following year America and Mexico would go to war.

In time, the Alamo would become a legendary symbol of defiance against tyranny and an important part of the history of Texas.

For more, read The Texas War of Independence 1835-36 by Alan C Huffines, The Alamo and the War of Texan Independence 1835–36 by Phillip Haythornthwaite, and The Alamo 1836 by Stephen L Hardin. For more military history, visit Osprey Publishing.

Future American president and war hero Teddy Roosevelt speaks at the Alamo