THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY BY DAY

For the last couple of years, during the thirteen-day anniversary of the Siege of the Alamo, I’ve posted on Facebook daily accounts on what took place each day of that famous siege.  I believe that those thirteen days are as important, or even more important, than the pre-dawn final battle of March 6th, 1836. The reason I say this is because many of the Alamo’s legends and myths were born during those thirteen-days.

Those postings have been well received by my fellow Alamo enthusiasts, and because of this, I’ve decided to publish them as a complete story. I hope you enjoy my accounting of those 13 days of glory, at the siege of the Alamo.

THE ROAD TO THE ALAMO

February 16, 1836: Santa Anna crosses into Texas

Santa Anna’s army marching into Texas, Artist unknown

By the time General Martin Perfecto de Cos and his troops were defeated at the Siege of Béxar (October 12- December 11, 1835) Santa Anna had already assembled his much larger army at Saltillo-Monclova Mexico, and was prepared for his attack on Texas. This early advancement by Santa Anna would take both Texians and Tejanos by surprise. They didn’t think Santa Anna would march into Texas until spring.

Santa Anna divided his forces into two groups: the smaller, of around 600, was commanded by General Jose Urrea, while the main body would be commanded by Santa Anna himself. The battle plan was for Gen. Urrea to advance his men north, along the eastern side of Texas, from San Patricio to Refugio and Goliad. Meanwhile, Santa Anna would take the army’s main body further west, crossing the Rio Grande near where Laredo is today. But he had a change of mind, and crossed further upriver at the Presidio del Rio Grande, near Hidalgo (Coahuila). From there he would make a forced march to San Antonio. On February 16, Santa Anna’s army crossed the Rio Grande into Texas.   

However, the trek to the Alamo and Goliad was much worse for the common Mexican Soldado than the actual battles that they would later fight. While many of us northerners travel to Texas in the winter because of its warmer sub-tropical climate, it was like going to the North Pole for the men of Santa Anna’s army. This was because the majority of Santa Anna’s men were from the more tropical regions of central Mexico. To make matters worse, the soldiers weren’t properly dressed for the harsher weather of Texas. Their uniforms were of lightweight cotton and they didn’t have proper overcoats to protect them. But sadder yet, was that many of his soldiers only wore sandals or were barefooted. 

When Santa Anna and Urrea’s men crossed into Texas they were struck by a terrible blizzard. Razor-sharp cold winds, along with freezing rain and snow, covered and battered the soldiers as they struggled northward. Mexican officers wrote that the trail behind the army resembled a battlefield. Cannon, munition wagons, soldiers’ packs, and dead animals littered the ground. But what was the most terrible was that intermixed amongst all these items were the large numbers of Soldado, lying dead and frozen.

But it wasn’t just Santa Anna’s soldiers who suffered and died, but also their families and the camp followers who always traveled with the army; they also met the same fate. As for Gen. Santa Anna, he was insulated from the sufferings of his men, traveling upfront with his First Division.

Accounts have the numbers of Mexican troops at the Battle of the Alamo as being at around 6,000. However, new findings say that the total number of Santa Anna’s army, when they left Saltillo, was possibly being from 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers. So, could the journey to the Alamo have been a greater cost to Santa Anna than the actual battle itself?

February 22, 1836: Washington’s Birthday

In post-colonial America, Americans everywhere commemorated the birthday of the nation’s first president with great celebration, even those in Mexican Texas.

In the Cantinas of San Antonio, across the river from the Alamo fort, Texan citizens and the newly arrived Americans joyously partied throughout the night to honor Washington. Besides the locals and the members of the Alamo garrison, joining them were also the two co-commanders of the Alamo: James Bowie and William Travis. Travis unlike Bowie, who had lived and married in San Antonio, had only arrived in town on February 3rd. And just a few days after Travis, there was another new arrival that caused quite a stir in the town; he was the former congressmen, and living legend, David Crockett.

While the town celebrated, just a few miles west sat Santa Anna and the vanguard of his Army of Operation. His army was bogged down from the heavy downpours of the last few days. Running between Santa Anna, his army, San Antonio and the Alamo, was the normally peacefully flowing Medina River. Now, due to the intense rainfall, it had become an uncrossable raging torrent.

The General was beside himself with anger. He had planned on taking the traitorous Americans by surprise while they celebrated. Now that plan was crushed, and he’d have to wait for the morning.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 1

February 23, 1836: Santa Anna Arrives

San Fernando Church as it was in 1836. From it’s bell tower Tavis posted his sentry and Santa Anna flew the “No Quarter” red flag.

It was a brisk morning in Béxar, but at least the heavy rains had stopped. Many of the Texans, who had been celebrating into the early morning hours, were rudely awakened by the sounds of wagons and oxen in the street. When the townsfolk were asked where they were going they answered, out into the fields to prepare for spring planting. Travis didn’t trust this story, so he kept probing the citizens of the town for their real reason for leaving.

Finally, one person came forward. He told Travis that a messenger from Santa Anna had been in town the night before. They were told that the president and his army were at Leon Creek, just eight miles away, and that they should evacuate the town to be safe.

Not completely believing what he was told, but not wanting to take any chances, Travis posted a lookout in the single bell tower of the San Fernando Church. His instructions were to ring the church bell if the sentry saw anything unusual.

At around noon the church bell began to ring wildly, with the lookout pointing to the west and yelling, “the enemy are in view.” To be sure, Travis sent Dr. John Sutherland and John Smith to ride out for a better look. Travis told them, that if they came back at anything other than a slow walk, he’d know that the Mexican army had indeed arrived.

About two miles west of town Sutherland and Smith reached the crest of Alazan Heights. What they saw before them caused a chill to run up their spine. Just over the crest was the Mexican Dolores Cavalry Regiment, totaling around 1,500 men, preparing to attack the town. Spinning their horses around, they headed back toward Béxar at a full gallop. Seeing them racing back the sentry began frantically ringing the bell again. The rains had made the ground muddy, causing Dr. Sutherland’s horse to slip and fall, pinning him under the animal. Smith stopped and helped his friend to remount. Even though Sutherland’s leg wasn’t broken, it was however badly wrenched.

Even before the two riders had gotten back to town, Travis had already ordered a retreat to the Alamo. The Alamo, as well as the small village of La Villita, was on the eastern side of the San Antonio River from Béxar. In 1836 there were only two direct ways to cross the river: by a small footbridge at the end of Portrero Street (today’s E Commerce Street), or by a shallow ford further downstream.

As part of the Alamo Plaza’s transformation they’re reconstructing the forts southwest corner gun platform. It was here where the 18-Pound cannon stood.

Besides just the men of the Alamo garrison, some of the Tejano defenders took their families into the Alamo as well. Captain Almaron Dickinson stopped and gathered up his wife and baby daughter as he headed to the fort. Susanna Dickinson would be the only Anglo woman in the Alamo.

As the garrison prepared for the coming battle, they purchased a large quantity of corn and twenty to thirty head of cattle from the residence of La Villita. Once inside the safety of the Alamo, the defenders, and their families alike, flocked to the forts west wall to watch Santa Anna and his army march into town.

The Mexican army entered Béxar from the west, along Portrero Street. Once Santa Anna had reached the Main Plaza in front of the San Fernando Church, he ordered soldiers to climb to the top of the church’s bell tower and raise a blood-red flag. Both Tejano and Texans knew exactly what that flag represented: no quarter, no prisoners, no mercy. 

Travis watched them from the platform of the Alamo’s big 18-pound cannon, located at the fort’s southwest corner. Angered, he ordered a shot fired from the big gun. Santa Anna answered with shots of his own, from the newly positioned howitzers located near the then Veramendi house and the town’s Main Plaza. Neither of these caused damage.

Meeting on the footbridge. Artwork is Flag of Truce by Gary S, Zaboly

Jim Bowie felt that the young Travis may have acted a little too hastily. Hoping to defuse what happened, he sent his friend Green B. Jameson out with a letter to Santa Anna. The letter asked if Santa Anna would agree to a parley. At the small footbridge Jameson met with Colonel Juan N. Almonte, Santa Anna’s Chief of Staff. Almonte, who spoke perfect English, agreed to give the general Bowie’s letter. 

Travis watched Bowie’s overreach from the fort. They had both agreed to share the command of the Alamo, but now Bowie had gone off on his own. Mad, Travis sent his own messenger, Captain Albert Martin, to also meet with Col. Almonte. However, this time Almonte had an answer from Santa Anna; the garrison would surrender unconditionally, or be put to the sword.

This time the Alamo’s answer was agreed upon by both Travis and Bowie. The Alamo’s big 18-pounder roared, and so began the siege of the Alamo.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 2

February 24, 1836: To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World

Travis’s letter of February 23, Page one

As the sun rose over the Alamo on the second day of the siege, Lt. Col. William Barret Travis watched the continuous stream of Mexican soldiers’ march into Béxar. From the previous day, he knew that his small garrison, of less than two-hundred, was already outnumbered, and it was getting much worst by the minute.

While the Mexican army hadn’t yet attacked, Travis saw them doing reconnaissance of the Alamo’s defenses. Besides, the army was also constructing new artillery placements. But even though this was worrisome, there was another crisis in the Alamo that he had to face.

Jim Bowie, the legendary knife fighter and co-commander of the Alamo, had been ill for some time. However, that morning he couldn’t even get out of bed. Calling Travis and Crockett to his room on the west wall, he told them that he could no longer share command with Travis. Also, since Bowie’s illness was “a peculiar disease of a peculiar nature,” the garrison doctor feared that it could be the very contagious typhoid or tuberculous, and suggested that Bowie be moved to a room away from the main compound. Bowie was taken to a small room just to the left of the main gate in the low barracks. Now the full weight of the Alamo’s command fell on Travis’s shoulders.

Page two

With Bowie out of commission and the growing numbers of enemy troops and cannon placements, Travis decided to get a letter asking for assistance out while he still could. Going to his quarters on the west wall he composed a letter, which would become not only the most famous letter in Texas history but also a symbol of the determination of the Alamo defenders.  

Travis’s letter of February 24, 1836, should be viewed by all of us as important and meaningful, like those of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill, and all the other great inspiring letters of history.

Judge for yourself: 

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.

This simple letter, by the commander of an insignificant little garrison on the western frontier, was more than just a plea for help; it was a profound statement of patriotic honor. His call of, ”…everything dear to the American character,” should not be seen as Travis just echoing those feelings of his time and his place, but a reminder of what the American character is: fighting for what’s right, liberty against tyranny, no matter what the odds, and no matter what the cost may be. 

To focus on the historic and patriotic tone of his letter’s main body I left off his P.S. at the end.

Here it is:

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 and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves. Travis

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 3

Thursday, February 25, 1836: The Mexicans attack

An example of a Jacales

February 25, 1836, was a little warmer than the previous days. This came as a welcome relief to Santa Anna’s Mexican soldados from central Mexico.

Shortly after dawn, the Mexican artillery batteries on the western side of the San Antonio River, and the new battery in the Village of La Villita, began a steady bombardment on the Alamo. However, the cannons of the Alamo remained silent, choosing to conserve their limited powder supply.

At around 9:30 AM, Santa Anna had General Castrillón move the task-organized cazadores battalion and the Metamoros Permanent Battalion, which totaled at around 400 to 450 men, across the river into La Villita. From La Villita they moved north toward the Alamo. Although Gen. Castrillón was on the ground commanding, it was Santa Anna who oversaw this operation.

As the Mexican troops move toward the Alamo, they passed through the district of Pueblo de Velero. This community, founded when the Alamo was the Mission of San Antonio de Velero,

was very poor. The houses in Velero were in no way as good as those of Béxar. These meager structures were called “jacales,” and were mostly built of wood and mud. These jacales would play an important role in the coming battle.

The sentries on the Alamo’s south wall watched as the Mexican troops crossed the river. When they started marching toward the fort the sentries sounded the alarm. In response to this call, the entire garrison rushed to the wall with their rifles in hand. Travis sent a detachment out into the trenches, as well as having the big 18-pound cannon turned toward the advancing Mexicans. When the Mexican soldiers were about fifty to one-hundred yards from the Alamo, Travis ordered his men and the cannon to open fire. Travis would later tell of David Crockett’s actions during this fight. Travis wrote, “the Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty.”

The fire-fight of February 25 had lasted almost two hours before the Mexicans were finally driven back to La Villita. When we remember the Alamo, we tend to think only of the ninety-minute final battle of March 6th; however, this exchange on the third day of the siege lasted much longer. This encounter also showed Santa Anna, that the Alamo’s defenders shouldn’t be taken lightly.

This skirmish also unveiled a big problem in the defenses of the fort. When the Alamo opened fire some of the attackers took cover in the jacales, and from that protection, they returned fire. Travis now did something that should have been done long before the siege, get rid of those jacales. To take care of this problem he sent Charles Despaller and Robert Brown out and burn them to the ground.

Although the Alamo garrison had taken the day, it was in no way a victory for the defenders. Santa Anna now had established artillery and infantry entrenchments on their side of the river.

That night Travis sent another plea for help, this time directly to Gen. Sam Houston. Carrying this message was Tejano leader Juan Seguín. And although Seguín promised his men he’d return, his delivering of Travis’s message would last past March 6th.

Although not related to the battle itself, there was another event that took place on this day. And this event shows how self-serving and self-centered Santa Anna was.

When the Mexican soldiers were advancing toward the Alamo they searched the jacales as they went. They discovered that not everyone in Pueblo de Velero had left. Rounding up these citizens they took them to Santa Anna. One of these was a widowed Seňora and her teenage daughter. Sources say that this Seňorita was very beautiful, and caught the eye of Santa Anna.

When the mother refused to let Santa Anna have his way with her daughter without marriage, he concocted a ruse. He had one of his officers play a priest and conduct a false marriage ceremony. This fake wedding took place later in the siege, with their honeymoon lasting until Santa Anna left San Antonio late in March.

As for the young bride, she was shipped off to San Luis Postosi, which is in the interior of Mexico. It is also thought that she bore Santa Anna a son; which he most likely never tried to see.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 4

Friday, February 26, 1836: Water

Friday marked the return of the bitterly cold weather. Both the Alamo defenders and the Mexican soldiers alike suffered from the freezing northern winds. The frigid conditions sucked the very heat from everyone’s body. But the cold wasn’t the Alamo garrison’s only crisis. It was water, or more correctly, the lack of it.

The main water supply inside the Alamo was a small well. This well had been dug when the Alamo was a mission, and not nearly substantial enough for the needs of the nearly 200 members of the garrison, and their families. Again the defenders hadn’t made the proper preparations for a siege.

However, to the east of the fort was the Acaquia Medre de Valero. This was part of an agricultural irrigation system constructed by the Spanish, around 1718 when the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the Alamo) was built.  But, to get this water meant going outside of the Alamo’s protective walls. In the early hours of February 26, a group of volunteers dashed the acaquia, from the corrals on the Alamo’s east side.

Just south of the Alamo, on the Alameda Road (E Commerce Street today) was Mexican General Ramírez y Sesma, and his Dolores Cavalry, cazadores, and Matamoros Battalions. Sesma was well aware of the Alamo’s water situation. And he also knew that those in the fort would have to venture out to get water, and he was ready for them.  As the defenders ran toward the acaquia, Sesma ordered his cazadores to intercept them.

Seeing the attacking Mexicans, the defenders turned back to the Alamo. However, the attackers ended up suffering more than the defenders did. As the cazadores passed the rear of the Alamo church, they were met with a fiery barrage from the cannons on the high platform at the rear of the church. This attack caused more Mexican casualties than the day before. Later that evening the defenders made another attempt to gather water, only again to be stopped by Mexican sharpshooters.

But the day wasn’t a total loss for the Alamo garrison. Travis once again sent a raiding party out into the Plaza de Valero to burn more jacales. While this was happening, Mexican Colonel Juan Maria Bringas led a counterattack against the Texians. And once again, the Alamo’s heavy gunfire drove the attackers back.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 5

Saturday, February 27, 1836: The Mexicans search for provisions

Saturday’s weather was like Friday’s, bitterly cold. Even though the temperature had climbed up to 39 degrees, the continuing strong northerly wind still sucked the heat from the bodies of both the Soldado and defenders alike.

Also, when Saturday arrived Santa Anna found himself in a bad situation; he needed to find food for his troops. What he found was that the defenders had taken most of the provisions from Béxar when they entered the Alamo on February 23rd.  Now, with nothing left in town, Santa Anna was forced to send Lieutenant Manuel Menchacho, with a small company of men, into the countryside to search for provisions. Menchacho raided the Tejano ranchos that were around Béxar. Two of those were the ranchos of Erasmo Seguín and Francisco Flores de Abrego y Valdes.

Still a concern, for both Travis and Santa Anna, was the Alamo’s water supply. Even though it was a challenge for the defenders to run out and get water from the acequia, the general wanted to eliminate that source completely. He sent his engineers out to build a dam to cut off the water flow. However, when the defenders saw what they were trying to do, they brought out their long rifles. It was hard for the Mexican engineers to work, with bullets whizzing around them. Finally, the Mexican’s were able to cut the water supply off a little further north, well out of range of the long rifles.

Travis had already anticipated that their access to the acequia would become unavailable, so he had his men dig another well, inside the fort.

Not all of Santa Anna’s army had yet arrived at Béxar. General Gaona, with his three battalions, was still a distance from town. Santa Anna ordered Gaona to hurry up his men and get to Béxar as fast as possible. Gaona did what Santa Anna ordered, stepping up the march of his foot soldiers. However, what he didn’t do was to hurry his heavy siege artillery. The reason he hadn’t done that, was because Santa Anna hadn’t asked for those.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 6

Sunday, February 28, 1836: Fannin’s Folly

The men of the Alamo continued to be very watchful of the actions and movements of the Mexican army, which now surrounded their fort.

The Mexican’s continued their bombardment from their batteries on the south, the west, and their newest position, north of the Alamo. Santa Anna gave precise instructions to his gunners of the north battery; target the Alamo’s weak north wall.  So, was it possibly Santa Anna’s plan all along to attack the north wall of the Alamo?

Also, unbeknownst to the defenders, Santa Anna had received information that the Alamo might be getting reinforcements from Goliad. The general made plans to warmly welcome them, but his worries didn’t materialize.

Colonel James Fannin, in command of the forces at Goliad, had been reluctant to answer Travis’s call for help. Finally, after much arm twisting from his officers, he set out for the Alamo on February 26th. This relief company consisted of 320 men, four cannon, and their supply wagons.

But this ill-fated venture didn’t last long. Fannin’s men had barely gotten 200 yards from their Fort Defiance when the first wagon broke down, then it took them six hours to cross the San Antonio River, which was less than a mile from Goliad. Since it was already late in the afternoon, when they’d finally got the company across the river, Fannin decided to set up camp for the night.  But, their troubles were far from over.

After a fitful, cold and rainy night, the company awoke only to find that their oxen had wandered off. Also, when they looked to cook breakfast it was discovered that they forgot to pack any food for the trip. After this two-day fiasco, Fannin ordered his company back to Goliad. Fannin’s poorly planned, and executed, attempt to relieve the Alamo had only gotten one mile in what would have been a 90-mile journey.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 7

Monday, February 29, 1836: Leap Year

Leap year day came with a slightly warmer temperature, and thankfully, the biting wind had slackened, making the day much more bearable.

On this date, something may have occurred which isn’t often written about, except in a few academic studies on the siege. It’s believed that Santa Anna proposed a three-day armistice, which Travis accepted. Why Santa Anna, with his no-quarter position, wanted a truce is not clear. One account says that Santa Anna had sent a message to the Tejanos in the fort, giving them the chance to save themselves if they surrendered their arms, and take an oath to him and his government.

It’s thought that Travis was well aware of Santa Anna’s offer to the Tejano’s in the Alamo, and didn’t stop those that wanted to leave. Those Tejanos that may have left shouldn’t be judged too harshly. They were in a very tough situation, being inside the Alamo and fighting their countrymen on the outside.

Also on February 29th, Santa Anna sent a detachment of his Jiménez Battalion and the Dolores Cavalry to intercept the reinforcements that he believed were coming from Goliad. But, there was another major event that took place that weekend, at the town of Gonzales, just 90 miles west of the Alamo.

Gonzales first received Travis’s plea for help on February 24th; this was delivered by Dr. James Sutherland and John Smith. The next day, another plea arrived, carried by fellow Gonzales resident Albert Martin. The letter Martin delivered was Travis’s “To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World.” Almost immediately, the men of Gonzales began assembling a relief force to go to the aid of the Alamo.

Before Fannin left Goliad he sent a courier to the men of Gonzales, instructing them to rendezvous with his forces at Cibolo Creek, which was halfway between Gonzales and Béxar. From there, the combined forces would ride to relieve the Alamo. When Gonzales learned that Fannin had turned back they called a council of war to decide their next move. Their decision would make the Gonzales Mounted Ranging Company an Alamo legend.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 8

Tuesday, March 1, 1836: The Immortal 32

The memorial to the “Immortal 32” in the court of the Alamo. Photo by author

There are many legends and myths of the Alamo: Travis’s defiant cannon shot, his letter, and his line in the sand. But there was one that stands out above all the rest for its patriotism and self-sacrifice. And this took place in the wee hours of the morning of March 1st.

On that morning, the eighth day of the siege, at about 1 AM, a sentry atop the Alamo’s wall heard the sound of galloping horses coming out of the pre-dawn darkness. Although he couldn’t see who was coming at such a fast pace, he was pretty sure it was the Mexican’s attacking. Sounding the alarm, he woke the garrison, who then raced to the wall. With no target to set their sights on, the Alamo’s soldiers simply aimed into the black void toward the sound and fired. Out of the darkness came a curse that could only have come from a Texian. The gates were thrown open, and thirty-two men from the town of Gonzales rode into the Alamo.

So what makes this small group of reinforcements who entered the Alamo on that early morning of March 1st so extraordinary? It wasn’t because of their number; they knew their small band wouldn’t make much of a difference in the final fight. It was their collective decision to ride to the aid of the Alamo in the first place.

Those thirty-two men of Gonzales, one William King was only fifteen-years-old, knew very well the Alamo’s situation. They knew Santa Anna’s intentions, and the size of his army that surrounded the fort, and they also knew that they’d most likely die there; and yet they still came.

One account gives of their reason for their sacrifice; they didn’t want their friends and neighbors in the Alamo to think that they had been forgotten.

Let’s always, remember the Immortal 32 men of Gonzales.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 9

Wednesday, March 2, 1836: Texas declares its independence

While the defenders were still celebrating the arrival of the thirty-two men from Gonzales, less than 200 miles to the northeast, in the town of Washington-on-the-Brazos, delegates from all over Texas gathered to make history, and to give a purpose to the fight at the Alamo.

On that Wednesday, representatives put their names to the document that declared Texas to be free and independent from Mexico. It was the birth of the Republic of Texas. However, the men in the Alamo were unaware of what had taken place at Washington-on-the-Brazos.

There were two representatives from the Alamo garrison among those who signed Texas’s Declaration of Independence. One of them was Samuel Maverick. Maverick would go on to be a major developer in San Antonio and create the Alamo Plaza. Learn more about Samuel Maverick’s involvement with the post-battle Alamo site in my blog post, “THE HISTORY OF THE ALAMO, PART III: FROM FORGOTTEN TO ARMY DEPOT”

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 10

Thursday, March 3, 1836: James Bonham returns

and more Mexican reinforcements arrive

Bonham returns to the Alamo. Artist unknown.

At around eleven in the morning James Bonham, and perhaps two others, entered the Alamo. Bonham had left the Alamo three weeks before, long before Santa Anna’s arrival.

Bonham’s task was to ride throughout the Texas colonies and raise reinforcements for Béxar. His first stop was Fannin at Goliad. Bonham had left Goliad before Fannin made his failed attempt to relieve the Alamo. From Goliad, Bonham rode to perhaps San Felipe, then on to Washington-on-the-Brazos. On March 1st Bonham arrived at Gonzales.

James Butler Bonham. Artist unknown.

There, Robert Williamson, the commander of the ranging company and a friend of Travis, gave Bonham a letter to deliver to his friend. In the letter, Williamson stated, “Sixty men have left this municipality, who in all probability are with you at this date.” The sixty men that Williamson was talking about was the group that left to join up with Fannin at Cibolo Creek. When Fannin didn’t show up when he was supposed to, “the Immortal 32” split from that group and went on to the Alamo. Also in his letter, Williamson tells Travis that there are hundreds of men on their way to reinforce him. Williamson closes his letter by writing, “For God’s sake hold out until we can assist you.”

With the thirty-two that had arrived on March 1st, and now the promise of “hundreds” on their way, was encouraging news for the men inside the Alamo. To celebrate, Travis fired several cannon shots into Béxar. Although from what we know historically, there would be no further reinforcements for the Alamo. But that didn’t hold for Santa Anna.

Across the river from the Alamo, 1,000 troops, including the elite Zapadores Battalion, of the 1st brigade of General Gaona’s division, marched into Béxar. Ganona had followed Santa Anna’s orders and forced marched his soldados 120 miles in just five days. This would bring the total number of Santa Anna’s troops in Béxar to around 2,370.

Also on this day, Travis sent his best courier out with what would be his final letter. John W. Smith, who had saved the Alamo garrison from being ambushed on February 23rd, now left the Alamo for the last time. Smith would later become a Mayor of the City of San Antonio.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 11

Friday, March 4, 1836: Santa Anna prepares for his attack

With the Mexican cannon now just 200 yards from the Alamo’s north wall, and its gunners liking to target that wall, the garrison continually piled dirt and stone up against it to give it strength. Of the entire old mission complex, its north wall was by far in the worst condition and had been a concern for both the Mexicans and Texians alike.

The Alamo’s north wall stretched 240 feet across the north end of the compound. At the time of the siege, the height of this wall was from around twelve feet, at its highest point, to only one to two feet at its lowest. When the Mexicans, under General Cos, occupied the Alamo they tried to reinforce this crumbling adobe wall in a very unique way.

Along its entire outer face, they piled up earth, about two feet thick, which was held in place by a wall of its own made of lumber. This outer wall was constructed of logs stacked horizontally. This created kind of a dirt sandwich: with the old adobe mission wall, then the dirt, and finally the wall of logs. To keep this log wall from falling, it was secured by vertically angled timber bracings.

But more importantly, on this day Santa Anna called a council of war. This meeting lasted well into the night, as Santa Anna and his officers debated on what to do about the Alamo. Some of the officers felt that it would be much too costly for their men if they tried to take the fort by storm. They proposed to wait for General Gaona’s heavy siege cannons to arrive, which would only be a few days more. With those, they argued, they could pound the fort’s walls to pieces. They also believed that the fort’s food and water supplies must be getting very low after eleven days of siege. They continued to point out that two Tejanas, who had recently left the fort, had reported that if no further reinforcements arrived soon, that the garrison might surrender. This council reached no conclusion, other than any prisoners taken would be executed. Santa Anna said he would announce his plans the following day.

THE SIEGE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 12

Saturday, March 5, 1836: Travis’s Line

Statue of Travis drawing the line in the sand, on display at the Alamo.

Santa Anna had made his decision; he would attack the Alamo fort before sunrise the following day, March 6th.

Why Santa Anna decided to go against his officers is up for debate. Was he concerned about reinforcements on their way to the Alamo? And so he moved up the attack before they arrived. Or was it what the Tejana from the Alamo had said, that Travis might surrender? It was known that Santa Anna believed there was no honor unless there was blood. If Travis did surrender, then there would be no blood.

The Alamo had been kept under constant bombardment from the Mexican artillery throughout the entire siege. This bombardment had continued both during the day and night. Because of this, the defenders were in a constant state of alert, which also deprived them of a good night’s rest. For his surprise attack to work, Santa Anna needed the defenders to be caught off guard. Having them in a deep sleep would definitely help with his goal. At 5 pm on March 5, Santa Anna ordered all firing on the Alamo to stop.

Sometime after the men from Gonzales and James Bonham’s arrival, another messenger entered the Alamo. And this messenger didn’t bring Travis good news. It’s believed that this was when Travis learned that there would be no reinforcements coming. Legend then says that it was during this lull in the cannon fire, at around dusk on March 5th, that Travis called the garrison together. Travis informed his men that no help was coming, and that undoubtedly, the Mexican’s would be attacking at any time.

According to Mrs. Dickerson, Travis told the men that he was remaining at his post, but that he wouldn’t hold them to that same commitment. As one of the most popular Alamo legends has it, Travis then took out his sword and drew a line in the dirt. He then asked; if any man chooses to remain with him, and fight to the death, cross over the line. As the legend goes, all but one chose to stay with Travis.

 Travis’s “line in the sand” is the very cornerstone of the Alamo’s “last stand” story. Most historians today have concluded that the “line in the sand” is but only a myth. However, if you think about a man who had written the “Victory or Death” letter, then the act of drawing a line in the sand would fit him perfectly. As for the rest of the men of the garrison, history shows that there was a lot of coming and going from the Alamo during the siege. So, any one of them could have left at any time, but yet they chose to stay, line or no line, Victory or Death! 

THE BATTLE OF THE ALAMO: DAY 13

Sunday, March 6, 1836: There’s Victory in Death

The Fall of the Alamo or Crockett’s Last Stand by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk

A little after midnight; Santa Anna moved his troops to their attack positions. His men now lay on the cold damp ground: shivering and waiting; waiting for that bugle call that would send them to their death.

The attacking force was made up of four columns, positioned on all four sides of the Alamo fort: General Cos’s men were stationed to the northwest of the fort, Colonel Duque’s men directly to the north, Colonel Romero’s column on the east side, and Colonel Morales’s men would be attacking the forts south side. As a precaution, to catch any of the fort’s defenders trying to escape, or any Mexican soldiers who tried to run, Santa Anna stationed 500 of his finest cavalry, under General Sesma, to the southeast of the Alamo.

In reserve Santa Anna held 400 of his most experienced soldiers, standing at the ready north of the fort. In total, there would be a little more than 2,000 men involved in the assault on the Alamo. The largest number of attackers would be on the forts north wall, its weakest point.

Santa Anna stood at his command post north of the fort. All was ready; his forward scouts had already dispatched the defenders early warning pickets stationed outside the walls. Santa Anna just wanted to wait a little longer, for a little more daylight.

The Alamo was bathed in the blackness of the Texas night. Travis was in his quarters on the west wall; Bowie lay sick in his room near the main gate, Crockett at his post at the wooden palisade, Almaron Dickinson was asleep with his wife and child in the sacristy of the church building, near his gun platform. The other defenders were asleep at their places at the walls around the Alamo.

Just before 5:00 A.M. Santa Anna’s hope for more daylight was cut short. Out in the darkness, a cold and nervous soldier couldn’t control himself any longer; standing up he began to cry out, ”Viva, Santa Anna! Viva, Mexico!” His yell was then picked up by the others, and the surprise was lost. Santa Anna signaled the buglers to sound the charge.

On the north wall, the Captain of the Guard heard these cries from out of the dark, followed by the bugle calls. He didn’t need to wonder what was taking place. Shouting at the top of his lungs, “The Mexicans are coming! The Mexicans are coming!” shocking the defenders awake.

First, it was the thundering sounds of hundreds of stampeding feet coming out of the darkness toward the Alamo; which was quickly answered by the roar of the Alamo’s cannons. Instead of cannonballs, the defenders had loaded their guns with grapeshot made from: cut up horseshoes, nails, and stones. This killing mix ripped into the advancing Mexican soldiers. One of the first officers to fall was Colonel Francisco Duque; his command was then taken up by General Fernández Castrillón.

As the Mexican soldiers got closer to the fort, the men of the Alamo used their rifles and muskets to do their killing work. But a weakness with the Alamo’s defensive walls was that the defenders had to stand to fire over them, making them a target for the attacking soldiers. Because of this, William Travis would be one of the first to fall, shot in the forehead as he stood to fire his shotgun. 

At first, the defenders were able to hold the south, east and west walls. At the north wall, the three Mexican columns came together, forming a jumbled mass of men. This horde greatly reduced the effectiveness of the defenders’ firepower. However, the Mexicans now found themselves trapped at the base of the wall. This mass of men was being pushed by the soldiers coming up from behind and the guns of the defenders from above. However, the structure that was added to strengthen the crumbling north wall would now come to the aid of the trapped soldiers. The north wall’s log reinforcements, installed by General Cos, now allowed the Mexican soldiers to get finger and toe holds between the logs, allowing them to climb up like a ladder.

The sheer numbers of soldiers coming over the wall drove the defenders back into the buildings along the compounds parade ground. It was within the Long Barracks that the most vicious and intense fighting took place; in its darkened rooms, and hand to hand.

Santa Anna’s soldiers were now entering the Alamo from all sides. As the Mexican soldiers advanced south, through the compound the defenders fell back to the area in front of the Alamo’s church. It was there that David Crockett fought with his friends. As the Mexicans took the low barracks gatehouse they discovered Jim Bowie’s room.

The Alamo’s big 18-pound cannon was captured by the Mexicans and turned on the Alamo church area. At that point, a few of the defenders tried to escape through a small gate, where the palisade met the corner of the church. From there they dashed to the southeast, away from the Alamo. And as Santa Anna had prepared, waiting for them was General Sesma.

The last to fall were those defenders who manned the cannons on the platform at the back of the church, two of them were Captain Almaron Dickinson and Gregorio Esparza. After the last shot was fired the Mexicans discovered the women of the Alamo hiding in the church’s sacristy.

The battle was short, less than an hour and a half, and had ended well before the sun had cleared the horizon. After the battle had ended Santa Anna said to one of his officers, “It was but a small affair.”

But this small affair would create the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo” at the Battle of San Jacinto. 

THE BATTLE OF THE ALAMO: EPILOGUE

The Funeral Pyre after the Fall of the Alamo by José Arpa.
Authors note: this painting is by no means historically accurate.

That final battle in the pre-dawn morning of Sunday, March 6, 1836, continues to be wrapped in mystery, legend and myth. This is mostly because of the lack of eyewitness accounts. The only witnesses inside the Alamo who survived the attack were: Travis’s slave Joe, Susanna Dickinson, and a small group of Tejano women and children.

Joe was the only survivor to have been on the north wall at the start of the attack. However, after Travis was killed, he ran back to their room on the west wall, spending the rest of the battle in hiding. Susanna, with the rest of the women and children, were in the dark Sacristy of the church. All they could report on was the horrible sounds of the battle that they heard.

Other witnesses were some of the Mexican officers who took part in the attack. Although they were inside the Alamo during the battle, they could only give a general accounting of what took place during the fighting. Most of them, not knowing who the different players were amongst the defenders, weren’t able to give very many of the particulars. Also, due to the politics at the time, some of these accounts may be less than accurate.

One of the most often asked questions is, how many died in the Battle of the Alamo. This would seem to be an easy answer. However, as with many battles, the numbers of casualties often change with time; and with the Alamo, it’s even more ambiguous.

After the battle, Santa Anna reported back to Mexico City that he had killed 600 rebels at the Alamo. He then claimed that he had lost just 70 men, and only 300 wounded. These were Santa Anna’s egotistical numbers, and of course, completely wrong. Historians today give the number of Mexican soldiers involved in the final attack as being around 2,000. Of that two-thousand, it’s estimated that around 600 were either killed or wounded.

As for the number of defenders at the Alamo; for years it was commonly believed that number to be 189, that’s the number that’s inscribed on the Cenotaph in Alamo Plaza. But new findings now have that number to be inaccurate. It’s now believed that the number of defenders could be as high as 257. It’s been reported that as part of the refurbishing of the Cenotaph, they’ll be updating that list of names. The plan is to remove those names proven not to have been at the Alamo, and then add those previously unlisted.

This increase in the number of Alamo defenders has caused some controversy. However, even with that increased number, the Alamo defenders still killed almost twice as many Mexican soldiers. In my last post I wrote how Santa Anna had called the Battle of the Alamo, “but a small affair.” What I didn’t write was what one of his officers then said, “Another victory like this will destroy us.”

Since I began my studies of the Alamo, some sixty-six years ago, many aspects of the Alamo story have changed. In many cases what I believed was true, turned out to be a legend. However, these changes didn’t upset me, only encouraged me to learn more.

Sources used:

Effler, Glenn A. 13 The Alamo Book of Days. Native sun Productions, 2011.

Huffines, Alan C., and Gary S. Zaboly. Blood of Noble Men, The Alamo: Siege & Battle. Frist Edition, Eakin Press, 1999.

Wikipedia . “Siege of the Alamo.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Feb. 2021, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_the_Alamo.

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