Chapter 5: "VICTORY or DEATH"
Perhaps Travis and a few others had some vague sense that something was different when they were awoken early on February 23 by the sound of horses and wagons and Spanish voices drifting down the streets of the town and heading toward the open country to the north and east. Tejano Béxar was on the move in much greater volume than before, and the creaking carts, lowing oxen, and neighing horses made it hard to miss. Those with carts had them packed full; those on foot carried supplies on their shoulders. Although Travis had other concerns to occupy his attention, he was troubled by the rapid and unexpected exodus. He had his soldiers detain a few peripatetic stragglers for questioning.
He asked some where they were going, and they answered evasively, talking about the need to begin spring planting. Unsatisfied, Travis had a few arrested, but that tactic also failed to loosen their tongues. Finally, Nathaniel Lewis, a local merchant, told Travis what every Tejano seemed to know: a Mexican army had been sighted at León Creek, less than eight miles southwest of Béxar. They were coming, and the Tejanos had been warned. Exactly how and by whom was uncertain. José María Rodríguez, a child in 1836, long afterward recalled that early in the morning of February 23 a man named "Rivas called at our home and told us that he had seen Santa Anna in disguise the night before looking in on a fandango on Soledad Street." Rodríguez's father was away "with General Houston's army," but his mother made the decision to bury their money in the clay floor of their home, pack their goods into oxcarts, and go to the ranch of Doña Santos Ximénes.
Rodríguez's memories, though seventy-five years after the event, probably faithfully captured the mood of Béxar that morning. Rumors of Santa Anna sighting, always inaccurate, mixed with reports of the size of the army, always exaggerated. Added together they equaled fear. Any unrecognized man in a poncho and a broad-brimmed hat might be Santa Anna, and an army of ten thousand, fifteen thousand, twenty thousand, or more was on the outskirts of town. Remember what happened in Zacatecas the year before, or after the 1813 insurrection in Béxar itself. If the army was coming, local wisdom dictated that every resident of Béxar should scurry out of harm's way.
At first Travis was unconvinced, but after a few more reports he took precautions. Accompanied by John Sutherland and a few other men, Travis climbed to the belfry of the San Fernando Church between the Main Plaza and the Military Plaza and squinted toward the southwest. Nothing. But to be on the safe side he posted a reliable man as a sentinel with orders to ring the bell if he spied the enemy. Hours passed. Travis looked after other affairs. Then in the early afternoon the bell clanged wildly. Once again Travis scaled to the top of the square tower, glared out into the sun, and saw nothing save a wide prairie broken by patches of mesquite and thickets of chaparral. But the sentinel insisted that he had seen Mexican soldiers out there in the direction of the sun. They had simply disappeared in the bushwood.
Sutherland wanted to ride out and take a look, and Travis agreed that he should take John W. Smith, a local carpenter who knew the country, and reconnoiter the area along the Laredo Road. Sutherland told Travis if "he saw us returning in any other gait than a slow pace, he might be sure that we had seen the enemy."
If Sutherland and Smith took the Laredo Road, they rode directly south. At the same moment, the vanguard of Santa Anna's army was approaching Béxar from the southwest. The night before, the Vanguard Brigade under General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma had camped along the Alazon Creek, above which a ridgeline afforded the view of the entire San Antonio River Valley. There he could only watch the heavy rains foil hopes of taking the town unprepared. Santa Anna would later write that had the surprise attack taken place it "would have saved the time consumed and the blood shed later in taking of the Alamo."
Crossing over the crest of the slope, Sutherland and Smith got a good look at what the sentinel had seen only at a distance. There must have been fifteen hundred soldiers, Sutherland later remembered, "their polished armor glistening in the rays of the sun, as they formed in a line between the chaparral and the mesquite bushes." In 1836 Mexican soldiers were not wearing breastplates, so no armor glistened in the sun, but Sutherland did not spend much time looking. He and Smith wheeled their horses and spurred north. In a moment, however, Sutherland was on the ground. His horse had slipped in the mud, thrown him, and rolled on top of his leg. Smith helped his dazed companion back onto the saddle and they rode hard into Béxar.
The confirmation that the Mexicans were coming in force sent another wave of panic through the town. Travis ordered his men to cross the San Antonio River and take cover in the Alamo. Herding cattle before them and raiding jacales -- poor people's shacks -- along the way for corn and supplies, they moved in an orderly fashion toward the old mission. Juan Seguín, one of the Tejano revolutionary leaders, recalled that as the Texans walked east on Potero Street toward the river, women stood by watching and exclaiming, "Poor fellows you will all be killed, what shall we do?"
Travis was wondering the same thing. He had a force of about 150 men, a loose collection of volunteers and regular army, under the joint command of himself and Bowie. In his group were colonels, captains, lieutenants, and sergeants -- designations that were hardly based on any sort of education or training. In truth, he had a body of men, a group of patriots and adventurers, among whom were some natural leaders like David Crockett, James Bowie, Juan Seguín, William C. M. Baker, and William Blazeby, but none were experienced officers.
Even more than officers, Travis needed men, and he needed them fast. Seeing that Sutherland was too injured from his fall to be of much use, at 3 P.M. Travis penned a hasty note to Andrew Ponton in Gonzales and sent him off with it. "The enemy in large force is in sight," he wrote. "We need men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance." Later he wrote a similar note to James Fannin in Goliad, promising to "make such a resistance as is due to our honour, and that of the country, until we can get assistance from you, which we expect you to forward immediately." It was an urgent message, more an order than a request. Travis, determined "never to retreat," deemed "it unnecessary to repeat to a brave officer, who knows his duty" that he needed help, but he wrote it nonetheless.
While the Texans occupied the Alamo, Santa Anna's Vanguard Brigade marched into Béxar. "I will never forget how that army looked as it swept into town," Juan Díaz recalled. "At the head of the soldiers came the regimental band, playing the liveliest airs, and with the band came a squad of men bearing the flags and banners of Mexico and an immense image that looked like an alligator's head." Thousands of Mexican soldiers had moved into Béxar that afternoon, and what they saw confirmed the rebellious nature of the Texans. Above the Military Plaza, and then the Alamo, flapped a tricolor flag with two stars. The stars represented Coahuila and Texas, and the flag signified that the Texans were in rebellion against Santa Anna's violations of the Mexican constitution. Answering flag with flag, Santa Anna ordered a blood red flag raised on the bell tower of the San Fernando Church, a mere thousand yards from the Alamo. In the center of the flag were the skull and crossbones. The flag meant no quarter, no surrender, no mercy -- death for every man who opposed the Mexican government. The Texas rebels, Santa Anna believed, were filibusterers, pirates, and traitors, not soldiers of an established nation, and would be treated accordingly.
The Texans inside the Alamo responded to the flag with a blast from their eighteen-pounder. If Santa Anna wanted a battle without quarter, then so be it. The Texans were ready, just as they had been a few months before when Cos occupied the Alamo. The ball landed harmlessly in the town, raising dust and hurting no one, but the action was an eloquent note of defiance. Santa Anna answered fire with fire. Two Mexican howitzers rained four grenades toward the Alamo. Several shells exploded inside the fort but did no real damage. From inside the Alamo a new flag stretched above the west wall. A white flag. The Texans wanted to talk. Santa Anna responded by ordering a parley sounded.
Talk, yes -- but about what? Both Texans and Mexicans were confused about the exact order of the opening sequence of events. Did the Texans fire first, or did the Mexicans? Was the red flag misinterpreted? Had Santa Anna sounded a parley during engagements, or even before the first shot? Someone inside the Alamo told Bowie that he distinctly heard the notes of a parley, and Bowie ripped a page out of a child's copybook and scribbled a hurried message to Santa Anna asking for clarification. "I wish, Sir, to ascertain if it be true that a parlay was called, for which reason I send my second aid, [Green B.] Benito Jameson, under guarantee of a white flag which I believe will be respected by you and your forces." "Dios y Mexico," he ended his note, but after second thoughts he crossed it out and penned, "God and Texas!" Though ill and in a ticklish military situation, he still wanted Santa Anna to know that he was not a man to bend. "God and Texas" said it nicely.
Santa Anna was above answering a rebel. He refused to meet -- let alone negotiate with -- Jameson. Instead, he instructed aide-de-camp Colonel José Batres to answer Bowie. "I reply to you, according to the order of his Excellency, that the Mexican army cannot come to terms under any conditions with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no other recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, than to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations are taken up. God and Liberty!"
The reply was pregnant with possibilities. Though its general tone was tough, it was by no means a blood-red flag. A phrase like "if they wish to save their lives" and a word like "clemency" sounded vaguely hopeful. But what about "after some considerations are taken up"? What did that mean? Perhaps that most of the Texans would be pardoned but their leaders -- certainly hotheaded Travis and traitorous Bowie -- would be put to the sword? Bowie undoubtedly read the reply under the lamp of history. The Texans had treated Cos decently, but Zacatecas suggested that the Mexicans would not do the same to them.
Bowie and Travis were following independent courses. Bowie signed his note "Commander of the volunteers of Bexar," distancing himself from the regular army, and acted without consulting his cocommander. Now Travis wanted a parley of his own, and he sent Albert Martin to speak for him. Since his arrival in Texas via Tennessee and New Orleans, Martin had been deeply involved in the independence movement, and Travis trusted him completely. He rode out to the parley site on the banks of the San Antonio, meeting with Colonel Juan N. Almonte and several other Mexican soldiers. Educated in America and fluent in English, Almonte, perhaps, might be sympathetic with the Texans. Martin brought a verbal message from Travis: if the Mexicans wanted to negotiate terms, Travis "would receive [him] with much pleasure." As one Mexican source later recalled, Travis wanted respect for himself and his army, asserting that he would surrender the fort if he and his men could march out and join their government, as they had allowed Cos to do. If those terms were not met, he would stay put and fight.
Almonte may have been sympathetic, but he was not stupid enough to alienate his commander by promising generous terms he could not deliver. He answered that "it did not become the Mexican Government to make any propositions through me, and that I only had permission to hear such as might be made on part of the rebels." Nothing had changed. Santa Anna had stated his position in the Batres communication: surrender without terms. There was not much more to say. Martin took the message back to Travis, who sent word back to Almonte that he would consider it. If the unbending terms were acceptable, Travis would communicate this to Almonte. If they were unacceptable, he would fire a cannon.
Travis probably knew he had sent Martin on a fool's errand, that if Santa Anna would not budge on his terms for Bowie, the dictator would certainly not bend for him. Perhaps he simply wanted more propaganda ammunition to take to his men, to fire them with resolve and get their blood up for a fight. Juan Seguín later recalled that shortly after Martin returned, Travis gave an incendiary speech to the garrison, reminding them why they were fighting and what to expect if they were defeated. They were fighting for Texas and their families, for their God-given rights and their futures -- and for their lives. The blood red flag told them as much. This said, he ordered a cannon shot.
The next day in an open letter addressed to "the People of Texas & all Americans in the world," he explained the position of the men in the Alamo: "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." In language unambiguous and defiant, he challenged his countrymen in Texas and the United States to support his cause. "I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch...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 own honor & that of his country." He ended the letter, "VICTORY or DEATH."
Travis had crossed his own private Rubicon. He would not waver from the position he took on February 23. Now it was time to hunker down and wait. Several things he knew with certainty. First, the Alamo was not a particularly defensible fortress. As military historian Stephen L. Hardin observed, "By the standards of the day, the Alamo was certainly no fortress. It lacked mutually supporting strong points -- demilunes, bastions, hornworks, ravelines, sally ports, and the like. There were simply no strong points from which its defenders could oppose an assault." In addition, the walls had no firing ports, which meant the defenders would have to expose their upper bodies when they manned the Alamo. Travis and Bowie knew the weaknesses of their haven and understood that the Mexicans had the cannons to destroy the Alamo. They chose to stand their ground nonetheless.
Second, even if the Alamo had been defensible against siege weapons, Travis did not have enough soldiers to defend it. Needing five hundred soldiers to man the perimeter, he had about 150 to 160. And not only did he have too few men to defend the walls, he had too few cannoneers to fire all the cannons.
Third, even if the Alamo had been a defensible structure and Travis had had enough men to defend it, the garrison lacked food, supplies, and gunpowder to hold out against a protracted siege. Never expecting Santa Anna to mount such an early offensive, the defenders had not stockpiled the necessary supplies. Instead, as they moved to the Alamo they requisitioned what they could find, an unfortunate way to begin a defense against a siege. Nonetheless, Travis chose to stay and fight.
Santa Anna had problems of his own. If time was not on the Texans' side, it was not on his either. His forces were like a pearl necklace strung out over miles and days of south Texas territory. When he took his position in Béxar on February 23, his heavy siege guns were days behind. In theory General Vicente Filisola was right: "By merely placing twenty artillery pieces properly, that poor wall could not have withstood one hour of cannon fire without being reduced to rubble." But Santa Anna needed time for the heavy cannons to arrive and to dig the trenches to get them into proper position. And time could change everything. Time could mean reinforcements for the Alamo. The thought that Texans were on the march toward Béxar concerned Santa Anna more than his eventual confrontation with the men inside the walls, and he sent General Ventura Mora and a cavalry detachment to scout the land to the east and north. Santa Anna was under no illusions about where most Texans stood. He was an invader in enemy territory, far from the center of Mexico and closer to the border of the United States.
Santa Anna in Béxar and Travis and Bowie inside the Alamo had begun the elaborate and deadly game of war. Santa Anna had the numbers and the experience; Travis and Bowie had the advantage of a defensive position. For the moment, it was a game of waiting. But like every important contest, smaller games took place within the larger one. The blood red flag, for instance, was more than just a message. It was a psychological weapon.
That night, and during the following nights of the siege, Santa Anna maintained the psychological pressure. Like other military leaders he knew that lack of sleep would drain resolve and make brave men question their commitment to any cause. On the first night he kept the Texans alert by periodic shelling of their position. Then when darkness fell on the second day, he ordered his band to serenade the defenders, and Mexican music filled the night air. Then without warning the music would stop and hollow iron balls filled with black powder would rain into the Alamo, exploding when they hit the ground and spraying fragments. Then more music. The next time it stopped, the Mexicans might cry out and fire their muskets as if they were attacking or destroying a band of reinforcements bound for the Alamo. All sound and fury signifying nothing, perhaps, but it was enough to keep any man with an imagination awake and wondering. Were the Mexicans attacking? Would they attack that night? When would they attack? Questions began to replace sleep.
Those men inside the Alamo who had slept at all through the first night's activities awoke on Wednesday, February 24, to an overcast day and a south wind that promised rain. Bowie probably rested less than the others, and when the sun rose he could not even lift himself out of bed. Ill for weeks, he had still moved about and done his duties. Now a hard fever had set in and his condition was grave. Juana Navarro de Alsbury, wife of Texas doctor Horace Alsbury and a relative through marriage of Bowie, tended the colonel and said that he had typhoid. It might instead have been some form of consumption, or perhaps pneumonia or some bacterial infection. The garrison physician simply called it "a peculiar disease of a peculiar nature." Diagnosis was of less concern to Travis than the reality of Bowie's condition. Bowie was flat on this back, suffering from chills and the shakes. He was probably suffering through bouts of vomiting and bloody diarrhea as well. He was too sick to walk, too sick to think clearly, and certainly too sick to command.
That left Travis in charge of the defense of the Alamo. Travis, as most observers recorded, was not a man to be trifled with. He struck some people as vain, others as ambitious, brusque, prideful, overly sensitive, self-important, and occasionally hotheaded. He may even have been a bit pompous. But no one considered him incompetent, cowardly, or dumb, and he accepted full command determined to perform his duty to the best of his abilities. Undoubtedly a sense of his new position seeped into his February 24 letter to "the People of Texas & all Americans." The masterful, emotional appeal became Texas's unofficial declaration of independence, and it bespoke a man who took himself and his cause -- his duty and his country -- seriously. The words "Liberty...patriotism & every thing dear to the American character" resounded across Texas and the United States, and the promise "I shall never surrender or retreat" fired imaginations. The sign-off, "VICTORY or DEATH," meant just that to Travis.
Brilliant with words, he was also a clear-thinking commander. During February 24 and 25, Travis labored to strengthen the Alamo and to clear a field of vision around it. Although the Mexican artillery did not seriously injure any of the defenders, it blasted away parts of the fortress, making repairs necessary. Inside the fort the men were kept busy digging trenches, fortifying walls, and generally moving dirt. But of even more concern to Travis were the actions of the enemy. Intent upon pounding the walls and weakening the structure of the Alamo, Santa Anna began to encircle the fortress. On the night of the twenty-third he erected a small battery just west of the Main Plaza near the San Antonio River. During the next two days and nights he established other batteries -- one just across the San Antonio about 150 yards southwest of the Alamo, and another south of the fortress in an area known as La Villita. He also set up several entrenched camps to the south. Santa Anna's moves inched his guns and troops closer to Travis and his men.
On February 24 Santa Anna mounted his horse and reconnoitered the land around the mission, passing within musket shot of its walls. Exactly what Santa Anna was thinking is difficult to know, for he tended not to disclose his plans until the last moment, but by placing batteries to the south and southwest he undoubtedly planned to attack the Alamo at its main gate. Perhaps he hoped a quick attack would break through the Texans' defenses and result in painless victory. Or maybe his concern over reinforcements motivated him to attack before his full army had arrived in Béxar. Or he might simply have wanted to test the Texans' resolve. Were the men inside the Alamo truly willing to die defending four walls far away from their homes and families?
On the morning of February 25 the Mexican batteries began to shell the Alamo, forcing the defenders to seek cover. While the bombardment was taking place, Santa Anna then ordered two infantry battalions -- cazadores (riflemen) from the Matamoros Battalion and foot soldiers from the Jiménez Battalion -- to ford the San Antonio River and move into the mud-and-thatch jacales of Pueblo de Valero, outside the Alamo's main gate. General Manuel Fernández Castrillón led the attack, but Santa Anna himself hovered close to the action. Travis, Crockett, and the other defenders watched the Mexicans coming closer, looking for cover while steadily moving forward. They all well knew the effective range of their weapons -- seventy yards for a musket, two hundred or so for a long rifle. They waited. Waited on the piles of dirt looking over the Alamo's south walls. Waited in the artillery batteries at the southwest corner, main gate, and palisade. Waited in the trenches and ditches outside the Alamo. Then they opened fire. Travis wrote Sam Houston that the Mexicans "arrived within point blank shot, when we opened a discharge of grape and canister on them, together with a well directed fire from small arms which forced them to halt and take shelter in the houses 90 to 100 yards from our batteries."
The Texas barrage drew blood. After regrouping, Santa Anna's forces began a slow advance, moving from one covered position to the next. The Texans killed several of the attackers and wounded a few others. Despite being bombarded by "balls, grape and canister," the Texans maintained their fire. Travis gloried in the performance of his officers and men, writing Houston that they "conducted themselves with firmness and bravery...with such undaunted heroism" that it was unfair to single out only a few. But Travis did comment that David Crockett "was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty."
Though the Texans repelled the attack, the assault did underscore one of the major weaknesses in their position. The jacales of Pueblo de Valero and La Villita, to the south of the Alamo, offered too much protection for the enemy. The Texans needed a greater field of fire. Seeing this, Charles Despallier, a recent arrival in Béxar from Rapides Parish, Louisiana, and Robert Brown, who had been in Texas for more than a year, "gallantly sallied out" and torched several abandoned structures close to the Alamo.
The fighting continued in bursts while the low clouds spit light rain on the combatants. After two hours the Mexicans pulled back and the shooting stopped. The fight had certainly not elevated Mexican soldiers in Travis's eyes; his men had fought and won the day, sustaining only one injury and a few soldiers "slightly scratched by pieces of rock." But one day's skirmish would be meaningless in the final battle. The enemy was encircling him. Batteries were sprouting at night like mushrooms. His position was becoming increasingly tenuous. "I have every reason to apprehend an attack from his whole force very soon," Travis wrote Houston, "but I shall hold out to the last extremity, hoping to secure reinforcement in a day or two. Do hasten on aid to me as rapidly as possible, as from the superior number of the enemy, it will be impossible for us to keep them out much longer." At the end of the letter Travis shifted, as he often did, from a factual account of the day's events to a somber emotional appeal. "If they overpower us, we fall a sacrifice at the shrine of our country, and we hope posterity and our country will do our memory justice. Give me help, oh my country!"
That night both sides continued to prepare for a major confrontation. The Mexicans conducted a probing assault against the "rear of the fort" and received a volley of grape and musket fire for their efforts. The Texans concentrated their energy on burning more jacales and clearing the space between themselves and their enemy. The night was alive with musket and rifle fire, cannon blasts, and exploding shells, with cries of soldiers and whispers of raiders. Men shivered against the night air, suddenly colder as the first wisps of a norther swept off the plains.
For how long could the Texans stand? That night a council of the Texans met to decide upon a course of action. They needed reinforcements, but so far Travis's urgent pleas had either disappeared on the prairies of Texas or been ignored. The council needed someone of standing, someone with deep roots in Texas who commanded respect, to ride to Goliad and convince James Fannin to come to their aid. Tejano Juan Seguín was only twenty-nine years old, but he was a man whose opinions carried weight throughout Spanish-speaking Texas. He had married into an important ranching family, served as a political chief in Béxar, and led a militia company against the centralist government, taking part in the storming of the Alamo the previous December. Moving easily between Spanish and Anglo Texas, Seguín was the ideal courier. His mission was clear: convince Fannin to act.
Ninety-five miles down the San Antonio River, sitting in the presidio of La Bahía, overlooking the town of Goliad, James Walker Fannin prepared for his role as a savior with all the resolve of Prince Hamlet. At his disposal were some four hundred soldiers, passionate and ready to fight, waiting only for Fannin's order to march, lingering while Fannin thought through his options. On February 23, Travis and Bowie jointly signed a letter pleading for assistance, demanding that Fannin, like themselves, act honorably. "We hope you will send us all the men you can spare promptly," they wrote. Time was of the essence and Fannin's army was a five- or six-day march from the Alamo.
Fannin received the letter on February 25, and he recognized his duty at once, though he was not the sort of man to fulfill it. A native of Georgia, he had been raised by his grandfather on a cotton plantation near Marion and entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1819. He left the academy before graduating, having acquired an apprentice's knowledge of strategy, tactics, logistics, and artillery but a journeyman's sense of rank, command, control, authority, and obedience. Settled in Velasco, Texas, in the fall of 1834, he raised a bit of cotton, traded slaves, and sided with the radicals on the question of Texas independence. Fannin became a member of the committee of safety and correspondence of Columbia in August 1835, wrote letters inviting West Point officers to come to Texas and join the cause, fought in the battles of Gonzales and Concepción in October, and early in January 1836 began raising volunteer troops for the Matamoros expedition. When the expedition fizzled out, he fell back to Goliad, which he hoped to defend against José Urrea's army advancing up the coast. He was bivouacked there on February 25, 1836, when a courier delivered the plea for help from Travis and Bowie.
Fannin faced difficult political, military, and personal choices. In the chaos of the Matamoros expedition and the disintegration of the provisional government, the Texas army suffered badly. The power struggle between Governor Henry Smith and the Council had clouded command issues in a political fog. At one time or another in January and early February, James Fannin, Sam Houston, Frank Johnson, and James Grant had either been designated or tried to assume the role of commander in chief. Fannin knew he occupied critical ground, but he had no idea what to do about it. "General Houston is absent on furlough," he wrote to Acting Governor James W. Robinson on February 22, "and neither myself nor the army have received any orders as to who should assume the command."
Fannin's long letter to Robinson reveals the depth of his psychological torment. He begins by complaining that he is overworked, then details a lottery he conducted that renamed La Bahía "Fort Defiance." Next he emphasizes how "many men of influence view me with an envious eye, and either desire my station, or my disgrace. The first, they are welcome to -- and many thanks for taking it off my hands." Unlike Travis, Fannin has no desire to lead and requests that Robinson and the Council relieve him of command. "I am a better judge of my military abilities than others, and if I am qualified to command an Army, I have not found it out." After making this stark admission, Fannin starts rambling from one point to another, ranging from the best way to select a commander and ideas for the proposed Texas constitution to qualified officers he has known. Taken as a whole, the letter should have been enough to convince Robinson that La Bahía -- Fannin's Fort Defiance -- was rudderless.
Fannin also found himself in a strategic dilemma. While Travis begged him to march west and break the siege of the Alamo, he had orders from the provisional government to hold Goliad. Urrea was marching steadily north from Matamoros, up the coastal prairies, headed straight for Goliad and Copano Bay, the mouth of the San Antonio River and Béxar's logistical lifeline. If Fannin attempted a rescue of the Alamo, he risked leaving the southwest coast undefended and giving Urrea an opportunity to cut Béxar's links to the sea, sweep north into the heart of Anglo Texas, and conquer the settlements along the Guadalupe, Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity Rivers.
Even worse, Fannin knew that he was ill equipped to confront either Santa Anna or Urrea. West Point had given him enough tactical and logistical training to understand the inherent limits of his position. If he heeded Travis's pleas and deployed to Béxar, his troops would have to fight their way into the Alamo through thousands of regular Mexican troops and, once there, with limited provisions, defend it against concentrated artillery bombardment and infantry assault. The prospects of remaining in La Bahía seemed better. If he remained there, he would face Urrea's army of 641 men and eight cannon from a fine defensive position. If war was a gamble, the odds of staying put seemed better than playing against the house in Béxar. But -- and Fannin lived in a world of buts -- José Urrea was the best general in the Mexican army, a veteran of the Revolution, the failed Spanish reconquest, and the Apache wars. "General don José Urrea," a Mexican army officer would soon write, "was without doubt the General who most distinguished himself in the Texas campaign."
Desperate for more men, more money, and more materiel, Fannin forwarded repeated requests to the provisional government. In a Feb-ruary 16 letter to Acting Governor James Robinson, he had pleaded, "Send from twelve to fifteen hundred men to Bexar immediately, and provisions plenty." He wrote to Robinson again the next day, even more urgently. "Let me implore you to lose no time and spare no expense in spreading these tidings throughout Texas, and ordering out the militia 'IN MASS.'" Without reinforcements and provisions, the Texans were doomed.
In almost every way, Fannin was ill suited for command of the Army of the People. A beggar for help, he was also choosy. He wanted reinforcements but none like the troops he already had -- Jacksonian individualists who elected their own officers, chose which orders to obey, and drifted in and out of service with the consistency of birds lighting in a tree. "Stir up the people," he told Governor Robinson, "but do not allow them to come into camp unless organized. I never wish to see an election in a camp where I am responsible in any manner." He felt somewhat better a week later: "I have been troubled to get my militia to work or do any kind of garrison duty: But I am now happy to say, that I have got them quite well-satisfied, and being well-disciplined, and doing good work."
Fannin's troops had little trouble sensing his misgivings and perhaps his lack of respect for them. La Bahía in the winter of 1836 was nothing like the hills of West Point in 1819 and 1820, where humble, obsequious plebes had instinctively, enthusiastically obeyed every word coming from the mouth of an upperclassman, let alone an army officer. They found Fannin distant and arrogant, a windbag filled with personal ambitions, scarcely hidden fears, and unusually high expectations. "I am sorry to say," wrote Private J. F. Ferguson, "that the majority of the soldiers don't like [Fannin]. For what cause I don't know whether it is because they think he has not the interest of the country at heart or that he wishes to become great without taking the proper steps to attain greatness."
On February 26, before Seguín ever reached La Bahía, Fannin finally decided that he had to march to the Alamo to relieve the siege. Or perhaps his men decided the issue for him. In any case, he seemed, at least temporarily, full of resolve. The day before, in a letter devoted to financial matters, he had written Robinson, "I am aware that my present movement toward Bexar is any thing but a military one. The appeals of Cols. Travis and Bowie cannot however pass unnoticed -- particularly by my troops now on the field -- Sanguine, chivalrous Volunteers -- Much must be risked to relieve the besieged." Leaving just one hundred men behind, he cautiously began to lead three hundred troops up the San Antonio River, heading for Béxar with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man approaching the executioner. From the first, nothing went as planned. A wagon broke down and they spent much of the first day trying to lug their artillery across the San Antonio River. Hungry after that effort, they discovered that they had not packed nearly enough rations -- "Not a particle of bread stuff, with the exception of half a tierce of rice, with us, -- no beef, with the exception of a small portion which had been dried -- and, not a head of cattle, except those used to draw the artillery, the ammunition, etc." At the end of the day they had moved only two hundred yards closer to the Alamo. That night, while they camped along the river, several oxen wandered off. That was enough for Fannin. He was never keen on the mission, and the small problems gave him an excuse to reconsider the entire expedition. The next morning the man who had raged against democracy in the military held a war council, reporting that "it was by them unanimously determined, that, inasmuch as a proper supply of provisions and means of transportation could not be had; and, as it was impossible, with our present means, to carry the artillery with us, and as by leaving Fort Defiance without a proper garrison, it might fall into the hands of the enemy,...and as by report of our spies...we may expect an attack upon this place, it was deemed expedient to return to this post and complete the fortifications." In short, Fannin -- now the democrats' democrat -- scuttled the rescue attempt.
Fannin had barely returned to La Bahía when he learned just how close Urrea was. Late in the evening of February 26, Urrea's division reached the Nueces River just one mile above Lipantitlán. When a reconnaissance patrol discovered seventy Texans at San Patricio, Urrea decided to surprise them. At 3:30 A.M. on February 27, Mexican troops attacked, routing the Texans in a matter of hours, killing a total of twenty rebels and taking thirty-two prisoners. For Fannin, the enemy had closed to within fifty miles. "The enemy have the town of Bejar, with a large force -- and I fear will soon have our brave countrymen in the Alamo," he wrote on February 28. "Another force is near me -- and crossed the river yesterday, and attacked a party by surprise...and routed them." Rescuing Béxar was now completely out of the question.
Announcing his decision in a letter to Governor Robinson, Fannin lamented his dwindling supplies and the possibility that famine might compel his army "to cut our way through the enemy leaving the artillery & munitions of war in their hands." As for the men in the Alamo, he wished them well and then washed his hands of the matter.
We hope, however, for the best -- we hope that before this time the people have risen and are marching to the relief of Bexar & this post -- but should the worst happen -- on whose head should his burthen of censure fall -- not on the heads of those brave men who have left their homes in the United States to aid us in our struggle for Liberty -- but on those whose all is in Texas & who notwithstanding the repeated calls have remained at home without raising a finger to keep the Enemy from their thresholds...Will not curses be heaped on the heads of the sluggards who remain at home with a knowledge of our situation.
Juan Seguín never made it to La Bahía. On the road he met one of Fannin's officers at the Ranch of San Bartolo and was told that Fannin and four hundred soldiers were on "his way to render assistance to the defenders of the Alamo." Deciding to wait at the ranch for Fannin, Seguín sent back a message that time was critical. Later that same day Seguín talked with another of the colonel's men and learned that Fannin had aborted the mission and returned to La Bahía to defend it against General Urrea. Fannin had his own orders and concerns, the messenger said, adding that Seguín should travel to Gonzales to confer with General Houston. Seguín did just that, arriving in Gonzales and setting to work organizing a Tejano force.
The situation in the Alamo was critical. On February 26 a norther dropped the temperatures to just above freezing and sent a strong, numbing wind across south Texas. William Fairfax Gray, a Virginian on his way to the Texas convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, noted in his journal that a norther "is sometimes so excessively cold that persons have been known to freeze to death in crossing the plains. Long observation has taught [Texans] to expect a norther between the 20th of February and 1st of March, and that generally closes winter." Whether this one spelled the end of winter or not, Gray could not answer. But he was so cold that he did not commence his journey until noon. Only the news from Béxar warmed Gray's blood. Travis was going to fight. Texas would respond, Gray was sure. "The people now begin to think the wolf has actually come at last, and are preparing for a march."
A march away from Gray, the cold forced the defenders to huddle by their fires, where they used the dwindling supply of coffee to make a weak brew. It also made painfully clear what they lacked. The well they had dug inside the Alamo did not satisfy their needs, and the wood they burned to keep themselves warm was quickly vanishing into embers. Outside the walls was their answer -- water from the acequia to the east and wood from the jacales of Pueblo de Valero and La Villita to the south. Between the Alamo's walls and the resources were Mexican cazadores armed with Baker rifles and soldiers carrying Brown Bess muskets. It made for dangerous work, but it was necessary. During the day Texans ventured out into enemy territory, gathering water and wood and torching a jacal here and there. Meanwhile, Mexican soldiers continued their reconnaissance efforts. Occasionally small, opposing groups clashed, fired shots, and ran for cover. A few Mexicans died during the day, and undoubtedly at least several Texans were hit.
The bombardments and burning jacales lit Béxar and the Alamo that night. The next day, Saturday, February 27, the wind and the search for supplies continued. Now not only the Texans but the Mexicans scoured the landscape. Santa Anna sent parties to surrounding ranches with orders to requisition -- or simply take -- corn, cattle, and hogs. While his men foraged, Santa Anna planned. In a letter to another officer, he bragged, "From the moment of my arrival I have been busy hostilizing the enemy in his position, so much so that they are not even allowed to raise their heads over the walls, preparing everything for the assault which will take place when at least the first brigade arrives, which is now sixty leagues away. Up to now they still act stubborn, counting on the strong position which they hold, and hoping for much aid from the colonies and from the United States, but they will soon find out their mistake."
On February 28 the weather improved and for a time it seemed as if the defenders' position would too. Fannin was on his way with several hundred -- at least, that was a rumor that spread through the Mexican camp. Juan Almonte noted in his journal, "It is not true." But for a time it seemed real enough that Santa Anna sent a cavalry detachment southeast to intercept Fannin. Santa Anna could not have known that Fannin was too cautious to come. Perhaps the rumor penetrated inside the walls and allowed the imaginations of the defenders to soar with thoughts of victory. Yet an afternoon rain coupled with no sign or word from Fannin dampened spirits.
There was no Fannin on the Goliad-Béxar Road, but throughout Texas and the United States the name William Barret Travis and the fight at the Alamo was on people's lips. The stand of the defenders and Travis's impassioned pleas had quickly assumed a romantic mantle. Travis intended that his letters be published, and they were, along with other equally emotional appeals. Governor Henry Smith called upon his fellow Texans "to fly to the aid of your besieged countrymen and not permit them to be massacred by a mercenary foe. I slight none. I call on ALL who are able to bear arms, to rally without a moment's delay." He challenged their manhood: "Do you possess honor? Suffer it not to be insulted or tarnished! Do you possess patriotism? Evince it by your bold, prompt and manly action!" Across Texas and in ports like New Orleans the message was the same. Save Travis. Save the Alamo. Save Texas. There was not a moment to spare. The barbarians were at the gate. In another statement, Smith pleaded: "Citizen of Texas, descendents of Washington, awake! arouse yourself!...The eyes of the world are upon us! let us fly at once to our arms, march to the battle field, meet the foe, and give renewed evidence to the world, that the arms of freemen, uplifted in defense of their rights and liberties, are irresistible."
The appeals of Smith and the other politicians and journalists did not penetrate the Alamo, where they would have been appreciated almost as much as reinforcements. Leap Year's gift, February 29, came and passed like the previous day, without Fannin and without any hopeful news. But the day did begin a short lull in the fighting, which may even have been a brief armistice. Santa Anna may have entertained the idea of not attacking the Alamo. In his 1837 account of the campaign he claimed, "I still wanted to try a generous measure, characteristic of Mexican kindness, and I offered life to the defendants who would surrender their arms and retire under oath not to take them up again against Mexico." These were essentially the same terms that the Texans had given Cos in December. El presidente also wrote that Almonte delivered the message. In his own journal, however, Almonte detailed the weather and Mexican troop movements but no peace missions, so Santa Anna may have been sprucing up his image after the fact.
Still, the fighting stopped and a number of Tejanos -- perhaps the only people Santa Anna included in his armistice -- reconsidered their place in the Alamo. Seguín, their leader, was gone, and several of them sought out Bowie for advice. Unlike Bowie, Travis, and the other Anglos, they had not enlisted or taken the oath, even if they disapproved of the government of Santa Anna. They trusted Bowie; he was as close to being one of them as an Anglo settler was likely to get. And Bowie, though sick and unable to get out of his cot, expressed concern for them. "All of you who desire to leave here may go in safety," he told them. It was their decision. A few stayed to fight. When Bowie asked Gregorio Esparza if he wanted to leave, Esparza answered, "No. I will stay and die fighting." Esparza's wife then told her husband, "I will stay by your side and with our children die too. They will soon kill us. We will not linger long in pain." But most left.
The weather had turned nasty again. It was another norther, only this one was colder, louder, and stronger than the previous one. The winds were galelike, and the night was violent and alive with lightning, thunder, rain, and hail. José Enrique de la Peña, moving toward Béxar from the south to join Santa Anna, spent the night in a riverbed shielded from the wind but not the snow. He noted that it was impossible to write messages because the ink had frozen in the inkwells and bottles. William F. Gray had gone to sleep on a warm night in Washington-on-the-Brazos, throwing off some of his clothes to cool down, so the norther hit him especially hard. He was from Virginia and was unaccustomed to the shifting moods of the weather on the Texas plains.
Something else was happening outside the Alamo's walls. Out in the darkness there were some sort of unusual activities: voices -- English-speaking voices -- and horses. The men guarding the Alamo had learned during the previous week to shoot first and ask questions later, assuming that anything moving toward them from the outside was the enemy. So when one of them saw a movement he shot. A man hit in the foot swore an oath in English, and someone else told the Texans to hold their fire. The men on the outside were Texans and Americans, thirty-two of them and mostly from Gonzales, come to the Alamo to aid their brothers. In a moment the postern swung open and the reinforcements were inside. It was 3 A.M., and as far as Travis was concerned, this proved that it was possible to get men into the Alamo.
The origins of the Gonzales expedition went back to the first day of the siege, when Travis sent Dr. John Sutherland and John W. Smith to Gonzales for help. Though Sutherland had injured his knee when his horse had thrown him on February 23, his voice was still good and he told the men in Gonzales that the Alamo was facing stiff odds. A day or two later Captain Albert Martin, a Gonzales man, had arrived back at home with Travis's "VICTORY or DEATH" letter, and he too said the situation at the Alamo was urgent. Texas needed help. The Gonzales Ranging Company of Mounted Volunteers, thirty-two men with horses and rifles, seemed duly constituted and honor bound to help.
As a group, the men of Gonzales formed a cross section of frontier Texas -- old and young, modestly successful and dirt poor, educated and illiterate. Isaac Millsaps was forty-one; William P. King was sixteen. Thomas R. Miller, a well-off resident, had just lost his young bride to Johnnie Kellogg, so he joined up. So did Kellogg. So did John W. Smith and Albert Martin, both eager to rejoin their comrades. Thirty-two men altogether made the decision to ride into hostile country, into the teeth of the Mexican army, to join a group of Texans who were badly outnumbered and facing the blood red flag of no quarter. They had a choice; many had wives and families. But they decided to follow Smith and Martin.
That they got to the Alamo at all was probably pure, blind luck. The Mexican forces that had encircled the Alamo had been thinned by the departure of a cavalry unit in search of Fannin. And the night was so cold and ugly that the sentinels were probably more concerned with keeping warm and dry than looking for Texans sneaking across the plains. The Gonzales men could see the Mexican fires and sentries and adjusted their path accordingly, moving from bush to bush and ravine to ravine.
Their only scare came when a mysterious man speaking English appeared out of nowhere and told them to follow him. They followed for a while, but soon the scout in Smith became suspicious. Something was wrong -- the man's voice, his posture, the distance he kept. "Boys," Smith called out, "it's time to be after shooting that fellow!"
The stranger spurred his horse and disappeared into the same darkness from which he had appeared. The Gonzales men didn't need him anyway. Smith knew the country and could guide them about anywhere. Except for the man who was shot by an Alamo guard, they got inside the walls without further incident.
Young Enrique Esparza, in the Alamo with his mother and father and siblings, later recalled that March 1 was a day of general celebration. "The Texans beat on a drum and played on a flute." The fact that reinforcements had passed through the Mexican ring and entered the fort, even if only thirty-two of them, was a triumph. Outside the walls a more subdued but significant celebration took place. Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma, who had led the Fannin search party, returned from his voyage down the Béxar-Goliad Road and reported that there was no enemy in sight. Neither side knew exactly what the other knew, but the sum total of the information was this: thirty-two men had joined the defenders in the Alamo; two hundred or more had rejoined the attackers. Without that net loss, the Alamo might have been saved.
By the beginning of March the defense of the Alamo had become the visible incarnation of Texas, its present crisis and its future hopes. For many Texans and Americans it represented a people fighting against tyranny and arbitrary rule, and for personal liberty and the rule of law. For others it signified the fight for a prosperous future built on land, cotton, and slaves. Of course, there was no Texas, at least no constituted, independent, and free Texas. So while the Alamo stood strong as a symbol, politicians trudged to Washington-on-the-Brazos to embody its dream.
The delegates to the Convention of 1836 began riding into Washington-on-the-Brazos on February 28. They rode along muddy paths into rain and hail and freezing temperatures. The forty-one delegates who arrived by the first day crowded into a half-finished frame house at 1 P.M. Before starting the work of birthing a new nation, they tacked cotton cloth over the open windows. As a group, they contrasted sharply with those who attended the Conventions of 1832 and 1833 and the Consultation of 1835. They were younger and relative newcomers to Texas, and an unusually large number of them were military veterans of the battles of Gonzales, Concepción, and Béxar. Most were radical, War Party firebrands, men who loathed Antonio López de Santa Anna and believed that only in independence could Texans fulfill their destiny.
They sensed that everything was at stake. For more than a month, the provisional government had ceased to exist, its officials fighting with one another to the point of effective abdication. Now a somber mood blanketed the sessions. Mexico's Army of Operations menaced like a Sonoran scorpion, its two pincers -- Urrea to the southeast and Santa Anna to the southwest -- ready to sting. Most Texan rebels realized that the future of their country hung in the balance, that the moment of truth was at hand.
The delegates may have been somber about their military chances, but they were decidedly meaner than before about their opponents. With farms, families, homes, and lives threatened with destruction, an anti-Mexican streak, always lurking just below the surface, spewed forth from many. During the political battles of the previous fall, Anglo Texans had walked a racial tightrope, not wanting to alienate federalists in the Mexican interior or sympathetic Tejanos in their own backyard. But Santa Anna had crushed liberal forces at least temporarily, and once Anglo Texans realized they could expect no help from the south, their racial prejudices bubbled to the surface. At a meeting in Texana on January 20, 1836, citizens from the municipality of Jackson resolved that "the great mass of...[Mexicans are] incapable of appreciating or even comprehending the Blessings of free institutions." Another Texan justified independence because "we separate from a people one half of whom are the most depraved of the different races of Indians, different in color, pursuits and character." David G. Burnet, soon to be Texas's interim president, would later tell Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky that "Texas has pronounced a final separation from the miserable and revolutionary government of Mexico...The causes...are too numerous to be detailed in a single letter; but one general fact may account for all; the utter dissimilarity of character between the two people, the Texians and the Mexicans. The first are principally Anglo-Americans; the others a mongrel race of degenerate Spaniards and Indians more depraved than they."
Anglo attitudes toward Tejanos had deteriorated as well, particularly when so few rallied to the rebellion. Writing to Acting Governor James W. Robinson on February 21, 1836, James Fannin warned against trusting Tejanos. "Whilst I am in command, both private and public enemies will be attended to. There is more danger from these spies, who are so intimately acquainted with the country, than from twenty times the number of armed soldiers. I again tell you," Fannin summarized, "we must not rely on Mexicans."
For many Anglo Texans, and perhaps on both sides, the rebellion was assuming the dimensions of a race war -- American against Mexican, white against brown. In a February 12 letter to Governor Henry Smith, William Travis insisted that Santa Anna was "denouncing vengeance against the people of Texas -- and threatening to exterminate every white man within its limits." James Fannin shared those sentiments, telling Acting Governor Robinson, "Not the least doubt should any longer be entertained, by any friend of Texas, of the design of Santa Anna to overrun the country and overrun or exterminate every white man within its borders."
Like so many other Southerners, the Anglo Texans feared that a race war would culminate in a sexual apocalypse against white women. Leering, sexually depraved Mexican soldiers were marching north to deflower Texas women, they thought. "What can be expected for the Fair daughters of chaste white women," James Fannin insisted, "when their own [Mexican] country-women are prostituted by a licensed soldiery, as an inducement to push forward into the Colonies, where they may find fairer game?" Other Texans raised the specter of rape and ruin. "Their [Mexican] war cry is, 'death and destruction to every Anglo-American, west of the Sabine'; their watchword, actually, 'beauty and booty.'...And will you now as Texian freeman...suffer the colored hirelings of a cruel and faithless despot, to feast and revel, in your dearly purchased and cherished homes?...Your beloved wives, your mothers, your daughters...given up to the dire pollution, and massacre of a band of barbarians." To be sure, mass rapes were not unheard of in wartime, then or later -- but Santa Anna preferred execution and pillage to sexual brutalization.
These racial fears undoubtedly helped fan the flame of independence, but to their credit, the Texans had much higher motives. To George Childress fell the task of drafting the Texas Declaration of Independence. A well-educated attorney and native of Tennessee, he had arrived late in Texas, settling in an empresario colony founded by his uncle Sterling Robertson. But he wasted no time clothing himself in the fabric of rebellion. Just three weeks after arriving in Texas, Childress won a seat in the Convention of 1836, representing Milam municipality. He called the convention to order on March 1 and chaired the five-man committee charged with drafting the declaration. He had probably carried a draft of the declaration in his saddlebags as he rode to Washington-on-the-Brazos, because the committee submitted it to the delegates less than twenty-four hours later. On March 2, with Santa Anna tightening his grip on Béxar and José Urrea racing toward Goliad, the delegates did not even bother to debate the document, approving it in a matter of minutes.
The Texas Declaration of Independence crackled with the rhetoric of natural rights and popular sovereignty. The thinking and writings of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson echoed throughout the document. More than a century and a half earlier, the Englishman John Locke had planted a major seed of American political culture, arguing that human beings formed governments to protect the natural rights God had bestowed upon them, particularly the rights to liberty and property. Governments derived their authority, Locke maintained, from the consent of the governed, and citizens retained the right to withdraw consent when government failed to protect or abused their natural rights.
The Founding Fathers, of course, had adopted Locke's ideas. In the Declaration of Independence of 1776, Thomas Jefferson had written that when government failed to fulfill its obligation to protect individual rights, the people had the right and even the duty to dissolve it and erect in its place a new government, capable of achieving those ends. Philosophically, at least, revolution was as American as open spaces. Jefferson famously said (not in the declaration) that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants," and the Texans were quick to agree. The rebels were certain that Santa Anna had wrought what Locke and Jefferson had feared, a despotic state committed not to protecting individual rights but to aggrandizing its own power. The Mexican government, so the declaration went, had "ceased to protect the lives, liberty, and property of the people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived...[and had become] an instrument in the hands of evil rulers for their suppression." Under such circumstances, Santa Anna had surrendered all political legitimacy. "When, in consequence of such acts of malfeasance and abduction on the part of the government," the declaration argued, "anarchy prevails, and civil society is dissolved into its original elements, in such a crisis, the first law of nature, the right of self-preservation," gives the people the right "to take their political affairs into their own hands...to abolish such government, and create another in its stead, calculated to rescue them from impending dangers, and to secure their welfare and happiness." The Texans had little regard for the fact that they had moved from the United States to Mexican sovereignty. Rights were rights, given by God to people everywhere. Their Declaration of Independence insisted that when Anglo-Americans had crossed the Sabine, Mexico had promised that they "should continue to enjoy that constitutional liberty and republican government to which they had been habituated in the land of their birth, the United States of America."
Heading the Texan list of grievances was the fact that the "federal republican government, which they have sworn to support, no longer has a substantial existence...and has been forcibly changed from a restricted federative republic, composed of sovereign states, to a consolidated military despotism." Among other things, Santa Anna had "suffered the military commandants, stationed among us, to exercise arbitrary acts of oppression and tyranny, thus trampling upon the most sacred rights of the citizens, and rendering the military superior to the civil power." Mexican customs collectors, said the declaration, had "made tyrannical attacks upon our commerce...commissioning desperadoes, and authorizing them to seize our vessels, and convey the property of our citizens to far distant parts for confiscation." Furthermore, Mexico City "denies us the right of worshipping the almighty according to the dictates of our own conscience, by the support of a national religion." The Mexican government "has demanded us to deliver up our arms, which are essential to our defense -- the rightful property of freemen -- and formidable only to tyrannical governments." And finally, the central government had been "during the whole time of our connection with it, the contemptible sport and victim of successive military revolutions, and hath continually exhibited every characteristic of a weak, corrupt, and tyrannical government." Worshiping God, owning guns, protecting property, and preventing anarchy were worth dying for.
No sooner had they inked their signatures on the Declaration of Independence than the Texans set about writing a constitution. It would not be ratified until March 17, 1836, but it also drew on ideas developed long before Santa Anna's final assault on the Alamo. All but quoting John Locke, the constitution argued that "all men, when they form a social compact, have equal rights...All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority, and instituted for their benefit, and they have at all times the inalienable right to alter their government in such manner as they think proper." The constitution then outlined a Declaration of Rights based on the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, providing to all citizens the right "to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience"; guaranteeing private property, due process, and freedom of speech and the press; protecting citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures; outlawing debtors' prison, excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishments; requiring grand jury indictments and speedy and public trials in which guilt or innocence was decided by juries; and extending to every citizen "the right to bear arms in defense of himself and the republic." Blind to what later generations would consider obvious, the delegates tolerated and even endorsed slavery, seeing no discrepancy between praising the virtues of liberty and individual natural rights while condoning human bondage. The constitution denied citizenship to Africans, descendants of Africans, and Indians (though not to Mexicans), and prohibited the immigration to Texas of free blacks. "All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas," the constitution provided, "and who are now held in bondage shall remain in the like state of servitude." Pushing Southern slave codes to the limit, the constitution even made abolition -- individual or otherwse -- all but impossible: "Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them...[N]or shall Congress have the power to emancipate slaves; nor shall any slave holder be able to emancipate his or her slaves without the consent of Congress."
In this respect, the Texas constitution was worse than its model. Otherwise, it was quite similar, if less well thought out. But time was short.
As the delegates proclaimed independence, General José Urrea was showing James Grant that Mexico was bent on crushing Texas's rebellion. Unaware that Urrea had taken San Patricio a few days earlier, Grant and about fifty soldiers were returning from a horse-hunting expedition. Urrea's scouts found them driving hundreds of wild horses north toward San Patricio. The general set a trap for them at Agua Dulce Creek, twenty-six miles south of the settlement, concealing forty riflemen and eighty dragoons in the tree line. Several hours after sunrise, the Texans rode into the ambush. Grant and an associate, Reuben Brown, made a run for it, but Urrea's cavalry caught up with them after a seven-mile chase. Once surrounded, Grant and Brown reined in their mounts to make a last stand. Grant fell quickly to cavalry lances and Brown was captured. He remembered watching Mexican troops hack at Grant's body with their sabers. Several other Texans who surrendered were similarly butchered. Forty-one comrades died with Grant that morning.
Travis was completely in the dark, of course, about both the new constitution in the making and the destruction of Grant's army. He was unaware that his "VICTORY or DEATH" letter had been published in the Brazoria Texas Republican and that Texans were reading his appeals. Nor did he know that the politicians in Washington-on-the-Brazos were questioning his information. Some said that Travis was manufacturing a crisis to promote his own career, that his letters were more political documents than accurate assessments of his military position. Sam Houston, his mind fogged by alcohol in what was far from his finest moment, told a friend that Travis's report was "a damned lie, and that all those reports from Travis & Fannin were lies, for there were no Mexicans forces there and that he believed that it was only electioneering schemed [by] Travis & Fannin to sustain their popularity." Listening to Houston and other Travis detractors, many reached the conclusion that there was no crisis or that it was exaggerated, and there was even the suggestion that the Travis letters were forgeries.
On March 3, a fine, clear day, Travis's eyes were focused on the activities taking place in Béxar. There were wild celebrations, punctuated by cheers, artillery fire, and military songs. Soldiers cheered loudly, "Santa Anna! Santa Anna!" Travis had no way of knowing that the outburst of joy was a reaction to the news of Urrea's victory at the battle of San Patricio and the realization that Fannin was not on the road to the Alamo with reinforcements. All Travis saw was the celebrations, and even more ominous, the long, seemingly endless lines of soldiers marching into Béxar. It was General Antonio Gaona's First Brigade and Cavalry Regiment in full dress regalia, more than a thousand men strong. Travis correctly estimated the numbers but failed to identify the unit. Actually, he had discounted rumors that Santa Anna was already in Béxar and assumed that the celebrations signaled his arrival. The Alamo defenders now faced 2,590 Mexican troops in the Army of Operations. To show that there were still fighting men in the Alamo, Travis ordered a few cannon rounds and some gunfire. But the odds were getting long.
The arrival of Mexican reinforcements did not sink Travis's hopes entirely. Just hours before Urrea's men marched into Béxar, Colonel James Butler Bonham and perhaps two other Texans had skirted the Mexican defenses and ridden into the Alamo. This broad-daylight foray, as dramatic in its conception as in its execution, was so like the dashing Bonham, a tall, thin, gray-eyed adventurer. Decades later Enrique Esparza still recalled Bonham through a child's eyes. The Mexicans had fired at the South Carolinian, Esparza said, but could not hit him. And then he was inside the walls, "a white handkerchief tied to his hat; this handkerchief was a sign that he had seen Fannin." Esparza noted that his mother dropped to her knees "and said her beads and thanked the good God" for Bonham's safe passage.
Not only did the sight of Bonham lift the defenders' spirits, he carried with him hope for their deliverance. A letter from R. M. Williamson to Travis dated March 1 indicated that Texans were rushing to the Alamo. Sixty men had departed Gonzales, three hundred soldiers under Fannin's command had left La Bahía, perhaps another three hundred were coming from Washington-on-the-Brazos, Bastrop, Brazoria, and San Felipe -- all headed for the mission. "[N]o time will be lost in providing you assistance," Williamson had written. And in a postscript: "For God's sake hold out until we can assist you...Best wishes to all your people and tell them to hold on firmly by their 'wills' until I go there."
Writing to the convention later in the afternoon, Travis gave a clearheaded assessment of the Alamo's position. The Alamo was surrounded -- that was the crucial military fact. The Mexicans had set up a battery on the west side of the river four hundred yards away, and they shelled the fort regularly. They had also established entrenched encampments on all sides -- "in Bexar, four hundred yards west; in la Villita, three hundred yards south; at the powder house, one thousand yards east by south; on the ditch, eight hundred yards north." Still, as the Gonzales men and Bonham demonstrated, it was possible for reinforcements to get in, and his troops had not given up hope. "The spirits of my men are high, although they have had much to depress them."
Travis was no Pollyanna. His letters evince careful organization and clarity of thinking -- a lawyer's mind, not a dreamer's. As much as he wanted to believe Williamson's letter, he saw too many problems with it. Most important, he had repeatedly sent messages to Fannin and not gotten one in return. "Col. Fannin is said to be on the march to this place with reinforcements," he wrote, "but I fear it is not true." He placed what hopes he had in the arrival of new colonists and the support of the new government. If the Council sent five hundred pounds of cannon powder, two hundred rounds of cannonballs, and ten kegs of rifle powder, all under a strong guard, he felt he could defeat the force outside the Alamo's walls and win a "great and decisive battle." After all, he argued, it was better to fight in the plains of west Texas than in the Anglo settlements of the east.
But no matter if anyone or no one came, if supplies were sent or withheld, he planned to stay and fight. "I feel confident that the determined valor and desperate courage, heretofore evinced by my men, will not fail them in the last struggle, and although they may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse for him than a defeat." Writing while Mexican troops massed in Béxar, firing cannons and shouting greetings, Travis still thought about honor and liberty, not in the abstract but as palpable, eternal truths.
In several other letters written the same day he even more clearly and personally expressed his reasons for fighting. On the political level, he wrote friend Jesse Grimes that the convention should declare independence so that his men and the world would know why he was fighting. "[U]nder the flag of independence, we are ready to peril our lives a hundred times a day, and to drive away the monster who is fighting us under a blood-red flag, threatening to murder all prisoners and make Texas a waste desert." But even more personally, he was fighting for his and his family's future. He asked another friend, Davis Ayres, to take care of his son, Charles, if he died. "If the country should be saved, I may make him a splendid fortune; but if the country should be lost and I should perish, he will have nothing but the proud recollection that he is the son of a man who died for his country."
The timing of the defenders' deaths was the topic the next day in Santa Anna's headquarters in the Yturri house, an undistinguished flat structure on the northwestern corner of the Main Plaza. The house had served as military headquarters for Spanish, Mexican, and Texan officers and it was only fitting that Santa Anna had taken it over. In the windy but mild afternoon of March 4 he summoned his leading general and colonels to decide on the best moves to make in the endgame of his chess match with Travis.
Such meetings usually bored him, since "the discussions," he later wrote, "which such councils give rise to have not always seemed to me appropriate." But he felt obligated to go through the motions, even if they did not really matter. On February 27, Santa Anna had informed Minister of War José María Tornel that the assault on the Alamo would occur "at least with the arrival of the First Brigade." Now with the First Brigade in place and surrounded by his most important officers, Santa Anna sought consent, not advice. Clearly, he wanted to take the Alamo, and he was tired of waiting. In this contest, strenuous opposition was a politically dangerous course of action.
Among the assembled officers were Generals Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma, Martín Perfecto de Cos, and Manuel Fernández Castrillón and Colonels Juan Almonte, Agustín Amat, Francisco Duque, and Manuel Romero. When Santa Anna announced his intention to assault the Alamo, Castrillón and Cos expressed concern. De la Peña remembered that they "were of the opinion that victory over a handful of men concentrated in the Alamo did not call for a great sacrifice." Instead, they urged el presidente to postpone the assault for a few days until his heavy artillery had arrived. Once installed, the twelve-pounders could pummel the adobe walls of the Alamo and open large breaches through which infantry could pour. Climbing over high walls defended by a determined foe would wreak terrible, unnecessary losses. "Had it [artillery] been judiciously employed, it would have saved many lives." After all, de la Peña argued, "The soldier's glory is the greater, the less bloody the victory and the fewer victims sacrificed." Concern for wounded troops also dictated delay. "There were no field hospitals or surgeons to treat the wounded, and...for some it would be easier to die than to be wounded."
Nor was there any need for haste. Throughout much of the siege, Santa Anna had worried whether Sam Houston or James Fannin would reinforce the Alamo. He had deployed elements of Ramírez y Sesma's force east of Béxar to intercept an invading army, and Mexican cavalry patrols diligently worked the banks of the San Antonio River and the Goliad highway to detect any troop movements. But they came up with nothing. The Mexicans in Béxar also knew full well that General José Urrea's troops, after their victory at San Patricio, had all but cut Fannin off. "There was no need to fear that the enemy would be reinforced," de la Peña concluded, "for even though reinforcements had entered because of our lack of vigilance, we were situated so as to do battle with any other possible arrivals one by one."
Finally, the Mexicans knew that inside the Alamo, morale might be slipping, not so much because of inadequate supplies and ammunition, or doubts about the righteousness of their cause, but because eleven days of psychological warfare -- martial music, noise, and constant fire from field cannon and howitzers -- and ongoing disappointments from the lack of major reinforcements might have taken their toll. "The enemy was in communication with some of the Béjar townspeople who were their sympathizers," de la Peña remembered, and Santa Anna was fully aware of the situation. As the Tejanos filtered out of the fort, the Mexicans heard about the grumblings inside.
But there was a good case to be made for an earlier attack. While Santa Anna listened, Ramírez y Sesma and Almonte argued that there was no need to wait for the large guns. They agreed with Santa Anna in principle if not language that the Alamo was "an irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name." It was equipped with artillery, a double wall, and "courageous" defenders, and therefore could not be ignored, but it did not demand the energies of the entire army. In Santa Anna's mind, the Texans, while undoubtedly brave, were little more than a poorly organized, badly trained rabble, and to have to wait for further reinforcements would show weakness on his part. An assault now, he reasoned, "would infuse our soldiers with that enthusiasm of the first triumph that would make them superior in the future to those of the enemy."
Santa Anna listened, but he probably heard selectively. The Napoleon of the West fancied himself a tactical genius, and his subordinates refused to press their case. "Some, though approving this proposal in the presence of the commander in chief," de la Peña wrote disgustedly, "disagreed in his absence...others chose silence, knowing that he would not tolerate opposition, his sole pleasure being in hearing what met his wishes, while discarding all admonitions that deviated from those wishes." Santa Anna discounted their misgivings, and the meeting broke up after several hours without a final decision. Santa Anna agreed to mull over the tactical issues and reconvene the next day.
As a last order of business, Castrillón raised the issue of how to treat prisoners of war, particularly if Travis surrendered before the assault. Santa Anna probably reminded his men of Congress's December 1835 edict that the insurgents were all pirates worthy of extermination, and he then cited a memory of his youth, when he had served as a cadet under Spanish general José Joaquín de Arredondo and had fought against another insurgent army in Béxar. "The example of Arredondo was cited," de la Peña remembered. "[D]uring the Spanish rule he had hanged eight hundred or more colonists after having triumphed in military action, and this conduct was taken as a model." Castrillón and Almonte countered with reminders about the demands of professional military conduct, how gentlemen soldiers treated the vanquished, about the humane treatment of prisoners, but Santa Anna dismissed them out of hand. The Army of Operation would take no prisoners.
That night several Tejana women departed the Alamo with scraps of vital information. Precisely what they said and to whom is unknown, but the essence of their intelligence was that the garrison inside the Alamo was still relatively small, though they might have added that there was talk of many more Texan reinforcements on the way. For Santa Anna, here was one more reason not to delay the assault. When he fell asleep that night, he had probably stopped wrestling with the timing of the attack on the Alamo. What need was there for siege guns when the enemy numbers were so small?
Copyright © 2001 by Randy Roberts and James Olson