Beginning in 1821 (the same year that Florida had been acquired by the United States), American settlers mainly from the South had moved into Texas, by per-mission of the Mexican government. The Texas lands were broad and fertile, and used not at all by Mexico. Thousands of acres might be had for nothing except the work of cultivating them.
In due time the Texas Americans found that Mexico was not to be trusted. They were being hedged about more and more by oppressive laws; were in danger of becoming mere subjects, and not free citizens. When they asked to be made a separate Mexican State, to be allowed to elect their own State officers, and write their own laws as provided for in the Mexican constitution of 1824, that was denied.
So in the fall of 1835 the Texas settlers rose to defend themselves against oppression. In southwestern Texas they won the skirmish of Gonzales, called the Lexington of Texas; they advanced upon the town of San Antonio, by a house to house fight captured it, December 11. In southern Texas there were victories. By the end of 1835 no Mexican soldiers remained in all Texas.
The Mexican government which was supposed to be a republic but was ruled rough shod by the dictator president, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, prepared to subdue the Texas "rebels." Rebels they were, but they were fighting for their rights under the Mexican constitution.
After they had gallantly cleaned Texas, the American colonists, poor, brave, proud and hardy, did not pull well together. They chose State officers, but they divided as to the management of affairs. Sam Houston had been elected commanding general of the Texas troops. He issued orders that were not obeyed.
General Houston had served in the Regular army as lieutenant; he had campaigned with General Andrew Jackson against the Creeks; he viewed matters with a military eye. Texas was large, and thinly populated; as seemed to him, the little army was trying to cover too much territory. He directed Lieutenant-Colonel J. C. Neill, who was holding San Antonio, to destroy the fortifications there and march east with his artillery into interior Texas before he was cut off by a Mexican army.
Lieutenant-Colonel Neill replied that he was unable to move his guns—that he had no horses or oxen for the purpose; therefore he should stay. In fact, the Texans hated to give up one inch of Texas, and particularly San Antonio. Officers wrote to the governor, John Smith, protesting. Governor Smith and his council disagreed upon the methods to be used in carrying on the war with Mexico; General Houston's hands were tied by lack of support. It had been the same with General Washington, in that other war for American independence.
While the governor and the council were bickering, and General Houston appealed in vain for money and supplies, the garrison at San Antonio grew less and less. When Lieutenant-Colonel William Barret Travis arrived there in February, 1836, he found only about one hundred Volunteers; the others had gone home to put in their crops and to attend to their families.
This William Barret Travis was from North Carolina: was twenty-eight years old, six feet tall, slender and straight, round faced, blue eyed and red haired—a determined, sandy fighting man and thoroughly American.
He had been appointed from captaincy in the Volunteers to a lieutenant-colonelcy in the Texas First Infantry, regularly enlisted for the war. He brought with him to San Antonio, from his recruiting service on the way, some thirty new Texas Regulars. Those were all. His poor success in raising reinforcements worried him, but did not daunt him.
February 12 he wrote to Governor Smith, saying that General Sesma and two thousand Mexican soldiers were at the Rio Grande River boundary, only two hundred miles southwest, on their way to retake San Antonio.
"We are illy prepared for their reception," he said. "Yet we are determined to sustain our position as long as there is a man left, because we consider death preferable to disgrace, which would be the result of giving up a post that has been so dearly won."
And he added:
"With two hundred men I believe this place can be maintained, and I hope they will be sent as soon as possible. Yet should we receive no reinforcements I am determined; and should Bexar [which was San Antonio] fall, your friend will be found beneath its ruins." This shows what kind of a man William Barret Travis was.
Colonel Neill was obliged to go home on the day of the letter, by reason of illness in his family. Nevertheless Colonel Travis had brave hearts left with him.
Colonel James Bowie was there, sharing the command. Colonel Jim Bowie and his brothers Rezin and Stephen were well known in Texas. He himself had come out from Louisiana in 1819. He had been naturalized as a Mexican citizen. In 1830 he had married the Senorita Luz Veramendi, daughter of the vice-governor of the State of Coahuila and Texas; had a home in San Antonio and did a manufacturing business at Saltillo, the capital of the State, south of the Rio Grande.
Colonel James E. Bonham of South Carolina was there. He had known Lawyer Travis back in the United States; they had been boyhood friends and he had gladly followed Will to Texas. Now here they were together, for the defence of San Antonio.
Young Lieutenant Almeron Dickinson was there; He had come in with Colonel Travis and recruits from his home in Gonzales, sixty miles east. Lieutenant Dickinson was not far turned twenty, had a pretty Mexican wife and a tiny baby; was just about to send for them to visit him and their relatives in town.
No less personage than Davy Crockett the famous Tennessee hunter arrived with twelve other Tennessee "buckskins." At this time a number of volunteers from the United States were making for Texas, to help their fellow Americans win out. Davy Crockett and his band had traveled straight for San Antonio at the Texas frontier, as the place where they would see action quickest. Davy had brought his long-barreled, silver-mounted rifle—his "Old Betsy." In their worn leather clothes and their coon-tail caps the Tennesseeans looked fit.
They raised the garrison to one hundred and fifty officers and men. That was not many, in such a situation, for the Mexican troops were surely coming on.
San Antonio de Bejar (or Bexar, which is pronounced the same, Behar) was a very old town, located, as today, in the southewestern part of Texas, by shortest air-line about one hundred and fifty miles northeast of the Rio Grande River. It had been founded as a Spanish barracks in 1718, to protect the mission or church of San Antonio de Valero, near by, across the little San Antonio River on the east.
The mission de Valero was rebuilt in 1744 and named San Antonio del Alamo, but people generally spoke of it as the Alamo. Alamo is the Spanish word for poplar or cottonwood tree; and besides, a detachment of Spanish troops once stationed here were known as the Alamo Troop of the district of Parras.
In 1836 the mission del Alamo was vacant, and still about three quarters of a mile to the east of the town San Antonio de Bejar. A flat bare plain and the little river separated it from old Bejar. It stood by itself, like a battered fort, with only a few low adobe houses near it.
There was a large front yard, one hundred and fifty yards long and fifty yards wide, on the west side, toward the town, enclosed by a clay or adobe wall nine to twelve feet high and almost three feet thick. A row of stone rooms had been built on the inside of the west outer wall. The south end wall also had barracks rooms, projecting out; and along the middle of the rear side of the east wall there were two-story rooms, each opening through the wall by a door into the yard. These had been used as a convent.
The east half of the Alamo, back of these two-story rooms, was divided into smaller yards, for cattle, hides, and so forth, and contained the chapel, in the south-east corner. This chapel, of stone blocks, laid four feet thick, was seventy-five feet long, sixty-two feet wide and twenty-two feet high. Part of it was without a roof. It was set back from the big front yard, and had a yard of its own, enclosed by outer dirt embankments and the inner connecting walls.
Many of the barracks rooms built against the walls of the big yard had been pierced with loopholes by the Spanish and Mexican soldiery. They all opened into the yard; the doorways were reinforced inside with hide shields like breastworks, over which the soldiers might fire into the yard. But the rooms did not open into one another. They were cells.
Mexican troops had occupied the Alamo last December, before the capture of San Antonio by the Texans. They had surrendered their cannon, and had marched out. With garrison enough to man the cannon and the walls—the right kind of a garrison—the Alamo should prove very strong. But it was a large place to be held by a few.
Colonel Travis and Colonel Bowie quartered their handful of Texas Regulars, and their Volunteer cavalry and riflemen mainly in old Bejar, where they were well acquainted. They and the other officers and men had relatives and friends there.
By the rest of Texas San Antonio and the Alamo seemed to have been forgotten. But General Cos (who had been driven out of San Antonio) and General Sesma, with two thousand Mexican soldiers, were waiting just across the Rio Grande River. General-in-Chief Santa Anna, with four thousand Mexican soldiers, was marching up across the desert below the Rio Grande, to join them.
It was in the morning of February 22, Washington's Birthday, when two of the Texan sentinels, stationed upon the flat roof of San Fernando church at the Military Plaza in San Antonio de Bejar sighted the advance scouts of the Mexican army, in the southwest. They gave the alarm. Colonel Travis sent out two of his cavalry to reconnoiter. They came pelting back; they had seen a column of oncoming Mexican troops, and had been hotly pursued.
This was a surprise for the Travis and Bowie men.
They had expected the Mexicans not before March. But Santa Anna had marched his troops hard, in winter weather, across the desolate hills and desert, five hundred miles of trail.
The garrison in Bejar had been at a dance; the men were scattered and still asleep. Colonel Bowie and Colonel Travis collected them in haste. All withdrew to the Alamo.
Young Lieutenant Dickinson snatched his wife and baby from a doorway, lifted them to the saddle before him and so took them along. On the way over the plain the column gathered thirty or forty cattle, and drove these in.
The Texas Americans might easily have retreated farther, in safety. They knew the trails eastward; the Mexicans could never have caught them. But they were too proud of their rights, to give ground while there was a fighting chance. They despised the Mexicans; had already thrashed them, and odds did not count.
The Alamo was the outpost of Texas liberty. The Texas flag waved over it. There were fourteen cannon, mounted upon the walls, with one on a platform in the center of the large yard. If gunners might be obtained, then with the support of the deadly rifles the Alamo should be held against all Mexico. The needed reinforcements might yet arrive.
This day and all the night the one hundred and fifty busied themselves strengthening the Alamo. The next afternoon, February 23, the first brigade of the Santa Anna army, fifteen hundred Mexican soldiers, entered, San Antonio. Colonel Bowie had fallen from a gun platform and injured himself. That put Colonel William Travis in command. He ordered a shot from an eighteen-pounder to be fired toward San Antonio, as a challenge. He sent off a dispatch, by express rider, to Gonzales, sixty miles east. It was received there in the middle of the night of February 26.
Commandancy of Bejar.
Feb. 23, 3 o'clock p. m., 1836.
The enemy in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance.
The little town of Gonzales passed the news on, and hastened to muster what able-bodied men it might, from the scattered houses and the fields. James Bonham, Colonel Travis' friend, was upon his way from the Alamo to Goliad, one hundred miles southeast. At Goliad there were Colonel James W. Fannin the Georgian, and four hundred and fifty Volunteers chiefly of the United States. Colonel Travis hoped to get them. He was pulling every string.
General Santa Anna followed his first column into Bejar. In the morning of February 24 he had his bugler orderly sound a parley; he sent a flag forward, with a staff officer, to offer terms to the Americans in the Alamo. The terms were unconditional surrender.
"I promise nothing to rebels; not even life," Santa Anna said.
Colonel William Travis the slender red-headed warrior answered indignantly; and the spirit of his answer is shownin his famous dispatch, carried out into the east by the brave Captain Albert Martin of Gonzales.
Commandancy of the Alamo,
Bejar, Feb'y 24, 1836.
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 put 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, & of 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 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 Barrett Travis, Lt.-Col. Com'd't.
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 & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
This dispatch traveled all the way to the settlement of Washington, one hundred and twenty miles beyond Gonzales, where the citizens of Texas were gathering in convention to declare for Independence. It was received on February 29; was read at the first meeting of the convention, the next morning, March 1.
It created much excitement. General Houston was there as a delegate; but his powers as commander-in chief had been limited by the quarrels between the governor and the council, and by the disobedience of officers. Texas had less than one thousand men under arms; the detachments were widely separated; the treasury was without money, the army without supplies. It was not only the Alamo that was in danger from the south as well as from the west a Mexican host was likely to sweep through the country, and the settlers knew not which way to face in order to protect their homes.
At the Alamo Colonel Bowie now was desperately ill with typhoid pneumonia; he could not rise from his cot in the large hospital room of the two-story barracks next to the chapel. But he and Colonel Travis were agreed to fight to the end.
The flag above the walls was the Mexican tri-color, green, white and red, with the date 1824 in the center white bar instead of the Mexican eagle. Texas had not yet declared for independence except as a State. The date referred to that constitution of Mexico which guaranteed to the Mexican States a government of their own officials.
The Travis men made sallies, cleaning out the Mexican advanced posts and shooting down the cannoneers and engineers.
Colonel Travis continued to send dispatches. He announced that while the Alamo held out he would fire a signal gun at sunrise every morning. To a friend he wrote:
"Take care of my little boy. If the country should be saved, I may make 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."
Captain John W. Smith and Captain Albert Martin, of the dispatch bearers, led in reinforcements of thirty-one men from Gonzales. They all freely sacrificed themselves—they ran the Mexican lines at three o'clock in the morning of March 1, with really no expectation of getting out again.
That gave Colonel Travis one hundred and eighty-three men, including the helpless James Bowie and the messengers who were being sent away.
Colonel Fannin, at Goliad, tried, with four hundred of his Volunteers. He started; his wagons broke down, his teams bogged, he could not get his artillery forward and he had few supplies. Besides, he was leaving the south open to invasion. So he turned back.
But the noble James Butler Bonham had not waited for him. As soon as he had delivered the dispatch asking aid and had obtained promise of help he had turned back.
"I will report the result of my mission to Travis or die in the attempt."
Bringing the encouragement, riding a buckskin horse and wearing a white handkerchief on his hat as a sign to his comrades, at one o'clock in the morning of March 3 he dashed through the Mexican lines and safely entered the gate of the Alamo. He was there to fight for and die with his friend.
The last dispatch from resolute Colonel Travis was dated March 3 (this same day), and was received by the convention at Washington of Texas about eight o'clock Sunday morning, March 6. Captain Smith of Gonzales had brought it, again. He had ridden the one hundred and eighty miles from the Alamo in three days.
I am still here in fine spirits and well-to-do (Colonel Travis wrote). With 145 men, I have held the place against a force variously estimated from between 1,500 to 6,000, and I shall continue to hold it until I get relief from my countrymen, or I will perish in its defense. We have had a shower of bombs and cannon balls continually falling among us the whole tine; yet none of us have fallen. We have been miraculously preserved.
Again, I feel confident that the determined spirit and desperate courage heretofore exhibited 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 that enemy so dear that it will be worse than a defeat.
A blood-red flag waves from the church in Bejar and in the camp above us, in token that the war is one of vengeance against rebels.
These threats have had no influence upon my men but to make then all fight with desperation and with that high-souled courage which characterize the patriot who is willing to die in defense of his country; liberty and his own honor, God and Texas; victory or death!
The Texas convention had declared for an Independent Republic, on March 2; it was drawing up a constitution and electing officers. Sam Houston had been chosen commander-in-chief again of the Texas army. He advised the convention to sit fast and finish its business, so that Texas should have a government. Without a government the war could not be carried on. He himself prepared to leave at once for Gonzales and relieve the Alamo.
There at the Alamo the Mexican troops had been pressing nearer and nearer. Santa Anna's full army had arrived. He now had five thousand well trained troops—infantry, cavalry and artillery, commanded by his best generals. They relaxed neither day nor night. The Texas Americans got no rest, while trying to guard all the points; knew little about serving artillery; depended upon their rifles, with which to hold the enemy off; saved ammunition, and with one hundred and eighty men covered a space that should have been defended by one thousand.
Colonel Travis had made a speech to them. He no longer had hope that reinforcements to amount to anything would be able to reach him, in time. He assembled his battalion; drew a line upon the ground with his sword.
"All of you who are willing to defend this place to the last, and if needs be stay and die with me, step to this line."
The dispatch bearers had slipped through the Mexican guards; other men might do the same. But every man except one stepped to the line. Colonel Jim Bowie had himself borne to it on his cot.
General Santa Anna had been losing cannoneers by the Texas rifles; every detachment sent to test the walls had been repulsed by bullet and grape. The Texans seemed never to sleep. His field-pieces were too light for breaching the walls. On March 4, after he had been besieging the Alamo for ten days, he held a council of his officers. Should the Alamo be stormed at once, or should they wait for heavier artillery and breach the walls first?
There was a discussion. He decided. He wished to move forward and conquer all Texas before the settlers had rallied. Enough time had been spent already with this little force of Americans.
"Gentlemen, we will take the Alamo by storm, between midnight and daylight of March 6."
There were to be four columns, numbering twenty-five hundred picked infantry, attacking on the four sides. They were to be equipped with scaling ladders, pick axes and crowbars, and led by veteran generals.
This night of March 5 the Mexican cannon ceased firing; the Mexican sharpshooters also ceased. It was a strange quiet, and the Travis men well knew what it meant. About midnight there drifted to them the dull tramp of marching ranks, the faint clank of weapons. The keen ears of men such as Davy Crockett, old Captain Albert Martin, and other scouts and Indian hunters read the signs. The Alamo made ready for an attack.
The air was slightly gray when at four in the morning, Sunday, March 6, a bugle pealed from the Mexican camp. The notes were instantly followed by the shrill cheers "Viva! Viva!" on north, south, east and west, and the thunderous tread of many feet.
With rifles and muskets cocked and matches lighted the Texan crack shots and gunners waited tensely. Where would the attack strike first? Hark! Listen to those Mexican bands! United in the south, where Santa Anna and his reserves were safely stationed, they played the dreadful tune of the "Deguello"—Throat-cutting.
The masses of charging Mexicans, in dense column, loomed into sight, coming at the double quick. The column on the north side was making straight for a breach in the northeast corner of the large yard. Suddenly the Texan cannon upon the north wall opened crashingly; then the rifles and muskets flamed, every bullet told, the men reloaded, fired again, and again, and the column reeled backward, leaving a trail of bodies.
Now the west wall likewise was wreathed in smoke; the east wall and the chapel breastworks on the south-east had joined in the fray. The Texans had hard work to rush from point to point, serving the cannon and the small-arms. But the columns on the east and on the west recoiled; they could not face the music. Hooray!
While the fighting continued in the southeast, the columns upon the east and the west added themselves to the north column, and all together returned to the assault. Colonel Travis, at the gun mounted upon a platform in the northwest corner, raked the mass; the bullets were poured into it. The Mexicans broke, they fled wildly, their officers spurred among them, striking with the flats of swords—and even while the grimy Texans were cheering, the united columns came on, for the third time.