Today San Antonio Texas is best known for its professional basketball team, the Spurs. The city’s more enduring fame reaches back to 1836, when San Antonio hosted a battle of mythic proportions in American history: the siege of the Alamo.
Were one to claim American history is a century’s long war over land, Texas would be offered as proof. Before America and Mexico fought over Texas, Spanish missionaries claimed the land for Spain against the challenges of France and England.
Spanish Franciscans first visited Texas way back in 1691 - June 13, to be exact - on the Catholic feast day of fellow Franciscan Saint Anthony of Padua. Anthony's fellow Franciscans took this as a good omen. They called the area San Antonio and started civilizing it. A mission and chapel were built for the education and Christianizing of the local Payaya Indians. The chapel complex was originally called Mission de San Antonio de Valero.
To protect missionary efforts the Spanish added a fort and jail, called Presidio San Antonio de Bexar. The military presence was meant to discourage Indian raids, intrusions by the French from nearby New Orleans, and occasional pesky English explorers. The fort and mission are the source of today’s San Antonio.
By the end of the eighteenth century missionary efforts waned, and the mission was abandoned. In the nineteenth century Mexico won independence from Spain via revolution. Now Mexican troops occupied the Mission de San Antonio de Valero, which they renamed “Alamo”, after a nearby grove of cottonwood trees.
The Mexican troops were kept busy fending off raids by the Comanche. The Mexican government began offering land to encourage immigration to Mexican Texas, in the belief that more settlements would deter Comanche raiders. The price tag for the land was the requirement that immigrants learn Spanish and turn Catholic.
The land offer attracted many Americans. Between 1825 and 1834 approximately 35,000 people moved to Mexican Texas. Perhaps one fifth of them were Mexican. The rest were Americans and Europeans who had no intention of learning Spanish, changing their religion, or even becoming religious. Some Americans brought slaves with them, another violation of Mexican law. In plain fact many of the American immigrants to Mexican Texas were squatters.
In 1830 Mexico passed a law prohibiting immigration from the United States, but it was difficult to enforce. Even more difficult was a new system of taxation Mexico tried to impose on their unruly immigrants. In 1832 there was armed conflict between the immigrants and Mexican troops at Anahuac. A key figure in the fight was William Travis.
Travis left his pregnant wife to move to Mexican Texas after it was illegal to do so. He set up a law practice at Anahuac, a port town at Galveston Bay, and was a key agitator against Mexican authority in the region. Travis' first cause was not a glamorous one: he led a rebellion against Mexican authorities who would not return runaway slaves to their owners.
All over Mexican Texas there was revolt against Mexican rule. The American immigrants started their own provisional government, but quarreled amongst themselves so much they couldn’t govern their own sessions, much less provide guidance for their fledgling republic. In December 1835 the Mexican garrison at the Alamo surrendered to the American Texan army besieging it. Travis mustered up some volunteers and settled into the Alamo. It was there he met James Bowie.
One of the more notable of an ample cast of characters was the Scotch-English James Bowie. Bowie’s parents met during the American Revolution. Jim’s mother tended his father’s battle wounds, married him, and together they had ten children – Jim was the ninth.
The Bowie’s were a frontier family. The children cleared the land, planted crops, and helped run the farm. At night they learned to read and write in English by candlelight. Jim also became fluent in Spanish and French. His reputation for fearlessness began at a young age when he roped alligators. Young Bowie was adept with weapons as well as rope. It was his skill with a knife that brought him international fame.
The incident is known as the Sandbar Fight. Bowie was at a duel between two other men on a sandbar outside Natchez, Mississippi. His arch enemy, Sheriff Norris Wright, was in the group supporting the opposing duelist. The two duelists shot at each other, missed, then shook hands and left the sandbar. Someone from the opposing group shot Bowie in the hip and knocked him down. Bowie got up, pulled out a large knife and charged the shooter.
The shooter hit Bowie on the head with his pistol hard enough to shatter the pistol. Bowie went down again. His enemy, Norris Wright, pulled out his sword cane and stabbed Bowie in the chest. Bowie lay on the ground, to all appearances mortally wounded. Wright put his foot on Bowie’s chest in order to pull his blade out. Grabbing Wright with his free hand, Bowie used his other hand to plunge his large knife into Wright’s lower torso and rip the blade all the way up to Wright’s heart. The disemboweled Wright died on the spot. Bowie got up with Wright’s sword cane sticking out of his chest. He was shot again and stabbed again by his enemies before they were finally driven off.
The doctor’s tending to Bowie’s many injuries expressed amazement he survived the attack. Indeed, he is one of a select few who brought a knife to a gun fight and won. Newspapers described the fight in detail, focusing on Bowie’s prowess with his new, large knife. It came to be known as the “Bowie Knife” (or Arkansas Toothpick). The blade was nine inches long and an inch and a half wide.
The thirty-one year old Bowie was one of the few American immigrants who followed Mexican law. When he moved to Mexican Texas he became a Mexican citizen and was baptized into the Catholic Church in San Antonio. Then he sent his wife and children away to Monclova to protect them from a cholera epidemic. But in November 1835 the epidemic changed direction and struck Monclova. Bowie’s entire family perished.
Bowie never recovered from the tragedy. He drank more, and his health failed. Despite these deficits he remained a natural leader, and came to the Alamo with a larger group of volunteers than Travis. Bowie was voted the leader of the garrison, a result Travis seethed over. Texan general Sam Houston wanted Bowie to destroy the Alamo. Bowie insisted on shoring up the defenses and giving the approaching Mexican army a fight. Perhaps at this point in his life he had a death wish.
Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was a habitual gambler who won and lost fortunes in his lifetime – sometimes with his own money. His political fortunes mirrored his gambling career. He was kicked out of office more than any leader in Mexican history. After Santa Anna was gone things got worse and everyone forgot how much they hated him. Santa Anna came back to rule his nation until loathing again replaced need and he was thrown out again.
Santa Anna was also a military general, a caudillo as they are called in Mexico. Caudillos are ruthless warriors who give no quarter and take no prisoners. Santa Anna personally led a large Mexican force to San Antonio to destroy the Texan rebellion. To swell the ranks he emptied prisons and coerced hundreds of otherwise idle Mexican men (and teenagers) to “enlist.” Shortly before Santa Anna’s army arrived at the Alamo, some more American volunteers arrived. They were from Tennessee and were led by David Crockett.
Crockett was a frontiersman, a story teller, and a national politician who bounced in and out of office almost as much as Santa Anna. He voted with his heart more than his head, particularly with his principled, outspoken opposition to the brutal Indian Removal Act:
“I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure (declared Crockett) ... I voted against this Indian bill, and my conscience yet tells me that I gave a good honest vote, and one that I believe will not make me ashamed in the day of judgment.”
The Indian Removal Act barely passed into law. In addition to Crockett, future president Abraham Lincoln voted against the bill, as did a solid block of Christian senators and Congressmen. Crockett wasn’t a Christian. He was a freemason and a political maverick who once introduced a bill to shut down West Point Military Academy, decrying the public subsidizing of “the sons of rich men” as wasteful.
By the end of his last term Crockett had done enough to seriously annoy almost everyone. When Tennessee voters voted him out of office once more in August of 1835, David famously exclaimed: “I told the people of my district that they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas."
In fact Congressman Crockett had been planning the move for over a year. He foresaw opportunities for land and wealth in the wake of the imminent revolution in Mexican Texas, and a welcome distance from national politics. One of the loose ends he wrapped up before leaving town was an east coast tour to promote his newly published autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, Written by Himself.
His daughter Matilda had a clear memory of her father wearing a coonskin cap and carrying a shiny new rifle, promising his family they would all join him shortly in Texas. Crockett arrived at the Alamo with thirty Tennessee sharpshooters in February 1836. He was almost fifty years old.
Scouts monitored the approach of Santa Anna’s army. Inside the Alamo defenses were strengthened. Appeals were sent far and wide for supplies, ammunition, and volunteers. Precious little made it back. By the time Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio with somewhere between 1,500 and 4,000 men, the Alamo defenders numbered between 150 and 189 men, not counting families, slaves, and other non-combatants.
The siege of the Alamo began on February 24. A red flag flew over the Mexican line, symbolizing no quarter. Bowie sent out an emissary to request an honorable surrender for the Alamo defenders. Santa Anna flatly rejected the offer. The Alamo defenders did not know that Santa Anna enacted a law classifying “foreigners” in Texas as “pirates.” The new law prohibited the taking of prisoners, and required the immediate execution of said “pirates.”
The siege continued, but without Jim Bowie. He fell seriously ill and was bedridden for the rest of his life. The twenty-six year old Travis assumed command and rose to the occasion. For the next eleven days the Texans dodged hundreds of Mexican cannon balls. The bombardment continued at night, intentionally interfering with the Texan’s sleep.
On March 3 one thousand Mexican reinforcements arrived, swelling the number of Mexican troops to three thousand. The weather turned bitterly cold. Most soldiers on both sides suffered for want of warm clothing. On the frosty early morning of March 6 the bombardment stopped. Just after the Texans fell asleep thousands of Mexican troops stormed the Alamo.
Travis called the men to their stations and leapt upon a catwalk to shoot down at Mexicans who had reached the outer wall and were waiting for the ladders to catch up to them. He caught a bullet through the head and died instantly, one of the first Texan casualties of the siege. His comrades drove the Mexicans away from the walls with withering volleys of rifle fire. The first charge was repulsed.
The second attack began minutes later. This time Mexican soldiers recognized weak spots all around the Alamo complex and began concentrating their numbers there. The Texans fired grapeshot through their cannons at the masses of Mexican troops wedged together. Imagine the contents of a hardware store flying at you at point blank range. The second Mexican assault also failed.
Over the years the Alamo was fortified to resist Comanche charges, but it was hopeless against a modern army with artillery. There was just too much area to guard, and the defenses were very weak in several spots all around the compound. Santa Anna called it “an irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name” and he was right. There weren’t enough defenders to adequately cover all the weak spots. As the sun rose on March 6 the Mexican army stormed the Alamo for the third and last time.
All the weak spots were exploited simultaneously and Mexicans poured into the complex from all directions. Fighting was so furious there was no time to reload after shooting. Rifles were used as clubs. Then knives were pulled, and desperate hand to hand combat ensued. Men punched, kicked, and clawed each other in the cold, smoky morning.
The outnumbered defenders retreated to the fortified barracks next to the chapel. Crockett and his Tennesseans were defending the Palisade. They were too far away from the barracks and got caught in the middle of the compound. The Mexicans fired a volley at the exposed defenders, then charged with bayonets. The survivors stumbled into the barracks.
In their retreat Texan defenders forgot to disable their own cannons. Now the Mexicans turned the Alamo’s cannons against the barracks room. A cannon blast blew open the door. Then there was a rifle volley into the darkness followed by a bayonet charge. Jim Bowie realized his sick bed was about to be his death bed. As the enemy charged into his room Bowie fired both his pistols, then grabbed his knife and slashed away until he was bayoneted to death.
Crockett’s manner of death remains controversial. Some historians say he surrendered and was executed by Santa Anna. Others believe Crockett died in the middle of the compound as he and his men sprinted towards the barracks. No one actually saw him die, although his body was recognized on the ground in the compound. The legend of Crockett going down using his rifle as a club is plausible.
By 6:30 am all the Texans were dead. Mexican casualties were 600 dead or wounded. Whatever one thinks of the Texans and their cause, their enemies paid dearly for each life they took.
Mexican soldiers roamed the compound, bayoneting and shooting any body that moved. Blood lust ran so high that less experienced Mexicans repeatedly shot and stabbed corpses, and even shot at each other. Then the defender’s bodies were stacked in piles and burned, the ashes left to fall where they might.
Santa Anna began calling himself “the Napoleon of the West” and threatened to march his army to Washington. He fell a few thousand miles short of his goal. While taking a siesta at San Jacinto, Santa Anna's army was attacked by General Sam Houston. The battle cry of the American immigrant army was "Remember the Alamo!" As part of the surrender terms the Mexican army agreed to leave Mexican Texas and not come back. Santa Anna returned to Mexico in disgrace, and the dysfunctional republican government of Texas gained some breathing room to overcome its growing pains.
Mexican Texas was annexed by the United States government in 1845. This led to the American-Mexican war of 1846-1848, which was won by the United States. The Alamo itself was purchased by the state of Texas in 1883, and has been preserved by The Daughters of the Republic of Texas. It is estimated that 2.5 million tourists visit the Alamo annually.
The Alamo, http://www.thealamo.org.
The Alamo: Articles and Videos, www.history.com/articles/videos.
Biography of William Travis, Texas A & M University, www.tamu.edu
The Alamo: Shrine of Texas Liberty, http://heartofsanantonio.com/alamo/index.html
James Bowie, Texas State Historical Association, http://www.tshaonline.org
David Crockett, http://www.biography.com
A different take on 'The Alamo', Andy Culpepper, CNN.com, April 8, 2004.