The dramatic story of one of the most famous events in Texas history is told by Ben H. Procter. Procter describes in colorful detail the background, character, and motives of the prominent figures at the Alamo—Bowie, Travis, and Crockett—and the course and outcome of the battle itself. This concise and engaging account of a turning point in Texas history will appeal to students, teachers, historians, and general readers alike.
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The Battle of the Alamo
By Ben H. Procter
Texas State Historical AssociationCopyright © 1986 Texas State Historical Association
All rights reserved.
At San Antonio on December 4, 1835, a leathery-faced frontiersman named Ben Milam emerged from the tent of General Edward Burleson who commanded a motley group of Texans euphemistically called an army. He was not happy. During the past few hours word had arrived that the Mexican forces in the city, under General Martín Perfecto de Cós, were "in a state of confusion" and that their military strength had been grossly exaggerated. Yet Burleson, despite Milam's urgent pleas to storm the enemy defences, had decided to withdraw; after all, the Texans had neither the discipline nor training to defeat army regulars who were strongly fortified and well concealed. But Milam believed that such inaction would mean the "breaking up of the volunteer army, which was the last hope of Texas." So to his countrymen he voiced his discontent—and concern—then dramatically drew a line across the ground as a challenge for brave men to respond, and yelled:
"Who will follow Old Ben Milam?"
Immediately shouts of approval rang out, and some three hundred fellow soldiers stepped forward to the order of "fall in line." In a test of wills against a superior officer Milam had won.
For the next few days the Texans furiously attacked the enemy in their own unique manner. Although dividing into two separate forces, they followed identical assault patterns. From street to rooftop, from fence to house, they battled the Mexican defenders, applying frontier techniques of fighting with telling effect. Their small arms fire was devastating, their relentless advance demoralizing. Even when Cós withdrew across the San Antonio River to a new line of defense at the mission San Antonio de Valero (better known as the Alamo) and after Mexican reinforcements arrived on December 8, the situation remained relatively unchanged; Cós realized that his army was facing annihilation by these fiercely attacking rebels. Early the next morning he offered terms of surrender, promising to leave Texas forever. Texans had at last driven the Mexican military from their land.
The capture of San Antonio crowned Texas efforts of the previous two months. Late in September, 1835, Cós had dispatched Lieutenant Francisco Castaneda with a company of 180 men to confiscate an iron cannon which the army had given to the citizens of Gonazles for protection against marauding Indians. But on October 2 the Texans had reacted defiantly against such action. They had insolently placed a flag on the six-pounder with the words "COME AND TAKE IT" and then had proceeded to initiate the Lexington and Concord of the Texas Revolution; they had attacked and routed the Mexican force. A week later forty Texans had captured Goliad, including all military stores at the mission of La Bahía. And while men were rushing toward San Antonio to besiege Cós and Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, an adhoc state government—ironically called the Permanent Council—was meeting at San Felipe de Austin. Besides appointing Stephen F. Austin to command the "Army of the People," which was assembling near San Antonio, and sending him more men and supplies, the Council established a postal system, commissioned privateers to attack ships of the Mexican merchant marine, and instructed Thomas F. McKinney to negotiate a $100,000 loan from the United States. But most important it took steps to inform Americans everywhere about what was happening in Texas.
So by November, 1835, the word was out; Texans were fighting in behalf of principles dear to the American heart—liberty and justice and, perhaps, independence. At Washington-on-the-Brazos on November 3, delegates from twelve municipalities and two departments replaced the Permanent Council with a stronger, more effective government, known as the General Consultation. Then, in words reminiscent of 1776, they reasserted their belief in the "natural rights" of man; their ardent conviction that an independent government should be established in the place of a tyrannous, outmoded one; their dogged determination to uphold the torch of liberty; and, as Thomas Jefferson had put it in 1775, "to die as free men rather than live as slaves." To secure these ends they chose Branch T. Archer, William H. Wharton, and Stephen F. Austin as commissioners to the United States, their purpose specifically being to enlist recruits to fight for Texas and to acquire financial aid. The General Consultation even provided for another temporary government and elected Henry Smith of the newly formed Department of the Brazos as provisional governor. And to protect the state against Mexican vengeance, to uphold their decisions, and possibly to send a punitive expedition against Mexico, they appointed Sam Houston as commander-in-chief of a nonexistent regular army. Although adjourning on November 14, they set a meeting for March 1, at which time they would decide whether to renegotiate their status with Mexico or declare independence.
Such stirring events inspired many Americans to respond enthusiastically to the Texas cause. In New York and Boston huge throngs in mass meetings denounced Mexican oppression and pledged help to free Texas. In Philadelphia, a crowd burned the Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna in effigy. At Newport, Kentucky, the young industrialist Sidney Sherman sold his business to finance a company of fighting men, known as "The Buck Eye Rangers." In Tennessee, David Crockett, bitterly reflecting upon his defeat in the congressional elections by the Jackson forces, decided to build a new life elsewhere and told his constituents to "go to hell." With Texas lands as a lure and the promise of adventure seemingly assured, he enlisted a company of sharpshooters, soon to be called the "Tennessee Mounted Volunteers." At Natchitoches, Louisiana, attorney Daniel Cloud, responding to Sam Houston's appeal to" come with a good rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition—come soon," gave up a promising law practice. And from the lower Mississippi River Valley came "Ringtail Roarers"—men who claimed to be half horse and half alligator—arrogant, muscle-proud men, magnificent fighters, insufferable braggarts and story-tellers of the Crockett mold, given to hyperbole and extensions of the truth. Proud of their country, they reveled in being called Americans; and they now recognized an opportunity to extend American mores and institutions to a less fortunate Mexican population, a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess while striking a blow in behalf of liberty. Against a tyrannical government, against a dictator demanding conformity and obedience, indeed against anyone who would challenge their rights, these men were ready to fight.
But soon after Có's surrender at San Antonio in December, despite the activities and enthusiasm of such supporters, a disastrous trend seemed to be developing in Texas. The unity among Texans, so necessary for victory and survival, had disappeared. Some bickering possibly developed because the Texans thought that all danger had passed once Cós had left San Antonio for the Rio Grande. In fact, many volunteers from the Mississippi River Valley, confident in their own fighting ability, wanted to march south against Mexico itself. A more apparent reason for disunity, however, was a flaw in the constitutional makeup of the government which had failed to define clearly the powers of its different branches. Within a short time Governor Smith and the council were at odds, arguing over their assumed rights as well as over the prudence of certain policies. Eventually the council members tried to impeach Smith and he, refusing to accept their decision, tried, in turn, to dismiss them.
The Texas military reflected the weaknesses of such divided leadership. For instance, the council members adopted a plan for a campaign against Matamoros (just across the Rio Grande from present-day Brownsville), appointing on separate occasions Frank W. Johnson and James W. Fannin, Jr. to lead the operation. On the other hand Governor Smith ordered General Sam Houston, who was opposed to the Matamoros project, to take charge of the troops. Near Refugio all three commanders joined their army and attempted to take command. In a popular referendum—a common practice among volunteer troops—the army selected Fannin as its leader. Houston immediately voiced his disapproval of the expedition, placedhimself on a leave of absence from the army until March 1 and left for East Texas to negotiate treaties of peace with the Cherokees.
But on January 17, 1836, before leaving Refugio, Houston ordered Colonel James Bowie with approximately thirty men to go to San Antonio, their specific purpose being to demolish the Alamo, abandon the city, and withdraw the Texas military forces to a more protected are around Gonzales. Bowie, as one historian put it, was no "messenger boy." At six feet one inch in height, 180 pounds, finely muscled and well proportioned for a man of forty, he was an imposing individual, surely much larger than most men of that era (before balanced nutrition affected size). Although his features were regular, his blue-gray eyes, deep-set and eerily penetrating, dominated a usually unsmiling, sunburned face, framed by chestnut brown, almost reddish, hair. And if his countenance was not impressive and foreboding to most men, surely his character and reputation were. Under a deceptively calm, often mild, demeanor existed a person who was lethal and completely blind to fear. Whenever a crisis had occurred in his life, he had always met and been equal to the challenge; he was, as J. Frank Dobie observed, "at home with bellowing alligators in the marshes, with mustangs and must-angers on the prairies, and with lawyers who 'would circumvent God'." His early escapades as a slaver with the pirate Jean Lafitte and as a filibusterer with Dr. James Long placed him in the realm of legend; his campaigns against the Indians as a colonel in the Texas Rangers during the early 1830s earned him the name of "the young lion" and enhances this growing reputation; and his duels, using a huge knife bearing his name (a fearful-looking weapon), assured him not just of immediate awe and respect but of immortality.
Yet Jim Bowie had another side to him. Although a tough and uncompromising foe, he could be remarkably gentle. To women he was courtly and kind, to people in distress a Good Samaritan, to men under his command a father figure and concerned leader. Nor was he simply a rough-and-tumble adventurer; on the contrary he was fairly well educated for the time, speaking both French and Spanish almost fluently. And he moved about easily in a more sophisticated society, his manners refined and his speech surprisingly polished and smooth—only his blue-gray eyes could be storm signals alerting wary opponents of imminent danger. Without a doubt the blonde and beautiful Ursula María de Veramendi, the eldest daughter of vice governor of Coahuila and Texas Juan Martín de Veramendi and, at nineteen, the richest girl in San Antonio recognized a certain softness and gentleness about him. They were married in 1831, and their love was real, even though Bowie was absent much of the time on business trips. In September, 1833, when a cholera epidemic decimated his family in three days, taking the beautiful Ursula and their two infant children, as well as her mother and father, he was devastated. He lost interest for a time in business and in adventurous escapades, but uncharacteristically gave way to frequent bouts of drunkenness. Not until he became involved in other activities—fighting marauding Indians, engaging in land speculation, participating in the stirring events which were leading Texans into revolution—did his mourning become somewhat assuaged.
By January, 1836, however, Bowie had sufficiently recovered from personal grief to warrant command, evoking from Sam Houston the statement that "there is no man on whose forecast, prudence, and valor, I place a higher estimate." So on January 19 he rode into San Antonio and delivered his instructions to Colonel James C. Neill who had been left in charge of the area. Then the two men surveyed their surroundings and evaluated their situation. It was not encouraging. The mission San Antonio de Valero, founded in 1718 and better known as the Alamo because a presidial cavalry unit (the Flying Company of San Jose'y Santiago del Alamos de Parras) occupied the area from 1801 to 1825, was in a state of disrepair and far too large to defend, at least with the present complement of Texans (Neill with eighty men and Bowie with thirty). Used as a military fort since 1801 but, as one of Bowie's men observed, "plainly" not "built by a military people for a fortess," it followed much the same pattern as the other four Franciscan missions which had been established along the San Antonio River. Approximately three acres in size, it had a large courtyard or plaza rectangularly shaped—154 yards long and 54 yards wide—bordered by stone walls which were three-to-four feet thick but only nine-to-twelve-feet high. On the north and west sides small adobe rooms and structures reinforced the walls, while on the south a long one-story building known as the "low barracks" added considerable support. In this area, also, a ten-foot wide passageway provided the main entrance into the courtyard. To the east a two-story mission convent, sometimes called the "long barracks" (approximately 200 feet in length), provided more than adequate protection, especially since the higher vantage point would allow defenders to survey uninterrupted the old convent plaza and mission corral just to the east. Yet obviously apparent was a gap or indenture on the southeastern side because the uniquely structured Alamo chapel, its rooms partly filled with debris from a caved-in roof, was fifty yards distant from the southeastern corner of the long barracks and could be considered only a partial hindrance to an attacking enemy. As a consequence, just prior to the assault by Ben Milam and the Texans in December, 1835, General Cós had constructed a low and ineffectual rampart of dirt and timber across the open space from the chapel to the barracks.
But even if the Alamo had had outstanding fortifications, Colonels Neill and Bowie would have had considerable difficulty in its defense. Besides having only 110 men—Bowie estimated that a force of 1,000 was needed—they had no money to buy military stores or pay the soldiers, no food or clothing (and only the promises from local citizens for aid), no adequate number of horses either for a scout or for transportation. As for military discipline among the troops, there was none. The men did as they pleased, sometimes refusing either to drill or go on patrol. Nor was Neill surprised at the increasing number of desertions since many of the men had only "one blanket and one shirt," and, as he wrote Governor Smith on January 6, "If there has ever been a dollar here I have no knowledge of it."
Despite such odds and despite Sam Houston's orders, Neill and Bowie were unwilling to abandon San Antonio and demolish the Alamo. Their reasons? Officially they stated that there was no transportation for the artillery. But their feelings ran much deeper. Actually they believed that the future of Texas depended upon keeping San Antonio out of enemy hands. Furthermore, the Alamo had an intangible, almost mystical effect upon the men, a definite transformation taking place once they were inside its walls. James Butler "Jim" Bonham, who had recently arrived from South Carolina and joined up with Bowie, had been a wanderer all his life; yet he found unbelievable solace and peace at the Alamo, "a home," as he put it. He did not want to leave. Other men at the Alamo agreed; on February 2 Jim Bowie sent Governor Smith this message: "Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy."
Excerpted from The Battle of the Alamo by Ben H. Procter. Copyright © 1986 Texas State Historical Association. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
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