Remembering the Alamo

Move over, John Wayne. John Lee Hancock's epic re-creation of the 1836 battle between Mexican forces and Texas insurgents casts the mythic massacre in a more historically accurate light

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In a letter of February 24, Travis called on the “People of Texas and all Americans in the world” to send reinforcements: “I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna!” he wrote. “I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion [meaning the safety of surrendered men would not be guaranteed], 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 & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his own honor & that of his country. Victory or Death.”

Travis had already appealed to Col. James W. Fannin, a West Point dropout and slave trader who had about 300 men and four cannon, but little ammunition and few horses, at the Spanish presidio at Goliad, some 100 miles away. Fannin set out for San Antonio on February 28, but three wagons broke down almost immediately, and crossing the flooded San AntonioRiver consumed precious time. When the men made camp, they neglected to tie up their oxen and horses, many of which wandered off in the night.

Fannin returned to Goliad, where he ignored additional pleas from Travis. “Fannin was just in over his head,” says Crisp. Fannin would later fight bravely and would ultimately die at the hands of Santa Anna’s troops. “But he would have been nuts to go to the Alamo,” Crisp adds.

Santa Anna must have known the Alamo would be no match for his forces. Built by Spanish priests with Indian labor, the mission was never meant to be a fortress. Lacking extended walls or rifle parapets, it was almost impossible to defend—not because it was too small but because it was too big. Its main plaza, now hidden beneath downtown San Antonio’s streets, comprised almost three acres, with nearly a quarter-mile of adobe walls that were scarcely cannon-proof and easily scaled with ladders—an “irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name,” sniffed Santa Anna.

The morning of March 3 brought bad news. Travis’ trusted subordinate, James Bonham, rode in from Goliad with word that Fannin would not be coming with help. Then, on March 4, one thousand fresh Mexican soldiers arrived from the west. “Take care of my little boy . . . ,” Travis wrote to David Ayres, a friend who was keeping his son. “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.” Travis also wrote to the insurgent settlers assembled in Washington-on-the-Brazos: “I will. . . . do the best I can under the circumstances . . . and although [my men] may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy dear, that it will be worse for him than defeat.”

By March 5, Mexican troops were lashing ladders against the fort’s walls in preparation for an assault, and according to the account of Mexican general Vincente Filisola, the besieged men dispatched a woman to propose terms of surrender to Santa Anna. Once again Santa Anna refused to negotiate terms. His decision was purely political, says Hardin. “Militarily, it was stupid: storming the Alamo needlessly sacrificed the lives of hundreds of men. But Santa Anna wanted to be able to write back to Mexico City that he had annihilated the rebels.”

Documentary accounts of the final battle, on March 6, are based largely on journals of Mexican officers and the stories of a few noncombatant survivors who had sheltered inside the Alamo. At about 5:30 a.m., some 1,100 of Santa Anna’s men moved quietly under patchy bright moonlight to surround the garrison. Some of the general’s young soldiers were so excited they could not maintain silence. Viva Santa Anna! they shouted. Viva la Republica! Their cries alerted the Alamo’s defenders. “Come on, boys,” Travis shouted as he sprinted to the walls, “the Mexicans are upon us, and we’ll give them hell!”

The Texians filled their cannons with every available piece of metal—hinges, chains, nails, bits of horseshoes—and sprayed deadly shot over their tightly bunched attackers, who carried axes, crowbars, ladders and muskets fixed with bayonets. The Texians’ nine-pound cannonballs inflicted heavy casualties, splattering flesh and jagged bones over soldiers who were not themselves hit. The carnage caused some Mexicans to attempt retreat, but officers forced them back into battle at swordpoint.

The wounded shrieked in agony, some begging to be put out of their misery. “The shouting of those being attacked . . . ,” wrote Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña, “pierced our ears with desperate, terrible cries of alarm in a language we did not understand. . . . Different groups of soldiers were firing in all directions, on their comrades and on their officers, so that one was as likely to die by a friendly hand as by an enemy’s.” At the Alamo’s 12-foot north wall, the Mexicans felled Travis with a musket ball to the forehead. Then Santa Anna sent in more troops, bringing the assault forces to nearly 1,800. Within about half an hour, the Texians retreated toward the barracks and chapel, hemmed in hopelessly for one last, bloody stand.

“Great God, Sue, the Mexicans are inside our walls!” screamed Capt. Almaron Dickinson to his wife, Susanna. “All is lost! If they spare you, save my child.” Susanna and her infant daughter, Angelina, took shelter in the church’s sacristy, along with several Tejano women and children, all of whom, in addition to several unidentified Texian slaves, Santa Anna would spare.


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