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The Fall Of The Alamo [1836] By Captain R. M. Potter

 

The fall of the Alamo and the massacre of its garrison, which in 1836 opened the campaign of Santa Anna in Texas, caused a profound sensation throughout the United States, and is still remembered with deep feeling by all who take an interest in the history of that section; yet the details of the final assault have never been fully and correctly narrated, and wild exaggerations have taken their place in popular legend. The reason will be obvious when it is remembered that not a single combatant of the last struggle from within the fort survived to tell the tale, while the official reports of the enemy were neither circumstantial nor reliable. When horror is intensified by mystery, the sure product is romance.

A trustworthy account of the assault could be compiled only by comparing and combining the verbal narratives of such of the assailants as could be relied on for veracity, and adding to this such lights as might be gathered from military documents of that period, from credible local information, and from any source more to be trusted than rumor. As I was a resident at Matamoras when the event occurred, and for several months after the invading army retreated thither, and afterward resided near the scene of action, I had opportunities for obtaining the kind of information referred to better perhaps than have been possest by any person now living outside of Mexico.

San Antonio, then a town of about 7,000 inhabitants, had a Mexican population, a minority of which was well affected to the cause of Texas while the rest were inclined to make the easiest terms they could with whichever side might be for the time being dominant. The San Antonio River which, properly speaking, is a large rivulet, divided the town from the Alamo, the former on the west side and the latter on the east. The Alamo village, a small suburb of San Antonio, was south of the fort, or Mission, as it was originally called, which bore the same name. The latter was an old fabric, built during the first settlement of the vicinity by the Spaniards; and having been originally designed as a place of safety for the colonists and their property in case of Indian hostility with room sufficient for that purpose, it had neither the strength, compactness nor dominantpoints which ought to belong to a regular fortification. The front of the Alamo Chapel bears date of 1757, but the other works must have been built earlier. As the whole area contained between two and three acres, a thousand men would have barely sufficed to man its defenses; and before a regular siege train they would soon have crumbled.

The works were mounted with fou rteen guns, tho Santa Anna in his report exaggerates it to twenty-one. The number, however, has little bearing on the merits of the final defense, with which cannon had very little to do. These guns were in the hands of men unskilled in their use, and owing to the construction of the works most of them had little width of range.

In the winter of 1835-36 Colonel Neill, of Texas, was in command of San Antonio, with two companies of volunteers, among whom was a remnant of New Orleans preys, who had taken an efficient part in the siege and capture of the town about a year before. At this time the Provisional Government of Texas, which, tho in revolt, had not yet declared a final separation from Mexico, had broken into a conflicting duality. The Governor and Council repudiated each other, and each claimed the obedience which was generally not given to either. Invasion was impending, and there seemed to be little more than anarchy to meet.

During this state of affairs Lieutenant-Colonel William B. Travis, who had commanded the scouting service of the late campaign, and had since been commissioned with the aforesaid rank as an officer of regular cavalry, was assigned by the Governor to relieve Colonel Neill of the command of his post. The volunteers, who cared little for either of the two governments, wished to choose their own leader, and were willing to accept Travis only as second in command. They were, therefore, clamorous that Neill should issue an order for the election of a colonel.

To get over the matter without interfering with Travis's right, he prepared an order for the election of a lieutenant-colonel, and was about to depart, when his men, finding out what he had done, mobbed him, and threatened his life unless he should comply with their wishes. He felt constrained to yield, and on the amended order James Bowies was unanimously elected a full colonel. He had been for several years a resident of Texas, and had taken a prominent part in the late campaign against Cos. His election occurred early in February, 1836, about two weeks before the enemy came in sight; and Travis, who had just arrived or came soon after, found Bowie in command of the garrison, and claiming by virtue of the aforesaid election the right to command him and the reinforcement he brought. They both had their headquarters at the Alamo, where their men were quartered, and there must have been a tacit understanding on both sides that conflict of authority should, as far as possible, be avoided. This, however, could not have continued many days but for the common bond of approaching peril.

Travis brought with him a company of regular recruits, enlisted for the half regiment of cavalry which the Provisional Government had intended to raise. J. N. Seguin, a native of San Antonio, who had been commissioned as the senior captain of Travis' corps, joined him at the Alamo, and brought into the garrison the skeleton of his company, consisting of nine Mexican recruits, natives, some of the town aforesaid and others of the interior of Mexico. The aforesaid company and squad of enlisted men and the two companies of volunteers under Bowie formed the garrison of the Alamo, which then numbered from a hundred and fifty-six to a hundred and sixty. Of these the volunteers comprised considerably more than half, and over two-thirds of the whole were men who had but recently arrived in the country. Seguin and his nine recruits were all that represented the Mexican population of Texas. Of that nine, seven fell in the assault, the captain and two of his men having been sent out on duty before that crisis.

David Crockett,4 of Tennessee, who had a few years before represented a squatter constituency in Congress, where his oratory was distinguished for hard sense and rough grammar, had joined the garrison a few weeks before, as had also J. B. Bonham, Esq., of South Carolina, who had lately come to volunteer in the cause of Texas, and was considered one of the most chivalrous and estimable of its supporters. I pair them, a rough gem and a polished jewel, because their names are among the best known of those who fell; but I am not aware that either of them had any command.

The main army of operation against Texas moved from Laredo upon San Antonio in four successive detachments. This was rendered necessary by the scarcity of pasture and water on certain portions of the route. The lower division, commanded by Brigadier-General Urrea, moved from Matamoras on Goliad by a route near the coast, and a short time after the fall of the Alamo achieved the capture and massacre of Fannius' command.

The confusion at the Alamo, which for the time being was great, did not impede a prompt show of resistance. In the evening, soon after the enemy entered the town, a shot from the l8-pounder of the fort was answered by a shell from the invaders; and this was followed by a parley, of which different accounts have been given....

On the night of the 22d of February the enemy planted two batteries on the west side of the river, one bearing west and the other southwest from the Alamo, with a range which no houses then obstructed. They were the next day silenced by the fire of the 18 pounder of the fort, but were restored to activity on the following night. On the 24th another body of Mexican troops, a regiment of cavalry and three battalions of infantry arrived; and then the fort was invested and a regular siege commenced, which, counting from that day till the morning of the 6th of March, occupied eleven days. By the 27th seven more besieging batteries were planted, most of them on the east side of the river, and bearing on the northwest, and south of the fort; but none on the east.

The conflict of authority between Bowie and Travis, owing probably to the caution in which neither was deficient, had luckily produced no serious collision; and it was perhaps as fortunate that, at about the second day of the siege, the rivalry was cut short by a prostrating illness of the former, when Bowie was stricken by an attack of pneumonia, which would probably have proved fatal, had not its blow been anticipated by the sword. This left Travis in undisputed command.

On the following night, the 1st of March, a company of thirty-two men from Gonzales made its way through the enemy's lines, and entered the Alamo never again to leave it. This must have raised the force to 188 men or thereabout, as none of the original number of 156 had fallen.

On the night of the 3d of March Travis sent out another courier with a letter of that date to the government, which reached its destination. In that last dispatch he says: "With a hundred and forty-five men I have held this place ten days against a force variously estimated from 1,.500 to 6,000, and I shall continue to hold it till I get relief from my countrymen, or I will perish in the attempt. We have had a shower of bombs and cannon balls continually falling among us the whole time, yet none of us have fallen. We have been miraculously preserved." As this was but two days and three nights before the final assault, it is quite possible that not a single defender was stricken down till the fort was stormed. At the first glance it may seem almost farcical that there should be no more result from so long a fire, which was never sluggish; but if so, this was a stage on which farce was soon to end in tragedy, and those two elements seem strangely mingled through the whole cutest....

In stating the force of the garrison during the previous ten days, Travis did not include the little reinforcement which had come in only two days before; yet, as he mentions but 145, while the garrison is known to have numbered 156 when the enemy appeared, he must have rated eleven as ineffective or absent. A part of them may have been counted out as departed couriers, and the rest had perhaps sunk under the fatigue of duty. Had there been any wounded, he would probably have referred to them. On the 4th of March Santa Anna called a council of war, and fixt on the morning of the 6th for the final assault.

When the hour came, the south guns of the Alamo were answering the batteries which fronted them; but the music was silent till the blast of a bugle was followed by the rushing tramp of soldiers. The guns of the fort opened upon the moving masses, and Santa Anna's bands struck lip the assassin note of deguello or no quarter. But a few and not very effective discharges of cannon frown the works could be made before the enemy were under them, and it was probably not till then that the worn and wearied garrison was fully mustered. Castrillon's column arrived first at the foot of the wall, but was not the first to enter.

The guns of he north, where Travis commanded in person, probably raked the breach, and this or the fire of the riflemen brought the column to a disordered halt, and Colonel Duque, who commanded the battalion of Toluca, fell dangerously wounded; but, while this was occurring, the column from the west crossed the barrier on that side by escalade at a point north of the center, and, as this checked resistance at the north, Castrillon shortly after passed the breach. It was probably while the enemy was thus pouring into the large area that Travis fell at his post, for his body, with a single shot in the forehead, was found beside the gun at the northwest angle. The outer walls and batteries, all except one gun, of which I will speak, were now abandoned by the defenders.

The garrison, when driven from the thinlymanned outer defenses, whose early loss was inevitable, took refuge mainly in the long barrack; and it was not till then, when they became more concentrated and covered within, that the main struggle began. They were more concentrated as to space, not as to unity of command; for there was no communicating between buildings, nor, in all cases, between rooms. There was little need of command, however, to men who had no choice left but to fall where they stood before the weight of numbers. There was now no retreating from point to point, and each group of defenders had to fight and die in the den where it was brought to bay. From the doors, windows, and loopholes of the several rooms around the area the crack of the rifle and the hiss of the bullet came fierce and fast; as fast as the enemy fell and recoiled in his first efforts to charge. The gun beside which Travis fell was now turned against the buildings, as were also some others, and shot after shot was sent crashing through the doors and barricades of the several rooms. Each ball was followed by a storm of musketry and a charge; and thus room after room was carried at the point of the bayonet, when all within them died fighting to the last. The struggle was made up of a number of separate and desperate combats, often hand to hand, between squads of the garrison and bodies of the enemy. The bloodiest spot about the fort was the long barracks and the ground in front on it, where the enemy fell in heaps....

According to Mr. Ruiz, then the Alcalde of San Antonio, who, after the action, was required to point out the slain leaders to Santa Anna, the body of Crockett was found in the west battery just referred to; and we may infer that he either commanded that point or was stationed there as a sharpshooter. The common fate overtook Bowie in his bed in one of the rooms of the low barrack, when he probably had but a few days of life left him; yet he had enough remaining it is said, to shoot down with his pistols more than one of his assailants ere he was butchered on his couch. If he had sufficient strength and consciousness left to do it, we may safely assume that it was done.

carried by a coup de main after the fire of the other buildings was silenced. Once the enemy was in possession of the large area, the guns of the south could be turned to fire into the door of the church, only from fifty to a hundred yards of, and that was probably the route of attack. The inmates of this last stronghold, like the rest, fought to the last, and continued to fire down from the upper works after the enemy occupied the floor. A Mexican officer told of seeing one of his soldiers shot in the crown of the head during the melee. Toward the close of the struggle Lieutenant Dickenson, with his child in his arms, or, as some accounts say, tied to his back, leapt from the east embrasure of the chapel, and both were shot in the act. Of those he left behind, the bayonet soon gleaned what the bullet had left; and in the upper part of that edifice the last detender must have fallen. The morning breeze which received his parting breath probably still fanned his flag above that fabric, for I doubt not he fell ere it was pulled down by the victors.

The Alamo had fallen; but the impression it left on the invader was the forerunner of San Jacinto. It is a fact not often remembered that Travis and his band fell under the Mexican Federal flag of 1824, instead of the Lone Star of Texas, altho Independence, unknown to them, had been declared by the new convention four days before at Washington, on the Brazos. They died for a Republic of whose existence they never knew. The action, according to Santa Anna's report, lasted thirty minutes.