The Storming Of The Alamo


He found some already there. Most of them scarcely hankered for annexation to the United States. Many had left home between suns, and the government they preferred was the one that governed least. That was Mexico, which levied no taxes, required no military service, and gave them land for the asking. They held the formidable Comanches in check. And so long as the government left them alone, the colonists seldom gave it a thought.

The government, however, began to grow more and more alarmed about the Americans in Texas, who rapidly outnumbered, and by far, the native population. The trickle from the east had become a steady stream, and in 1830 further immigration was prohibited. This and other repressive measures caused some violence but did not produce outright revolt. Even when Stephen Austin was arrested for urging the separation of Texas from Coahuila and confined in Mexico for a year and a half, there was no uproar. But when he reached home early in September of 1835, he found Texas in tumult.

In 1833, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, a bloody-minded royalist officer who had shifted with each political wind, had finally succeeded in seizing power in Mexico and subverting the high purpose of the republic’s founders by establishing a military dictatorship. When he threatened to unleash an army of occupation on Texas, revolution flared. Mexican forces entered Texas from the coast in mid-September and occupied San Antonio—or Bexar, as it was called then—and Stephen Austin, usually a patient man, declared: “I will wear myself out inch by inch, rather than submit to the despotic rule of Santa Anna.”

The revolution in Texas, as Austin made plain, was a stand against military dictatorship. The aim was not, in the beginning, independence from Mexico. The colonists, in a consultation at San Felipe de Austin on November 7, 1835, declared they had “taken up arms in defense of the federal constitution of Mexico of 1824.” Only on March 2, 1836, while the Alamo was under bombardment, did a convention of colonists, held at Washington-on-Brazos, declare the independence of Texas.

The events of the preceding fall, when the colonists had begun their revolt, had gone badly for the forces of the Mexican government. On October 2, 1835, a detachment of Mexican troops from the garrison at San Antonio attempted to take a battered cannon from the colonists at Gonzales, the nearest American settlement, seventy miles to the east. The cannon belched defiance, and several soldiers were killed; the rest withdrew. Then colonists captured the fort at Goliad, near the coast, cutting the garrison at San Antonio off from the sea. From Gonzales a small motley army in buckskin, with Austin at its head, set out to capture San Antonio. On October 27 the advance guard led by James Bowie defeated an attacking force near Concepcion Mission, and the surviving Mexican troops took refuge behind the stone walls and palisades of the old Spanish town. The Americans’ siege of San Antonio culminated in the house-to-house storming of the town from December 5 to 10 and in the surrender of the Mexican garrison, which was allowed to return across the Rio Grande with its arms.

While Austin’s “army” was encamped outside the town, its numbers swelled to more than a thousand. And then, tired of inaction, most of the colonists went home. Austin himself, a sick man, resigned. Not more than 300 men took part in the storming.

Nearly half of those who were to become the defenders of the Alamo went through this ten-week campaign in the fall, then waited out the hard winter at San Antonio. They were abandoned, toward the last of December, by 200 victory-happy volunteers who headed south for the Gulf of Mexico, having been cajoled into an expedition aimed at seizing the port of Matamoros near the mouth of the Rio Grande—300 desolate miles away.

This ill-conceived, ill-fated Matamoros venture was intended to be the first step in a scheme to detach from Mexico all the rich mining states north of a line drawn straight west from Tampico, including the pauper state of Texas. The aim: to make, in collusion with Mexican politicos, a great new empire. The backers of this scheme were, of course, opposed to independence for Texas. Working through the provisional council, they succeeded in shunting aside early in January, 1836, the provisional governor, Henry Smith, and the commander in chief, General Sam Houston, both of whom were in favor of independence. Houston was stripped of power when the council made his subaltern, James W. Fannin, its agent, giving him all funds and all available manpower for a march on Matamoros.

Meanwhile, at San Antonio, 104 men were left destitute under Colonel J. C. Neill, who wrote to Governor Smith that the stampede for Matamoros had carried off most of the food, clothing, medicines, and the horses. Smith, in his log-cabin capital of San Felipe, 150 miles to the east, was already irked at the deal with Fannin and now vented his wrath on the council. This was what it was waiting for: an excuse to “depose” him. He in turn “dissolved” the council. Henceforth, until the convention met in March, the government of Texas was divided against itself. The result was disaster, at the Alamo and elsewhere.