- Historic Sites
The Storming Of The Alamo
None of its defenders survived, so that legends obscure their fate. But the facts do no dishonor to these beleaguered men, sworn to fight on until the end “at the peril of our lives, liberties and fortunes”
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
On March 3 Travis wrote his last letters and sent them out by couriers. He said the garrison had been “miraculously preserved”; he had not lost a man. But two 9-pounders near the town were tearing holes in the walls with every shot. He heard sounds of rejoicing in the town, where 2,000 reinforcements for Santa Anna had just arrived. When he heard the bell of the parish church ringing, he did not know it was for the annihilation of the Americans at San Patricio, but in any case he had given up hope of aid from Fannin: “I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it arrives soon I shall have to fight the enemy on his terms. I feel confident that the determined valor and desperate courage of my men will not fail them in the last struggle; and although they may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so dear, it will be worse for him than a defeat.”
That same day, March 3, Travis is said to have drawn a line with his sword on the ground, and to have asked those who would stay in the Alamo to the end, even though the cause was hopeless, to step over the line and stand beside him. The story has been told separately by three alleged eyewitnesses, but historians have scorned it as “theatrical” and “improbable.” Whatever the truth of it, the story goes on to relate that just one man stepped back, and later made his escape. Bowie asked his companions to carry his cot across the line so he could be with them.
On the same day, Santa Anna had heavy guns placed within musket range of the Alamo’s north wall; despite the popular assumption that nobody was hurt in eleven days of shelling, skeletons in buckskin tatters dug up from the floor of the church years afterward should be proof that the Mexican artillery was effective. “Men died there, and women,” said Enrique Esparza, the twelve-year-old son of one of the Alamo’s gunners. “Even children died there.”
In the dark of night the Mexican troops would feign assaults. Sudden yells, cheers, and fusillades would keep the defenders off balance. Then, on the night of March 5, a roaring cannonade shook the Alamo, followed by a long spell of stillness to lull senses aching for sleep. At five the next morning, in the dark and the cold, a bugle shrilled from the north and suddenly, from four sides, came the tramping of massed feet, thousands of feet, advancing at a run.
The assault was intended to be a surprise, but raw recruits yelled “Viva Santa Anna!” and the cannon of the Alamo blazed. One Mexican soldier saw forty of his comrades fall around him. The mass surged against the walls and broke, screaming. From the rear, fusiliers who aimed too low shot their own storm troops in the back of the head. They toppled from the ladders. A wounded Mexican colonel, urging his men on, was trampled to death.
Again the columns were driven forward. The alcalde of San Antonio, whom Santa Anna had ordered to wait behind the Mexican lines to look after the dead and wounded, saw the second assault shattered by the “deadly fire of Travis’ artillery, which resembled a constant thunder.”
The slaughter had gone on for nearly two hours when Santa Anna gave word to pull back his haggled ranks. He called up his reserves.
“At the third charge,” said the alcalde, “the battalion of Toluca began to scale the walls and suffered severely: Out of 800 men only 130 were left alive.” Then, according to the account written later by General Filisola, the columns attacking the east and west sides joined the force on the north “by a spontaneous movement,” smashed over the cannon, and poured through the breach.
Travis fell on the gun there, “a single bullet wound in his forehead.”
When the defenders turned “a small cannon on a high platform” to stem the breakthrough on the north, the Mexican column on the south side, “taking clever advantage of the protection offered by some little houses of mud and stone near the southwest angle, by a daring move seized the cannon [the 18-pounder] embrasured in that angle, and through the port entered the plaza.” Other troops “poured over the walls like sheep.”
Santa Anna now approached close enough to observe that “the brisk fire of musketry illuminated the interior of the fortress, its walls and ditches.”
The men in the Alamo abandoned their artillery, useless now at such short range. In the vast, bare plaza, the size of a city block, they were few and scattered and utterly exposed. There was no chance to reload their rifles or muskets. So they clubbed their assailants with the stocks as they ran for the two-story stone building on the east side of the plaza.
Here preparation had been made for a final stand. Within each of the five arched doors opening west in the “long barracks” was a semicircular parapet of stakes shoring a double curtain of rawhide rammed with earth. The Mexican troops, said Filisola, turned the captured guns against this building, “in which the rebels had taken refuge, and from which they were firing on the troops that were climbing down into the plaza. And within these doors, by grapeshot, musketshot and the bayonet, they were all killed at last.”