February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
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”
Few battles in our history have had more reverberations than the siege and assault of the Alamo, and yet no battle of consequence has been so skimpily reported.
In this action fewer than 200 men, most of them Americans, were besieged by 3,000 Mexican troops in a fortress built on the ruins of a Spanish mission at San Antonio, in Texas, then a part of Mexico, from February 23 to March 6, 1836, when the walls were stormed and the defenders slaughtered to the last man.
None of the Mexican officers who witnessed the shambles cared to give a full account. The only plausible version of the final assault was written by the Mexican second-in-command, General Vicente Filisola, but he did not arrive until three days after the last shot had been fired.
The evidence about what happened at the Alamo is scattered. There is no bristling array of fact to inhibit the armchair theorist’s romping fancy, and consequently writers—even scholars—have felt free to draw their picture of the action any way they pleased.
But recent writings give proof that a well-defined picture or stereotype has now emerged from the chaos of conflicting tales. According to this standard view, the Alamo was an indefensible ruin held, in defiance of superior orders, by a band of frontiersmen who were valiant but far from wise.
And yet, according to the evidence, the Alamo was “a strong place,” and the defenders were in good part professional men; they disobeyed no orders, and their sacrifice was not without effect.
Let’s look at the scattered evidence. Who were the men in the Alamo, and what were they doing there?
Few of the 150 “effective” men who went into the Alamo on February 23 at the approach of the Mexican army were Texans: most had been in the country less than a year. They had come singly or in small groups—a few had even walked—from the southwestern United States. But most of them were natives of the Atlantic seaboard. Some thirty-six were from the British Isles, including fourteen from Ireland. Two were Germans; one was a Dane.
But their officers, whose leadership they respected—or they would have chosen new ones—were well-known figures among the American colonists in Texas. Each had taken an active part, early or late, in the revolt. The men in the Alamo, therefore, were in sympathy with the Texas revolution, and had come to join it.
The revolution itself was not a conflict between “races” or peoples, nor between systems of government. Nor was it a conspiracy to steal Texas away from Mexico. To find the beginning—but not the meaning—of it, we must go back to the failure of Spain to take firm hold on Texas.
Even before the British fleet, Napoleon, and civil war had ripped the web of Spain’s empire, there were not enough Spaniards in the Americas to hold down half a hemisphere. The wonder is that they were able to occupy Texas at all, considering the stark mountain ranges and grim deserts they had to cross coming northward from the opulent valleys of Mexico. Spain’s hold on Texas was shaken in 1800, when Napoleon maneuvered a weak Spanish king out of Louisiana. When he sold his immense prize to the United States three years later, it was obvious that the Americans, as soon as they were settled in Louisiana itself, would begin to spill over into Texas, for it is attached by geography to the Mississippi Valley, with no natural barriers between.
Spain’s policy for more than a century had been to keep Texas empty, a vast cushion of space to protect the rich mines of Mexico. An economical policy, it suited the king and worked fairly well for a time. Texas remained a vacuum.
But within the vacuum an unforeseen menace grew like a stormhead. The Comanche Indians, with 5,000 warriors, perhaps the most expert horsemen the world has known, roamed at will, lords of the prairie. In the whole reach of the province, counting the friendly Indians (who died off fast, inside and outside the missions, from the white man’s diseases), there were scarcely 3,000 people who could be called subjects of Spain. Texas was at the mercy of the Comanche.
Forced to choose between the marauding Indians and the American frontiersmen who had begun trickling into Texas, the Spanish authorities chose the Americans. And in 1821 the commanding general of the frontier provinces, acting in the name of the king, granted to Moses Austin, a Connecticut Yankee turned Spanish subject, permission for an American colony.
In that same portentous year of 1821, Moses Austin died, leaving his Texas concession to his son, and Mexico declared its independence from Spain. Young Stephen F. Austin, in order to get clear title to his grant, had to petition each shaky new government as it arose, until the Mexican Republic, established in 1823 by men who admired the institutions of the United States, gave him full authority to settle American colonists in Texas.
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.
Some at the Alamo, “not even sufficiently clad for summer,” endured the winter “with but one blanket and one shirt.” They had no money. “If there has ever been a dollar here,” wrote Neill, “I have no knowledge of it.” This was early in January, and the story is the same to the end: The men were not paid. In mid-January Neill reported he had only eighty “effective” men. The rest, apparently colonists, had gone home.
These eighty men had to garrison two distinct fortresses. In the town of San Antonio were the remnants of the Spanish fortress (on what is now Military Plaza), and a block to the cast, with the old parish church in between, was the Civil Plaza (now Main). These dusty squares, surrounded by stone houses withflat roofs, had been fortified by the Mexican army in December.
Half a mile away, across the San Antonio River, which here makes a large bend to the east, was the Alamo. This was a compound of stone walls, with huts of adobe and “little houses of mud and stone” ranged along their inner sides, enclosing a bare and dusty area the size of a city block. There was a gateway on the south, and facing west on the enclosed area was a two-story stone building, the “long barracks.” Behind this were two corrals walled with stone; and, south of these, a church—the “Alamo” of our day—facing west and making the southeast corner.
This drab enclosure comprised more than three acres. Built by Franciscan friars during the half-century after 1724 as a mission for Indians, it had been named San Antonio de Valero in honor of Saint Anthony of Padua and the reigning viceroy, the Marquis de Valero. It had long since been used as a barracks and cavalry yard, and renamed El Alamo for a military company from the town of Alamo de Parras (now Viesca), in Coahuila, which occupied it for decades. But during the fall of 1835 the Mexican Army had made the enclosure into a fort, with ditches and gun emplacements. The outer walls of stone, two feet thick and twelve feet high, were strengthened with palisades and tamped earth, until the thickness at crucial points was five feet. The Alamo, said an observer, was “a strong place.”
To defend this sprawling compound, the Americans had about twenty captured cannon and a prized 18-pounder (for 18-pound balls) that had been dragged up from the coast, 150 miles away, by oxen. This gun was given the place of honor, on the southwest corner, pointed at the town. The rest of the guns were, in the main, 6-pounders, 9-pounders, and 12-pounders. This was a tremendous armament for that time and place. The Americans improved the fort, building ditches and redoubts.
“In case of an attack,” wrote Green Jameson, the engineer at the Alamo, “we will whip 10 to 1 with our artillery.”
A false report of invasion, in mid-January, was forwarded by Neill to General Houston, who was visiting the coast to put a damper on the “Matamoros fever.” Houston, before leaving the field to Fannin, sent Colonel James Bowie to San Antonio with about thirty men and the suggestion to Neill that he remove the artillery and blow up the Alamo. Neill replied that he had no teams for the purpose. Then Bowie wrote: “Colonel Neill and I have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.”
An indignation meeting held by the officers at the Alamo on January 26 passed resolutions denouncing the council and its agent, Fannin, and upholding Houston, Governor Smith, and independence. Smith threatened to have the council arrested and sent to San Antonio for trial on a treason charge. The council, no doubt frightened, responded with an order for Neill: he was “required to put the place in the best possible state for defence, with assurances that every possible effort is making to strengthen, supply and provision the garrison, and in no case to abandon or surrender the place unless in the last extremity.”
At the same time, an order was issued that no more men were to be sent to San Antonio. Nor were any supplies ever sent there.
But Governor Smith had already ordered Colonel William Barret Travis to San Antonio, where he arrived about the second week of February with twenty-six men of the Regular Texas Army. On February 11, Neill took leave, on account of sickness in his family, asking Travis to accept the command. Some of the volunteers chose Bowie instead. Much has been made of the ensuing “quarrel,” but it was over in twenty-four hours.
Bowie was a sick man, in the last stages of a disease later diagnosed as consumption. He was also a sad man. He had married Ursula Veramendi, daughter of the vice governor of Coahuila-Texas, and she, together with their two children, had died of cholera in 1833. At San Antonio on one occasion he got “roaring drunk,” released prisoners from the calaboose, marched his men on Main Plaza, and generally raised a ruckus.
Travis was a handsome six-footer, ruddy and blond, hardly more than a boy. He had taken part in every vigorous action against “the despotic rule of the usurping military” (as he called it) since 1832, and now, from San Antonio, he too wrote the governor asking for money, clothing, provisions, and men. “We have not more than 150 men here, and they are in a very disorganized state. Yet we are determined to sustain this Frontier Post as long as there is a man left, because we consider death preferable to disgrace. Should we receive no reinforcements, I am determined to defend it to the last, and should Bexar fall, your friend will be buried beneath its ruins.”
Among the 150, Travis counted David Crockett and his twelve “Tennessee boys,” who arrived about February 10. Few it any of these were rude backwoodsmen. Among the twelve were several lawyers, while among the whole force who went into the Alamo there were at least four doctors. Most of the men were young, but it seems they were not unlettered.
Crockett climbed on a goods box in front of a store on Main Plaza and made a speech. He spun some yarns to warm up the crowd, then declared he had enlisted in the “common effort for the common cause,” and wanted to be only “a kind of high private.”
The ragged men at the Alamo had only beef and corn to eat—no coffee, sugar, or salt. The remnant of the council, adjourning in mid-February, denounced them as “insurgents to the government”; it had never sent them supplies of any kind.
Why, then, did they remain at their post?
There is an answer, given a little earlier in a sort of manifesto signed by a few of them:
We, the undersigned, have embarked on board the schooner Santiago, on December 9, 1835, at New Orleans, for Texas, to relieve our oppressed brethren who have emigrated thither by inducements held forth to them by the Mexican government, and rights guaranteed to settlers of that province, which that government now denies them; and in our opinion, their situation is assimilated to that of our fathers, who labored under tyrannical oppression. Resolved, that we have left every endearment, as our respective places of abode in the United States of America, to maintain and defend our brethren, at the peril of our lives, liberties and fortunes.... We declare these as our sentiments and determination.
Seldom in time of war has a garrison so tiny been so isolated.
To the north, as far as the Arctic ice, was Indian country. To the east the sparsely settled American colonies began at Gonzales, seventy miles away, with no habitation in between. To the southeast, one hundred miles away, near the Gulf of Mexico, the stalled Matamoros expedition waited for supplies that never came. Two-thirds of its members joined with groups just arrived from the United States, gathering, through February, at Goliad (an old Spanish fort) under the command of James Fannin, until their number passed 400. The remainder hunted wild horses at San Patricio, an abandoned Irish colony fifty miles south of Goliad.
To the west and southwest of the Alamo stretched 150 miles of mesquite, prickly pear, rattlesnakes, and Indians. Then, along the Rio Grande, a few Mexican towns were scattered. South of the river, beyond deserts and rugged sierras, larger towns were widely separated, and in several of these Santa Anna was assembling, feverishly and not always by gentle persuasion, men, money, and supplies. Early in February he had more than 7,000 troops at points, including Matamores on the coast, from which he could hurl them against Texas.
His darkening shadow in the west was not unperceived by any of the three officers who, in succession, had some charge of the tiny garrison at the Alamo. They were kept informed by certain friendly Mexican citizens of San Antonio who traded across the Rio Grande. In his first reports, early in January, Colonel Neill warned the governor of enemy troop concentrations. Bowie’s warning was more ominous. Travis, in his report of February 12, pointed out accurately the size and progress of the threatening forces.
It has been said that the officers in the Alamo “allowed themselves to be surprised” by Santa Anna. But even with a much larger garrison and many more horses, it would have been impossible to guard all the trails from the Rio Grande.
They could not have known that Santa Anna would drive his troops through a snowstorm and searing heat, across deserts, without adequate rations and without any medicines, the sick being heaped on pack animals, dead men and mules left strewn along the way. They could not have known, yet, the full measure of his contempt for human life, except his own.
Relations had been friendly between the San Antonio Mexicans and the men of the Alamo. They attended fandangos and cockfights together. Travis, proud of his Spanish, wrote: “The citizens have every confidence in me, because they can communicate with me, & have shown every disposition to aid me with all they have.” Some joined the Texas Army, and three more were to die in the Alamo. But the approach of Santa Anna’s army brought with it a chill.
San Antonio was a town of some two thousand Spanish-speaking people, mainly herdsmen and horsemen, who loved dancing, gambling, racing, and religious festivals. They remembered the cruelties of a Spanish army (Santa Anna was with it as a young lieutenant) that had sacked the town in 1813. They did not wish to see a repetition.
By the middle of February, Bowie, as commander of the volunteers, and Travis, as commander of the Regulars and the cavalry, were signing a joint appeal for money, provisions, men.
On the evening of February 21, Santa Anna and the advance guard of his army reached the bank of the Medina River, some twenty miles southwest of San Antonio. Heavy rains kept him from crossing for two days. Then, about noon on February 23, a sentinel posted in the tower of the parish church on Main Plaza sounded the bell. He said he had seen a “glittering, as of lances” in the west. Two horsemen rode out and reported a company of Mexican cavalry in formation, “their polished armor glistening in the rays of the sun,” an officer riding up and down in front of them waving his sword, as if giving orders.
About two o’clock in the afternoon Santa Anna’s advance guard entered the town. Bowie, Travis, and their men were in the Alamo. With them were several friendly Mexicans, including women and children; also the wife and infant daughter of Almeron Dickinson, captain of artillery. On their way in, the men had rounded up a herd of beeves and found some corn stored in the houses. Within the enclosure they had opened up a well. They would not lack for food of a sort, nor water. There was a scene of wild confusion, with men clamoring for arms and no semblance of order; the swearing was phenomenal.
About three o’clock a blood-red flag, meaning NO QUARTER, was hoisted on the tower of the parish church. Travis replied from the Alamo with a cannon shot. The next day, February 24, he sent out his famous message “to the People of Texas and all the Americans in the World”:
Fellow citizens & compatriots, I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded a Surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken.... I shall never surrender or retreat.
Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything 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 to his own honor or that of his country—Victory or Death.
He meant every word of it.
A cold wind blew from the north on the night of February 25, chilling the blanketless men in the Alamo. Bowie, who had been hurt by a cannon ball that had rolled from a platform, was put to bed with pneumonia. Travis now had sole command.
On the twenty-fifth the enemy attempted to set up a battery in front of the Alamo’s south gate. The defenders made a sally and killed some soldiers. After dark the enemy charged the north wall and were repulsed with musket shot and grape. A detachment of cavalry attempting to cross the river on a narrow bridge was blasted by the Alamo guns and a Mexican colonel, knocked into the water, nearly drowned.
During the first four days of the siege the defenders made sallies, burned huts near the walls, and fought the attackers hand to hand when necessary. But after February 26 they were hedged in by artillery; the bombardment let up at intervals, only to resume with increased fury.
Davy Crockett entertained the men with his fiddle; but he did not like to be penned up. “I think we had better march out of here and die in the open air,” he would say.
But if the main body of defenders was pinned down, couriers could still go in and out. Travis sent a rider to Goliad, but there Fannin was in no position to help anyone; on February 27 and March 2 the remnants of the Matamoros expedition were killed or captured at and near San Patricio. Travis also appealed to the colonists at Gonzales, and he had some success. On March 1 a band of thirty-two volunteers, some of them boys, somehow found their way into the Alamo.
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.”
But not quite all, yet. The church in the southeast corner of the enclosure held a few defenders. There lay the stricken Bowie. The women and children were there: Mexicans of San Antonio except for Mrs. Dickinson, holding her child in her arms. She knelt and prayed, clutching the child, in the narrow, vaulted sacristy, now filled with smoke. Pursued by Mexican troops, two boys, eleven and twelve years old, ran into the room with their father, a gunner. The father begged for mercy, but the soldiers ran him through and carried the boys out of the room on their bloody bayonets. Another gunner ran in; they shot him “and four Mexican soldiers stuck their bayonets into his body and raised him up into the air like a farmer does a bundle of fodder when he loads it into a wagon.”
In the small adjoining room, Bowie, from his cot, fired until his body, too, was riddled with bullets.
The father of twelve-year-old Enrique Esparza had been killed beside his cannon, which had been embrasured in the window of the south transept of the church. There was hand-to-hand fighting in the dark, the Mexicans rushing the defenders with bayonets. “It was pitch dark there,” said young Esparza. “After the soldiers of Santa Anna had got all the women and children huddled in the southwest corner of the church, they stood still and fired into the darkness. They kept on firing at the men who had defended the Alamo. For fully a quarter of an hour, and until someone brought lanterns, they kept on firing on them, after all the defenders had been slain, and their corpses were lying still.”
The Mexican women were taken to Santa Anna, questioned, and released. Mrs. Dickinson and her child were treated kindly.
Five “foreigners,” found hiding, were brought before Santa Anna; he upbraided the officer who had spared them, then turned his back. Soldiers set on them with bayonets.
“After all the dead Mexicans were taken out of the Alamo,” said the alcalde, “Santa Anna ordered wood to be brought to burn the bodies of the Texans. He sent a company of dragoons with me to bring wood and dry branches from the neighboring forest. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon they commenced laying the wood and dry branches, upon which a file of dead bodies was placed. More wood was piled on them and another file brought, and in this manner they were arranged in layers. Kindling wood was distributed throughout the pile, and about 5 o’clock in the evening it was lighted.
“The dead Mexicans of Santa Anna were taken to the graveyard, but not having sufficient room for them, I ordered some of them to be thrown into the river, which was done on the same day. Santa Anna’s loss was estimated at 1,600. These were the flower of his army.” (This estimate is too high, even counting both dead and wounded.)
“The men burned numbered 182. I was an eyewitness, for as alcalde of San Antonio, I was with some of the neighbors collecting the dead bodies and placing them on the funeral pile.”
Travis had said, three days before he died, “Victory will cost the enemy so dear, it will be worse for him than a defeat.” Santa Anna’s frightful losses did not deter him from driving his army on through Texas. But the slaughter of the men in the Alamo shocked the colonists out of their apathy.
On March 13 scouts from Gonzales met Mrs. Dickinson on the prairie. She had been given a horse and sent with an intimidating message for the colonists. That night the frontier town was a choir of grief.
Then Sam Houston, with less than 400 men, began a strategic retreat eastward, drawing Santa Anna after him. First Gonzales, then San Felipe, went up in smoke. Women, children, the old and infirm, struggled on foot or in creaking oxcarts through rain, slush, and mire across swollen rivers. Some reached the Trinity, some the Sabine. Bedsheets spread for tents dotted the Louisiana shore. At last, on April 21, Santa Anna, who had dashed on with a fraction of his army to Galveston Bay, hoping to catch (and hang) the officers of the upstart Texas Republic, was surprised by Houston’s smaller force on the San Jacinto River, just east of the present city of Houston. The Mexican commander was captured, and more than half his men were killed. The cry was “Remember the Alamo!”