October 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 6
∗Remember the Alamo
The patriotic story that most Americans call to mind when they remember the Alamo is largely mythology, and it is a mythology constructed on the northern side of the border. The facts of that short, bloody prelude to our war with Mexico are just as grim but far less romantic.
An unusual account of this battle from the Mexican side was written by a young Mexican lieutenant colonel named José Enrique de la Peña, who was present on that murderous day in March, 1836, and who kept a diary of the siege and assault. Entitled With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution , de la Pena’s diary has now been translated for the first time by Carmen Perry and will be published later this month by the Texas A&M University Press. The following article is an excerpt from this little-known document.
José Enrique de la Peña was obviously an unusual young officer. Brimming with patriotism, machismo, and a professional soldier’s love of battle, de la Pena was at the same time a sensitive person who despised senseless slaughter and was critical of thoughtless, inept leadership, whether Texan or Mexican. He was also determined to be accurate, and soon after his year with Santa Anna he augmented and amended his notes taken in the field, recopying a fuller version of his narrative. There is evidence that the narrative was published late in 1836, but the translator has been unable to locate a copy, and the presumption is that most if not all copies of the highly critical volume were destroyed by Santa Anna’s government.
We pick up de la Peña’s account as the Mexican forces arrive at the small city of San Antonio de Béjar,from which they had been expelled by Texans three months earlier. Across the river from this city stood an abandoned mission with heavy stone walls. It was called the Alamo.
Before describing what happened at the Alamo, I will speak of what happened between the arrival of the First Division at San Antonio de Béjar, the city directly across the river from the Alamo, and the time when our division, including the sapper battalion to which I was assigned, arrived there on March 3, 1836.
On February 23 General Ramírez y Sesma advanced at dawn toward Béjar with one hundred horsemen; he approached the city at three o’clock in the morning, and the enemy was unaware of his arrival. The rest of the division came within sight between twelve noon and one, but by then the enemy had sounded the call to arms and had withdrawn to his fortification at the Alamo. There they had fifteen pieces of artillery,1 but not all were mounted and ready to use, because of a shortage of cannonballs. They had an eighteen-pounder and an eight-pounder pointing toward town. After the division had rested for about a half hour at the foot of the Alazán Hill, two miles from Béjar, the president-general, Antonio López de Santa Anna, mounted his horse and started toward this city with his general staff, three companies of light infantry under the command of Colonel Morales, three of grenadiers under the command of Colonel Romero, two mortar pieces, and General Ramírez y Sesma’s cavalry; he ordered the rest of the division to march with General Ventura Mora to Mission Concepción, about five miles to the southeast. The president, unaware upon entering Béjar that the church was abandoned, ordered Colonel Miñón to take it with half the chasseurs. As the column entered the plaza, from the Alamo came a cannon shot from the eighteen-pounder; immediately our artillery commander was ordered to set up two howitzers and to fire four grenades, which caused the enemy to raise a white flag. The firing ceased, and Bowie sent a written communication addressed to the commander of the invading troops of Texas, stating that he wished to enter into agreements.2 Santa Anna ordered a verbal answer that he would not deal with bandits, leaving them no alternative but to surrender unconditionally. Then he ordered the placement of the troops, and that they eat and rest, and summoned to Béjar the forces attacking Concepción.
1There were nineteen, of different calibers.—J. E. de la P.
2William Barret Travis was commander at the Alamo, James Bowie his second, and a certain Evans a commander of artillerv.—J. E. de la P.
On the 24th at nine o’clock His Excellency appeared and ordered that shoes be distributed in his presence among the preferred companies and that the frontal advance proceed immediately toward the Alamo and commence the firing, which had been interrupted the previous afternoon. A battery of two eight-pounders and a howitzer was properly placed and began to bombard the enemy’s fortification. The enemy returned fire without causing us any damage. On this day inventories were also taken of stock in the stores belonging to Americans. At eleven His Excellency marched with the cavalry in order to reconnoiter the vicinity.
On the 25th at nine thirty His Excellency appeared at the battery and had the column of chasseurs and the battalion from Matamoros march to the other side of the San Antonio River, he himself following. Our soldiers fought within pistol range against the walls of the Alamo, and we lost two dead and six wounded. During the night some construction was undertaken to protect the line that had been established at the small nearby village of La Villita under orders of Colonel Morales. On the 20th, 27th, and a8th nothing unusual happened; the artillery and rifle fire had been brought into play as needed without any misfortune to the division. On the 2gth the siege continued, and about seven thirty at night the enemy killed a first-class private belonging to the first company of the San Luis Battalion, Secundino Alvarez, who on orders of the president had got in close in order to reconnoiter the Alamo.
On the 1st, and, 3rd, 4th, and 5th of March the siege continued without anything of note happening except that on the and a chasseur from San Luis, Trinidad Delgado, drowned and on the 3rd my battalion along with other sapper battalions from Aldama and Toluca arrived.
On the 17th of February Santa Anna had proclaimed to the army: Comrades in arms, our most sacred duties have brought us to these uninhabited lands and demand our engaging in combat against a rabble of wretched adventurers to whom our authorities have unwisely given benefits that even Mexicans did not enjoy, and who have taken possession of this vast and fertile area, convinced that our own unfortunate internal divisions have rendered us incapable of defending our soil. Wretches! Soon will they become aware of their folly! Soldiers, our comrades have been shamefully sacrificed at Anahuac, Goliad, and Béjar, and you are those destined to punish these murderers. My friends: we will march as long as the interests of the nation that we serve demand. The claimants to the acres of Texas land will soon know to their sorrow that their reinforcements from New Orleans, Mobile, Boston, New York, and other points north, whence they should never have come, are insignificant, and that Mexicans, generous by nature, will not leave unpunished affronts resulting in injury or discredit to their country, regardless of who the aggressors mav be.
This address was received enthusiastically, but the army needed no incitement; knowing that it was about to engage in the defense of the country and to avenge less fortunate comrades was enough for its ardor to become as great as the noble and just cause it was about to defend. Several officers from the Aldama and Toluca sappers were filled with joy and congratulated one another when they were ordered to hasten their march, for they knew that they were about to engage in combat. There is no doubt that some would have regretted not being among the first to meet the enemy, for it was considered an honor to be counted among the first. For their part, the enemy leaders had addressed their own men in terms not unlike those of our commander. They said that we were a bunch of mercenaries, blind instruments of tyranny; that without any right we were about to invade their territory; that we would bring desolation and death to their peaceful homes and would seize their possessions; that we were savage men who would rape their women, decapitate their children, destroy everything, and render into ashes the fruits of their industry and their efforts. Unfortunately they did partially foresee what would happen, but they also committed atrocities that we did not commit, and in this rivalry of evil and extermination I do not dare to venture who had the ignominious advantage, they or we.
In spirited and vehement language they called on their compatriots to defend the interests so dear to them and those they so tenderly cherished. They urged mothers to arm their sons and wives not to admit their consorts in their nuptial beds until they had taken up arms and risked their lives in defense of their families. The word “liberty” was constantly repeated in every line of their writings; this magical word was necessary to inflame the hearts of the men, who rendered tribute to this goddess, although not to the degree they pretend.
When our commander in chief haughtily rejected the agreement that the enemy had proposed, Travis became infuriated at the contemptuous manner in which he had been treated and, expecting no honorable way of salvation, chose the path that strong souls choose in crisis, that of dying with honor, and selected the Alamo for his grave. It is possible that this might have been his first resolve, for although he was awaiting reinforcements, he must have reflected that he would be engaged in battle before these could join him, since it would be difficult for him to cover their entry into the fort with the small force at his disposal. However, this was not the case, for about sixty men did enter one night, the only help that came. They passed through our lines unnoticed until it was too late. This supports my opinion that Travis could have managed to escape during the first nights, when vigilance was much less, but this he refused to do. It has been said that General Ramírez y Sesma’s division was not sufficient to have formed a circumventing line on the first day. Although the Alamo is a small place, one of its sides fronts the San Antonio River and clear and open fields. The heroic language in which Travis addressed his compatriots during the days of the conflict finally proved that he had resolved to die before abandoning the Alamo or surrendering unconditionally. He spoke to them in the following words: Fellow citizens and compatriots, I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained bombardment and cannonade for twenty-four hours and 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 have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly over the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat . Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die as a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country.3
3This was a letter that Travis sent out of the Alamo by messenger on February 24. Oe la Peña must have seen it at a later date and translated it to include in his account. Although he omitted some of what Travis said, his translation—as rendered back into English above—was otherwise accurate.
Twelve days had passed since Ramírez y Sesma’s division had drawn up before the Alamo and three since our own arrival at Béjar. Our commander became more furious when he saw that the enemy resisted the idea of surrender. He believed as others did that the fame and honor of the army were compromised the longer the enemy lived. We had not advanced in the least during the twelve days that our vanguard stood facing this obstinate enemy. It was therefore necessary to attack him in order to make him feel the vigor of our souls and the strength of our arms. But prudent men, who know how to measure the worth of true honor—those whose tempered courage permits their venturing out only when they know beforehand that the destruction they are about to wreak will profit them and who understand that the soldier’s glory is the greater, the less bloody the victory and the fewer the victims sacrificed—these men, though moved by the same sentiments as the army and its commander, were of the opinion that victory over a handful of men concentrated in the Alamo did not call for a great sacrifice. In fact, it was necessary only to await the artillery’s arrival at Béjar for these to surrender; undoubtedly they could not have resisted for many hours the destruction and imposing fire from twenty cannon. The sums spent by the treasury on the artillery equipment brought to Texas are incalculable; the transportation alone amounts to thousands of pesos. Either our leaders did not wish or did not know how to make use of such weaponry; had it been judiciously employed, it would have saved us many lives, and the success of the campaign would have been very different indeed.
There was no need to fear that the enemy would be reinforced, for even though reinforcements had entered because of our lack of vigilance, we were by now situated so as to do battle with any other possible arrivals one by one. We were in a position to advance, leaving a small force on watch at the Alamo, the holding of which was unimportant either politically or militarily, whereas its acquisition was both costly and very bitter in the end. If Sam Houston, the Texan commander, had not received news of the surrender at the Alamo, it would have been very easy to surprise and defeat him.
During a council of war held on the 4th of March at Santa Anna’s quarters, he expounded on the necessity of making the assault. Generals Sesma, Cos, and Castrillón, Colonels Almonte, Duque, Amat, Romero, and Salas, and the interim mayor of San Luis were present and gave their consent. The problem centered around the method of carrying it out. Castrillón, Almonte, and Romero were of the opinion that a breach should be made and that eight or ten hours would suffice to accomplish this. Fieldpieces were on their way, and Colonel Bringas, aide to the president-general, had left with the idea of activating them. It was agreed to call the artillery commandant and to alert him to this, and although the artillery would not arrive for a day or so and that solution was still pending, on the 5th the order was given for the assault. Some, though approving this proposal in the presence of the commander in chief, disagreed in his absence, a contradiction that reveals their weakness; others chose silence, knowing that he would not tolerate opposition, his sole pleasure being in hearing what met with his wishes while discarding all admonitions that deviated from those wishes. None of these commanders was aware that there were no field hospitals or surgeons to save the wounded and that for some it would be easier to die than to be wounded, as we shall see after the assault.
When in this or some other discussion the subject of what to do with prisoners was brought up, in case the enemy surrendered before the assault, the example of Arredondo was cited; during the Spanish rule he had hanged eight hundred or more colonists after triumphing in a military action, and this conduct was taken as a model. General Castrillón and Colonel Almonte then voiced principles regarding the rights of men, philosophical and humane principles that did them honor; but their arguments were fruitless.
We had no officers of the engineers’ corps who could estimate for us the strength at the Alamo and its defenses, because the section in this corps appointed for the army had remained in Mexico; however, the sappers were not lacking in personnel who could have carried out this chore, and, furthermore, information given by General Gos, by wounded officers he had left at Béjar, and by some townspeople of this locality was considered sufficient. The latter made clear to us the limited strength of the garrison at the Alamo and the shortage of supplies and munitions at their disposal. They had walled themselves in so quickly that they had not had time to supply themselves with very much.
Travis’ resistance was on the verge of being overcome; for several days his followers had been urging him to surrender, giving the lack of food and the scarcity of munitions as reasons, but he had quieted their restlessness with the hope of quick relief, something not difficult for them to believe, since they had seen some reinforcements arrive. Nevertheless they had pressed him so hard that on the 5th he promised them that if no help arrived on that day, they would surrender the next day or would try to escape under cover of darkness; these facts were given to us by a lady from Béjar, by a Negro who was the only male who escaped, and by several women who were found inside and were rescued by Colonels Morales and Miñón. The enemy was in communication throughout the siege with some of the Béjar townspeople who were their sympathizers, and it was said as a fact during those days that the president-general had known of Travis’ decision and that it was for this reason that he precipitated the assault, because he wanted to cause a sensation and would have regretted taking the Alamo without clamor and without bloodshed, for some believed that without these there is no glory.
Once the order was issued, even those opposing it were ready to carry it out; no one doubted that we would triumph, but it was anticipated that the struggle would be bloody, as indeed it was. All afternoon of the 5th was spent on preparations. Night came, and with it the most sober reflections. Our soldiers, it was said, lacked the cool courage that is demanded by an assault, but they were steadfast and the survivors will have nothing to be ashamed of. Each one individually confronted and prepared his soul for the terrible moment, expressed his last wishes, and silently and coolly took those steps that precede an encounter. It was a general duel from which it was important to us to emerge with honor. No harangue preceded this combat, but the example given was the most eloquent language and the most absolute order. Our brave officers left nothing to be desired in the hour of trial, and if anyone failed in his duty, if anyone tarnished his honor, it was so insignificant that his shortcomings remained in the confusion of obscurity and disdain. Numerous feats of valor were seen in which many fought hand to hand; there were also some cruelties observed.
The Alamo was an irregular fortification that a wise general would have taken with insignificant losses, but we lost more than three hundred brave
Four columns were chosen for the attack. The first, under the command of General Cos and made up of a battalion from Aldama and three companies from the San Luis contingent, was to move against the western front, which faced the city. The second, under Colonel Duque and made up of the battalion under his command and three other companies from San Luis, was entrusted with a like mission against the front facing the north, which had two mounted batteries at each end of its walls. These two columns had a total strength of seven hundred men. The third, under the command of Colonel Romero and made up of two companies of fusiliers from the Matamoros and Jiménez, battalions, had less strength, for it only came up to three hundred or more men; it was to attack the east front, which was the strongest, perhaps because of its height or perhaps because of the number of cannon that were defending it, three of them situated in a battery over the church ruins, which appeared as a sort of high fortress. The fourth column, under the command of Colonel Morales and made up of over a hundred chasseurs, was entrusted with taking the entrance to the fort and the entrenchments defending it.
The sapper battalion and five grenadier companies made up the reserve of four hundred men. The commander in chief headed this column, according to the tenor of the secret order given for the assault, and its formation was entrusted to Colonel Amat, who actually led it into combat.
This was the general plan, and although several minor variations were proposed, almost all were cast aside.
Our commander made much of Travis’ courage, for it saved him from the insulting intimation that the critical circumstances surrounding Travis would have sufficed to spare the army a great sacrifice.
Beginning at one o’clock in the morning of the 6th, the columns were set in motion, and at three they silently advanced toward the river, which they crossed marching two abreast over some narrow wooden bridges. A fewminor obstacles were explored in order to reach the enemy without being noticed, to a point personally-designated by the commander in chief, where they stationed themselves, resting with weapons in hand. Silence was again ordered, and smoking was prohibited. The moon was up, but the density of the clouds that covered it allowed only an opaque light in our direction, seeming thus to contribute to our designs. This half-light, the silence we kept, hardly interrupted by soft murmurs, the coolness of the morning air, the great quietude that seemed to prolong the hours, and the dangers we would soon have to face, all of this rendered our situation grave; we were still breathing and able to communicate. Within a few moments many of us would be unable to answer questions addressed to us, having already returned to the nothingness whence we had come; others, badly wounded, would remain stretched out for hours without anyone thinking of them, each still fearing that perhaps an enemy cannonball whistling overhead would drop at his feet and put an end to his sufferings. Nevertheless hope stirred us, and within a few moments this anxious uncertainty would disappear; an insult to our arms had to be avenged, as well as the blood of our friends spilled three months before [when the Texans had driven the Mexicans from the area] within these same walls we were about to attack. Light began to appear on the horizon, the beautiful dawn would soon let herself be seen behind her golden curtain; a bugle call to attention was the agreed signal, and we soon heard that terrible bugle call of death, which stirred our hearts, altered our expressions, and aroused us all suddenly from our painful meditations. Worn out by fatigue and lack of sleep, I had just closed my eyes to nap when my ears were pierced by this fatal note. A trumpeter of the sappers (José María González) was the one who inspired us to scorn life and to welcome death. Seconds later the horror of this sound fled from among us, honor and glory replacing it.
The columns advanced with as much speed as possible; shortly after beginning the march they were ordered to open fire while they were still out of range, but there were some officers who wisely disregarded the signal. Alerted to our attack by the given signal, which all columns answered, the enemy vigorously returned our fire, which had not even touched him but had retarded our advance. Travis, to compensate for the small number of the defenders, had placed three or four rifles by the side of each man, so that the initial fire was very rapid and deadly. Our columns left along their path a wide trail of blood, of wounded, and of dead. The bands from all the corps, gathered around our commander, sounded the charge; with a most vivid ardor and enthusiasm we answered that call which electrifies the heart, elevates the soul, and makes others tremble. The second column, seized by this spirit, burst out in acclamations for the republic and for the president-general. The officers were unable to suppress this act of folly, which was paid for dearly. The enemy’s attention being drawn by this act, they seized the opportunity, at the moment that light was beginning to make objects discernible around us, to redouble the fire on this column, making it suffer the greatest blows. It could be observed that a single cannon volley did away with half the company of chasseurs from Toluca, which was advancing a few paces from the column; Captain José María Herrera, who commanded it, died a few moments later; and Vences, its lieutenant, was also wounded. Another volley left many gaps among the ranks at the head, one of them being Colonel Duque, who was wounded in the thigh; there remained standing, not without surprise, one of the two aides to this commander, who marched immediately to his side, but the other one now cannot testify to this. Fate was kind on this occasion to the writer, who survived, though Don José María Macotela, captain from Toluca, was seriously wounded and died shortly after.
It has been noted what the plan of attack was, but various arrangements made to carry it out were for the most part omitted; the columns had been ordered to provide themselves with crowbars, hatchets, and ladders, but not until the last moment did it become obvious that all this was insufficient and that the ladders were poorly put together.
The columns, bravely storming up to the Alamo in the midst of a terrible shower of bullets and cannon fire, had reached the base of the walls, with the exception of the third, which had been sorely punished on its left flank by a battery of three cannon on a barbette that rut a serious breach in its ranks: since it was being attacked frontally at the same time, it was forced to seek a less bloody entrance and thus changed its course toward the right angle of the north front. The few poor ladders that we were bringing had not arrived, because their bearers had either perished on the way or had escaped. Only one was seen of all those that were planned. General Cos, looking for a starting point from which to climb, had advanced frontally with his column to where the second and third were. All united at one point, mixing and forming a confused mass. Fortunately the wall reinforcement on this front was of lumber, its excavation was hardly begun, and the height of the parapet was only eight or nine feet; there was therefore a starting point, and it could be climbed, though with some difficulty. But disorder had already begun; officers of all ranks shouted but were hardly heard. The most daring of our veterans tried to be the first to climb, which they accomplished, yelling wildly so that room could be made for them, at times climbing over their own comrades. Others, jammed together, made useless efforts, obstructing one another, getting in the way of the more agile ones and pushing down those who were about to carry out their courageous effort. A lively rifle fire coming from the roof of the barracks and other points caused painful havoc, increasing the confusion of our disorderly mass. The first to climb were thrown down by bayonets already waiting for them behind the parapet or by pistol fire, but the courage of our soldiers was not diminished as they saw their comrades falling dead or wounded, and they hurried to occupy their places and to avenge them, climbing over their bleeding bodies. The sharp reports of the rifles, the whistling of bullets, the groans of the wounded, the cursing of the men, the sighs and anguished cries of the dying, the arrogant harangues of the officers, the noise of the instruments of war, and the inordinate shouts of the attackers, who climbed vigorously, bewildered all and made of this moment a tremendous and critical one. The shouting of those being attacked was no less loud and from the beginning had pierced our ears with desperate, terrible cries of alarm in a language we did not understand.
From his point of observation General Santa Anna viewed with concern this horrible scene and, misled by the difficulties encountered in the climbing of the walls and by the maneuver executed by the third column, believed we were being repulsed; he therefore ordered Colonel Amat to move in with the rest of the reserves; the sapper battalion, already ordered to move their column of attack, arrived and began to climb at the same time. He then also ordered into battle his general staff and everyone at his side. This gallant reserve merely added to the noise and the victims, the more regrettably since there was no necessity for them to engage in the combat. Before the sapper battalion, advancing through a shower of bullets and volley of shrapnel, had a chance to reach the foot of the walls, half their officers had been wounded. Another one of these officers, young Torres, died within the fort at the very moment of taking a flag. He died at one blow without uttering a word, covered with glory and lamented by his comrades.
A quarter hour had elapsed, during which our soldiers remained in a terrible situation, wearing themselves out as they climbed in quest of a less obscure death than that visited on them, crowded in a single mass. Later and after much effort they were able in sufficient numbers to reach the parapet, without distinction of ranks. The terrified defenders withdrew at once into quarters placed to the right and the left of the small area that constituted their second line of defense. They had bolted and reinforced the doors, but in order to form trenches they had excavated some places inside that were now a hindrance to them. Not all of them took refuge, for some remained in the open, looking at us before firing as if dumfounded at our daring. Travis was seen to hesitate, but not about the death that he would choose. He would take a few steps and stop, turning his proud face toward us to discharge his shots. He fought like a true soldier. Finally he died, but he died after trading his life very dearly. None of his men died with greater heroism, and they all died. Travis behaved as a hero; one must do him justice, for with a handful of men without discipline he resolved to face men used to war and much superior in numbers, without supplies, with scarce munitions, and against the will of his subordinates. He was a handsome blond, with a physique as robust as his spirit was strong.
In the meantime Colonel Morelos with his chasseurs, having carried out instructions received, was just in front of us at a distance of a few paces, and rightly fearing that our fire would hurt him, he had taken refuge in the trenches he had overrun trying to inflict damage on the enemy without harming us. It was a good thing that our other columns could come together in a single front, for in that way the destruction among ourselves could be partially avoided; nevertheless some of our men suffered the pain of falling from shots fired by their comrades, a grievous wound indeed and a death even more lamentable. The soldiers had been overloaded with munition, for the reserves and all the select companies carried seven rounds apiece. It seems that the purpose of this was to remind the soldier in this battle not to rely on his bayonet, which is the weapon generally employed in assault while chasseurs support the attackers with their fire; however, there are always errors committed on these occasions, impossible to remedy. There remains no consolation other than regret for those responsible on this occasion, and there were many.
Our soldiers, some stimulated by courage and others by fury, burst into the quarters where the enemy had entrenched themselves, from which issued an infernal fire. Behind these came others who, nearing the doors and blind with fury and smoke, fired their shots against friends and enemies alike, and in this way our losses were most grievous. On the other hand, they turned the enemy’s own cannon to bring down the doors to the rooms or the rooms themselves; a horrible carnage took place, and some were trampled to death. The tumult was great, the disorder frightful; it seemed as if the furies had descended upon us; 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. In the midst of this thundering din there was such confusion that orders could not be understood, although those in command would raise their voices when the opportunity occurred. Some mav believe that this narrative is exaggerated, but those who were witnesses will confess that this is exact, and in truth any moderation in relating it would fall short.
It was thus time to end the confusion that was increasing the number of our victims, and on my advice and at my insistence General Cos ordered the fire silenced; but the bugler Tamayo of the sappers blew his instrument in vain, for the fire did not cease until there was no one left to kill and around fifty thousand cartridges had been used up. Whoever doubts this, let him estimate for himself, as I have done, with data that I have given.
Among the defenders there were thirty or more colonists; the rest were pirates [i.e., volunteers from the United States rather than Texans], used to defying danger and to disdaining death, and who for that reason fought courageously; their courage, to my way of thinking, merited them the mercy for which, toward the last, some of them pleaded; others, not knowing the language, were unable to do so. In fact, when these men noted the loss of their leader and saw that they were being attacked by superior forces, they faltered. Some, with an accent hardly intelligible, desperately cried, “Mercy, valiant Mexicans”; others poked the points of their bayonets through a hole or a door with a white cloth, the symbol of cease-fire, and some even used their socks. Our trusting soldiers, seeing these demonstrations, would confidently enter their quarters, but those among the enemy who had not pleaded for mercy, who had no thought of surrendering, and who relied on no other recourse than selling their lives dearly would meet them with pistol shots and bayonets. Thus betraved, our men rekindled their anger, and at every moment fresh skirmishes broke out with renewed fury. The order had been given to spare no one but the women, and this was carried out; but such carnage was useless, and had we prevented it, we would have saved much of our own blood. Those of the enemy who tried to escape fell victims to the sabers of the cavalry, which had been drawn up for this purpose, but even as they fled they defended themselves. An unfortunate father with a young son in his arms was seen to hurl himself from a considerable height; both perished at the same blow.
This scene of extermination went on for an hour before the curtain of death covered and ended it. Shortly after six in the morning it was all finished. The corps were beginning to reassemble and to identify themselves, their sorrowful countenances revealing the losses in the thinned ranks of their officers and comrades, when the commander in chief appeared. Santa Anna could see for himself the desolation among his battalions and that devastated area littered with corpses, with scattered limbs and bullets, with weapons and torn uniforms. Some of these were burning together with the corpses, which produced an unbearable and nauseating odor. The bodies, with their blackened and bloody faces disfigured by a desperate death, their hair and uniforms burning at once, presented a dreadful and truly hellish sight. What trophies—those of the battlefield! Quite soon some of the bodies were left naked by the fire; others had been stripped naked by a disgraceful rapacity among our men. The enemy could be identified by their whiteness, by their robust and bulky shapes. What a sad spectacle, that of the dead and dying! What a horror, to inspect the area and find the remains of friends—! With what anxiety did some seek others, and with what ecstasy did they embrace one another! Questions followed one after the other, even while the bullets were still whistling around, in the midst of the groans of the wounded and the last breaths of the dying.
The general then addressed his crippled battalions, lauding their courage and thanking them in the name of their country. But one hardly noticed in his words the magic that Napoleon expressed in his, which, I’ve been told, was impossible to resist. The vivas were seconded icily, and silence would hardly have been broken if I—seized by one of those impulses triggered by enthusiasm or else formed to avoid reflection, which conceals the feelings—had not addressed myself to the valiant chasseurs of Aldama, hailing the republic and them, an act that, carried out in the presence of the commander on whom so much unmerited honor had been bestowed, proved that I never flatter those in power.
Shortly before Santa Anna’s speech an unpleasant episode had taken place, which, since it occurred after the end of the skirmish, was looked upon as base murder and which contributed greatly to the coolness that was noted. Some seven men had survived the general carnage, and, under the protection of General Castrillón, they were brought before Santa Anna. Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face there was the imprint of adversity but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor. He was the naturalist David Crockett, well known in North America for his unusual adventures, who had undertaken to explore the country and who, finding himself in Béjar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner, might not be respected. Santa Anna answered Castrillón’s intervention in Crockett’s behalf with a gesture of indignation and addressing himself to the sappers, the troops closest to him, ordered his execution. The commanders and officers were outraged at this action and did not support the order, hoping that once the fury of the moment had blown over, these men would be spared; but several other officers who were around the president and who, perhaps, had not been present during the moment of danger became noteworthy by an infamous deed, surpassing the soldiers in cruelty. They thrust themselves forward, in order to flatter their commander, and with swords in hand fell upon these unfortunate, defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey. Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers. It was rumored that General Sesma was one of them; I will not bear witness to this, for though present I turned away horrified in order not to witness such a barbarous scene. Do you remember, comrades, that fierce moment which struck us all with dread, which made our souls tremble, thirsting for vengeance just a few hours before? Are your resolute hearts not stirred and still full of indignation against those who so ignobly dishonored their swords with blood? As for me, I confess that the very memory of it makes me tremble and that my ear can still hear the penetrating, doleful sound of rhe victims.
To whom was this sacrifice useful? And what advantage was derived by increasing the number of victims? It was paid for dearly, though it could have been otherwise had these men been required to walk across the floor, carpeted with the bodies over which we stepped; had they been rehabilitated generously and required to communicate to their comrades the fate that awaited them if they did not desist from their unjust cause. They could have informed their comrades of the force and resources that the enemy had. According to documents found among these men and to subsequent information, the force within the Alamo consisted of 182 men; but according to the number counted by us it was 253. In any case the number is smaller than that referred to by the commander in chief in his communiqué, which contends that in the excavations and the trenches alone more than 600 bodies had been buried. What was the object of this misrepresentation? Some believe that it was done to give greater importance to the episode; others, that it was done to excuse our losses and to make it less painful.
Death united in one place both friends and enemies; within a few hours a funeral pyre rendered into ashes those men who moments before had been so brave that in a blind fury they had unselfishly offered their lives and had met their ends in combat. The greater part of our dead were buried by their comrades, but the enemy bodies were burned. I have heard that the great pyre of their dead has been attributed to our hatred. I, for one, wishing to count the bodies for myself, arrived at the moment the flames were reddening, ready to consume them.
When calm opens the way for reflection, what sad and cruel thoughts rush to the sensitive soul contemplating the field of battle! Would anyone be the object of reproach who, after risking his life to comply with his duty and honor, for a brief period unburdens his feelings and devotes some time to charitable thoughts?
The reflections after the assault, even a few days after it had taken place, were generally well founded; for instance, it was questioned why a breach had not been opened. What had been the use of bringing up the artillery if it were not to be used when necessity required, and why should we have been forced to leap over a fortified place as if we were flying birds? Why, before agreeing on the sacrifice, which was great indeed, had no one borne in mind that we had no means at our disposal to save our wounded? Why were our lives uselessly sacrificed in a deserted and totally hostile country if our losses could not be replaced? These thoughts were followed by others more or less well based, for the taking of the Alamo was not considered a happy event, but rather a defeat that saddened us all. In Béjar one heard nothing but laments; each officer who died aroused compassion and renewed reproaches. Those who arrived later added their criticism to ours, and some of these, one must say, regretted not having been present, because those who obeyed against their own judgment nonetheless attained eternal glory.
All military authors agree that battles should be undertaken only in extreme situations, and I will take full advantage of these opinions; they affirm that as a general rule, so long as there is a way to weaken and overcome the enemy without combat, it should be adopted and combat avoided. Civilization has humanized man, and thanks to its good effects the more barbarous methods that were prevalent before to kill the greatest number of men in the least possible time have been abandoned; murderous maneuvers to destroy a whole army at a single blow have been discarded. It has been established as an axiom that a general entrusted with the command of an army should devote as much zeal to sparing the blood of his army as to the enemy. The opinion of the military sages, together with that of the moralists, states that the general who is frugal with the blood of his soldiers is the savior of his country, whereas he who squanders and sacrifices it foolishly is the murderer of his compatriots. One of these authors states that Louis XIV , at the time of his death, was inconsolable because of the blood spilled during his reign; that the memorable Marshal Turenne of France, in the last moments of his life, could not be quieted by the priests in spite of all the consolation religion offers. As a matter of fact, false feelings of glory are not sufficient to suppress the remorse that the useless spilling of blood always brings about. If General Santa Anna were to see gathered together at one place the bodies of all the Mexicans he has sacrificed in all the revolutions he has promoted and in all the ill-directed battles over which he has presided, he would be horrified, no matter how insensitive he may be. The most renowned captains have always feared the day of battle, not so much because of danger to their lives as because of the interests and the soldiers entrusted to their care; hut ignorance fears nothing, because it foresees nothing. Some of our generals, particularly the conqueror of the Alamo, seemed not to have heeded these authors, for the latter, in his long career, has always separated himself from principles and has cast aside \vise counsel. He has acted capriciously, uselessly sacrificing the life of the soldier, the honor and interests of the repuhlic, and the decorum of its arms, certain that no accounting will be required of him or else that were this to he brought about, he would be acquitted, as experience has demonstrated. Hc would certainly act differently were he to Ix? punished for his errors, but since he is lavished with honors even after his defeats, regardless of how shameful these may be, he could not care less about losing or winning battles so long as they serve the interest of his party.
The responsibility for the victims sacrificed at the Alamo, however, must rest on General Ramírez y Sesma rather than on the commander in chief. He knew that the enemy was at Béjar in small numbers and in the greatest destitution. When Sesma first sighted the town, the enemy was still engaged in the pleasures of a dance given the night before: he therefore could have and should have prevented their taking refuge in the Alamo. Several came to inform him, indicating to him the points through which he might enter and the orders he should give and urging him earnestly, but he turned down these recommendations and the repeated requests, conducting himself with extraordinary uncertainty and weakness. We have seen how dearly his indecision was paid for. At the very moment that General Ramírez y Scsma was advised to enter Béjar, there were only ten men at the Alamo, and it would have required an equal number to take it. Had he just placed himself at the bridge over the San Antonio that connects the fort to the city, as he was advised, he would have prevented the enemy from taking refuge there, thus avoiding the painful catastrophe that I have just described.