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The Alamo Heroes

Texas 1836

by Rino Di Stefano

Change Language / Cambia Lingua: English - Italiano

(Storia e Dossier, March 2000)

Alamo in 1836

On the morning of February 27, 1837 an icy wind blew over the ruins of the Alamo mission. In the clear blue sky, a weak Texas winter sun shone over the ruins of the old church and the perimeter walls destroyed by General Santa Anna's guns.
The silence of the prairie was suddenly disturbed by the arrival of the Texan cavalry led by Captain Juan Seguin followed by a carpenter's cart.

Captain Seguin's task was not an easy one. According to orders received from President Sam Houston's government, he was to recover the bodies of William Barrett Travis, David Crockett and James Bowie. He was supposed to retrieve and honorably bury the remains of the leaders who had heroically defended the Alamo. You couldn't certainly say that such concern had followed quick on the heels of their death. The death of approximately 180 Americans who freely volunteered to be killed by the Mexican army to reaffirm the principle of a free and American Texas, had occurred almost a year before. The night of the March 6, 1836.

During that time their bones, almost burnt to ashes, lay scattered under the sun on the mission's square where they had been burned on two bonfires lit by Mexican troops.
Sequin's men main concern was identifying the correct remains as they moved around a great number of scattered skulls, tibia bones, etc. Since such task was impossible, they decided to collect the better preserved bones so as to recompose three bodies. Having done that, they called the carpenter who promptly put them into a rudimentary coffin, nailing down the lid. Seguin personally wrote the names of Travis, David Crockett, and Bowie on the lid. He then covered the coffin with a large black cloth, and above that he placed the church bell. Then he proceeded towards the centre of San Antonio, where, filing along the main street of the city, the citizens could pay their last tribute to the Alamo heroes. Many people followed the funeral procession, the burial took place in the afternoon when Seguin's soldiers returned the coffin to the Alamo. Both the coffin and the remaining bones were buried under the large church square. The first to address the crowd, in Spanish, was Seguin. Then Major Thomas Western, speaking in English declared: "In these bones, in front of us, we honor what is left of Travis, Bowie and Crockett".

The Alamo battleA shame that after the ceremony ended nobody had been concerned enough to place a sign marking the spot. Consequently, as the years went by, first a peach grove grew spontaneously on the site, followed in later years by the sprawling, modern city of San Antonio. In our times, right at the center of the city is the national monument of Alamo. So, as it occurs with all legends, what remains of Travis, Bowie and Crockett is only a memory in the hearts and tradition of Americans. But who were these three individuals?

How was it that such different men came to share a common tragic destiny? What really happened in the Alamo during those cold days of March 1836?

The conflict that produced the upheaval of the American farmers against the government of Mexican Texas was mainly due to cultural differences in the two ethnic groups. The Mexican government had promoted the arrival of Americans in Texas by means of laws issued in 1823 and 1825. There were three main requirements for immigration to Texas: being of the Catholic faith, complying with Mexican laws, and owning no slaves. This last point being of paramount importance to Mexicans. Americans, on the contrary, requested permission to continue using slave labor, which they considered private property. For each immigrant, the Mexican government granted one "lega" (4428 acres) for cattle raising, and one "labor" (177 acres) for farming. In addition, the Mexican government granted a six years tax relief, and those who married a Mexican wife received an extra quarter of a "lega". It must be noted that single immigrants would receive only a quarter of a "lega". Just to get an idea of the dimensions, it is useful to know that an acre corresponds to 4047 square meters. The cost of these land grants was of 30 dollars plus expenses, with 4 years allowed for payment. Due to these incentives, soon a large portion of Texas was inhabited by Americans and, as the numbers grew, the disagreements with the Mexican government grew as well. The breaking point occurred in 1835 when the Mexican government realized that the new comers were clearly considering a secession from Mexico.

At this stage, the Mexican government passed a new law forbidding the entry of new American immigrants and General Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna, newly appointed head of the government, began to arrest the Americans considered to be leaders of the revolt.

The rebels, who had elected Sam Houston as commander of their army, seized the town of San Antonio and here a small group of 155 American soldiers under the command of Colonel William Barrett Travis, a 27 years old lawyer from Alabama promoted in the field, was in defense position when Santa Anna's 4000 soldiers appeared on the horizon. As a leader Travis was assisted by James Bowie, a 40 years old adventurer from Louisiana who had settled in Texas after his marriage to Ursula De Veramendi, daughter of a rich Mexican nobleman who had died soon after the marriage during a cholera epidemic. Bowie owed his fame to his invention of a large hunting knife that he always carried with him. Bowie had been promoted to the rank of colonel too but he was mainly in disagreement with Travis. In spite of this, the two men never reached a breaking point, maybe because both of them were free masons and thus respected each other.

How it was the church of Alamo in a 1850 daguerreotypeThe third colonel of the group was David Crockett, a 50 years old celebrity. A former congressman, a representative of the Whig party, Crockett was a living legend throughout the States and had just ended up in Texas having lost his election in Tennessee just by a handful of votes. He was in San Antonio because he said he wanted to help his American brothers against the Mexicans, and he did so.

The Alamo story begins on the morning of February 23, 1836 when the Mexican army approached San Antonio. The first to sight Santa Anna soldiers was John Smith a scout named "Colorado" because of his red hair. Colonel Travis entrusted him with the first message addressed to Sam Houston, the chief of staff of the Texan army:
"The enemy has arrived in great numbers, we need men and supplies. Send them. We have 150 men determined to defend the Alamo to the end. Send assistance".

As Smith departed, Travis began to organize the defense within the Alamo walls. First of all he evacuated the approximately 50 wounded Mexican soldiers who had been captured during a previous battle. By so doing he allowed them to join the Santa Anna forces without being a burden to the Americans. He sent Seguin, the same man who a year later would attend to the burial office, to San Antonio to collect all provisions available. While the Americans were going around the streets, the local women cried: "Poor boys, you will all be killed". About forty citizens decided to hide in the Alamo to avoid facing the Mexican army. They did so just in time, because in the early afternoon Santa Anna's men had seized San Fernando, an area close to the mission, placing a red flag on the tower, signaling no respite to the enemy.

Upon sighting the flag, Travis ordered to answer with one cannon shot. The Mexicans replied with four shots. This was actually the first contact between the opponents. This was also the first cause for a quarrel between Travis and Bowie. Travis intended to wait for the first move by the Mexicans, while Bowie wanted to act first by contacting directly Santa Anna to try and negotiate. As son in law of a Mexican nobleman he was sure he would be granted a hearing. Without consulting with Travis he sent Jamestown as a messenger with a letter personally addressed to Santa Anna. The result was disappointing and caused rage on the part of Travis for Bowiès act of insubordination. Jamestown returned with a note signed by Jose Batres, Santa Anna assistant, stating that "if they intended saving their lives they were to immediately submit to the supreme government." A surrender without conditions. Aware that the situation was desperate, Travis sent the Mexicans a second message, entrusted to one of his most reliable men, Albert Martin, to be delivered to Colonel Juan Almonte, one of the officers in Santa Anna's staff, who was well known and respected as a gentleman throughout Texas. Almonte only reiterated the conditions set by his general. So, just like the previous one, this attempt was to no avail.

Antonio Lopez de Santa AnnaAt this stage Travis gathered his men and summed up the situation to them. They all agreed to stand fast. Once again Travis committed his answer to his cannons and the Mexicans replied by systematically shooting cannon balls against the mission walls causing great damage.
Whilst the grenades hit the old church built in 1758 by the flying company of San Jose y Santiago del Alamo de Parras, the colonel sent another message to the Texan group based in Goliad: "We will carry on with the defense as commanded by our honor and that of our country" so Travis wrote to his colleague Fannin. He received no answer.

Only at this point did Travis decide to place his cannons in strategic positions, especially on the reinforced roof of the church. Three units of 18 pounds each.
But there was another problem yet. About forty ill or wounded men were in the fort and Travis placed them on the second floor of the mission. Within this group was James Bowie who had been struck by a strong typhoid fever causing vomit, diarrhea and a dramatic loss of blood. Although he was looked after by Doctor Sutherland and his sister in law Juana Alsbury, Bowie did not improve and was not able to take part in the last fight.
On February 24, the Mexicans positioned a new battery at about 300 meters from the Alamo and opened fire. The only chance for the Americans was to hide within the mission walls and wait. Travis wrote a new appeal addressed to the "population of Texas and all Americans in the world":

Commandancy of the Alamo
Bexar, Fby. 24th, 1836
To the People of Texas &
all 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 have answered
the demand with a cannon
shot, and our flag still waves
proudly from the walls. I
shall never surrender nor retreat.
Then, I call on you in the
name of Liberty, of patriotism, &
of everything dear to the American
character, to come to our aid Travis'
Appeal (page 2) 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 deter-
mined to sustain myself as long as
possible & die like a soldier
who never forgets what is due to
his own honor & that of his
country.
Victory or Death
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt.
P. S. The Lord is on our side.
When the enemy appeared in sight
we had not three bushels of corn.
We have since found in deserted
houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into
the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
The original Travis's letter

The Travis's letter addressed to headquarters in Gonzales, was entrusted to Albert Martin who, luckily, was able to make it beyond enemy lines. That night, as Travis was looking at him leaving the walls of the Alamo, his mind was burdened with unpleasant thoughts, and he found himself listening to the sad notes of "Degüello" coming from the Mexican camp.

Next morning the cannons resumed in the early hours. About 200 Mexicans from the Permanente Matamoros Battalion approached the fort as close as 100 meters. The Americans answered with sustained gunfire compelling the Mexicans to retreat and leave 10 men on the field. During this action, the Honorable David Crockett, as Travis called the ex Congressman, stood out for the moral support he was giving to the men all over the camp.
Upon learning that the Mexicans were doing reconnoiter of the grounds before the final attack, Travis wrote directly to Sam Houston: "I must resist up to the final consequences. If we will be defeated, we will have been sacrificed on the altar of our country. And we wish that future generations and our country will render justice to our memory. Help! Victory or death".
It is suspected that Travis used such emphatic language in his messages because he knew that his appeals would be published in the newspapers. At any rate, it is clear that he wanted it to be known that the situation at the Alamo was really desperate.

The problem was: how could the message reach destination since the Mexicans controlled the whole area? Who could they send? They needed somebody fluent in Spanish. The men in the garrison selected Juan Seguin. Travis was not in agreement but at last gave in. Dressed as a campesino, after a last farewell to his buddies, Seguin infiltrated the enemy's lines that very night. This act, though dangerous, saved his life.
While the Mexicans gradually encircled the Alamo, in San Felipe, Governor Smith published the first appeal and urged Texans to "fly" to the defense of Alamo: "The campaign has started – wrote Smith – and Texans must not allow their brothers to be massacred by an army of mercenaries".

Sam HoustonThroughout this build-up of the volunteer army, the delay caused conditions to become increasingly desperate in the fort. Bowie was exhausted when on February 29, he was visited by a number of volunteers who informed him that Santa Anna had offered amnesty to those Alamo defenders who agreed to surrender. "Those who wish to leave are free to do so" said Bowie with a weak voice. Some of them did not give the matter a second thought. They thanked him, and left the fort, escaping death.

On the night of March 1, a violent storm hit the area. At three o'clock, under heavy rain, a sentry heard someone calling him and with great surprise found John Smith "El Colorado", with 32 men knocking at the door. At last, reinforcements had arrived. The next day, in Brazoria, quite a few miles away, Travis'last appeal "Victory or Death" was published on the "Texan Republican" gazette, but the reinforcement expedition was far from being organized. While participating in a convention in Washington, Sam Houston insisted on saying that the Alamo story "was a despicable lie and also all the messages from Travis and Fannin were lies, because no Mexican armies were there and all the excitement was just a stratagem for election purposes studied by Travis and Fannin to boost their popularity". Houston went so far as to insinuate that reports they had received were created by the Mexicans. With his mind clouded by the vast quantities of whisky he drank on a daily basis (he had often been seen drunk in public) Houston never acted to save the Alamo garrison.

On March 3, the besieged Americans spotted a man riding a horse crossing the prairie in defiance Mexican gunfire. It was James Butler Bonham bearing two messages, one from Willie Williamson, a leader of the rebellion who had written it a few days before in San Felipe. In the first Williamson announced the arrival of 660 volunteers. The second message, which was perhaps written by Sam Houston himself, stated that the men stationed in San Felipe could not be transferred. In other words, the Alamo had been abandoned to its fate.

For Travis this was the last straw. Already angered at being deserted by the Texan volunteers, whom he defined as traitors, this last message made it clear to him that nothing else could be done. He then wrote a few letters that he entrusted to El Colorado. These letters were never published, but most likely contained his political testament. One was addressed to Jesse Grimes, a Congressman in Washington, one to David Ayers of Montville. To both he entrusted his last will, and above all the education of his 5 years old son Charles, born from his marriage to Rosanna Cato. Another letter, the contents of which were never to be revealed, was addressed to his beloved Rebecca, the woman he intended to marry if he had survived the Alamo adventure. All of them would reach their destination only well after Travis' fate had been sealed, and his bones already burnt to ashes.

On March 4, Mexicans resumed shelling the mission. On the 5th the Americans counted 334 cannon balls fired against their walls. The same night, a hopeless Travis made one last desperate attempt by sending young James Allen as a messenger to convince headquarters to send reinforcements. A quick count of weapons confirmed that the remaining 180 Americans in the mission had at disposal 816 guns or rifles with gun powder and bullets enough for 15.000 rounds, 25 gun shells and 200 bayonets: not much to face a 4000 strong army of men, fully armed with heavy artillery. The final attack began at 3 a.m. on March 6. Tired and weakened by the persistent rain, the besieged were almost all asleep at that time. Nobody, not even the guards, had notice that over one thousand Mexican soldiers of the Toluca Battalion had completely surrounded the mission and were slowly approaching the walls. In spite of the moonlight, nobody noticed the ladders being placed against the walls and enemy commandos climbing them immediately thereafter. Nobody realized that the mission had been invaded until the first "Viva Santa Anna" cry broke the stillness of night. It was approximately 5:30 a.m. when Travis was awakened by Officer J. J. Baugh who rushed into his room shouting: "The Mexicans are coming." Still stunned by the few hours sleep, Travis reached the defenses in time to see a great number of white uniforms attacking his men. As he turned, a bullet hit him straight in the forehead killing him instantly. Pierced by many bayonet strokes, his body fell near a cannon where it remained until the end of the battle. One by one all Americans were killed: the Mexicans had received orders not to take any prisoners. When the Mexicans entered the mission, in a room they found James Bowie in the third week of typhoid fever and on the verge of death. They mistook him for someone trying to hide under the blankets, so they started shooting at him, and literally blasted his head off. As an increasing number of Mexican entered the mission, they drove the defenders toward the entrance of the Alamo. Pressed from inside, the Americans were forced out. Here the Mexican cavalry was waiting for them led by Ramirez Y Sesma. With two charges one right after the other, and thrusting their lances, the Mexican cavalry ended the Texan's desperate and heroic resistance. The Mexicans stopped only when, after knocking down a door, they were faced by three women and two children. One of these was Susanna Dickenson, who later testified she had seen the bodies of Davy Crockett and his Tennessee fellow fighters lying in the dust in the church yard. The Americans surely caused many casualties too. Out of the 1600 attackers, the Mexicans suffered 200 casualties and 400 wounded, including a general and 28 officers. 70 of the wounded men died later.

The deferat of General Santa Anna after the San Jacinto battleUsing the testimony of Joe, Travis' black slave, who had been spared because of his status, Santa Anna insisted on personally seeing the bodies of Travis, Bowie and Crockett before sending his report to Mexico City: "The situation of the battlefield is incredible – Santa Anna wrote – among the bodies found are the first and second leaders of the enemy, Bowie and Travis – self promoted colonels – and Crockett, with the same rank as the other two."

The news of the Alamo massacre reached Washington only on March 11, and created a great stir. It was a terrible blow for Sam Houston who had never believed Travis' letters. Although he would carry the burden of guilt for the rest of his life, he tried to save appearances publicly claiming "that the fall of Alamo was due Travis and Bowiès insubordinance".
Such justifications did not appease American public opinion and Houston was well aware of that.

The Texan army regrouped and on April 21, sought revenge by openly challenging General Santa Anna Mexican troops in San Jacinto. Before the battle, the officers addressed the volunteers with only three words: "Remember the Alamo". And shouting "Alamo, Alamo, Alamo" the smaller American army (800 against 1300) defeated the Mexican army in only 20 minutes, taking General Santa Anna himself prisoner. The Revolution ended and Texas became independent. On September of that same year Sam Houston was elected President of the Republic of Texas and Alamo entered history and legend.

THE PROTAGONISTS

DAVY CROCKETT

Davy CrockettOf Scottish descent, Davy, as he was commonly known throughout the States, was born on August 17, 1786 in Greene County, North Carolina, to John and Rebecca Hawkins. His father, a tavern owner, was elected constable for the area, thus enforced the law and from time to time acted also as a magistrate. Davy was not interested in school; he preferred the open air to books, hunting being his great passion. At the age of 13, having skipped school once again and fearing his father's anger, he left home. What struck people the most about him was his natural kindness, which combined with his honesty and ethical behavior made him immediately agreeable.
He returned home four years later and was by then a fully grown man. In August 1805 he married his beloved Polly Finley, who bore him three children: John Wesley, William and Margaret.
His military career began after the August 30, 1813 massacre, when Creek Indians attacked the Fort Mims settlers killing over 500 people. On September 24, of the same year Davy joined the Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Riflemen and on November 3, near Tallusahatchee participated in an attack against the Creek during which 185 Indians and 5 Americans were left dead on the field. Having accomplished his task, he left the volunteer army on December 24, having been paid a 65.59 dollar settlement. But on September 28, 1814 he enlisted again as 3rd sergeant of the Mounted Gunmen. He would take leave on March 27, 1815 as a 4th sergeant with a citation, but in May he was appointed lieutenant of Franklin County militia. After a few peaceful months, life had a heavy blow in store for him. Hit by typhoid fever and the hardships of frontier life, in summer his wife Polly died. Realizing that he wouldn't be able to provide for his family without a woman (Margaret was still a baby), after a few months Davy married Elizabeth Patton, a widow with two children of her own.

The new Crockett family moves to the village of Lawrengeberg where on March 27, 1817 Davy was elected lieutenant colonel of the militia's 57th regiment.
On November 25, he was appointed Judge, his first public appointment. From then on Davy Crockett discovered a new calling, that of politician. In 1821 he was elected Representative for Lawrence County in the State Assembly and in 1827 he became a Representative of the Whig party (liberals) in the US Congress. On and off, Davy would remain in the US Congress until 1836 when, after suffering a defeat, he decided, to leave for Texas.

During those ten years Davy Crockett became a legendary figure throughout the nation. Author of the book "A Narrative of the Life of Davy Crockett, of the State of Tennessee" (1834), the Representative of the West provided a new outlook for American culture, which up to then had been confined within the boundaries of British style. Davy Crockett, an uneducated man, was permeated with the simple and popular values that guided the majority of American people. If at first he was a target of ridicule for his colleagues because of his "eccentricity" (the majority of Representatives were lawyers or professional figures), his enemies were well aware that soon their own electorate would force them to come to terms with the popular model that Davy Crocket represented.

Surprisingly, Crockett came very close to becoming a candidate for President of the United States, but was beaten by a handful of votes. His demoralization became even more accentuated when he wasn't able to get a law passed to ensure land grants to settlers at a very low price. This confirmed that even his own party, which supposedly represented the lower classes, was willing to give up land speculation.

WILLIAM BARRET TRAVIS

William Barret TravisThe future commander of the Alamo was born on the 1st of August 1809 in Alabama, in a large family of ten siblings. His parents were Mart Travis and Jemina Stallworth. He showed very strong intellectual inclinations, so his parents sent him to the Sparta Academy where his uncle Alexander Travis was superintendent. After high school, William attended a University Academy founded by Professor William H. McCurdy in the new Monroe County. Once he finished his studies, the young Travis became apprentice to Judge James Dellet, who thought him all tricks of the legal trade.

At 19 years of age, he married 16-year old Rosanna Cato on October 26, 1828, and two months later she gave birth to a son, Charles Edward. At that time, novice lawyers only earned about 65 dollars a month, not very much for the life of luxury he intended to lead. Meanwhile he became editor, director and writer of the "Clairborne Herald", a newspaper he was hardly able to run as he had no contributors.

At that time, the population of town of Clairborne consisted of 453 white inhabitants and 382 between slaves and freed slaves. The whole of Monroe County had a population of 8,782 inhabitants. In spite of the effort required to run a newspaper, Travis set up a law practice in February 1829. However he soon realized that if the wanted to build up a clientele he would have to move in the right circles. So in June, even though he was not yet 21, he was initiated as an apprentice in Clairbornès Alabama lodge No. 3 of the American freemasons society. A month later, he became a fellow and in August he earned the title of Master.

Two years later, on January 3, 1831 he became an aide to the 26th regiment, 8th brigade, 4th division of the local militia. But by that time he was embroiled in heavy debt and risked prison for insolvency.
In April 1831, he left his wife who was pregnant for the second time (later a daughter was born whom he never saw) and little Charles for Texas. He settled in a town called Anahuac where he opened a lawyer's studio and lived there until his tragic demise at the Alamo.

JAMES BOWIE

James BowieJames Bowie was born in Terrapin Creek, French Louisiana, in the spring of 1796, to Presbyterian father, Rezin Bowie and a Methodist mother, Elve Catesby Jones. He had five brothers. In 1803 President Jefferson bought Louisiana from France. On January 1815, James enlisted with his brother Rezin in Colonel Coleman A. Martin's company which was later to become the 17, 18 and 19 Consolidated Louisiana Militia Regiments. Both brothers were enlisted only for two months and 23 days and received $23.93 pay each.

It was a time of great changes. In 1808 the United States Congress abolished the slave trade from Africa. In 1821, in defiance of the law, James was able to place with pirate Jean Lafitte a remarkable number of slaves who had been "smuggled", making a profit of $65,000 which he shared with two brothers.

This was the start of James Bowie illegal activities. Taking advantage of an act of Congress issued May 2, 1820 recognizing land grants established by the previous Spanish administration, James began to produce a great quantity of false claims, totaling up to 65,000 acres of land, one hundred square miles of Louisiana. Incidentally, for the American government, this constituted a new kind of infringement of the law and it no adequate sanctions in place. Bowie then moved to Arkansas issuing additional fake land claims for over 60,000 acres.

In 1828, based upon a certain amount of wealth attained by unscrupulous means and counting also on the prestige and connections derived from being a freemason, James Bowie made an unsuccessful attempt to become a member of Congress. Pursued by the government because of the fake land claims, at last he was forced to escape to Texas where he married Ursula De Veramendi, the 18-year daughter of the future governor Juan Martin De Veramendi. Both his wife and father in law would die shortly after during a cholera epidemic.

At this point Bowie, by now and adopted Texan, would be promoted colonel of the militia and would end up at the Alamo where his earthly adventures came to an end.

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(Pictures from "Three roads to the Alamo" by William C. Davis, Harper Collins Publishers, New York 1998, ISBN 9780060930943, and Microsoft Encyclopedia Encarta 1999)

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