Battle of the Alamo


Comanches and distance had defeated Spanish and subsequently Mexican attempts to colonize New Spain north of Rio Bravo/Grande. There remained only the town of San Antonio de Bexar, and settlements at Goliad (connecting San Antonio to the coast) and at Nacogdoches (near the Louisiana border.) So in 1821 the authorities opened the province of Texas to foreign settlement, especially the settlement effort led by Stephen F. Austin. The settlers were given tax and customs abatements -- and extended no government services, including defense. And so they governed themselves, and came to outnumber the Mexican population of Texas five to one (20,000 to 5,000.) When, after 15 years, the central Mexican government tried to reassert control, trouble was entirely foreseeable.

Other factors aggravated the situation:

  • Many Mexicans also suspected that the settlers represented a covert U.S. effort to seize Texas. (They had taken note of the cases of Florida and Louisiana Territory, where Anglo territory expanded at the expense of Latin holdings. In Florida, Spain had ceded control to the U.S. after an American general occupied it during "hot pursuit" of Indians across the border. That general was Andrew Jackson. He was now president of the United States.)
  • Mutual ethnic prejudice in the two populations was undeniable. (But, as usual, the ones with the most contact produced the least friction. But assuming there was enough friction, someone had to decide to exploit it before a war could start.)
  • Many of the American settlers ("Texians" they were called) were Southerners who believed in and practiced slavery. (They noticed that the Mexican government had out-lawed slavery in Texas, where it continued under other guises, but left in legal in the rest of Mexico, where it was not practiced.)
  • The settlers gravitated toward the black-land regions of eastern Texas, mostly in the an area immediately west of what is now Houston, to the town of Gonzales, about 65 miles east of San Antonio. That meant they had failed to form the desired buffer between Comancheria (Comanche territory in central and northwest Texas) and the Mexicans.
So in 1830 Mexico called a halt to immigration, leading to unrest that culminated in 1832 with the taking of a Mexican fort on Galveston Bay by the Texans. Parallel, unconnected, political turmoil throughout Mexico led to the withdrawal of most Mexican garrisons in Texas.

The political unrest ended with the ascension of Santa Anna, who abrogated the Mexican Constitution of 1824 (based on a federal government of sovereign states), dissolved local legislatures, and imposed central control. (The Texans discovered that their political conventions were acts of treason.) Reactions included uprisings in central Mexico, unrest in Saltillo -- and a rebellion in Texas.

May 1835 -- Santa Anna's national Mexican army attacks the rebelling state and city of Zacatecas, whose militia is larger and better equipped than the Mexican national army. Also, Zacatecas is served by professional officers who defected from Santa Anna. Some of these turn out to be double agents, and resistance collapses as soon as Santa Anna attacks. The city is subjected to two days of looting, arson and rape. About 2,500 people die. Santa Anna denounces foreign instigators, and Americans and Englishmen are killed when found, their wives chased naked through the streets. (Or so it was reported.) Santa Anna orders that foreigners found among the rebel forces be summarily shot, but his subordinates demur. (This would change.) Texans would start warning of "pollution of our women" and see Mexican agents behind every domestic problem.

October 2, 1835 -- Skirmish at Gonzales, Texas, when a Mexican garrison from San Antonio came to take away the cannon the town had previously been issued for defense against Indians. There is a brief confrontation. The Mexican force withdraws back to San Antonio.

October 24, 1835 -- Various Texan militias that have coalesced around San Antonio begin laying siege to the Mexican garrison there.

November 1835 -- The Texas governing council authorizes a navy and acquires four ships. Their successful depredations lead Santa Anna to dismiss the idea of suppressing Texas via a blockade and/or naval campaign. (Also, he did not have the cash to lease the necessary transport vessels.) In the resulting land campaign he could not depend on supplies via sea and would have to live off the countryside.

November 26, 1835 -- Foragers from the Mexican garrison at San Antonio are destroyed in the "Grass Fight."

December 4, 1835 -- The Texan besiegers, reduced by men returning to their farms and families, decide to retreat. But then Col. Ben Milam objects, and gets himself made head of an attack by acclamation. He has about 350 men available.

December 5, 1835 -- The attack on San Antonio begins at 3 a.m. Incoherent street fighting drags on. Milam is killed on the third day and buried where he fell. The site is now a city park.

December 10, 1835 -- San Antonio's Mexican garrison of 1,105 (many of them recent conscripts of negative value) surrenders and evacuates. A Texan garrison of about 104 men take over the Alamo.

January 3, 1836 -- The Texan government authorizes a raid on Matamoros, Mexico, but sets up no clear chain of command for the Texan armed forces and eventually names four different commanders for the expedition, including Sam Houston. About 500 men gather at San Patricio (near modern Corpus Christi) for the raid. About that many more gather at Goliad under Col. James Fannin, a West Point drop-out. Many of them are American adventurers rather than Texans, the latter having gone home for spring planting.

January 10, 1836 -- Complaints that the Alamo had been stripped of cannons and supplies for the Matamoros expedition causes squabbling to break out in the Texan ruling council.

January 17, 1836 -- Houston sends Jim Bowie with about 20 men to the Alamo to inspect it, assuming he will recommend evacuation. Elsewhere, the Texan ruling council dissolves for lack of a quorum.

January 20, 1836 -- Travis arrives at the Alamo with the 30 men he has recruited for the Texan "regular army." (Other sources place this event on February 3.) Unable to assert himself with the groups gathered for the Matamoros raid, Houston leaves for eastern Texas. The bulk of the Matamoros volunteers drift away. Meanwhile, apparently unknown to the Texans, Santa Anna arrives in Saltillo. His available force in Northern Mexico is about 6,000-- equivalent to the adult male population of Texas.

February 8, 1836 -- Former Tennessee congressman David "Davy" Crockett arrives at the Alamo with a dozen men.

February 11, 1836 -- Col. James Neill, official commander of the Alamo, leaves for a "family emergency." (He ended up in Houston's army, where he was wounded in action.) He leaves young Travis in command. The garrison, however, holds an election and selects Bowie. The two agree to be co-commanders.

February 13, 1836 -- Travis sends a complaint to the government about Bowie's drunkenness -- and demands more reinforcements, having decided that defending the place was important.

February 15, 1836 -- Santa Anna arrives at the Rio Grande near present-day Eagle Pass. His intention: Every Texan rebel would be executed or exiled, the other settlers would be sent to the interior and replaced with Mexican settlers, and immigration would be stopped forever. Every foreigner under arms would be treated as a pirate (i.e., a common enemy of humanity to be suppressed without regard to jurisdiction.) Ethnic cleansing had begun.

February 16, 1836 -- Fannin at Goliad gets the first of several appeals for aid from Travis at the Alamo. Fannin refuses.

February 17, 1836 -- A smaller Mexican column leaves Matamoros to follow the coast north.

February 23, 1836 -- Vanguard of the Mexican army arrives at San Antonio and the siege of the Alamo begins. Bowie, sick, cedes command of the Alamo to Travis. Santa Anna makes his no-prisoners announcement. With the arrival of the rest of the Mexican force, the defenders are out-numbered 10 to one, but are the only thing standing in the way of the destruction of the Texas. They have taken into the fort 30 cattle and a large supply of grain. They had a random assortment of nearly two dozen cannon, but a shortage of technical skill and equipment makes them of limited use. (They apparently had  a supply of Mexican powder captured in the Alamo after the siege of Bexar, considered unfit for rifles but suitable for use in the cannons.) The Mexicans, meanwhile, do not attempt a full "investment," and individuals and small groups are able to come and go after dark. Additionally, when shooting is not actually under way, both sides ignore the comings and goings of the locals, and Tejano defender Capt. Juan Seguin apparently had his meals delivered.

February 24, 1836 -- Travis sends out his famous appeal.

February 25, 1836 -- After fighting off a Mexican probe, Travis sends off an appeal addressed to Sam Houston, carried by Capt. Juan Sequin.

February 27, 1836 - The Mexican coastal column sweeps into San Patricio, killing most of the hangers-on left over from the Matamoros expedition -- estimates range from three dozen to 150. Travis sends out another appeal to Fannin, carried by James Butler Bonham, a fellow South Carolina lawyer from Travis' home county.

March 1, 1836 -- Responding to Travis' appeal, 32 Texans from Gonzales arrive at the Alamo. They will leave behind 20 widows. At Washington-on-the-Brazos, 150 miles east of San Antonio, the Texans convene a convention to form a new government.

March 2, 1836 -- Further remnants -- maybe 25 men -- of the Matamoros expedition are over-run by the Mexican coastal column at Agua Dulce. The new Texas government declares independence from Mexico.

March 3, 1836 -- Sam Houston is declared commander-in-chief of the Texas armed forces, with a clearly defined chain of command. At the Alamo, Bonham returns to report the negative results of his mission, having ignored the pleas of another rider not to return to certain death. Travis later sends out a courier with another appeal for aid, plus some private mail. The enemy, he reports, are firing cannon from less than 300 yards. Inside the fort, Travis supposedly draws a line in the sand and asks that every defender willing to stay to the end to cross it. All but one do so. (Others insist this must have happened on the first day of the siege, or the last day, or that it could never have happened.)

March 4, 1836 -- Fannin finally decides to move toward the Alamo. Four miles down the road his wagons start breaking down. The force turns back. Santa Anna learns immediately of the sortie and dispatches a battalion. It returns in time for the storming. That night an unnamed woman leaves the Alamo and is brought before Santa Anna, telling him the defenses are about to collapse. She urges him to attack immediately.

March 5, 1836 -- Santa Anna over-rules subordinates who want to wait several more days for the siege artillery to arrive, and sets the attack for the next day. Travis sent out one last courier -- 16-year-old James Allen -- with another appeal to Fannin.

Sunday, March 6, 1836 -- On the thirteenth day of the siege (it was a Leap Year) the Alamo is stormed before dawn, in darkness. The Mexicans are unable to get over the walls until the third attempt. The noise and spectacle amazes even Santa Anna. Over the walls, it's a melee with room to room fighting. Fighting goes on for anything from one to five hours -- no two sources agree. The size of the attack force was probably 1,400. Mexican losses are not known with accuracy. The garrison of the Alamo is destroyed, although some individuals do survive. About a half dozen wounded prisoners were brought before Santa Anna, who had them killed on the spot. These probably did not include Davy Crockett. Subsequently, Santa Anna expresses a desire to leave the army and return to waiting business in Mexico City, but his subordinates talk him out of it -- army morale is bad enough already.

March 11, 1836 -- Houston reaches Gonzales and finds 374 men have spontaneously gathered there. News of the Alamo's fate arrives. Houston sends orders to Fannin to join Houston's force, but if Fannin receives it he shows no urgency in acting on it. Houston then burns the town and retreats.

March 13 and 14, 1836 -- Fannin sends about 150 men to nearby Refugio to assist in the evacuation of settlers in the face of the Mexican coastal column. They are scattered by the arrival of the Mexican force.

March 17, 1836 -- Houston reaches the Colorado River with his force, now at about 500 men and boys.

March 18, 1836 - The coastal column skirmishes with Fannin's force at Goliad. Fannin decides to evacuate.

March 19, 1836 -- Fannin moves his force out of Goliad, and is soon surrounded and pinned down in the open.

March 20, 1836 -- Fannin surrenders "at discretion" (i.e., unconditionally) although he apparently has the impression he and his men will be simply expelled from Mexico. They are marched back to Goliad. Except for the force Houston is gathering, the Texan army has been destroyed.

March 27, 1836 -- In response to orders from Santa Anna, Fannin's men are marched out of Goliad and shot. About 390 are killed, and another 27 escape to spread the news.

March 28, 1836 -- Houston is now camped on the Brazos River, with about 1,400 followers -- the most he will have. Men soon begin to leave to assist their fleeing families. Meanwhile, the Mexican army advanced from San Antonio and begins burning Texan settlements. Cut off from logistical support from Mexico by the Texas Navy, they have to live off the land and move in five small columns. Rains turn the roads into mud.

April 1836 -- Texas is convulsed with the "Runaway Scrape" as essentially the entire Texan population abandons their land and flees across the soggy landscape toward Louisiana (i.e., the U.S. border.) The commander of the U.S. border force apparently looks the other way in the case of solders deciding to cross over and join the fighting, but otherwise produces no direct aid.

April 10, 1836 -- About 5,000 refugees are reported gathered at the ferry crossing of San Jacinto Bayou at the northern extremity of Galveston Bay. (The state still operates a ferry there.)

April 18, 1836 -- Deaf Smith, a scout for Houston, captures a Mexican courier whose papers show the planned movements of the Mexican columns. The courier was using captured Texan saddlebags monogrammed "W. B. Travis."

April 20, 1836 -- Houston lets his force be "trapped" by Santa Anna's column, near the San Jacinto ferry crossing. There is a brief skirmish, and then the Texan force returns to its camp, grumbling at Houston. Santa Anna keeps his men under arms all night, assuming a night attack was coming. Nothing happens.

April 21, 1836 -- Santa Anna's force of about 1,200 is over-run in broad daylight by a sudden attack on its camp by Houston's entire Texan force, then numbering 918. With the Texan camp only about a mile way over open terrain, Santa Anna had apparently posted no sentinels before retiring for a siesta and letting his tired troops do the same. The Texans lost nine dead and 30 wounded. Houston, who led from the front, lost two horses and was shot in the foot. Santa Anna, captured the next day in the bushes, agreed to recognize Texas independence and ordered all Mexican forces to evacuate Texas.

Thereafter -- Texas become an independent republic. At the end of 1845 Texas was annexed by the U.S., at its request. The annexation led to war with Mexico, and the expansion of the continental U.S. to nearly its present borders. Political stresses resulting from the expansion of slave-owner territory with the addition of Texas led to the U.S. Civil War, which resulted in the consolidation of the U.S. as an industrial nation-state.  

Copyright (c) 1998 by Lamont Wood. The opinions and mistakes herein are his alone.

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Tour Alamo Plaza in QTVR
Alamo Front Page

Back to Heart of San Antonio