First-Person Accounts

Five minutes after a car accident you can't get the victims to agree about what happened. Yet we blithely base military history on written accounts made years after the event, often by people whose sole reason for writing is to evade responsibility. Journalist interviews differ chiefly in that they draw out people who would not, by themselves, have written anything.

With the Alamo it is even worse. Many accounts that are relied on to flesh out accounts of the battle are third-hand narratives (an interview of someone who tells a story he heard from someone else) recorded decades after the battle. Joe was only interviewed briefly, and Mrs. Dickinson was not interviewed by a journalist until 1871. The last messenger out of the Alamo, James Allen, who was there for the bulk of the siege, became a Texas Ranger and lived until 1901 -- and was never interviewed at all. On the Mexican side, the accounts that do seem reliable appear to come from spectators. It may be that the intensity of the fighting was such that no Mexican in the front lines was able to write his memoirs, to put it delicately.

Reviewing the first-hand accounts, problems with them fall into certain patterns:

  1. Third-hand account. 
  2. Written long after the battle. 
  3. Offers few details not available from previously published accounts. 
  4. Treats the battle as if it were a well-lit cocktail party with everyone wearing a name tag. 
  5. Treats the Alamo as if it were a single building.
  1. Must have been a fly on the wall in rooms where historical figures talked or died. 
  2. Motivated by blame-shifting. 
  3. Presumes to know what other participants were thinking or feeling. 
  4. Was too overwhelmed to take notes. 
  5. Document of uncertain provenance.
With these drawbacks in mind, we will encapsulate some of the more reliable and/or important first-person accounts.
Inside The Alamo
Joe Ben Louis (Moses?) Rose Susanna Dickinson Juana Navarro Alsbury Enrique Esparza
Outside the Alamo
Francisco Antonio Ruiz Santa Anna Anonymous Ramon Martinez Caro Col. J. N. Almonte

Rejected Sources
(Jose Enrique de la Pena, Jose Juan Sanchez-Navarro, "Madam Candelaria")


Problem: 9

Joe was the slave of William Travis, and there are several accounts of the interview he gave after escaping into Anglo Texas with Susanna Dickinson. The points he makes:

  • The garrison had been exhausted by constant watching and fighting.
  • The attack came half a hour before daylight, and the Mexicans were not detected until close to the walls.
  • Joe with the Travis to the wall and saw him mount the wall and fire down on the attackers, to be immediately shot and fall back within the wall, where he grappled with and killed an officer coming over the walls. (Joe said it was the Mexican commanding general.)
  • Joe then hid. The defenders retired to the barracks building and fought there to the end. As the dead were being removed a man named Warner was found alive, taken to Santa Anna, and executed.
  • After the fighting, Joe heard a Mexican officer asking in English if there were any negroes around. Joe emerged, and two soldiers tried to kill him. He was only lightly wounded, and was brought before Santa Anna.
  • The latter -- "dressed like a Methodist preacher" -- had called his soldiers into a square for an animated speech that Joe did not understand. They responded with vivas. Joe was later shown a review of the army and told the Mexicans had 8,000 men. (Which they did, counting the whole national army.) Santa Anna asked if there were American soldiers with the Texans, or on the way. Joe said there were, and Santa Anna said he had enough men to march to Washington (which he had boasted of doing to foreign ambassadors before leaving Mexico City.)
  • The Texan dead were burned.
Later accounts have Joe either escaping to freedom a year later, and/or living in Austin in 1875.


Problem: 1

Interviewed in 1838 and 1840. Being black, his Southern interviewers were not going to make a big deal about him. The cook at Santa Anna's headquarters, he said he served an agitated Santa Anna coffee during the night before the attack, where Almonte was arguing against the attack. High points:

  • The two left about 4 a.m. Signal rockets lit up the scene as the fight began and the noise was tremendous. The fighting ended before dawn.
  • Santa Anna returned with Almonte, the latter complaining that another such a victory would ruin them.
  • Having seen former congressman Crockett before (evidently while working at a hotel in Washington) Ben was sent into the fort to identify Crockett's body. It was surrounded by about 16 Mexicans, his knife stuck in one.
  • Bodies removed for the fort were buried, not burned. (He may have seen only what happened with the Mexican dead.)
  • Mexican losses were 1,200.

Louis (Moses?) Rose (William P. Zuber)

Problems: 1, 2

A man named Louis Rose of Nacogdoches filed a veterans land claim based on having been a defender of the Alamo, leaving there three days before the storming. He also testified in favor of land claims for the families of several other defenders. This Rose is usually identified with the Moses Rose described in an 1873 Texas Almanac story by William P. Zuber.

That Rose, says the story, showed up at the home of Zuber's parents during March 1836 and stayed there several days, recuperating, telling of having escaped from the Alamo. Zuber himself was in the Texas army. He heard the story from his parents, and wrote it down for the almanac decades later after a sudden "refreshment of memory." He included with the manuscript a note from his mother saying the story reflected what Rose said. (Rose himself died about 1848.) Roses's story according to Zuber:

  • On the evening of March 3 the Mexican bombardment suddenly fell silent and Travis called the defenders together, making a long speech that the Zuber account gives word for word.
  • Travis announces that escape is impossible and surrender will lead to execution, so they may as well fight to the death and sell their lives and steeply as possible.
  • "My choice is to stay in this fort and to die for my country, fighting a long as breath shall remain in my body. This I will do even if you leave me alone. Do as you think best -- but no man can die with me without affording me comfort at the moment of my death," the account has Travis concluding.
  • Travis then draws a line in the dirt with his sword, and asks that everyone willing to follow him to the death step across that line. Everyone but Rose did.
  • Bowie, sick, asked that his cot be carried across the line.
  • Rose slipped out that night, startled by the sight of dead Mexican and pools of blood outside the wall. He slipped through the town, to some place in the countryside where he heard the fighting end three days later.
The story has a visual quality that has attracted movie producers. Others respond with derision. Where and how did Rose hide for three days? Where did all those dead Mexicans come from that stage of the siege? And who can accept a verbatim speech fourth-hand decades later? And that speech -- it's the kind you give during half-time at a football game. During a siege, who would strip the walls to tell the men what they already knew? And what leader seeks to win his men over by embracing death?

Well, maybe Travis would have. A lawyer, he would have leaned toward verbal flourishes, and his letters had already announced "victory or death." Susanna Dickinson later gave a similar story. Esparza's account indicates that the garrison considered a surrender demand from Santa Anna during a break in the fighting, and presumably must have met as a body to do so. Santa Anna mentions a surrender demand being considered and rejected between his final council of war and the storming (which places it on the fifth.) Even one of Joe's interviews mentions ten days of fighting, rather than 13.

Meanwhile, yes, you can rally people with grim reminders of death. Remember Churchill: "We will fight on the beaches," etc.? And if a story has to be documented in every detail before we accept the gist, then there is not much history left.

(On the other hand, there is a documented line-in-the-sand story from the earlier siege of Bexar, when Ben Milam refused to retreat to Gonzales, and asked for those willing to attack the city to step across the line he had drawn in the dirt.)

All we can be sure about is the outcome: the Alamo garrison stood its ground. Somehow, Travis brought this about. Zuber's story is the only available explanation.

Susanna Dickinson (Williams Herring Bellows Hannig)

Problems: 2, 9

The young, illiterate wife of Almeron Dickinson, the fort's artillery officer, Susanna may have lacked the emotional and intellectual resources to process the events that overtook her in 1836. She may not have wanted to talk about the topic. Initial interviews of her appear to have actually been interviews of Joe. Other interviews evidence a struggle to get something coherent.

She remarried in 1837 to someone she almost immediately divorced on the grounds of cruelty. She married again in 1838 to someone who died of drink, and in 1847 to someone who divorced her ten years later for leaving him and taking up residence in a "house of ill-fame." She seems to have put that behind her with the marriage in 1858 to a cabinet-maker named Hannig, moving with him to Austin, where she died in 1883. The gist of what she reported:

  • There were minimal casualties before the final assault.
  • On the morning of the assault her husband told her the Mexicans were over the walls and ran out. She never saw him again.
  • She hid in a room of the chapel and did not see the battle. One defender ran into the room, followed by Mexicans who tossed him on their bayonets. (One interview mentioned the same fate for two small boys who also ran in.)
  • A Mexican officer intervened, either an English mercenary named Black, or Almonte.
  • Outside, there was a single survivor, who unsuccessfully begged for mercy.
  • She saw the body of Crockett between the chapel and the barrack building.
  • She saw the body of Bowie, and he had shot two Mexicans from his bed before dying.
  • Travis died working a cannon on top of the church. (Crockett's body she could not have avoided, but she did not say how she saw that of Bowie and Travis.)
  • She was taken to a house she had lived in prior to the siege, and saw the smoke of the pyres.
  • The next day she was taken before Santa Anna, who was talked out of imprisoning her by Almonte.
  • She was sent east on a pony, with a black man whose name she gave variously as Ben or Joe. (She may have been too shaken to notice they were two individuals.) A party led by Deaf Smith found her on the way to Gonzales.
  • The Alamo housed a hospital for wounded from the siege of Bexar, with about 75 disabled men.
  • At some point, she lost her mind and wept for days.
She also said doubtful things:
  • Only three men entered the fort during the siege.
  • Juana Alsbury defected to the Mexicans with her sister
  • There was only one man in the fort named Rose
  • She watched the line-in-the-sand incident from the door of the chapel -- but the chapel courtyard would have been too small for the gathering
  • That the line-in-the-sand incident happened the evening before the assault, and the one hold-out was found missing the next morning. (What -- they held roll-call before the assault, in her presence?) Afterward Col. Almonte said the holdout had been killed while trying to escape and offered to show her the body. (Why would Almonte care?)
In another interview she implied that the line-in-the-sand incident happened on the first day of the siege.

Juana Navarro Alsbury

Problems: 1, 2, 9

The 28-year-old niece of Senor Veramendi and therefore an in-law of Bowie, she had married a Texan soldier, Dr. Horace Alsbury, two months earlier, and had a small child (Alejo Perez) from a previous marriage. (Her first husband was yet another cholera victim.) Her new husband was absent when the Mexican army arrived, and she entered the Alamo with her younger sister, Gertrudis Navarro, and was in a room on the west wall of the fort during the assault. High points:

  • As the firing approached their room. Gertrudis called on the soldiers not to shoot into the room. They barged in, looking for loot.
  • A sick Texan in the room tried to protect Juana Alsbury and was killed. A Tejano who ran into the room seeking cover was killed.
  • Looting began in earnest. An officer took them outside. Another officer had them move out of the way of a cannon about to be fired. Then, her ex-brother-in-law found them and got them to safety. (One accounts says he was a sergeant in the Mexican army.)
  • Behind her, firing continued until noon.

Enrique Esparza

Problems: 1, 2, 9

Enrique Esparza was eight years old at the time of the siege -- old enough to retain coherent memories. His father Gregorio Esparza, was in the Texan army and stationed at the Alamo. The rest of the family -- Enrique, his mother, older sister, and three younger brothers -- fled to the Alamo after the Mexican army arrived in town. But not before Enrique saw Santa Anna ride into Main Plaza, dismount -- and did not even trouble to hitch his own horse, but instead handed the reins to a lackey. No interview of Enrique Esparza was published until 1901, and then he was interviewed several times over the next decade. His accounts grew more colorful with time, or perhaps his later interviewers were after color more than specifics. High points from his original story:

  • An Anglo they called "Don Benito" was everywhere in the fort, giving encouragement and leadership. The Anglos called this man "Crockett."
  • He heard the names Travis and Bowie mentioned, but never happened to see them.
  • The defenders only used two cannon. One was at the main entrance, the other at the northeast corner of the compound. They were seldom fired.
  • The besiegers cut off the water supply in the water ditch, but the defenders had dug a well.
  • At no time was food or water in short supply. Ammunition, however, grew shorter every day.
  • After seven days of fighting there was a truce of three days.
  • During the truce, Don Benito held talks with Santa Anna, and was told the Anglos could go free if they would surrender. The Tejanos, however, would be treated as rebels.
  • On the third and final day of the truce Don Benito (not Travis) called the garrison together and told them the terms. No one believed that Santa Anna would let them get out alive, and they decided to fight on.
  • The non-combatants were housed in rooms on either side of the gate in the south wall of the fort. At the time of the assault he was in a room in the chapel building where his parents slept, in sight of the cannon his father manned. When the assault came, it was over by daylight. Shots were fired into the room where the noncombatants were hiding for at least 15 minutes, and an Anglo boy was killed.
  • Mexican solders then burst in, seeking loot. Brigidio Guerrero, a young Tejano defender of the Alamo, had taken refuge in the room, and convinced the solders that he was a prisoner of the Texans. But a genuine Mexican POW, who had translated the Mexican bugle calls they could hear from the fort, was killed.
  • The surviving noncombatants were taken to a private house under guard, and that afternoon (or the afternoon of the next day, in one version) taken before Santa Anna. Each woman was questioned (Mrs. Dickinson first, and at length) and each was given a blanket and two silver dollars. Juana Navarro Alsbury and her sister did not go before him since their father had arranged for their release.
  • The body of his father, Gregorio Esparza, was recovered by three uncles, one of whom was a Mexican army veteran, after getting special permission, apparently later that day. He was the only defender to receive Christian burial in a cemetery. The others were burned.
Later, he would add -- probably prompted by the interviewer -- the line-in-the-sand story and talk as if he had seen heard Bowie make proclamations and seen Travis in action, and that the fort's many cannon were in constant use. More credible points that emerge:
  • A number of Tejano defenders (he named six) and their dependents left during the truce. Apparently, they were not harmed by the Mexicans.
  • Boys barely older than himself died among the defenders. (Susanna Dickinson spoke of this.)
  • The Alamo church building originally had bell towers on the northwest and southwest corners of the building, and therefore resembled (the still extant) Mission Concepcion to the south of San Antonio. The roof between the towers was flat, lacking the current arched facade. Its current appearance results from later repairs after a fire.
  • After his family was captured, they were taken to a room in the southwest corner of the chapel building where the other non-combatants were, including Juana Alsbury, her sister, and others. Soldiers continued firing into the convent or barrack building for a quarter hour, even though darkness had fallen there. They then approached with lanterns.
  • Crockett died immediately outside the doors of the chapel. (Susanna Dickinson puts him there, too.)
  • Bowie died in a small room on the north side of the church, riddled with bullets. (Others put him in the room on the south wall.)
  • Most of the defenders died in the convent or barrack building.

Francisco Antonio Ruiz

Problem: 10

Ruiz was the alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio de Bexar at the time of the siege. An English translation of his report appeared in an almanac in 1860. The original has not been found. Finding it (assuming it is genuine) might clear up some puzzling references. High points:

  • The Texans learned of the Mexican approach on 8 a.m. of February 23 and withdrew to the fort.
  • Firing was almost continuous until the time of the storming, at 3 a.m. March 6.
  • Santa Anna had 4,000 men, formed 1,000 yards from the fort. They were repulsed twice, the Texan artillery resembling constant thunder.
  • The Toluca battalion got over the wall on the third attempt, loosing 670 out of 800 men.
  • Ordered to set up a medical station during the night with other municipal officials, Ruiz and the others tried to begin retrieving the wounded as soon as the fighting started, but were driven back into town by Mexican dragoons.
  • Later, he found the body of Travis on a gun carriage "on the north battery of the fortress."
  • Crockett was found "in the west, in a small fort opposite the city." (Did he mean La Villita? That would place Crockett on the west side of the mission building, where Susanna Dickinson saw him.)
  • Bowie was found "in one of the rooms on the south side."
  • Santa Anna wanted to see these bodies himself.
  • Santa Anna had the alcalde remove all the bodies, the Mexicans for burial, the Texans to a pyre.
  • The dragoons gathered wood for the pyre. They burned 182 bodies.
  • He was unable to bury all the Mexican bodies, and threw some into the river.

Santa Anna

Problems: 7

Santa Anna's official report, dictated immediately after the battle (in fact, at 8 a.m. that morning) states the following:

  • There were four columns and a reserve, totaling 1,400 soldiers.
  • The attack began at 5 a.m.
  • Resistance was stubborn, the reserve was committed, and fighting lasted an hour and a half.
  • The spectacle was extraordinary. The Mexicans fought heroically, while the fire of the defenders lit up the interior of the fortress, its walls and ditches. (Odd that he should dwell on this.)
  • More than 600 defenders were killed. The bodies of Crockett, Travis and Bowie were among them.
  • Mexican losses were 70 killed and 300 wounded, including 25 officers.
In a pamphlet written the next year to justify his actions, he said that after the decision to attack was made, but before that assault, he made another offer to Travis, saying the defenders could leave it they agreed not to take up arms against Mexico. (In other words, parole them, which the Texans usually did with their prisoners. Santa Anna usually shot his.) They replied that if they did not accept the offer they would resume firing at a certain hour, which they did. (This implies there was a cease fire agreement.)


Problems: none

An account of the storming by an anonymous Mexican soldier appeared in El Mosquito Mexicano, a Mexico City newspaper, on April 5, 1836. The anonymity indicates the writer was a "gentleman" who would not have openly engaged in a trade -- such as writing for newspapers. He was in the attack column commanded by Gen. Cos. The main points:

  • There were four columns. They sortied at 2 a.m., massing at 3 a.m. at a point 300 paces from the fort, on the north side. They lay on the ground. It was cold.
  • They attacked at 5:30 a.m., rushing the wall, Cos leading.
  • Canister (cannon fired as shotguns) brought down 40 men. They were under "horrible fire" for three-quarters of an hour, presumably pinned down outside the wall.
  • Then, all four columns and the reserves got over the wall at the same time.
  • There followed a "horrid battle at sword point," and a massacre of the defenders, some of who tried to surrender, flee or hide.
  • Travis died bravely in back of a cannon.
  • Bowie, the "pervert and braggart" died like a woman, almost hidden under a mattress.
  • The attackers suffered heavy losses, including about 200 wounded.
  • Afterwards, "His Excellency the President" made a "beautiful speech" to the assembled troops.
  • The writer counted 257 bodies of defenders burned.

Ramon Martinez Caro

Problem: 7

Caro was Santa Anna's civilian secretary. He also wrote a pamphlet after returning to Mexico, mostly to blast Santa Anna. His points:

  • The Alamo was a mere corral, 550 paces for the town, many of its walls being only adobe.
  • In small but painful actions the enemy had to be driven from ditches and small buildings outside the fort, from which they fired at the Mexicans.
  • Intelligence reports placed the initial strength of the defenders at 156, which rose to 183 with later reinforcements.
  • During the final assault the attackers captured the cannon on the north side of the fort. The defenders retired to internal rooms, which the captured cannon were used to demolish.
  • The attack force was 1,400, and 400 were lost in the attack -- 300 dead and 100 wounded. (The ratio was more likely the other way around.) There were no medical facilities for the wounded.
  • He wrote Santa Anna's report saying 600 defenders were killed, but knows that figure is false.
  • Five surviving defenders (whom he does not identify) were brought before Santa Anna, who was annoyed, and turned his back as they were killed.
  • Six women were captured and released.

Col. Juan Nepomuceno Almonte

Problems: 7, 10

Educated in New Orleans, Almonte is sometimes described as a nephew of Santa Anna, which would explain how this lowly staff officer got away with arguing with El Presidente as often as sources describe him doing. The Mexican government had sent him to tour Texas in 1834 to determine some way to quell the crisis there, but the Mexican political crisis made his mission moot. During the 1836 campaign he kept a personal journal that was captured in the Battle of San Jacinto and published in the New York Herald. The original is now lost. The journal (which should not be confused with an official headquarters journal) dwelled on things important to Almonte: the weather (cold), the mail (sporadic), his finances, and general army activities he witnessed. The main points that emerge:

  • When the Mexican army arrived the defenders sought favorable surrender terms. Thereafter there was no mention of surrender.
  • Both sides made night sorties.
  • Spies reported on the conditions inside the fort, (inaccurately) counting causalities and the arrival of reinforcements.
  • A council of war was called on March 4. Some generals wanted to wait for the have artillery to arrive. Almonte did not want to wait. (His reasoning is not given.) Others gave no opinion. No decision was reached.
  • The next day, Santa Anna made the decision to assault, and preparations began.
  • On March 6, the assault was made at 5:30 and continue until 6, when the enemy attempted to flee. They were overtaken and 250 killed. Five woman and a black slave survived, and one Mexican prisoner. Seventeen cannon were taken.
  • Mexican losses were 60 enlisted men and five officers killed, and 198 enlisted men and 25 officers wounded, including two generals.
  • The Toluca battalion lost 98 men, killed and wounded.
  • Almonte was robbed by his soldiers.
There were more like 21 or 22 cannon barrels in the fort, not 17, so his other figures may be off as well.

Non Sources

Problems: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10

If you want to fake an old manuscript, you first need old paper, which you will probably get from unused pages in old account books and ledgers. You'll end up with an assortment of paper sizes and watermarks. Since certain ingredients in modern ink are easily detected, you'll have to brew your own, ending up with something inferior that fades to brown. Since people mistakenly assume that all  paper ages like modern newspaper clippings, you'll want to stain your paper by dipping it in tea -- but not so much that you obliterate any text. Likewise with a few tasteful worm holes. Then you write in a bunch of fulsome nattering and inconsequential details that breathlessly recount events already well known. But do toss out at least one nugget that will give revisionist historians something to write about. And if you write it in Spanish about Mexican Army operations in Texas in 1836, you have a good facsimile of the "diary" of Jose Enrique de la Pena. It surfaced in 1955 and the details of its origins remain vague. But it has been embraced in certain circles since it names Crockett as one of the prisoners executed by Santa Anna. A Mexican military officer named de la Pena did exist, apparently took part in the campaign, and may at one point have kept a diary. But that does not mean this is it.

If you don't bother to remove the blank pages from the account books, you have something like the "journal" of Jose Juan Sanchez-Navarro, which surfaced in 1936. Sanchez-Navarro served under Cos, and probably did use the ledger books -- in a government office back in Nuevo Leon. They contain nothing you could not derive from the anonymous account mentioned earlier -- leading some to decide that the anonymous account must have been written by Sanchez-Navarro. Alas, it is just  as easy to assume the "journal" was concocted later, based on the anonymous account.

Meanwhile, an aged "Madam Candelaria" of San Antonio made a career of being interviewed about the battle late in the 19th Century, giving colorful, romantic details about the fates of famous participants. Her accounts are entertainment, not history.

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