Ethics Quote Of The Month: Colonel William Travis

Victory or Death

“”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, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch — The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country —Victory or Death.

Col. William Barrett Travis, Commander of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, on February 24, 1836, as his make-shift fort with its couple hundred volunteers were surrounded by the army of General Santa Ana, and a siege was inevitable.

Travis sent out several appeals for assistance and reinforcement that day, but this one has been enshrined as one of the iconic letters in American history. When the Texas revolution began in 1835, Travis, a failed lawyer, businessman and husband—he had abandoned his wife and unborn child in Alabama to escape his debts and start a new life in the Mexican territory—had became a lieutenant-colonel in the revolutionary army and was given command of troops in the recently captured city of San Antonio de Bexar (now San Antonio). On February 23, 1836, a large Mexican force commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana arrived in the town. Travis and his troops barricaded themselves in an abandoned mission repurposed as a fort, the Alamo, where they were  joined by a volunteer force led by Texas land speculator and adventurer Jim Bowie. Later, another, smaller group of volunteers organized by former Congressman and self-made legend Davy Crockett joined them.

Before Travis’s fevered and desperate letter-writing, the Mexican dictator had demanded the fort’s unconditional surrender, promising no quarter if the defenders refused. As his letter said, Travis answered with a cannon shot.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is an especially important time for Americans to remember the Alamo.

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Month: Colonel William Travis

  1. It doesn’t mitigate anything, but the Texians didn’t have many options. When Santa Anna says to surrender at discretion he really meant he was probably going to execute most of them anyway. His entire military career was bathed in brutality and massacre…as a young leader during the Spanish and eventual Mexican efforts against the Comanches to the break up of the Spanish Empire and resultant Mexican war for independence, he was exposed to a ruthless way of war and resolution of conflict.

    As President he showed himself just as exacting. It didn’t serve him well.

    His invasion of Texas came in two prongs, his main effort aimed at San Antonio and a supporting effort sweeping the coastal settlements led by skillful General Urrea.

    Urrea was a bit more merciful in terms of prisoners and in terms of privations, which actually had the benefit of causing many of the coastal settlers to be sometimes less concerned about rallying to the cause of Texas and sometimes be outright supportive of the Mexican army.

    Santa Anna often times had to remind him to be more brutal, to the point that Urrea conveniently made sure he wasn’t around for the murder of Fannin’s men, which he had vehemently protested nor would order his own men to do, so Santa Anna had to dispatch a particularly rough unit to handle the task themselves.

    It was Santa Anna’s own brutality that eventually pushed the vast majority of settlers to support the Independence faction of the Texian fighters as there was still some wavering over exactly what the settlers were fighting for. Many of them with a deep belief in constitutionalism and contractual fidelity and righteously stubborn belief in sticking to your agreements were still insistent that the fight was to reassert the Mexican Constitution of 1824 which they’d all agreed to settle under and which Santa Anna dictatorially dismissed.

    • There is some evidence that Davy Crockett himself may have been captured by the Mexicans and executed along with a few others. There’s no real way for us to know for sure, but an account by a Mexican soldier names someone among the prisoners with a spelling close to “Crockett” who died bravely.

      • There’s no reason not to think prisoners were taken and shortly murdered afterwards. Battles very very very rarely in history end in a complete massacre. Yes there are some famous ones.

        At Thermopylae the legendary Spartans were massacred to a man in the battle but even here it’s because history breaks apart the section of the battle where the Greek reinforcements are present but depart when they’ve discovered they’ve been outflanked and really the massacre was the Spartan rear guard sacrifice.

        At Isandlwana, the British column was annihilated, yet African auxiliaries were able to escape AND the rear detachment at Rorke’s Drift, that for all military purposes was part of the column, survived its own epic ordeal, but again history divides those two encounters that, again, are militarily part of the same battle.

        Even Custer’s last stand is a skirmish in a larger battle that *most* of Custer’s force survived.

        It makes perfect sense that there were survivors of the battle of the Alamo that Santa Anna later had murdered.

      • The historian William Davis astutely points out that no one who knew Crockett in life saw him die and lived to tell about it. Thus the only fair conclusion is “we don’t know.” Mrs. Dickinson said she saw his body after the battle, but she said all sorts of things. It would make sense for a captured Texan to claim to be Crockett. It would have also been in Davy’s character, as one biographer pointed out, to tell some comrades, “OK, it’s over; stick with me and I’ll see if I can talk us out of this.” No shame in that. Or he could have gone down swinging, like Fess Parker, or trying to blow up the munitions, like John Wayne.

    • The plaque at the Alamo notes that every messenger Travis sent out, though they knew the fort was doomed, came back (Smith, the last one, arrived too late to die.) Moreover, since they still aren’t sure who died in the battle, they don’t know how many decided to leave or tried to, like the controversial Lewis Rose. The number of defenders still keeps shifting. Today I read 190. One book I like suggest that 220 is a better guess.

      • I tend to waver between the traditional 183 and about 200.

        I doubt the total accuracy of the traditional defender *list*, but the traditional defender quantity was derived fairly logically from known volunteer counts around the time of early February and the total of arrivals throughout the siege.

        Though several Mexican officer counts of bodies are reasonably believable as well to elevate the number closer to the 220 count.

        But still.

        • William Davis’s contribution was to call attention to the two “break-out” groups during the battle, who died outside the fort and were burned and buried there. He believes the 183 was the number of bodies counted in the fort, which makes sense.

  2. One fact you can’t escape, though, is that the defenders of the Alamo perished to a man, same as their Greek counterparts at Missolonghi some years earlier (although that was a death-or-glory sortie that went bad rather than defending to the end). Both were inspirational and produced later victories, but still, last stands like that are the ultimate last throw of the dice, perishing in the hopes your death will later be avenged. In both cases here, yes, but, had some of James Knox Polk’s advisers convinced him “look, Mexico has as much a claim to those lands as we do, let’s cut a deal,” or had the ministers of the Great Powers convinced the various high ministers “if the crazy Greeks want to keep fighting the Turks, that’s their business, not ours, it’s more important to keep trade flowing” they’d be thought of as gallant fools, not heroes.

    • I disagree, I don’t think the Alamo defenders ever made a “death or glory” pact. I think they were trapped by their circumstances with NO reasonable avenue of escape but with every reasonable belief that their fellows were rushing to their aid up to at least the last 3 days of the siege. Since October, the Texians had witnessed nothing but their fellows rushing to each others aid when called and they had no reason not to believe that was the case now.

      It wouldn’t have been until about March 3rd that the defenders would have realized that aid was likely not coming at all, even while not knowing there were supporters trying to find a way in with the drama unfolding at the Cibolo Creek Crossing.

      Even once the inevitable was apparent, I don’t think the Texians made some death pact. I think they, like their pioneer forebears made the same pact with honor they all did…they’d stand and fight to the degree that duty commanded but once a position was clearly hopeless it would be time to seek an exit – which is in no way dishonorable.

      There’s evidence to support this very much happened. Once the decisive point was met – the Mexican foothold established on top of the north wall – there was no question the Alamo would fall, and based on a handful of witness accounts it would seem quite a few defenders smartly assessed that now was really the last chance to get out and they booked it over the east walls of the “cattle pen” area of the Alamo in the direction of Gonzales.

      Little good this would do as Santa Anna had posted the Mexican cavalry on this side expecting just this move and they handled the men on foot quickly but not without some resistance.

      • That’s right, but it is also pretty clear, as several have observed, that Travis himself was hellbent on being a martyr. Even with reinforcements to the Alamo, the Mexicans were likely to prevail.

        • The strategic value of San Antonio was always questionable for a greater Texian campaign. It was deep in the heart of territory the Mexican Army was perfectly designed for fighting. In the open prairies, Mexican cavalry would dominate. While the myth prevails that the Alamo defenders bought Houston time to “train his army” it isn’t a myth that time was bought for an army to begin assembling. If there had been no roadblock at the Alamo, Santa Anna’s main force would have met the fledgling Texian army on the Colorado river (which was Houston’s grand plan as the Colorado river marked a clear geographic transition to terrain more favorable to the settler’s style of fighting).

          But Houston would have been engaged in the Run-away Scrape a lot sooner and with fewer men filling his ranks by the time he had to engage Santa Anna.

          But yes, once the Alamo was besieged, as frustrating as it is to watch your fellows wither away out on a limb, it would have been militarily stupid to send reinforcements so that they could die also.

  3. So many people in the commentariat so well versed on so many topics. Impressive and enjoyable. Graduate level discussions of all sorts of things.

  4. I’ve been reading Brian Kilmeade’s *Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers*. Personally I think Houston was far too lenient on Santa Anna after the massacre at the Alamo and at Goliad. When recognized by some of his defeated soldiers after he was captured and interrogated by Houston after the Battle of San Jacinto, he tried to justify the massacres with a nonchalant remark that he had offered a surrender and they had refused.

    • How so?

      Sam Houston made an incredibly justifiable war ethics trade off.

      There were still around 6,000 Mexican soldiers in two to three concentrations (at least one of which was in proximity to Houston’s force).

      Houston wanted Texas and he had just the hostage he needed to get Texas.

      Immediate retribution against Santa Anna would have guaranteed a longer war of questionable outcome and sending him off with a peace deal with some sort of planned “war crimes tribunal” would have been laughable given Houston’s nonexistent power to do something about it.

      Nope, Houston held Santa Anna hostage until the remaining Mexican Army was well in its way as a condition of his unharmed release.

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