Comment Of The Day: The Alamo, March 4, 1836

I hope a lot of you are enjoying Michael West‘s generous labor of love during the countdown to the Alamo’s fall. It is, as I’ve said here often, one of the most vivid and fascinating of all ethics chapters in U.S. history, and the fact that it is neglected in popular culture and public education to the degree it is disgraceful, like much of this nation’s negligent and cavalier attitude toward history.

I want to apologize to readers and especially Michael for a mistake I have made. One of my sources, echoing others, printed the Mexican dictator’s name as “Santa Ana,” with one “n.” Convinced that I had been perpetrating an error, i began lnocking off the second “n” in Michael’s posts and my own, though I always had assumed that “Anna” was correct.

Well, it was and is correct. His full name is Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón. Now I have to go back and correct the correction.

Here is Michael’s focus on Day 11 of the siege, March 4, 1836.

***

It was cold that evening that the Mexican Artillerymen of the 1st Brigade under command of General Gaona settled down into their camp somewhere south of modern day Yancey, Texas. They had been on a forced march since late January. The moon was full that evening, perfect for night operations – and despite the Texans being bottled up about 45 miles away, Native American raiders were still a possible threat. Reports had been received that straggling soldiers had been ambushed.

These Artillerymen were proud to be in charge of the heavy wall-busting 12 pounder cannon. Santa Anna, with his “Vanguard Brigade,” had opted to bring the lighter artillery pieces with him so he could get to San Antonio faster and make contact with the enemy, based on a report they’d received 10 days prior when word came back for half of Gaona’s Brigade to increase their already forced march pace. They knew in a few days their firepower would bring down the adobe walls that the Texans were hiding behind, allowing infantrymen easy access to the outnumbered men within.

But that was still several days marching off– by their estimates they’d be at the siege on the 8th or 9th of March – maybe even the 7th if they pushed it. So, with two battalions of infantry nearby and probably several hundred civilian “camp followers”, these Artillerymen settled down to rest, no doubt eager to show the Texan rebels that adobe walls won’t do much in the face of 12 pound iron balls in a well arranged battery, focused on a single point. If they weren’t thinking of that, they certainly were ready to be in the psychological comfort of the rest of the army and out of the rugged countryside that had produced little water and a lot of biting wind.

45 miles away, these Artillerymen were the topic of discussion in Santa Anna’s headquarters. Santa Anna, bolstered by the arrival of half of Gaona’s Brigade, had been long meditating the race between his army and the growing Texan army somewhere east of him. If he didn’t reduce the Alamo garrison soon, by the time he did, he may have to face a large Texan force. He was eager to end the siege and move on to wipe out the fledgling Texas forces gathering at Gonzales and then mop up the bands of Texans rushing west as he marched east.

In his war council, several generals argued that a few more days wouldn’t make much difference and then the heavy artillery would arrive. The 12 pounders at the center of a grand battery of all the Mexican guns, could bring down one section of the Alamo’s walls in less than a day. The breach would allow battalions to march in almost effortlessly, saving the lives of countless soldiers.

Some suggested leaving a token force to watch the Alamo and take the bulk of the Army east now. Santa Anna wouldn’t hear it – much of his force hadn’t even arrived at San Antonio yet. Assault NOW was his preferred plan. According to the de la Pena diary (he was an officer in the army) several other generals hated Santa Anna’s idea but wouldn’t tell him for fear of being on the dictator’s bad side.

Santa Anna reiterated his intention that all prisoners were to be executed and some suspected that part of his urgency to attack was that h had heard intel from townspeople who had still been in some communication with the men in the Alamo that the defenders were planning a break out if further reinforcements didn’t arrive in a day or two. I don’t know how much of this speculation is true…but if you visit San Antonio, the scale of the battlefield is small enough to lend credence the possibility that Alamo defenders could have had some sort of communication with any wily townsfolk brave enough to sneak up to the walls at night.

Regarding the emphasis of attacking soon and executing all captured Texans, one of Santa Anna’s highest ranking staff officers, Castrillon (who, sorry to spoil things, wouldn’t leave Texas alive) protested vehemently that such conduct was not proper in this enlightened age. Santa Anna went on to explain his urgency to attack – that sometimes a battle is necessary to prove a point – and to explain his no-leniency policy – that he really wanted to send a message to all rebels.

Ultimately, by the end of the evening, Santa Anna’s plan was communicated and the next day would be spent on preparations for the assault. 45 miles away, the heavy artillerymen would rest up for what they believed would be their decisive role in the battle, while a half a mile away, Texans would have been resting with some confidence that help was coming. They weren’t stupid, though – most would have been rehearsing in their minds all the contingencies necessary to get out of a tight spot if worse came to worse – running through their minds all the cart paths, creek bottoms, and landmarks to look for in an attempt to evade future Mexican pursuers.

Ignoring the obvious evil of Santa Anna’s no mercy plan – was he wise to push for an assault before the heavy artillery arrived?

He had three rough options for courses of action to follow:

1) Attack now. The moon was right – it was full and had hit maximum illumination on the night of the 3rd and would have been decreasing in brightness from then on. The Texans in the Alamo were exhausted – a few more days of exhaustion wouldn’t have added much. Santa Anna had just received fresh troops. The Texas army to the east wasn’t anywhere near cohesive – even the Alamo defenders didn’t realize they now had an official commander in chief – Houston had barely been elected to this post that day and was still in Washington-on-the-Brazos 96 miles from the forces gathering at Gonzales. His drawback here was that he hadn’t sited any of his artillery in massed batteries to focus on a single point in the wall – likely he didn’t want to give away his angle of attack.

2) Wait for the heavy artillery. By reasonable estimates, they wouldn’t arrive until the 8th. By then, the garrison would have been at a breaking point. A quick massing of the guns overnight would have allowed a large section of the wall to be pummeled into dust very rapidly and even if that gave away the Mexican’s intended vector of attack, the Texans wouldn’t be able to put all their men at the breach as Santa Anna would have still had smaller columns of men ready to approach other angles even while most soldiers came at the breach. The drawbacks of this approach was that the assault would have to come likely the evening of the 9th or the morning of the 10th – significant delays to the benefit of the Texans in the east.

3) Bypass the Alamo and continue east. While this seems intelligent – Santa Anna’s army was still strung out along the San Antonio road. He had his Vanguard Brigade and half of Gaona’s Brigade. But the other half was still back about 40-50 miles AND somewhere behind it was General Tolsa’s Brigade which history will show us didn’t even arrive in San Antonio until the 16th of March.

No. The dictator would have his glory.

3 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: The Alamo, March 4, 1836

  1. Watched the John Wayne “The Alamo” again tonight. The Amazon Prime version is missing a lot of scenes and other features I remember in the Director’s cut—I’d now like to see the longer version again. A great deal of Tiomkin’s wonderful score is also missing.

    • We didn’t have time to watch today, but we’ll be doing our annual Alamo tradition tomorrow evening.

      As for Santa Anna’s name – he needed the extra large army to escort the wagons necessary to bear that name across the Texas landscape. It’s no wonder it took the Mexican Army almost a full month (23 February to 16 March) to trickle into San Antonio

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