On this date in 1836, the Battle of the Alamo and the courageous 12 day stand that preceded it began its journey into memory. The day before, March 6, near dawn, saw the fortress fall in a bloody but hopeless battle in which the Texans were overwhelmed in less than an hour.
Here is Texan and Ethics Alarms stalwart Michael West’s account of the final days, March 5 and March 6:
March 5, 1836
After the previous day’s war council (on March 4), Santa Anna was content that his glorious assault would occur. But evidently, according to several reliable Mexican sources, a civilian woman from the town, who had retreated to the Alamo with the Texans, made it out of the Alamo during the night and gave dire information to the Mexicans. Evidently the Texan garrison was increasingly despondent. According to the lady who escaped, Travis and the garrison had discussed their options and one of the more forceful arguments made was that they should consider surrender.
Santa Anna wanted none of this, and accelerated his assault time-table (which he hadn’t necessarily meant for the 6th of March but for the 7th or even the 8th).
The Mexican soldiers would have received their orders in the morning and spent the rest of the day making preparations. There was little physically they had to do other than check the locks of their muskets, ensure they had the requisite number of extra flints (which would occasionally break in battle – testing the coolness of even the most experienced soldier), or assist in the production of several ladders Santa Anna had commanded each battalion to have prepared.
No, most of the preparation would have been mental. A deeply Catholic people, the Mexican soldiers would have spent their energies on prayer and confession. New soldiers would have been nervous about how they would perform under fire, simultaneously trying to hide their nerves from the experienced soldiers, who would have recognized the unique challenge before them. Almost none had been asked to climb tall walls after traversing several hundred yards under fire against an enemy who had, in the previous 12 days, proven that their rifled muskets out-ranged the standard Mexican issue musket by nearly 300%Some of Santa Anna’s soldiers were eager to get into the fight – to uphold the honor of the Mexican nation against, not only rebels, but rebels seemingly motivated by pro-American attitudes. Some of Santa Anna’s soldiers had been farmers pressed into service only months before, who would have had a partially begrudging attitude and were mostly leaning towards “let’s get this over with so I can get home.” Some of the dictator’s soldiers were convicts for whom the upcoming bloodshed was just one more act of brutality to endure in an already brutal and brutalized life. For a large number of the soldiers, for whom soldiering was life, this would be a terror that they knew would be expected of them. Regardless of their motivations, there would be no getting out of the upcoming ordeal and every single one of them would be in the same peril when a Texan cannon roared out at their formation.
Set to wake up at midnight to begin movements to their attack positions, the few soldiers could fall asleep would have tried to do so by twilight.
Inside the Alamo, evening would draw a miserable day to a close. Earlier that day, according to Enrique Esparza, aged 8 (who’s father, Gregorio, was fighting with the Texans), the faeful courier entered the Alamo with news that despite all the hopeful reports, no immediate help was on its way. Travis would have discussed with the men their options – a break-out attempt in case of a successful assault would be their best recourse. A break out during the day would be impossible and one at night would be extremely risky. Whatever was said, it appears all but perhaps one of the men decided to stay
For the Texans, sleep would come quickly that evening. For the first time in 12 days, Santa Anna’s cannons didn’t create chaos inside the compound. It was silent. There could be no doubt that the defenders knew what this meant, but they were exhausted. They would have kept watch and pure anxiety might have boosted their necessary alertness. Nonetheless, they began succumbing to sleep deprivation and may have been deep in dreams of life after the war – or perhaps of life before the war.
Before collapsing in whatever position suited rest, most would have reviewed their plans in their minds of how to get out once they’d done what they could to slow or halt the Mexican advance. No shame in that: when a battle is clearly lost and standing your position doesn’t buy anyone else on the battlefield any opportunity to turn the tide, there’s no principle of warfare that requires that a soldier die on principle.
Most would have recognized that with San Antonio immediately to the west, and several Mexican artillery batteries to the north and south, the east would be the best direction to break out for should the situation so demand. That was also where the gathering Texan army could be found, eventually.
Right after dusk, Travis dispatched the final courier on yet another appeal for assistance. Then, as in each night during the siege , Travis assigned several men outpost duty beyond the walls of the Alamo to provide an early warning before turning the watch over to another officer.
He hoped to get a little bit of sleep himself.
March 6, 1836: The End
Sam Houston’s day began with his men yelling at each other – some to a point of near violence.The urgency of the situation at the Alamo had driven many of them to what would be described as almost panic. These men knew they must get to their comrades on the front lines. They’d heard the calls of their fellows – men whose lives were going to be very short if their rescuers didn’t get to the walls of the Alamo rapidly. The chaos of the yelling match that morning ended and the attention of the men refocused to the emergency on hand only when Commander-in-Chief Sam Houston silenced the members of the convention with the bold directive that none of them would do Texas any good rushing to the Alamo to die – no, they had to stay in Washington-on-the-Brazos and form a government. The independence they’d just declared would do no good without a civil government to follow.
Houston declared he would set on to Gonzales and form an army there to relieve the besieged Alamo defenders. Once they had heard a plausible plan,the tentative government was temporarily satiated.
Houston had much to do to organize Texas’ defenses – a general view of the situation he faced:
Scattered bands of 10s and 20s were pocketed all over the colonies flocking in general to places like Gonzales, Washington-on-the-Brazos, and towards San Antonio (though most of these diverted to Gonzales or collected near the Cibolo Creek Crossing southeast of San Antonio. There were several hundred men already in Gonzales by now (possibly as many as 400). Fannin was back at Goliad with his 400 men after his half-hearted foray towards the Alamo several days earlier. Travis and his men, 180-200 of them, were pinned down in the coverted and crumbling mission.
Houston knew of two general aadnavces being made by the Mexican Army – clearly he was aware of Santa Anna’s force and knew it would be several thousand strong based on Travis’s letters (though he’d cynically claim in a moment a stress that he thought Travis’s reports were exaggerated to build his own glory). He would have been aware of Urrea’s column moving up through the Coastal Colonies with only a vague awareness that it would be about 1000 strong.
Gonzales was a 2 day ride from Washington-on-the-Brazos. Houston could arrive by the 8th, and begin his preparations to relieve the Alamo garrison – either by luring Santa Anna away to a fight or orchestrating a breakout or, who knows what else. Houston’s options were limited for the time being.
But he didn’t arrive at Gonzales on the 8th. He would eventually arrive there on the 11th. He ended up lingering at Burnham’s crossing on the Colorado river (about halfway between modern day La Grange and Columbus) for two nights and a day. What was the commander of the disorganized Texan army facing what was clearly an seemingly impossible emergency?
Years later his critics would insist he spent most of that time stupefyingly drunk while others would insist he crafted Texas’ defense plan. I’m certain it was probably both. Pinched in from Santa Anna’s western force and Urrea’s southern force, Houston had a general plan in mind that would keep the government safe, His gathering Army would slow the Mexican advance on the denser areas of Texan settlement while men and provisions trickled towards Gonzales. He ordered Fannin to fall back through Victoria on the way to the Colorado river where he would receive further orders guiding a combined defense along that river.
He would begin forming regiments at Gonzales to take on the Mexican Army.
Only why the delay? Why 5 days? When he knew the urgency of Travis’s position and the promise made to the Texan government?
I almost wonder if he recognized the futility of relieving the Alamo. Just as Santa Anna had to race against time in the formation of the Texan Army, I wonder if Houston had to race against time in getting to the Texan Army too late to do anything and therefore would have a mea culpa to fall back to the Colorado river with the forces at Gonzales.
I don’t know and I don’t believe it, but a relief of the Alamo would have required some extremely good generalship and soldiering that the men at Gonzales would probably not be able to muster. I think Houston spent his time running through scenario after scenario and contingency after contingency to figure out how make good on his promise.
Houston departed Burnham’s crossing sometime on the 9th or 10th and reached Gonzales on the 11th. Where he discovered the town in panic from the news of two local Tejano vaqueros. They’d arrived that morning informing the town that the Alamo had been captured after a morning battle. Houston had the two men arrested as spies, thoughless because he believed they were spies and more as a utilitarian effort to slow the growing panic if he could discredit them as Santa Anna’s agents. He most certainly would have believed the Alamo had fallen, and so he dispatched “Deaf” Smith and a few rangers to scout towards San Antonio and assess what could be salvaged of the defense there – who made it out, what damage had been inflicted on the Mexican army, did it seem as though the army was following, etc.
On the 12th, “Deaf” Smith returned. He had with him Susannah Dickenson, her daughter and Travis’s slave Joe. Houston couldn’t hide them as agents of misinformation. Their report was complete to the last detail of a sudden early morning assault, the defenders caught nearly completely by surprise, the deafening blaze of gunfire as the Mexicans were pressed against the wall, the odd lull in firing as pre-loaded muskets now took time to reload and men would be doing less reloading while falling back, less fire still as abandoned cannon no longer contributed to the bedlam, then even quieter as the combat resorted to bayonets and hand-to-hand fighting. Captain Dickinson’s wife would have reviewed the atrocious murder of prisoners and accidental (or purposeful) mistreatment of some of the civilians by Mexican soldiers with their blood up. She would have recounted the occasional sounds of panicked gunfire outside the walls as two groups of Texans who had successfully broken out to the east were being slaughtered by the Mexican cavalry. She would have recounted the dictator commanding all the bodies of the Texans be burned in heaping piles while she watched as the personal belongings of men she’d have had conversations with the day before were rifled through by Santa Anna’s soldiers.
In a matter of moments, the vast majority of Gonzales’ women discovered they were widows. Dozens of children were fatherless. Gonzales, of all the Texas towns, had contributed the most men, dozens, to the cause – theirs was the town where the war began and many of their men, such as Susannah’s husband, Almeron, had joined the initial capture of San Antonio back in December. Their town as well was also heavily represented in the 32 men that had only days before broken into the Alamo.
Houston’s plan of defense had been modified or solidified for him in a matter of moments – but he had to wrangle the pandemonium that had erupted on what was had become the front lines of the war.