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.


Ethics Dunce: Me. I Forgot The Alamo

It is now April, and though I vowed at the end of February to finally post a thorough essay on the significance of the Alamo to U.S. culture, ethics, traditions and ideals at some point during the dates corresponding to the fort’s siege and fall on March 6, 1836.

I never did.

I thought I had posted an earlier essay about the Alamo. No, I haven’t. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. The Alamo is by far my favorite historical landmark, and one of the events in American history that most inspires and fascinates me, beginning from when I looked on in horror as Fess Parker, as Davy Crockett, desperately clubbed Mexican soldiers as the last Alamo defender standing, and hundreds more charged toward him, as I heard on the soundtrack,

His land is biggest an’ his land is best, from grassy plains to the mountain crest

He’s ahead of us all meetin’ the test, followin’ his legend into the West

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

I learned all about Davy, of course, the real Davy, America’s first pop culture celebrity who created a legend about himself and by fate, irony or justice, inadvertently placed himself in a situation where he had to live up to his own hype—and by all accounts,did. Then there was Jim Bowie. I had seen several dramatized versions of his famous last stand, fighting off soldiers from his cot, finally dispatching one last attacker with his Bowie knife. It is one of the great examples of a scene so good it should have been true, though it wasn’t: Bowie was dead or unconscious by the time the Mexican burst into his sick room. Never mind: that’s how an American hero goes down, fighting. “Print the legend.” Later I learned how Bowie really was one tough, brave SOB, the perfect man for the Alamo, if he hadn’t been dying of cholera.

My impression of William Barrett Travis was biased by Lawrence Harvey’s portrayal of him as a martinet (with a British accent that supplanted his Southern one after the first scene) in the John Wayne film “The Alamo”, my favorite movie as a kid. The real Travis was a pefect example of someone who had failed in everything, including as a father and a husband, but redeemed himself magnificently at the end. His final letter to the world is one of the great proclamations of defiance, dedication and courage in all of history.

I will never forget my first visit to the Alamo, and seeing Texans weeping, openly, proudly, as they read the plaque with Travis’s words engraved on it:

Commandancy of the Alamo
Bejar, Feby. 24, 1836

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 and 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, and 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 and 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 and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country VICTORY OR DEATH.

William Barret Travis.

The story of the Alamo isn’t taught in schools outside of Texas. It wasn’t taught in my school, either: like most American history, I learned about the event though a thick mixture of pop culture, reading (Walter Lord’s “A Time To Stand” was a birthday present in 1961) and ongoing research. I recently completed “Texas Rising,” which was also just broadcast on cable as a mini-series starring the late Bill Paxton as Sam Houston. Historian Stephen Moore is a plodding writer, but he nicely puts to rest the currently popular politically correct slander that the defenders of the Alamo and the Texas rebels were fighting to keep their slaves, and trying to steal Mexico’s land. The Texians were opposing a dictator who had changed the terms under which they had come to the territory, and anyone familiar with the American character could have predicted what would happen when a despot demanded that they submit to unelected authority. The Alamo was a fight for liberty and democracy, and its martyrs exemplified sacrifice for principle and country.

I let them down. The story of the Alamo should be told and retold, with its ethics lessons made clear and bright. Next year, on March 6. 2018, Ethics Alarms will honor Davy, Bowie, Travis, Bonham, Almaron Dickinson and the rest of the 220 or so heroes who died that day, and do it the right way, not as an afterthought.

Don’t let me forget.