The Fall of the Alamo
Captain R. M. Potter
The fall of the Alamo and the massacre of its garrison, which in 1836 opened the campaign of Santa Ana in Texas, caused a profound sensation throughout the United States, and is still remembered with deep feeling by all who take an interest in the history of that section; yet the details of the final assault have never been fully and correctly narrated, and wild exaggerations have taken their place in popular legend. The reason will be obvious when it is remembered that not a single combatant of the last struggle from within the fort survived to tell the tale, while the official reports of the enemy were neither circumstantial nor reliable. When horror is intensified by mystery, the sure product is romance.
A trustworthy account of the assault could be compiled only by comparing and combining the verbal narratives of such of the assailants as could be relied on for veracity, and adding to this such lights as might be gathered from military documents of that period, from credible local information, and from any source more to be trusted than rumor. As I was a resident at Matamoros when the event occurred, and for several months after the invading army retreated thither, and afterwards resided near the scene of action, I had opportunities for obtaining the kind of information referred to better perhaps than have been possessed by any person now living outside of Mexico....
Before beginning the narrative, however, I must describe the Alamo and its surroundings as they existed in the spring of 1836. San Antonio, then a town of about 7,000 inhabitants, had a Mexican population, a minority of which was well affected to the cause of Texas, while the rest were inclined to make the easiest terms they could with whichever side might be for the time being dominant. The San Antonio River, which, properly speaking, is a large rivulet, divided the town from the Alamo, the former on the west side and the latter on the east. The Alamo village, a small suburb of San Antonio, was south of the fort, or Mission, as it was originally called, which bore the same name. The latter was an old fabric, built during the first settlement of the vicinity by the Spaniards; and having been originally designed as a place of safety for the colonists and their property in case of Indian hostility, with room sufficient for that purpose, it had neither the strength, compactness, nor dominant points which ought to belong to a regular fortification. The front of the Alamo Chapel bears date of 1757, but the other works must have been built earlier. As the whole area contained between two and three acres, a thousand men would have barely sufficed to man its defenses; and before a regular siege train they would soon have crumbled. Yoakum, in his history of Texas, is not only astray in his details of the assault, but mistaken about the measurement of the place. Had the works covered no more ground than he represents, the result of the assault might have been different.
Thus the works were mounted with fourteen guns, which agrees with Yoakum's account of their number, though Santa Ana in his report exaggerates it to twenty-one. The number, however, has little bearing on the merits of the final defense, with which cannon had very little to do. These guns were in the hands of men unskilled in their use, and owing to the construction of the works most of them had little width of range. Of the buildings above described, the chapel and the two barracks are probably still standing. They were repaired and newly roofed during the Mexican war for the use of the United States Quartermaster's department.
In the winter of 1835-6 Colonel Neill, of Texas, was in command of San Antonio, with two companies of volunteers, among whom was a remnant of New Orleans Greys, who had taken an efficient part in the siege and capture of the town about a year before. At this time the Provisional Government of Texas, which, though in revolt, had not yet declared a final separation from Mexico, had broken into a conflicting duality. The Governor and Council repudiated each other, and each claimed the obedience which was generally not given to either. Invasion was impending, and there seemed to be little more than anarchy to meet it.
During this state of affairs Lieutenant-Colonel Wm. B. Travis, who had commanded the scouting service of the late campaign, and had since been commissioned with the aforesaid rank as an officer of regular cavalry, was assigned by the Governor to relieve Colonel Neill of the command of his post. The volunteers, who cared little for either of the two governments, wished to choose their own leader, and were willing to accept Travis only as second in command. They were, therefore, clamorous that Neill should issue an order for the election of a Colonel.
To get over the matter without interfering with Travis' right, he prepared an order for the election of a Lieutenant-Colonel, and was about to depart, when his men, finding out what he had done, mobbed him, and threatened his life unless he should comply with their wishes. He felt constrained to yield, and on the amended order James Bowie was unanimously elected a full Colonel. He had been for several years a resident of Texas, and had taken a prominent part in the late campaign against Cos. His election occurred early in February, 1836, about two weeks before the enemy came in sight; and Travis, who had just arrived or came soon after, found Bowie in command of the garrison, and claiming by virtue of the aforesaid election the right to command him and the reinforcement he brought. They both had their headquarters at the Alamo, where their men were quartered, and there must have been a tacit understanding on both sides that conflict of authority should as far as possible be avoided. This, however, could not have continued many days but for the common bond of approaching peril.
Travis brought with him a company of regular recruits, enlisted for the half regiment of cavalry which the Provisional Government had intended to raise. J. N. Seguin, a native of San Antonio who had been commissioned as the senior Captain of Travis' corps, joined him at the Alamo and brought into the garrison the skeleton of his company, consisting of nine Mexican recruits, natives, some of the town aforesaid and others of the interior of Mexico. The aforesaid company and squad of enlisted men and the two companies of volunteers under Bowie formed the garrison of the Alamo, which then numbered from a hundred and fifty-six to a hundred and sixty. Of these the volunteers comprised considerably more than half, and over two-thirds of the whole were men who had but recently arrived in the country. Seguin and his nine recruits were all that represented the Mexican population of Texas. Of that nine, seven fell in the assault, the Captain and two of his men having been sent out on duty before that crisis.
David Crocket, of Tennessee, who had a few years before represented a squatter constituency in Congress, where his oratory was distinguished for hard sense and rough grammar, had joined the garrison a few weeks before, as had also J. B. Bonham, Esq., of South Carolina, who had lately come to volunteer in the cause of Texas, and was considered one of the most chivalrous and estimable of its supporters. I pair them, a rough gem and a polished jewel, because their names are among the best known of those who fell; but I am not aware that either of them had any command.
The main army of operation against Texas moved from Laredo upon San Antonio in four successive detachments. This was rendered necessary by the scarcity of pasture and water on certain portions of the route. The lower division, commanded by Brigadier-General Urrea, moved from Matamoros on Goliad by a route near the coast, and a short time after the fall of the Alamo achieved the capture and massacre of Fannius command.
The advance from Laredo, consisting of the dragoon regiment of Dolores and three battalions of infantry, commanded by Santa Ana in person, arrived at San Antonio on the afternoon of February 22. No regular scouting service seems to have been kept up from the post of Bowie and Travis, owing probably to division and weakness of authority, for, though the enemy was expected, his immediate approach was not known to many of the inhabitants till the advance of his dragoons was seen descending the slope west of the San Pedro. A guard was kept in town with a sentinel on the top of the church, yet the surprise of the population was so nearly complete that one or more American residents engaged in trade fled to the Alamo, leaving their stores open. The garrison, however, received more timely notice, and the guard retired in good order to the fort.
The confusion at the Alamo, which for the time being was great, did not impede a prompt show of resistance. In the evening, soon after the enemy entered the town, a shot from the 18-pounder of the fort was answered by a shell from the invaders; and this was followed by a parley, of which different accounts have been given. According to Santa Ana's official report, after the shell was thrown, a white flag was sent out by the garrison with an offer to evacuate the fort if allowed to retire unmolested and in arms, to which reply was made that no terms would be admitted short of an unconditional surrender. Seguin, however, gave me a more reliable version of the affair. He related that after the firing a parley was sounded and a white flag raised by the invaders. Travis was not inclined to respond to it; but Bowie, without consulting him, and much to his displeasure, sent a flag of truce to demand what the enemy wanted. Their General, with his usual duplicity, denied having sounded a parley or raised a flag, and informed the messenger that the garrison could be recognized only as rebels, and be allowed no other terms than a surrender at discretion. When informed of this, Travis harangued his men and administered to them an oath that they would resist to the last....
On the night of the 22d of February the enemy planted two batteries on the west side of the river, one bearing west and the other southwest from the Alamo, with a range which no houses then obstructed. They were the next day silenced by the fire of the 18-pounder of the fort, but were restored to activity on the following night. On the 24th another body of Mexican troops, a regiment of cavalry and three battalions of infantry arrived; and then the fort was invested and a regular siege commenced, which, counting from that day till the morning of the 6th of March, occupied eleven days. By the 27th seven more besieging batteries were planted, most of them on the east side of the river, and bearing on the northwest, southwest, and south of the fort; but there were none on the east. As that was the only direction in which the garrison would be likely to attempt retreat, Santa Ana wished to leave a temptation to such flitting, while he prepared to intercept it by forming his cavalry camp on what is now called the Powder House Hill, east of the Alamo....
The stern resistance which had sprung up in the demoralized band within, and the comparative unity and order which must have come with it, were ushered in by a scene which promised no such outcome. The first sight of the enemy created as much confusion with as little panic at the Alamo as might be expected among men who had known as little of discipline as they did of fear. Mr. Lewis, of San Antonio, informed me that he took refuge for a few hours in the fort when the invaders appeared, and the disorder of the post beggared description. Bowie with a detachment was engaged in breaking open deserted houses in the neighborhood and gathering corn, while another squad was driving cattle into the enclosure east of the long barrack. Some of the volunteers, who had sold their rifles to obtain the means of dissipation, were clamoring for guns of any kind; and the rest, though in arms, appeared to be mostly without orders or a capacity for obedience. No "army in Flanders" ever swore harder. He saw but one officer, who seemed to be at his proper post and perfectly collected. This was an Irish Captain named Ward, who, though generally an inveterate drunkard, was now sober, and stood quietly by the guns of the south battery, ready to use them. Yet amid the disorder of that hour no one seemed to think of flight; the first damaging shock, caused by the sight of the enemy, must have been cured by the first shell that he threw; and the threat conveyed by Santa Ana's message seems to have inspired a greater amount of discipline than those men had before been thought capable of possessing. The sobered toper who stood coolly by his guns was the first pustule which foretold a speedy inoculation of the whole mass with that qualification.
The conflict of authority between Bowie and Travis, owing probably to the caution in which neither was deficient, had luckily produced no serious collision; and it was perhaps as fortunate that, at about the second day of the siege, the rivalry was cut short by a prostrating illness of the former, when Bowie was stricken by an attack of pneumonia, which would probably have proved fatal, had not its blow been anticipated by the sword. This left Travis in undisputed command....
On the following night, the 1st of March, a company of thirty-two men from Gonzales made its way through the enemy's lines, and entered the Alamo never again to leave it. This must have raised the force to 188 men or thereabout, as none of the original number of 156 had fallen.
On the night of the 3d of March, Travis sent out another courier with a letter of that date to the government, which reached its destination. In that last dispatch he says: "With a hundred and forty-five men I have held this place ten days against a force variously estimated from 1,500 to 6,000, and I shall continue to hold it till I get relief from my countrymen, or I will perish in the attempt. We have had a shower of bombs and cannon-balls continually falling among us the whole time, yet none of us have fallen. We have been miraculously preserved." As this was but two days and three nights before the final assault, it is quite possible that not a single defender was stricken down till the fort was stormed. At the first glance it may seem almost farcical that there should be no more result from so long a fire, which was never sluggish; but if so, this was a stage on which farce was coon to end in tragedy, and those two elements seem strangely mingled through the whole contest....
On the 4th of March Santa Ana called a council of war, and fixed on the morning of the 6th for the final assault. The besieging force now around the Alamo, comprising all the Mexican troops which had yet arrived, consisted of the two dragoon regiments of Dolores and Tampico, which formed a brigade, commanded by General Andrade, two companies or batteries of artillery under Colonel Ampudia, and six battalions of infantry, namely, Los Zapadores (engineer troops), Jimenes, Guerrero, Matamoros, Toluca, and Tres Villas. These six battalions of foot were to form the storming forces. The order for the attack, which I have read, but have no copy of, was full and precise in its details, and was signed by General Amador, as Chief of Staff. ... Santa Ana took his station, with a part of his staff and all the bands of music, at a battery about five hundred yards south of the Alamo and near the old bridge, from which post a signal was to be given by a bugle-note for the columns to move simultaneously at double-quick time against the fort. One, consisting of Los Zapadores, Toluca, and the light companies, and commanded by Castrillon, was to rush through the breach on the north; another, consisting of the battalion of Jimenes and other troops, and commanded by General Cos, was to storm the chapel; and a third, whose leader I do not recollect, was to scale the west barrier. Cos, who had evacuated San Antonio a year before under capitulation, was assigned to the most difficult point of attack, probably to give him an opportunity to retrieve his standing. By the timing of the signal it was calculated that the columns would reach the foot of the wall just as it should become sufficiently light for good operation.
When the hour came, the south guns of the Alamo were answering the batteries which fronted them; but the music was silent till the blast of a bugle was followed by the rushing tramp of soldiers. The guns of the fort opened upon the moving masses, and Santa Ana's bands struck up the assassin note of "deguello," or no quarter. But a few and not very effective discharges of cannon from the works could be made before the enemy were under them, and it was probably not till then that the worn and wearied garrison was fully mustered. Castrillon's column arrived first at the foot of the wall, but was not the first to enter.
The guns of the north, where Travis commanded in person, probably raked the breach, and this or the fire of the riflemen brought the column to a disordered halt, and Colonel Duque, who commanded the battalion of Toluca, fell dangerously wounded; but, while this was occurring, the column from the west crossed the barrier on that side by escalade at a point north of the center, and, as this checked resistance at the north, Castrillon shortly after passed the breach. It was probably while the enemy was thus pouring into the large area that Travis fell at his post, for his body, with a single shot in the forehead, was found beside the gun at the northwest angle. The outer walls and batteries, all except one gun, of which I will speak, were now abandoned by the defenders. In the meantime Cos had again proved unlucky. His column was repulsed from the chapel, and his troops fell back in disorder behind the old stone stable and huts that stood south of the southwest angle. There they were soon rallied and led into the large area by General Amador. I am not certain as to his point of entrance, but he probably followed the escalade of the column from the west.
This all passed within a few minutes after the bugle sounded. The garrison, when driven from the thinly manned outer defenses, whose early loss was inevitable, took refuge in the buildings before described, but mainly in the long barrack; and it was not till then, when they became more concentrated and covered within, that the main struggle began. They were more concentrated as to space, not as to unity of command; for there was no communicating between buildings, nor, in all cases, between rooms. There was little need of command, however, to men who had no choice left but to fall where they stood before the weight of numbers. There was now no retreating from point to point, and each group of defenders had to fight and die in the den where it was brought to bay. From the doors, windows, and loopholes of the several rooms around the area the crack of the rifle and the hiss of the bullet came fierce and fast; as fast the enemy fell and recoiled in his first efforts to charge. The gun beside which Travis fell was now turned against the buildings, as were also some others, and shot after shot was sent crashing through the doors and barricades of the several rooms. Each ball was followed by a storm of musketry and a charge; and thus room after room was carried at the point of the bayonet, when all within them died fighting to the last. The struggle was made up of a number of separate and desperate combats, often hand to hand, between squads of the garrison and bodies of the enemy. The bloodiest spot about the fort was the long barrack and the ground in front of it, where the enemy fell in heaps.
Before the action reached this stage, the turning of Travis' gun by the assailants was briefly imitated by a group of the defenders. "A small piece on a high platform," as it was described to me by General Bradburn, was wheeled by those who manned it against the large area after the enemy entered it. Some of the Mexican officers thought it did more execution than any gun which fired outward; but after two effective discharges it was silenced, when the last of its cannoneers fell under a shower of bullets. I cannot locate this gun with certainty, but it was probably the twelve-pound carronade which fired over the center of the west wall from a high commanding position. The smallness assigned to it perhaps referred only to its length. According to Mr. Ruiz, then the Alcalde of San Antonio, who, after the action, was required to point out the slain leaders to Santa Ana, the body of Crocket was found in the west battery just referred to; and we may infer that he either commanded that point or was stationed there as a sharpshooter. The common fate overtook Bowie in his bed in one of the rooms of the low barrack, when he probably had but a few days of life left in him; yet he had enough remaining, it is said, to shoot down with his pistols more than one of his assailants ere he was butchered on his couch. If he had sufficient strength and consciousness left to do it, we may safely assume that it was done.
The chapel, which was the last point taken, was carried by a "coup de main" after the fire of the other buildings was silenced. Once the enemy in possession of the large area, the guns of the south could be turned to fire into the door of the church, only from fifty to a hundred yards off, and that was probably the route of attack. The inmates of this last stronghold, like the rest, fought to the last, and continued to fire down from the upper works after the enemy occupied the floor. A Mexican officer told of seeing one of his soldiers shot in the crown of the head during this melee. Towards the close of the struggle Lieutenant Dickenson, with his child in his arms, or, as some accounts say, tied to his back, leaped from the east embrasure of the chapel, and both were shot in the act. Of those he left behind him, the bayonet soon gleaned what the bullet had left; and in the upper part of that edifice the last defender must have fallen. The morning breeze which received his parting breath probably still fanned his flag above that fabric, for I doubt not he fell ere it was pulled down by the victors.
The Alamo had fallen; but the impression it left on the invader was the forerunner of San Jacinto. It is a fact not often remembered that Travis and his band fell under the Mexican Federal flag of 1824, instead of the Lone Star of Texas, although Independence, unknown to them, had been declared by the new Convention four days before at Washington, on the Brazos. They died for a Republic of whose existence they never knew. The action, according to Santa Ana's report, lasted thirty minutes. It was certainly short, and possibly no longer time passed between the moment the enemy entered the breach and that when resistance died out. The assault was a task which had to be carried out quickly or fail. Some of the incidents which have to be related separately occurred simultaneously, and all occupied very little time.
The stranger will naturally inquire where lie the heroes of the Alamo, and Texas can reply only by a silent blush. A few hours after the action the bodies of the slaughtered garrison were gathered by the victors, laid in three heaps, mingled with fuel and burned, though their own dead were interred. On the 25th of February, 1837, the bones and ashes of the defenders were, by order of General Houston, collected, as well as could then be done, for burial by Colonel Seguin, then in command at San Antonio. The bones were placed in a large coffin, which, together with the gathered ashes, was interred with military honors. The place of burial was a peach orchard, then outside of the Alamo village and a few hundred yards from the fort. When I was last there, in 1861, it was still a large enclosed open lot, though surrounded by the suburb which had there grown up; but the rude landmarks which had once pointed out the place of sepulture had long since disappeared. Diligent search might then have found it, but it is now densely built over, and its identity is irrecoverably lost.
In the 2d of March, 1836, the delegates of the people of Texas in general convention at Washington on the Brazos declared their independence of Mexico. Their Declaration of Independence may be read in the appendix to Kennedy's History of Texas, vol. ii., and elsewhere. On the same day General Samuel Houston, the Texan commander-in-chief, issued a proclamation announcing that war was waging on the frontier, and Bexar besieged by 2,000 of the enemy, while the garrison was only 150 strong. "The citizens of Texas must rally to the aid of our army, or it will perish. Independence is declared: it must be maintained. Immediate action, united with valor, alone can achieve the great work." But the immediate action was too late. Already Santa Ana and his forces were closing in around the fated little band in the Alamo at San Antonio; and between midnight and dawn on the morning of March 6 came the terrible assault described in the leaflet, from which not one of the 180 Texans escaped alive, although before the last man died 500 of their assailants had fallen. No fiercer or more heroic fight was ever seen in America or in the world. The Texan force was under the command of William Barrett Travis, whose last letter, to the president of the convention at Washington, dated March 3, is given in Kennedy, vol. ii., p. 184. Its last words were: "The bearer of this will give your honorable body a statement more in detail, should he escape through the enemies' lines. God and Texas! Victory or Death!" Extracts from Almonte's Journal, on the Mexican side, are also given in Kennedy. Certain details of the massacre were supplied by Mrs. Dickenson, the wife of one of the massacred men, who along with a negro servant was spared.
The account of the battle in Yoakum's History of Texas should be consulted. In the large new History of Texas by Wooten a special chapter on the "Siege and Fall of the Alamo" is contributed by Seth Shepard, and this is of great value. Judge Shepard pronounces Captain Potter's account, printed in the present leaflet, "the most accurate account that has yet appeared." Captain Potter was, at the time of the siege, a resident of Matamoros. He knew many of the leading Mexican officers personally, and his critical investigations were of such a nature that his paper has the value of an original document. It was first printed in the Magazine of American History, January, 1878, and is reprinted here by the permission of the publishers, Messrs. A. S. Barnes & Co.
On the capitol grounds at Austin, Tex., stands a monument to the heroes of the Alamo, erected in 1891, with the inscription: "Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat: the Alamo had none."