On the night before the final Mexican assault, one man escaped the Alamo to testify to the defenders’ courage.
Or so goes the most famous story of the 13-day siege.
He was Louis Rose, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars and the dreadful 1812 retreat from Moscow. Unwilling to die in a hopeless battle, he slipped over a wall and sneaked through Mexican siege lines.
At Grimes County, he found shelter at the homestead of Abraham and Mary Ann Zuber.
Their son, William, later claimed that his parents told him of Rose’s visit–and his story of Travis’ “line in the sand” speech. In 1873, he published the tale in the Texas Almanac.
But many historians believe it is a fabrication. The story comes to us third-hand–from Rose to the Zubers to their son. And it was published 37 years after the Alamo fell.
After a 12-day siege, Santa Anna decided to overwhelm the Alamo.
Some of his officers objected. They wanted to wait for bigger siege cannon to arrive–to knock down the Alamo’s three-feet-thick adobe walls. Without shelter, the defenders would be forced to surrender.
But Santa Anna insisted on an all-out assault: “Without blood and tears, there is no glory.”
The first assault came at about 5 a.m. on March 6, 1836.
The fort’s riflemen–aided by 14 cannons–repulsed it. And the second assault as well.
But the third assault proved unstoppable.
The Alamo covered three acres, and held at most 250 defenders–against 2,000 Mexican soldiers. When the Mexicans reached the fort, they mounted scaling ladders and poured over the walls.
Travis was one of the first defenders to fall–shot through the forehead after firing a shotgun into the Mexican soldiery below.
Death of William Barrett Travis (waving sword)
Mexicans broke into the room where the ailing Bowie lay. In Three Roads to the Alamo, historian William C. Davis writes that Bowie may have been unconscious or delirious. Mistaking him for a coward, the soldiers bayoneted him and blew out his brains.
But some accounts claim that Bowie died fighting–shooting two Mexicans with pistols, then plunging his famous knife into a third before being bayoneted. Nearly every Alamo movie depicts Bowie’s death this way.
Jim Bowie’s death
As the Mexicans poured into the fort, at least 60 Texans tried to escape over the walls into the surrounding prairie. But they were quickly dispatched by lance-bearing Mexican calvary.
The death of David Crockett remains highly controversial.
Baby boomers usually opt for the Walt Disney version: Davy swinging Old Betsey as Mexicans surround him. Almost every Alamo movie depicts him fighting to the death.
David Crockett’s death
But Mexican Colonel Jose Enrique de la Pena claimed Crockett was one of seven Texans who surrendered or were captured and brought before Santa Anna after the battle. Santa Anna ordered their immediate execution, and they were hacked to death with sabers.
Only the 2004 remake of The Alamo has dared to depict this version.
Although this version is now accepted by most historians, some still believe the de la Pena diary from which it comes is a forgery.
An hour after the battle erupted, it was over.
That afternoon, Santa Anna ordered the bodies of the slain defenders stacked and burned in three pyres.
Contrary to popular belief, some of the garrison survived:
- Joe, a black slave who had belonged to William B. Travis, the Alamo’s commander;
- Susannah Dickinson, the wife of a lieutenant killed in the Alamo, and her baby, Angelina;
- Several Mexican women and their children.
Also contrary to legend, the bravery of the Alamo defenders did not buy time for Texas to raise an army against Santa Anna. This didn’t happen until after the battle.
But their sacrifice proved crucial in securing Texas’ independence:
- The Alamo’s destruction warned those Texans who had not supported the revolution that they had no choice: They must win, die or flee their homes to the safety of the United States.
- It stirred increasing numbers of Americans to enter Texas and enlist in Sam Houston’s growing army.
- Santa Anna’s army was greatly weakened, losing 600 killed and wounded–a casualty rate of 33%.
- The nearly two-week siege bought time for the Texas convention to meet at Washington-on-the-Brazos and declare independence from Mexico.
On April 21, 1836, Santa Anna made a crucial mistake: During his army’s afternoon siesta, he failed to post sentries around his camp. That afternoon, Sam Houston’s 900-man army struck the 1,400-man Mexican force at San Jacinto.
In 18 minutes, the Texans–shouting “Remember the Alamo!”–killed about 700 Mexican soldiers and wounded 200 others. The next day, a Texas patrol captured Santa Anna.
Resisting angry demands to hang the Mexican dictator, Houston forced Santa Anna to surrender control of Texas in return for his life.
The victory at San Jacinto won the independence of Texas. But the 13-day siege and fall of the Alamo remains the most famous and celebrated part of that conflict.
Like Thermopylae, the battle of the Alamo proved both a defeat–and a victory.