Tidbits of Shelby County History
Thirteen Days to Glory

This week’s Tidbit of Shelby County history will be about the Alamo and the brave men who fought to give Texas their independence. This event happened 185 years ago. It was written by Lon Tinkle.

Several months previously, Texians had driven all Mexican troops out of Mexican Texas. About 100 Texians were then garrisoned at the Alamo. The Texian force grew slightly with the arrival of reinforcements led by eventual Alamo co-commanders James Bowie and William B. Travis.

On February 23, approximately 1,500 Mexicans marched into San Antonio de Béxar as the first step in a campaign to retake Texas. For the next 10 days, the two armies engaged in several skirmishes with minimal casualties.

When Mexican troops departed San Antonio de Béxar (now San Antonio, Texas) Texian soldiers captured the Mexican garrison at the Alamo Mission, a former Spanish religious outpost which had been converted to a makeshift fort by the recently expelled Mexican Army. Described by Santa Anna as an "irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name", the Alamo had been designed to withstand an attack by native tribes, not an artillery-equipped army. The complex sprawled across 3 acres, providing almost 1,320 feet (400 m) of perimeter to defend. An interior plaza was bordered on the east by the chapel and to the south by a one-story building known as the Low Barracks. A wooden palisade stretched between these two buildings. The two-story Long Barracks extended north from the chapel. At the northern corner of the east wall stood a cattle pen and horse corral. The walls surrounding the complex were at least 2.75 feet (0.84 m) thick and ranged from 9–12 ft high.

According to Wikipedia history on the battle of the Alamo, Houston could not spare the number of men necessary to mount a successful defense. Instead, he sent Colonel James Bowie with 30 men to remove the artillery from the Alamo and destroy the complex. Bowie was unable to transport the artillery since the Alamo garrison lacked the necessary draft animals. Neill soon persuaded Bowie that the location held strategic importance. In a letter to Governor Henry Smith, Bowie argued that "the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Béxar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier piquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march towards the Sabine." The letter to Smith ended, "Colonel Neill and myself  {Houston} have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy." Bowie also wrote to the provisional government, asking for "men, money, rifles, and cannon powder". Few reinforcements were authorized; cavalry officer William B. Travis arrived in Béxar with 30 men on February 3. Five days later, a small group of volunteers arrived, including the famous frontiersman and former U.S. Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee.

Thirteen Days to Glory by Lon Tinkle

First day of Siege February 23, 1836

Sentry Daniel William Cloud rang the San Fernando Church bell in warning. Travis dispatched Dr. John Sutherland and John W. Smith to ride out to scout the Mexican cavalry. Santa Anna ordered a red flag raised. He ordered a savage burst of cannon fire and the white pennant to signal for a parley. The Texans responded with shot from the 18 pounder cannon and a white flag was carried out by an Anglo-American officer, Benito Jameson, by order of James Bowie. The message was asking if it was true that a parley had been called by the Mexican side. The reply was that the only conditions for surrender would be unconditional surrender at Santa Anna’s discretion.  Travis believed the Texans had initiated the parley. He was very angry. Travis administered an oath to his men of “never surrender”. Travis dispatched Dr. Sutherland and John W. Smith as couriers to Gonzales to get help.

Second Day of Siege    February 24, 1836

Jim Bowie took a detail up a timber scaffolding to work on the cannon that was being mounted. The cannon fell and Bowie plummeted to earth crushing his ribs in his chest. He suffered a terrible concussion also. The Mexican batteries pounded away, the balls hitting the barracks. There were no casualties. Santa Anna gave the Texans a second sleepless night. Four couriers were dispatched from the fort to seek help. (Note: This event left Travis in sole command of the garrison.)

Third Day of Siege    February 25, 1836
Mexicans fired 5-inch Howsers continuously to obscure the fording of the river below the fort. Charlies Despallier and Robert Brown set fire to the houses 90 to 100 yards in front of the fort. Their luck was perfect. They returned under cover of the smoke from the burning houses, as Davy Crockett and expert marksmen picked off the Mexicans who attempted to stop them. The fight raged till noon, when the Mexicans retreated in confusion, dragging dead and wounded behind them. The Mexicans erected more and nearer batteries. Their closest battery to date was 300 yards away from the entrance.

Fourth Day of Siege    February 26, 1836

Santa Anna posted cavalry on the hills east of the Alamo to prevent entry and departure from the Alamo. Texan couriers slipped out anyway. Travis sent John Taylor directly to Fannin. Maverick, Sutherland, Smith, Dimittt, Lewis, Johnson, Highsmith and Baylor had gone to Gonzales and Goliad carrying the Texans hopes and pleas, in despite of Santa Anna’ blockade. None of the defenders were killed. Their hopes were in reinforcements. (Note:  During the first week of the siege more than 200 cannonballs landed in the Alamo plaza.  At first, the Texians matched Mexican artillery fire, often reusing the Mexican cannonballs. On February 26 Travis ordered the artillery to conserve powder and shot.As news of the siege spread throughout Texas, potential reinforcements gathered in Gonzales. They hoped to rendezvous with Colonel James Fannin, who was expected to arrive from Goliad with his garrison. On February 26, after days of indecision, Fannin ordered 320 men, four cannons, and several supply wagons to march towards the Alamo, 90 miles (140 km) away. This group traveled less than 1.0 mile (1.6 km) before turning back. Fannin blamed the retreat on his officers; the officers and enlisted men accused Fannin of aborting the mission.)

Fifth Day of Siege    February 27, 1836

Lack of news began to prey on the Texans’ mind. Disadvantages of the Alamo as a fortress were beginning to loom as grim realities. Walls were not strong enough to withstand prolonged bombardment, nor high enough to discourage scaling. There were no lookholes to fire through. Armament was not sufficient.

Sixth Day of Siege    February 28, 1836

The Mexican army was getting reinforcements steadily. Cannonade had grown and sounded twice as loud now that the Texans were not firing back. Texan armaments were running low. They were conserving their supply of balls, shot and scrap iron including cut-up iron chains. No Texans had been hit, though the enemy fire had been so constant the men had to move within the walls’ open spaces on the run.

Seventh Day of Siege    February 29, 1836

Travis sent Jim Bonham to impress Fannin the Texans had to have assistance; the men of Goliad could still get through the Alamo gates and that the enemy was overwhelming. Travis was obviously stalling for time. In plain sight a Mexican detail was trying to dam up the water supply, without cover, but the Mexican batteries were firing balls so fast the Texans hardly dared raise their heads to take aim. Texan marksmanship was good and the attempt was abandoned. Travis sent two Mexican couriers to get through the Mexican lines. They succeeded in getting through enemy lines and made their way to Gonzales. (Note: Throughout the siege these towns, Goliad and Gonzales, had received multiple couriers, dispatched by Travis to plead for reinforcements and supplies. The most famous of his missives, written February 24, was addressed To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World. Copies of the letter were distributed across Texas.)

Eighth Day of Siege    March 1, 1836

Travis had sent out pleas for help to Fannin, Gov. Smith, the provisional council, and citizens of the United States. Only a plea to Gonzales was answered. Thirty-two men under George Kimball and Albert Martin made it into the Alamo without a loss on March 1, 1836. Theirs was a decision to die. John W. Smith was their guide through the Mexican lines and the Texan outposts. There was a short celebration; they were trapped. Their only hope was Jim Bonham would get help. The 12 Mexican batteries now erected continued to blast away. (Note:  By March 1, the numbers of Mexican casualties were nine dead and four wounded, while the Texian garrison had lost only one man. A convention of Texans was held at Washington-on-the Brazos, where the future of Texas was debated by 59 delegates. It had been convened over the objections of Henry Smith, who had been chosen as the governor of the provisional government that had been established in 1835 but whose belief that Texas was already an independent state divided the provisional government. On March 1, the first day of the convention, a committee began drafting a declaration of independence; on March 2 the declaration was presented and adopted; and on March 3 the delegates began signing it.)

Ninth Day of Siege    March 2, 1836

Travis and his men were not aware that at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the convention declared Texas independence from Mexico and was engaged in writing a constitution forming a government for the new republic. All that day the Mexican bombardment increased in volume. All eyes in the Alamo watched the east. There was still Jim Bonham to be heard from.

Tenth Day of Siege    March 3, 1836

Bonham returned to the outskirts of San Antonio with one or possibly two other couriers. Bonham alone decided to try to get back to the Alamo. Bonham’s news was simple and sad. Fannin would not come. Mexican welcomed 1,500 men reinforcements. The welcome was thunderous. There were parades, bands played and the San Fernando Church bell rang. (Note:  The celebration was in honor of the reinforcements and the news that troops under General José de Urrea had soundly defeated Texian Colonel Frank W. Johnson at the Battle of San Patricio on February 27.)

Eleventh Day of Siege    March 4, 1836

Travis sent more letters, but these were letters to send “now or never”. He defended his decision to stay and defend the Alamo. He said “we had better meet Santa Anna’s forces here than to suffer a war of devastation to rage in our settlements.” The bearer of the last letters was John W. Smith and once more he did make it through the enemy lines. Smith was the last man to leave the Alamo at midnight on March 4th and the last to enter was Bonham for whom the gates had been thrown open at eleven that morning. Legend holds that Colonel Travis called his command together and explained the bleak outlook. The young colonel drew a line in the dirt and asked those willing to die for freedom to cross with him. Jim Bowie had his sick bed carried across. Only Louis Rose, a veteran of Napoleon’s bitter retreat from Moscow, chose to fight another day. He slipped out of the Alamo that night.

Twelfth Day of Siege    March 5, 1836

Santa Anna’s secret orders to the staff fixed 4am Sunday March 6, 1836 as the time to attack. Twenty-eight latter were distributed among the 4 columns of soldiers. Santa Anna stopped the bombardment and a startling hush fell over the mission in the late afternoon. It was at last a chance to grab a few days sleep in merciful silence.

Thirteenth Day of Siege   March 6, 1836

Mexican soldiers began to take their places at 3am. They had to lie flat on their stomachs on the ground for another two hours in the bitter cold. They were learning the truth of the Texas proverb: “if it is cold with us, it freezes; if it is hot, it melts, if it rains, it pours.” The battle lasted approximately 4 ½ hours to 5 hours. The Texan resistance was in 4 acts. The first act of defense was the attempt to hold the walls against the Mexican assaults. The second act was in the courtyard area where the battle was hand to hand. The last two acts inside – first in the barracks, the last in the Alamo chapel. The Mexican were armed with bayonets, the defenders used rifle butts and Bowie knives. Travis died of a bullet wound to the head. Bowie was killed in his sick bed, selling his life dearly with a brace of pistols left for his defense. Crockett’s fate is still debated. Some sources say he died in a pile of Mexican soldiers, victims of his rifle and knife. One Mexican officer, Enrique De La Pena, held Crockett was captured with a few other defenders and executed by Santa Anna. When the fighting stopped between 8:30 and 9am all defenders were dead. Only 1 or 2 women, children and black slaves survived the assault. But Travis and his men placed a heavy price indeed on victory. On the Texas side 182 men, including 32 from Gonzales were killed. A conservative estimate set the losses of the Mexican at between 1200 and 1500. The heroic defense of the Alamo gave General Sam Houston time to gather the forces he needed to save the independence movement. He retreated at San Jacinto, turned on the Mexicans, surprised them during an afternoon siesta, and on April 21, 1836, after a 20 minute battle he routed the entire Mexican army. Houston’s army captured Santa Anna himself the following day and forced him to sign a treaty granting Texas independence.

Note: The exact number of defenders at the Alamo has been debated. It is known that approximately 200 defenders fought for Texas and was overrun in less than two hours None of the defenders survived. The number is usually listed at 187 defenders who forces consisted of 13 native-born Texans, 11 of Spanish descent. Forty-one Europeans, two African Americans, and the rest were Americans from the states in the United States. Not everyone in the fort was killed. Most of the survivors were women, children, servants, and enslaved people. Among them was Susanna W. Dickinson, widow of Capt. Almeron Dickinson and her infant daughter, Angelina. It was Mrs. Dickinson who later reported the fall of the post to Sam Houston in Gonzales.

Mexican dictator San Anna won the battle but many of his officers believed he had paid too high a price. Some 600 Mexican soldiers died in the battle, compared to roughly 200 rebellious Texans. Furthermore, the brave defense of the Alamo caused many more rebels to join the Texan army. Many of the early settlers of this county heard the called and join to army to gain Texas independence.