THE ROUT AT THE ALAMO

BY HENRY SAKAIDA

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The painting by Robert Onderdonk (1903) is titled “The Fall of the Alamo.” It now hangs in the Texas State Capital building in Austin. It is a huge painting! David Crockett, center, swinging his rifle. The artist added a ghostly image of Jim Bowie fighting with his knife on the left side of the painting, which is very difficult to see here.

The story of the Battle of the Alamo as you know it today, is a patriotic concoction of myth and truth. I’ve always loved the story ever since I was a kid!  David Crockett and Jim Bowie were my favorite heroes, along with the Lone Ranger and Sky King.

A few months ago, I was in San Antonio, Texas visiting an old college classmate. You can’t go to San Antonio without visiting the Alamo, a sacred shrine honoring the heroes of the Texas War of Independence.  As soon as I saw my buddy, I said, “Take me to the Alamo!” It is a very popular and beautifully maintained tourist attraction.

As I toured the Alamo for the first time, my observation as a military historian kicked in. I gained a different perspective about the battle. The things I had read just didn’t seem to make sense anymore and I started to question everything. “How could a small group of Texians take such a huge toll of the Mexican army before they fell?” I asked myself. I needed to see for myself if the story was truly accurate. The epic event took place on 6 March 1836.

 

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Forensic historians have the ability to analyze battles from long ago. What needs to be analyzed? Written accounts from both sides must be compared; the geography and terrain of the battlefield; the fortifications; the weather; time of day/night; tactics, weapons, military officer’s experience and leadership qualities; numbers of soldiers involved; logistical supplies, health conditions; chain of command, order of battle, intelligence information, politics, communications; morale, and human behavior and instincts under battle.

Much of what you may know about the Alamo battle came from watching movies. There have been several, with countless books and magazine articles, documentaries, etc. Movies require action heroes and villains. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his soldiers are always depicted as villains. I overheard a dad telling his little boy in front of the Alamo chapel, “This is where Davy Crockett was killed by the bad guys.”  How typical…and sad.

The actual battle took place around 0500 on 6 March 1836 when it was dark. To overcome this problem for the theater patrons, the early movies depicted the battle in broad daylight (see John Wayne’s epic The Alamo (1960) and Walt Disney’s 1955  episode of Davy Crockett at the Alamo)!!! Ron Howard’s 2004 movie The Alamo, starring Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, and Jason Patric, depicted the battle in the dark early morning hours, and they got this part right.

In September 1835, General Martin Perfecto de Cos arrived in San Antonio with 300 men to arrest the leaders of the rebellion. The Texians, led by Stephen F. Austin, fought and forced Cos to take refuge in the Alamo.  On 9 December, General Cos realized the futility of their situation and surrendered. The siege lasted 56 days. After the departure of Cos, Colonel Jim Bowie was ordered by General Sam Houston to take some men to destroy the fortress and retrieve the cannons. This was because San Antonio was not strategic and the Alamo couldn’t be defended. Bowie arrived on 19 January 1836 with 30 men. Unfortunately, there were no draft animals available to haul away the cannons.  Cos had left a considerable amount of gunpowder, too. Disobeying orders, Bowie and his men elected to stay and defend the town.

William B. Travis arrived at the Alamo on 3 February under orders from Texas Governor Henry Smith. He brought 18 Texas Army regulars to reinforce Bowie. The 26 year old lieutenant colonel of cavalry clashed with Bowie over the command of the fort. These men had no military experience, and both had tremendous egos. There was poor leadership and divided loyalties right from the start. An agreement was reached where Travis  would command his regulars while the civilian volunteers picked Jim Bowie as their leader.  The civilians did not want to be treated like soldiers and certainly didn’t act like soldiers; they were untrained, undisciplined and independent like their leader. This would serve to undermine the defense of the Alamo during the final attack.

As I inspected the long barracks, I quickly noted the thickness of the limestone walls…at least 2.5 feet thick, I was told. The chapel wall was 4-foot thick. It is an excellent noise barrier. The defenders did not sleep out in the cold; they slept in the quiet, well-insulated barracks. More on this later.

The Mexican Army arrived in San Antonio on 23 February. There was panic as the Texians and some of their families fled into the Alamo. When General Santa Anna demanded the unconditional surrender of the fortress, Travis answered with a shot from his 18-pounder cannon. This grave insult sealed their fate. The red flag of no quarter was hoisted from the town’s San Fernando Church which could be seen from the Alamo. It was a death signal; every defender was going to be put to the sword.

How many defenders were there in the Alamo? According to Travis’ letter to Jesse Grimes (a member of the Provisional Government of Texas) dated 3 March, it was 145. This included the 32 volunteers from Gonzales who charged across the enemy lines and arrived on 1 March. There were no more reinforcements. These men must have been crestfallen when they realized that they had just entered a death trap. Santa Anna had ringed the fort with at least 1,800 men and now, there was no escape. How could 145 men possibly give a ferocious defense of  a 3-acre compound even under the best circumstances?

The conditions in the fortress were deplorable. Sanitation was non-existent. Food, water, and firewood were scarce and many men were in poor health. The inadequate planning for the defense of the Alamo was clearly evident. Men do not fight well when they are malnourished, ill, outnumbered, abandoned, and trapped.

Santa Anna laid siege to the Alamo compound for 13 days. He knew the layout of the fort from his brother-in-law, General Perfecto de Cos and from residents in town. Every night, artillery bombarded the fortress. This tactic served to deprive the weary defenders of sleep. They were being set up and didn’t even know it. The Mexicans finally stopped the nightly artillery barrage so that their opponents could get some uninterrupted sleep. Santa Anna planned for a lightning raid and gave orders to his men: No heavy overcoats and backpacks to impede mobility. Around midnight, his men took their positions and waited for the signal.

A rocket flare shot into the black sky. The attack was on! While the defenders slept soundly, the Mexicans advanced quietly toward the fort from all sides. There were a few pickets outside the compound as an early warning system, but they were quickly silenced as they dozed. The major attack focused on the north wall, the weakest part of the Alamo. The crumbling wall was shored up with logs and earth.

The Mexican soldiers were disciplined and were ordered to maintain strict silence; their safety, the element of surprise, and final victory counted on it. I’ve read one account where an overzealous soldier shouted a battle cry while charging the walls. This caused others to break silence and join in. This is not credible for two reasons: No one would have dared to violate an explicit order and put their own lives in jeopardy. It defies logic to alert the enemy before they reached the walls. And secondly, if such a battle cry was shouted, it is doubtful that the defenders would have heard it through the thick walls of their barracks as they slept.

Acting like modern day Special Forces, the Mexican troopers climbed over the north wall and fanned out into the compound. They stormed into rooms to catch some Texians by complete surprise. They were quickly bayoneted or shot. The men surged forward in groups, led by their sergeants and junior officers.

The defenders were slow to awaken. When they heard the isolated shooting and commotion, they must have wondered what was going on. Then shock. The pre-dawn assault was totally unexpected! Some rushed to their assigned posts while others pondered what to do.  You can’t expect civilians to act like soldiers. It was fight or flight; some fought while others fled. Travis bolted out into the darkness and tried to organize a hasty defense. The civilians did not consider him as their leader and would not have followed him into oblivion. He raced towards the north wall and was killed almost immediately.

The Texians awoke to a real nightmare and tried to frantically load their rifles in the dark. It was necessary back then to keep firearms unloaded until use. The gunpowder would absorb moisture quickly if left too long in the weapon. Statistically, one in seven failed to fire even when loaded properly. Hitting anything in the dark would have been difficult. Who is running towards you, friend or foe?

The Mexican soldiers had the definite edge. At the end of their muskets, each soldier affixed a 13” spike bayonet. The defenders were armed with hunting rifles, which did not have bayonets. Most of the killings occurred in hand-to-hand combat, using bayonets, knives, and tomahawks.

With the Mexican soldiers surging forward, the defenders fell back toward the south end of the compound. A large number of men were quartered in the two-story long barracks. The 2nd floor served as their hospital and most of the occupants were ill or injured. This was where a barrage of gunfire took place. The cornered men fought for their lives and died not heroically, but violently.

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Looking towards the chapel from the southwest corner of the  Alamo compound. The long barracks, then a 2-story building on the left, is now a single-story structure. It was used as a hospital. The defenders were trapped there and fought savagely until all  were killed.

 

About 60 Alamo defenders bolted through the south palisade, an 8′ log fence connecting the chapel to the low barracks. This was surely an organized effort. The coast seemed clear, but Santa Anna had anticipated such an escape attempt. His best dragoons (cavalrymen) were waiting for them, hunting them down like animals, with flashing swords and 7’ lances.

By dawn with the faint light of day, mop up operations began. Soldiers collected weapons and took souvenirs off the dead. Texians showing signs of life were bayoneted or shot. The women, children, and slaves were spared. A few men were found hiding and brought before an indignant Santa Anna. He ordered their execution and they were immediately stabbed and hacked to death. The bodies of the Texians were dragged out to be burned in two large pyres outside of the Alamo compound.

San Antonio was not the key to Texas as the phony movie dialogues would have you believe. It held no strategic importance to either side. Houston was not about to send his men to the rescue. The Alamo defenders were left to their fate. It was wholly unnecessary for General Santa Anna to take the Alamo. However, he wanted a quick and overwhelming victory to send a message to the leaders of the Texas Revolution: leave or die!

While many historians write that it took about 90 minutes to overrun the Alamo, the Mexicans say that it only took about 30 minutes. Implausible? General Santa Anna wrote that they suffered 70 deaths and 300 wounded. Some of the fatalities stemmed from friendly fire when three separate units converged and fired on each other in the dark.  Does 70 deaths sound too low? It was a rout! American historians write that the Mexicans suffered over 600 killed/wounded. What nonsense!

On 21 April 1836, General Santa Anna’s army was defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto and he was captured. That fight only lasted 18 minutes! Implausible? The Texians suffered 11 killed and 30 wounded. Ironically, Sam Houston’s army caught the Mexicans taking their customary afternoon siesta! Does 11 Texian deaths sound too low? It was a rout! General Houston lost control of his men, who went on a revenge-filled killing spree. Over 650 Mexicans died.

The men at the Alamo were almost all economic opportunists from the US. At the beginning, Mexico welcomed the migrants and gave them free land if they became Mexican citizens and adapted to Mexican ways. Many simply could not or would not adapt; they started demanding rights. Consequently, Santa Anna decided to rid Mexico of these troublesome people, but it was too late. The call went out for Americans to come to Texas and join the fight for independence. In return, they would be rewarded with free land. FREE LAND!!!

Thousands of mercenaries came to fight including David Crockett. He and his volunteers signed up with the Provisional Government of Texas for a 6-month period. Each man would be compensated with 4,600 acres of land. The failed US Congressman and frontier humorist, suffering massive debt at home, arrived at the Alamo on 8 February. He, too, was seeking a new life for himself and his family, at Mexico’s expense.

“Fighting for independence” is synonymous with “regime change.”  It starts for economic/financial reasons. If the problem cannot be resolved politically, it becomes an armed conflict.  It was true back then, and is still true today.

Now for the really ugly truth. The Texas Revolution had everything to do with slavery. The landowner’s family could not work 4,600 acres by themselves; they needed slave labor. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829. The solution? Secede from Mexico and keep slavery! (note: Not a good message for our school children!) Lest you forget your American Civil War history, Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 and joined the Confederacy to maintain slavery. The visitor information about the Alamo battle is sanitized for our mental comfort and there is no mention of slavery.

The Alamo defenders were lauded as heroes by the leaders of the Texas Revolution, but not so by the residents of San Antonio. They did not enjoy support there. The townspeople were either indifferent or negative. The cremated remains of the Alamo defenders were left to the elements until Capt Juan Seguin, one of the leaders of the revolution, returned to San Antonio almost a year later. He collected pieces of bone scattered about, put them in a wooden box, and buried it in an orchard. The location of this grave was later forgotten.

Who were the real heroes at the Battle of the Alamo? The Texians who fought to secede from Mexico to keep slavery, or the Mexican soldiers who fought to end slavery and save their country from foreign invaders?

 

For Books by Henry Sakaida Check Out:

Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941–45

Heroines of the Soviet Union 1941–45

I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft Carrying Strike Submarine, Objective Panama Canal

Genda’s Blade: Japan’s Squadron of Aces: 343 Kokutai

Aces of the Rising Sun 1937–1945

B-29 Hunters of the JAAF

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