Texas: The Alamo

First founded as a Franciscan mission in 1718, the Alamo was destroyed by a hurricane in 1744. By 1756, the mission church was reconstructed at its present location. In 1836, 180 Texans defended the Alamo for two weeks against a Mexican army numbering 5,000. The three-acre compound was surrounded by stone walls, approximately eleven feet high and three feet thick. A corral and the long barracks were northwest of the church, and the low barracks were behind the southern wall.

Site Office

The Alamo

P.O. Box 2599

San Antonio, TX 78299

ph.: (210) 225-1391

fax: (210) 229-1343

Web site: www.thealamo.org

The Alamo was the site of one of the most dramatic battles ever fought, but it was never intended to be a military fortress. In 1718, Spanish Franciscans living in Mexico sent Father Antonio Olivares to the San Antonio River with the purpose of starting a mission in what was then Mexican territory. With the authority of Don Martin de Alarcón, military governor of Texas, Olivares established a site for a fort and village. Seventy-two settlers, priests, and soldiers migrated to the area from Mexico, and built a mission named after San Antonio de Valero, the viceroy of Mexico.

Early History

The Valero mission was founded in May, 1718, along with the village of San Antonio de Bexar, four hundred yards west, and the smaller Villa Bexar to the south. The mission would not be known as the Alamo until one hundred years later, when Spanish troops from Alamo de Parras named the mission after their hometown. The construction of the present Alamo began in 1756, after a hurricane and fire destroyed the first stone church in 1744.

Between 1680 and 1793, Spain founded thirty-six missions in Texas for the purpose of expanding its religious and political influence. For several decades the Franciscan friars used the Valero mission as a place to convert local Indians to Catholicism. The Payaya and Coahuiltecan tribes faced serious threats from the Apache, who were in turn being pushed south by the Comanche of the high plains. Disease and the Comanche decimated the mission’s farming population and livestock, so the Franciscans moved their efforts to a nearby church in 1793. By this date San Antonio had developed into the most important frontier outpost and the provincial capital of Texas.

Texas Independence Movement

A group called the American Volunteers tried to make Texas a republic in 1813, issuing a Declaration of Independence based on the U.S. model. Their efforts were short-lived; a Mexican republican named Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara rejected the Declaration and issued a Mexican Constitution. During this period before the Texas Revolution, the Spanish army used the mission as a barracks and armory. In December, 1835, a Mexican garrison led by General Martín Perfecto de Cós defended the Alamo against Texans for six weeks, a standoff known as the Siege of Bexar. After Ben Milam called for volunteers, Cós surrendered and Texas held the Alamo until Antonio López de Santa Anna’s attack on March 6, 1836.

The story of the stand at the Alamo begins with slavery. Stephen Fuller Austin led U.S. settlers into Texas after Mexican authorities decided this move would help drive Indians out of the territory. By 1830, twenty thousand of these settlers had answered the call to cheap, fertile land in Texas. Many of these Americans owned slaves, however, a practice prohibited by the Mexican government. In 1834, after Austin requested independence for his slaveowning Texans as a prelimary action to joining the United States, he was arrested and jailed by Mexico. President Santa Anna of Mexico then ordered immediate acceptance of his unified constitution for Mexico and its territories.

Until 1835-1836, many Texans were divided over the issue of independence from Mexico. The Consultation of November, 1835, at San Felipe compromised, with delegates electing a legislative council that favored making Texas a self-governing Mexican state, but vesting executive authority in Governor Henry Smith, an advocate of independence. The Texan revolt against Mexico in 1835 was a reaction to the governance of Santa Anna, who revoked several rights of the 1824 Mexican Constitution. After years of disagreement, Texans chose to secede.

In January, 1836, the legislative council of Texas approved a ridiculous plan to invade Matamoros, a small town at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The council believed the action would be a gesture of support for the Constitution of 1824 while advancing statehood as well. Hearing news of a Mexican offensive, Governor Smith and General Sam Houston strongly dissented from the Matamoros expedition. Both men agreed it was logical that Mexico would strike the Alamo first. Smith became outraged after two hundred men left the Alamo for a rendezvous at Goliad, leaving only eighty men to defend the outpost. Although Houston was commander in chief of the Texas army, he could not order the Goliad troops to return since the legislative council had appointed James Fannin as the supreme commander in Goliad.

On January 14, Houston received a letter from Colonel James Neill that complained about problems at the Alamo: “We are in a torpid, defenseless situation, we have not horses enough to send out a patrole or spy.” The poor conditions and morale convinced Houston to abandon the outpost. He sent Colonel Jim Bowie and thirty men to Neill’s aid, with orders to blow up and evacuate the mission. Bowie was a respected frontiersman, and his daring escapades with a double-edged knife were recounted all over Texas, but he was not a military strategist. After arriving at the Alamo on January 19, Bowie challenged Houston’s orders by deciding to defend the mission. The few defenders would have the advantage of a well-stocked armory left behind by General Cós.

Green B. Jameson, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer from San Felipe and a military engineer, noted the Alamo’s glaring weaknesses. Jameson wrote to Sam Houston on January 18, “You can plainly see that the Alamo never was built by a military people for a fortress.” The old mission was built around a rectangular courtyard that ran north and south. This three-acre space was surrounded by stone walls, twelve feet high in some areas, with a thickness between two and three feet. The church, located at the southeast corner of the mission, was damaged by now. Its towers and dome had collapsed into the nave, but the stone walls remained. The church itself was sturdy, but it was set back from the compound, leaving a fifty-yard space in the southeast corner. A two-story structure called the long barracks stood slightly northwest of the church, and the one-story low barracks were located behind the southern wall. Two corrals were nestled between the long barracks and the church.

Fortification of the Alamo

As the Texans learned that the Mexican cavalry was heading for San Antonio, Jameson led the fortification effort. The mission walls lacked the embrasures and barbettes of a fortress, but makeshift defenses were quickly installed. Jameson closed the space in the southeast corner with a palisade of stakes and dirt, created parapets and gun mounts made from earth and timber, and stationed their most powerful cannon, an eighteen-pounder, in the southwest corner, facing the town. Captain Almeron Dickinson organized the mounting of twenty guns.

As Bowie’s determination to defend the Alamo increased, his physical condition deteriorated from a disease later diagnosed as tuberculosis. Having learned that Mexican General Ramirez y Sesma’s force was approaching, with five thousand Mexicans following close behind, Bowie wrote a letter to Governor Smith

The salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard, and if it were in the possession of Santa Anna, there is no stronghold from which to repel him in his march toward the Sabine. Colonel Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.

On February 3, the day after Bowie sent his letter, Colonel William B. Travis arrived at the Alamo with thirty volunteers, ranging from a Baptist minister to a medical student. Next to arrive were Davy Crockett and a group of twelve men. Reputed as a vicious Indian fighter and an excellent marksman, Crockett had spent time in the Tennessee legislature and U.S. Congress. After failing to get reelected to Congress in 1835, Crockett reportedly told his constituents that he was going to Texas and they could go to hell.

Members of the Garrison

By February 10, an assortment of other volunteers had trickled in. The Alamo’s garrison numbered 142. They differed in nationality and profession; some were city dwellers, others roamed the frontier. The youngest man of the garrison was eighteen-year-old William Malone, who had recently run away from his home in Georgia. Robert Moore, a fifty-five-year-old private from Virginia, was the oldest. The New Orleans Greys, who arrived in Texas in November, 1835, were the only formal military group. In his diary, a member of Santa Anna’s force had recorded seeing a blue flag–the flag of the New Orleans Greys–flying above the Alamo’s church.

After receiving months of training near Saltillo, Mexico, Santa Anna’s army had departed for Texas on January 26. Three infantry brigades were commanded by Generals Urrea, Gaona, and Tolsa; General Andrade headed the cavalry. About 4,100 men and a dozen cannon reached the Rio Grande on February 12, where General Sesma and 1,500 men joined the Mexican advance. Sam Houston feared for the Texans in San Antonio.

During a party to celebrate Crockett’s arrival, a courier arrived with news of Santa Anna’s progress. Bowie, Travis, and Crockett gathered to discuss their options, but Neill was excluded from the gathering. Neill’s stint as commander was over; he appointed Travis as the new commander and left the compound on “sick leave.” Since Travis was only twenty-six, most of the volunteers voiced their preference for Bowie. Travis settled the conflict with a vote, and Bowie won by a landslide. By February 14, however, Bowie allowed Travis equal share of the Alamo’s command; Travis would assume a greater share as Bowie’s illness progressed.

Santa Ana Advances on San Antonio

After increasing reports of an advancing Mexican army, civilians began fleeing San Antonio on the morning of February 23. A disbelieving Travis sent two men, John Sutherland and John Smith, to investigate. The Texans rode their horses to a hill south of town and spotted a fully equipped cavalry of nearly four hundred soldiers, assembled in battle formation. As the men galloped back to town, shouting warnings, Sutherland’s horse fell and landed on his legs. Hearing the cries of the Texans, a lookout in San Antonio began ringing the bell of the San Fernando Church.

Panicked townspeople fled their houses and stores, gathering whatever possessions they could. Texans raced up Potrero Street, seizing grain and military equipment from surrounding huts and herding thirty cattle into the Alamo’s corral. Bowie guided the two sisters of his late wife into the Alamo. Other friends and relatives of the Texan volunteers huddled in the rooms of the church, a haven save for the stores of gunpowder. Several black slaves were brought in as servants.

Travis assigned Crockett to the Alamo’s weakest position, the southeast gap between the church and the low barracks. The young commander decided there was time to call for volunteers. He scrawled a desperate letter: “The enemy in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance.” Travis addressed the note “To any of the inhabitants of Texas” and ordered an injured John Sutherland and John Smith to deliver it to Gonzales, Texas.

After arriving in San Antonio, Santa Anna’s troops hung a red banner, the Mexican symbol for no surrender, from the San Fernando church. This told the Texans, eight hundred yards away, that they would have to fight to the death. Travis responded by firing a shot from the eighteen-pounder. East of the Alamo, James Butler Bonham heard the cannon as he returned from Goliad, where Colonel James Fannin had refused to send reinforcements. Interpreting the shot as a last call for help, Bonham stepped up his progress. On the morning of March 3, he would be the last man to enter the Alamo, raising the number of defenders to 183.

Call for Unconditional Surrender

Inside, the Texans heard a Mexican bugle call and some thought it meant a chance to negotiate. Without consulting Travis, Bowie sent a messenger to ask if the Texans could surrender and reestablish residence in San Antonio. Under a white flag, Jameson carried the message but returned with the news that the Mexicans demanded an unconditional surrender. Another cannon shot resounded from the Alamo, and both sides made final preparations for war.

At dawn on February 24 the Mexicans began their assault with sporadic artillery fire from a riverbank four hundred yards away. For the rest of the day, two nine-pounders bombarded the fort while a five-inch howitzer scattered shots into the courtyard. Travis, unshaken, wrote a second message that would eventually focus the world’s attention on the rout in San Antonio:

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.

Though the note itself was sent to Gonzales, Texas, addressed “To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world,” its message spread to New Orleans, New York, Boston, and Europe. Travis’s passionate plea would eventually unite the country behind Texas and inspire U.S. troops to avenge the Texans’ deaths at the Alamo.

Travis sent his request with Captain Albert Martin while a second courier went southeast to Goliad, arriving on February 26. Here, Colonel Fannin finally responded, leaving his outpost and heading west with 320 men. Led by a reluctant Fannin, the relief expedition encountered several problems. First the group’s supply wagon broke down, and the entire garrison was ordered to wait until the wagon could be repaired. By dusk, Fannin decided to delay the trek until morning, but during the night several oxen wandered off and it took his men all day to recapture them. Late in the afternoon of February 27, Fannin’s doubts got the best of him. Intimidated at the prospect of facing thousands of Mexican troops, he rationalized that Goliad would be defenseless if they proceeded.

As Fannin’s men returned to Fort Defiance in Goliad, Mexican forces led by General Urrea annihilated the Matamoros expedition at San Patricio, fifty miles south. On February 24, the message sent with Sutherland and Smith arrived at Gonzales, seventy miles east of San Antonio. With Smith as a guide, a twenty-five-man militia company under George Kimbell departed on the 27th. Before leaving town, the soldiers stopped at the residence of John G. King, where fifteen-year-old William King asked to go in place of his father. Kimbell agreed to the trade.

On the night of February 29, the Gonzales company secretly crept through the Mexican lines and arrived at the Alamo walls by 3 a.m. on March 1. A Texan sentry, assuming they were Mexicans, began firing on them, shooting one man in the foot. When a militiaman from Gonzales shouted a familiar oath, the main gate was opened and the men entered before Mexican patrols could respond. Though the reinforcements were immediately welcomed with boisterous approval, Travis was disheartened by the meager number.

Not one Texan was killed during the first week of fighting. The initial melee occurred when a Mexican scouting party was driven back with heavy rifle and cannon fire. The next day, Texans set fire to several wooden shacks near the mission after the Mexicans tried to use the area for a gun emplacement.

During the night, the enemy’s gun batteries drew closer as Santa Anna gradually compressed his encirclement. Mexican soldiers dug trenches behind shacks and constructed battery emplacements, avoiding the deadly area within two hundred yards of the fortress. When Travis sent another call for assistance, the messenger escaped by pretending to be a Mexican soldier.

The Second Week of the Siege

In between the sporadic Mexican advances, the Texans worked hard at strengthening the Alamo’s walls, digging trenches, and remounting guns. Sometimes the ailing Bowie had his cot carried among the soldiers so he could continue his command. One of the Mexican officers, Captain Rafael Soldana, recalled a man who fought bravely from the Alamo’s palisade. Most likely, it is Davy Crockett, as he describes “a tall man, with flowing hair” who

wore a buckskin suit and a cap all of a pattern entirely different from those worn by his comrades. This man would rest his long gun and fire, and we all learned to keep at a good distance when he was seen to make ready to shoot. He rarely missed his mark, and when he fired he always rose to his feet and calmly reloaded his gun, seemingly indifferent to the shots fired at him by our men. He had a strong, resonant voice and often railed at us.

A cold snap hit San Antonio for two days. The Texans struggled to keep warm while protecting themselves from the Mexican bombardment. Trying to destroy his foes psychologically, Santa Anna ordered his men to maintain their taunts, bugle calls, and nightly shelling. As a morale booster, Crockett entertained the men with his fiddle while John McGregor played his bagpipes; the two men even contested to see who could play loudest. Only one defender, Henry Warnell, expressed the confining dread most of the men felt: “I’d much rather be out in that open prairie. . . . I don’t like to be penned up like this.”

On March 3, Santa Anna’s army of 2,500 men received more reinforcements, and the Mexicans drew closer. Travis sent a final grim message: “I feel confident that the determined valor and desperate courage of my men will not fail them. . . . Although they may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so dear, it will be worse for him than a defeat.”

A burst of renewed shelling bombarded the crumbling Alamo on the dawn of March 4. The Texans had withstood an eleven-day siege thus far, but Travis became aware their time was running out. On March 5, he called a meeting and offered the following terms to his men: Anyone who wanted to leave could do so, but whoever stayed had to fight to the death. Legend has it that Travis drew a line in the dirt with his sword and asked those who wanted to stay to cross the line. Only one man chose to leave.

The Final Mexican Assault

March 5 also found Santa Anna completing a plan of attack. The next morning his army would simultaneously converge on all sides of the Alamo. Colonel Morales and one hundred men would storm Crockett’s palisade, Colonel Duque and three hundred men would storm the northeast, Romero would attack the area by the corrals with another three hundred, and General Cós would strike the northwest side with four hundred. East of the Alamo, Sesma’s cavalry would patrol for anyone attempting to escape.

At 5:00 in the morning on March 6, the Mexicans began their charge with bugle calls and a cry of “Viva Santa Anna.” The Mexican army band played the Degnello, a death march. Duque’s men hit first, assailing the north wall carrying twenty-eight ladders. Texans raced to their positions, where five guns lay ready by each man, and immediately fired upon the mass of climbing bodies. Santa Anna watched the smoky confusion from the north. His rear column tried to aim for the Texans, but killed dozens of Mexicans near the walls as others dove for cover. On the north parapet, next to the fourteen-pounder, a bullet struck Travis in the middle of the forehead, immediately killing him.

Waves of Mexicans charged the east, south, and west sides, but steady rifle and artillery fire repulsed the initial assault. The Mexican columns regrouped and started a second assault, suffering scores of fatalities as they were driven back once again. The third attempt at overtaking the Alamo proved deadly. Santa Anna dispatched his reserves to help with Duque’s column, and Romero’s eastern column merged with the northern attack just as they managed to breach a fortified hole of timbers.

General Cós and his northwestern column shifted east, joining the two columns surging into the fort. The Texans turned their cannon around and blasted the swarming intruders, but their numbers were overwhelming. Crockett’s men retreated as Morales’s southern attack breached the makeshift palisade and took the eighteen-pounder. His troops opened the main gate, allowing entrance to a swirling tide of Mexicans.

Surrounded on all four sides, with no time to reload, the Texans engaged in desperate hand-to-hand combat as they struggled across the plaza to the long and low barracks. As planned, the defenders made their last stand within these fortified shelters. Earthen barricades had been constructed in front of all five doors to block the flood of bodies, and newly created loopholes allowed the Texans to let loose a cascade of bullets, killing countless Mexicans.

Crockett’s Tennesseans, cut off from the barracks, viciously retaliated, one man killing eight Mexicans. From the north wall, near Travis’s body, Mexicans trained the fourteen-pounder on the barracks; Mexicans on the south wall did the same with the eighteen-pounder. Cannon fire obliterated the parapets, followed by a volley of rifle fire while Mexicans stormed the buildings. The remaining Texans were clubbed or stabbed with bayonets, including Bowie as he lay on his cot.

With only minutes left, Captain Dickinson and thirteen men continued fighting from within the church, hitting their foe with grapeshot. Once again, the eighteen-pounder was used, this time to blast the church. Brandishing a torch, defender Robert Evans attempted to light the powder magazine before getting cut down. Clutching her daughter, Susannah Dickinson sat mourning by her dead husband. A desperate Jacob Walker burst into the room searching for a hiding place but was immediately killed.

Surrender of the Last Defenders

General Castrillón confronted the last seven defenders inside the church. He ordered his men to cease their attack and allowed the Texans to surrender. Castrillón pleaded on the captives’ behalf, but Santa Anna ordered their immediate execution. Ten noncombatants were spared: Bowie’s two sisters-in-law; the widow of Gregorio Esparza and her four children; other Mexican women and children; and Joe, Travis’s servant.

The number of Mexican casualties is uncertain, as no two sources agree. Although the majority of Texan sources claim one thousand casualties, the best estimate is two hundred killed and four hundred wounded, or six hundred total casualties. Many of the wounded later died as a result of poor medical treatment.

Legacy of the Battle

A giant funeral fire in the Alamo’s plaza served as the burial ground for 183 Texans. Though Santa Anna tried to conceal the modest number of men who had resisted his forces, claiming six hundred Texans and seventy Mexicans were killed, the harm inflicted at the Alamo would soon be evident. Regardless of the Mexican casualties, a small group of Texans had delayed Santa Anna’s advancing army for two weeks. Their stand provided General Sam Houston with enough time to mobilize his army.

Also, the slaughter in San Antonio enraged Americans as no victory could have. News of Travis’s messages for help inflamed emotions and guilt. Soldiers from Goliad and elsewhere were shamed by their failure to answer the call. William Gray predicted that “Texas will take honor to herself for defense of the Alamo and will call it a second Thermopylae, but it will be an everlasting monument of national disgrace.”

Texan Reprisals Against the Mexicans

Seven weeks after the Alamo, Gray’s prophesy rang true as four hundred Texans avenged their brethren with a massacre of Mexican forces at the San Jacinto River. Late in the afternoon of April 21, as they swept the ranks of Santa Anna, Houston’s army finally responded to Travis with the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo.” After a battle that killed six hundred Mexicans and only nine Texans, Santa Anna and six hundred fifty soldiers were taken prisoner. Some four thousand Mexican troops retreated to Mexico and Texas won its independence. Texas remained independent for nearly a decade, with its entrance into the United States delayed by controversy surrounding admission of another slave state. Finally, on December 29, 1845, it became the twenty-eighth state of the Union.

The Alamo in Later Years

The U.S. Army renovated the buildings at the Alamo in 1849. They went through a variety of uses in subsequent years. A store was built over the long barracks in 1876, and the church, sold to the state of Texas in 1883, was used as a warehouse. In 1903 the long barracks property was put up for sale as a hotel site. To prevent the sale, Clara Driscoll, a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, bought the property.

In 1905, the state repaid Driscoll and turned all the Alamo buildings and grounds over to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, to maintain and operate as long as the group could do so at no cost to the state. The group has turned the former church into a shrine to those who died in the battle, and made the long barracks into a museum. These are the only original structures remaining, but the Alamo grounds also house the Texas Historical Research Library of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

For Further Information

  • Davis, William C. “Remember the Alamo!” American History Illustrated, October, 1967. A short, less descriptive article than the one by Hutton below.
  • Hoyt, Edwin P. The Alamo: An Illustrated History. Dallas: Taylor, 1999. A pictorial work about the history behind and siege of the Alamo.
  • Hutton, Paul Andrew. “The Alamo: An American Epic.” American History Illustrated, March, 1986. This thorough article features interspersed biographies of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett.
  • Lord, Walter. A Time to Stand: The Epic of the Alamo. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961. A book that maintains an excellent balance between facts and narration. Lord has drawn from an extensive array of sources–accounts by participants, contemporary letters, and land office records. Remarkably detailed, the story is engagingly told from the perspective of the major players–Travis, Bowie, Santa Anna, and even Colonel Fannin.
  • Nevins, David. Texans. New York: Time-Life Books, 1975. Provides a thirty-page chapter, “The Alamo: Victory in Death,” which effectively summarizes the major events. The beautiful color illustrations include Santa Anna’s map of the battlefield, an easily comprehensible drawing of the Alamo, and paintings of the defenders.