Primary Source Adventures
Remember the Alamo
Students will examine William B. Travis’s letter of February 28, 1836 along with several nineteenth century documents detailing the siege of the Alamo. These sources represent how Texans and Americans perceived the events at the Alamo. This PSA allows learners to examine the siege of the Alamo using period documents and early histories from the late 1800s.
Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans. Students will not only gain an understanding of the siege of the Alamo, but also see how such a legendary event was portrayed in early Texas and United States history.
The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, research, and present interesting reputable sites during lectures.
Remember the Alamo
by Vale Fitzpatrick
The Alamo is, perhaps the quintessential event in Texas history. It served to fire the Texas revolutionaries, who led the charge at San Jacinto with cries of “Remember the Alamo.” Almost immediately the Alamo was enshrined as a heroic and iconic event.
Many have compared the Texans’ defense of the Alamo to the Spartan stand at Thermopylae, an epic stand against impossible odds where the defenders sold their lives dearly—aiding the eventual victory of their cause, and in the process, securing their immortality. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas commented that the Alamo “has no parallel except the defense of the pass of Thermopylae…”1
Before Texans could defend the Alamo they had to capture it from the Mexicans. General Martín Perfecto de Cos defended San Antonio de Béxar and held the Alamo against the Texans’ siege commanded by Edward Burleson. However the Texan troops proved ill-disciplined and refused an order to attack on 3 December 1835, the next day Burleson announced he would lift the siege and move into winter quarters. Benjamin Rush Milam was convinced that not attacking the Mexican forces would be disastrous for the cause of Texan independence made his impassioned speech: “who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?” Three hundred men answered “I will!”2 The attack began at dawn on December 5 and after several days of brutal house-to-house fighting the battle ended when General Cos surrendered on 9 December 1835. Milam did not survive to see this victory; he was killed by a shot to the head on December 7.
The victory created a false sense of triumph among many Texans as most volunteers returned home. Additionally captured at San Antonio were twenty-one cannon of various calibers and a large quantity of powder. Colonel James Clinton Neill received command of the Alamo due to his experience with artillery and U.S. Army commission. Throughout January Col. Neill worked to fortify the mission. General Sam Houston, however, wanted to destroy the Alamo and requested permission from Governor Smith to raze the fort. The Governor “did not think well of it” and refused Houston’s request.3 James Bowie arrived at the Alamo on January 19. Impressed by Neill’s work on the fort, he resolved to defend it. Governor Smith ordered William B. Travis to take his “legion” of cavalry (30 men) and reinforce the Alamo. Travis arrived at the Alamo on February 3, and he soon became an enthusiastic supporter of holding and defending the Alamo.
Colonel Neill left the Alamo on February 11 due to illness in his family. Although he turned command over to Col. Travis, a fellow army man, many men preferred the less strict Bowie. The two leaders avoided trouble by agreeing to act as joint commanders, an arrangement maintained until Bowie fell ill and turned over command to Travis on February 24th.
By February 1836, Texan military forces consisted of nearly one hundred men in the Alamo, a little more than four hundred under the command of Fannin at Goliad, and sixty or seventy with Johnson and Grant at San Patricio. The Texas forces were unready and scattered. Unfortunately, Santa Anna’s army was on the march. It vastly outnumbered the Texans in infantry, and the Mexican cavalry was so highly disciplined and well-equipped it could decimate any Texan force caught in the open. On February 8 David Crockett led a group of fourteen Tennessee volunteers into the Alamo raising the number of defenders to around 150.4
On the 21st of February the vanguard of the Mexican army appeared before San Antonio, attacked and took possession of the town, driving the small Texans’ garrison into the Alamo. The Mexicans immediately began the siege of that fort. Santa Anna demanded unconditional surrender and raised a red flag atop the San Fernando Church signifying no quarter. Travis wrote, “I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and 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 and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch – the enemy is receiving reinforcements daily…” 5
Mexican artillery began a bombardment of the Alamo to destroy its thick adobe walls. However, without heavy cannon which were still in route, the process would take time and exposed the Mexican light cannon to Texan rifle fire. To hold out Travis needed reinforcements and issued requests for aid. In response to Travis’s request for aid, thirty-three men from Gonzales marched to the Alamo and entered the fort under the cover of darkness on March 1. Although Colonel Fannin was said to be on the march to the Alamo with reinforcements, Travis remarked in a letter “I fear it is not true, as I have repeatedly sent to him for aid without receiving any.” He closed with “God and Texas! Victory or Death!”6 A hundred miles to the southeast Colonel Fannin set out with 320 men and four cannon on a relief attempt. However after suffering three wagon breakdowns and frittering away two days advancing less than a mile, Fannin recalled his half-hearted relief attempt.
On March 5 — day twelve of the siege — Santa Anna called a conference of his commanders. After a long meeting Cos, Castrillon, and others, were of opinion that the Alamo should be assaulted after the arrival of two twelve-pounders, expected on the 7th. Conversely, Gen. Ramirez and Almonte thought that the Alamo should be immediately assaulted. Santa Anna ordered a morning assault on the Alamo.
De la Pena noted the inadequate preparations made to carry out the attack: “the columns had been ordered to provide themselves with crow-bars, hatchets, and ladders, but not until the last moment did it become obvious that all this was insufficient and that the ladders were poorly put together.” 7
Santa Anna ordered the attack to begin just before dawn on March 6 focusing on four different points on the walls. The Texans opened a heavy cannon and rifle fire on the attacking Mexicans. Travis was one of the first to die. De la Pena stated, “Travis behaved as a hero; one must do him justice, for with a handful of men without discipline, he resolved to face men used to war and much superior in numbers, without supplies, with scarce munitions….” He added that Travis “died, but he died after having traded his life very dearly. None of his men died with greater heroism.”8 Once the Mexicans breached the walls, the Texans withdrew to the chapel and barracks, but the outcome was not in doubt. The Mexicans used the defenders’ own cannon to blast their way into the buildings. After brutal hand-to-hand fighting the battle was over, and Santa Anna’s forces held the fort.
After the firing had stopped, Santa Anna entered the mission, General Fernandez Castrillon reported that six defenders had been taken alive and suggested a show of mercy might be in order. De la Pena said that among them was one of great stature, “he was the naturalist David Crockett, well known in North America for his unusual adventures.” Santa Anna answered Castrillon’s intervention on Crockett’s behalf “with a gesture of indignation and, addressing himself to the sappers, the troops closest, ordered his execution.” The commanders and officers were outraged at this action and did not support the order.9
The siege of the Alamo cost Santa Anna’s Army more than lost personnel and material: the morale of the Mexican army was damaged. The army had no surgeons to treat the wounded, no medicines, no bandages, no gauze, and very meager food. De la Pena asked “Why, before agreeing on the sacrifice, which was great indeed, had no one borne in mind that we had no means at our disposal to save our wounded? Why were our lives uselessly sacrificed in a deserted and totally hostile country if our losses could not be replaced?”10
The sacrifice at the Alamo aided the Texan cause in many ways. The annihilation of the Alamo garrison coupled with the execution of Fannin’s men at Goliad alerted Texans to the fact that their survival was in question. Just as important, the heroic tale of the Alamo defenders fighting to the last man inspired Texans and increased support for the Texan cause. Additionally, as noted in de la Pena’s comments, the battle weakened Santa Anna’s army and damaged its morale. Finally, the Alamo provided Texans with a powerful rallying cry and delayed Santa Anna by two weeks—allowing the convention of 1836 that met on March 1 to declare independence and establish a temporary government.
The Alamo and its iconic heroes Travis, Crockett, and Bowie transcended Texas history and are firmly enmeshed in the American psyche. Whether a person is from New York City or Sacramento, California odds are he or she has heard of the Alamo. Davy Crockett and the Alamo have exerted a powerful influence on the mythology of America, which exploded with Disney’s TV movies staring Fess Parker (1954-55). “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” with its refrain “Davy—Davy Crockett/ King of the Wild Frontier” became famous and sung by generations of children, accompanied by a deluge of Davy Crockett merchandize, most notably the coonskin cap.11 Hollywood also embraced the image of the Alamo, producing several films: Richard Dix in the Man of Conquest(1939), Glen Ford in Man from the Alamo(1953), the 1960 John Wayne classic The Alamo, and the 2004 Buena Vista Pictures version of the Alamo. The heroic last stand at the Alamo continues to exert a powerful influence on the American psyche.
1Anson Jones. Memoranda and Official Correspondence Relating to the Republic of Texas, its History and Annexation. Including a Brief Autobiography of the Author. (NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1859), 88.
2Lois Garver. “Benjamin Rush Milam” Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/MM/fmi3.html (accessed 6 June 2006).
3Stephen L. Hardin. “Battle of the Alamo” Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/AA/qea2.html (accessed 6 June 2006).
4Albert A. Nofi. The Alamo and The Texas War for Independence. (NY: Da Capo Press, 1994), 70.
5Travis Letter to San Felipe 24 February 1836. “Battle of the Alamo” Texas State Library & Archives Commission: http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/treasures/republic/alamo-01.html
6Chester Newell. History of the Revolution in Texas: Particularly of the war of 1835 & ’36; Together with the Latest Geographical, Topographical, and Statistical Accounts of the Country, from the most Authentic Sources. (NY: Wiley & Putnam, 1838), 83-84.
7Jose Enrique de la Pena. With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution. (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1975), 48.
9Ibid., 53. Most accounts from the late 1800s agree that Crockett was taken prisoner and executed by Santa Anna.
11Randy Roberts & James S. Olson. A Line in the Sand. (NY: The Free Press, 2001), 242-247.