A Rendezvous at the Alamo
One of the most indelible and enduring images of Western American history was portrayed on television on February 23, 1955, in the final episode of the Disney three-part miniseries "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." Just before the final fadeout, Davy (Fess Parker) is seen swinging his long rifle in the midst of an attacking force of Mexican soldiers. The program, which was for kids, didn't show him dying, but kids knew, as their parents had long known, that Disney and Fess Parker got it right: that was how Davy died.
We may never have really believed he was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee or that he killed a bear when he was only three, but we knew he died at the Alamo, his dander up, in the heat of the battle, a pile of corpses at his feet, clubbing the enemy with the rifle he called "Old Betsy."
Did we buy into the myth of Davy Crockett and place a coonskin crown with a halo over it on the King of the Wild Frontier?
Well, of course we did--and what's wrong with that? He died fighting at the Alamo, didn't he?
Well, didn't he?
We begin with the battle and the part David Crockett played in it, and how, some say, he was trapped there by his own legend.
It is 161 years ago; 5:00 A.M., Sunday, March 6, 1836.
As the first glowing stripe of dawn rose on the eastern horizon there was a bugle call and shouts of "Viva, Santa Anna!" Then, 2,000 Mexican foot soldiers, cavalry, and artillerymen formed up in four columns and marched forward through the dewy grass, their breath visible in the sunrise chill, the soft morning light glinting off a hedgerow of bayonets. Each man was armed with a British-made musket, spare flints, and cartridge packs; some carried nine-foot lances, others had sabers, pistols, picks, pikes, prybars, axes, and scaling ladders.
For thirteen days General Antonio López de Santa Anna's artillery had belabored the Alamo and during the siege sharpshooters from the fortress had picked off thirty of his cannoneers. The night before he had silenced his guns, hoping to lull the weary enemy sentries into napping at their posts.
The president-dictator of Mexico, self-styled "Napoleon of the West," gambler, ruthless but charismatic politician, and egoistic general of some considerable skill, Santa Anna had come a long way to do battle. He had begun his march north from his capital on November 28, had strengthened his army in Saltillo, 200 miles south of the Rio Grande, and had crossed the river on February 16 with over 2,000 men, 21 cannon, 1,800 pack mules, 33 four-wheeled wagons, and 200 ammunition carts. On the twentieth he camped on the Rio Hondo, fifty miles south of SanAntonio de Béxar, and on the twenty-third arrived in the town and captured it without resistance.
His first act there was to order the raising of a bloodred flag from a church steeple, a warning to the Alamo defenders that there would be no prisoners, no quarter.
East of the town came a quick response--a cannon shot from the Alamo's biggest gun.
Now, after thirteen days, the siege had ended and the battle had begun.
Inside the battered walls that contained the old Spanish mission, the band of defenders, numbering on this day of reckoning probably 183 fighting men, took their places along the walls that formed the Alamo's perimeter. Some manned the eighteen serviceable cannon that were mounted on ramps and scaffolds along the ramparts and the church top and surveyed their scarce ammunition supply, including the chopped-up horseshoes, nails, and random iron pieces that would soon have to be used. Others checked their musket and pistol loads, shot pouches, and powder horns, and took their stations and waited.
On the north wall, his double-barreled shotgun propped beside him as he watched the advancing enemy through his glass, stood the commander of the Alamo's defenders, Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis of the Texan2 cavalry, a fiery, red-haired, twenty-seven-year-old South Carolina gentleman-lawyer who doted on the works of Sir Walter Scott and who believed, correctly, that his destiny lay in military glory.
Defending a portion of the south wall with his dozen Tennessee Mounted Volunteers stood David Crockett, forty-nine, the graying legendary marksman, bear hunter, backwoods orator, humorist, and three-term congressman. He had come to San Antonio on February 8, dressed in old buckskins, his fiddle and long rifle among his sparse possessions, and leading the men he had collected on his long ride from Nacogdoches. "I have cometo aid you all that I can in your noble cause," he announced. After a grand fandango was held for him and his men on the tenth, just a week before Santa Anna crossed the Rio Grande, he reported to Travis for duty in the Alamo defenses.
On the roof of the Alamo chapel, helping serve the cannon there, stood Travis's South Carolina friend and fellow lawyer, Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, twenty-nine, who had journeyed to the town after Travis wrote him of the "stirring times" in Texas. As a courier, he had made a dangerous ride out of the besieged mission compound since arriving there with Bowie.
In his room in the low barracks on the southeast wall, near where Crockett and his Tennesseans were stationed, forty-year-old Colonel James Bowie lay sick on his cot. He had a persistent cold, fever, and painful cough--perhaps pneumonia or incipient tuberculosis. A Kentuckian, Bowie had a spotty history. He had sold contraband slaves in Louisiana (working, legend has it, for the pirate Jean Lafitte) and worthless land titles in Arkansas, and had drifted to Texas in 1828 where he married into the prominent Veramendi family in San Antonio de Béxar. In September, 1833, his wife died of cholera, a tragedy that lowered over him like an angry storm cloud.
He had ridden into town with thirty men on January 19 on orders from Sam Houston, commander of the Texas army, to assist in evacuating the place. Houston wanted to fight Santa Anna in a hit-and-run war of attrition in which his force would move rapidly and distantly over familiar terrain and force the Mexicans to follow, extending them from their supply bases. Houston had no interest in a standstill fight, wanted all the fortifications in Béxar destroyed and the town's occupants--including those in the Alamo--to march out and join him in the open.
Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, an artillerist and veteran Indian fighter from Alabama, commanded the Alamo garrison and persuaded Bowie that the Alamo had to be defended, not abandoned. When Travis arrived on February 2 with thirty cavalrymen, he, too, saw the need to shore up the mission's defenses rather than tear them down.
Travis's arrival presented a problem. Governor Henry Smithhad named him commander of the Alamo garrison without relieving Neill. Moreover, Bowie, a colonel, outranked both Travis and Neill. This awkward situation was reduced but not resolved on February 13 when Neill departed on furlough to attend to illness in his family and to secure supplies, money, and reinforcements for the garrison. His departure left the Alamo in a sort of joint command between the two remaining men: Bowie commanding the volunteers; Travis, the regulars.
The two men were instantly at odds. The day Neill left the Alamo, Travis wrote to Governor Smith that Bowie "has been roaring drunk all the time ... & is proceeding in a most disorderly irregular manner ... If I did not feel my honor & that of my country compromitted I would leave here instantly for some other point with the troops under my immediate command--as I am unwilling to be responsible for the drunken irregularities of any man."
On February 24, the first day of the siege, Bowie, whose health had collapsed to the point he had to retire to his bed, turned over full command of the Alamo to Travis.
The fortress had the rough configuration of two adjacent rectangles, one large, one small, with the church at the southeast corner, next to the small rectangle that contained a hospital, horse and cattle pens, and the infantry barracks. The larger area had walls twelve to twenty-two feet high and enclosed barrack rooms, officers' quarters, a well, guardhouse, and artillery emplacements, including the "lunette," a U-shaped gun position that jutted out from the south wall. On a large barbette (platform) on the southwest corner of the plaza stood the largest of the defenders' cannon, an eighteen-pounder (for the weight of the ball it fired).
The Alamo's guns, varying from four- to twelve-pounders and with the single eighteen, were commanded by Captain William R. Carey, a Virginian, assisted by a twenty-six-year-old Tennessee blacksmith, Captain Almeron Dickinson.
Travis, even as he watched Santa Anna's army advance thatchill dawn of March 6, held out hope that reinforcements would come to assist him. Ten days earlier he had sent a courier to Colonel James Fannin in Goliad, about ninety miles to the southeast, hoping the Texas army regulars there would come as a relief force. But Fannin, who set out for San Antonio on February 26 with 320 men, suffered some minor mishaps on the trail--a supply wagon broke down, some oxen ran loose--and on the twenty-seventh marched his force back to Goliad.
On February 24, Travis scribbled a message to "The People of Texas and all Americans in the world," underlined one phrase, triple underlined the last three words, and sent thirty-year-old Captain Albert Martin, a good horseman who knew the roads around Bexar, to carry it through the enemy lines. Martin was to deliver the appeal to the town of Gonzales, seventy miles away, and to ...