On the march of human folly, soldiers haven’t exactly owned the road, but they’ve often commanded the right of way. No soldier dies in vain, if only because when soldiers fall, their surviving superiors, kin, and compatriots proclaim them heroes and celebrate their sacrifice, regardless of whether the sacrifice accomplished anything more positive than providing an occasion for the patriotic postmortems. Patriotic sentiment is not to be dismissed. It warms the collective heart and often converts into the colder currency of resolve: The charge of the Light Brigade did nothing for Britain in the Crimean War but, as remembered and retold, added years to the life of the British Empire.
What Tennyson was to Lord Raglan’s lancers, William Barret Travis was to the defenders of the Alamo, besides being their leader and the hero of their tale. The South Carolina native and Alabama émigré earned the rare distinction of memorializing in words the role he then immortalized in the flesh. Travis’ letters from the Alamo must stir the soul of the most jaded cynic.
To the People of Texas and all Americans in the world … I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded 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, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat.
Knowing what happened to Travis, the reader—especially if a devoted Texan—can hardly escape a shudder of vicarious complicity in his demise, which makes his appeal for help the more poignant.
I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and 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 and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his own honor and that of his country. Victory or Death.
Travis’ words have tugged at the conscience of Texans for seven generations. Yet neither his gallant prose nor the desperate bravery of the garrison at the Alamo can alter the fact that the battle there was an exercise in martial folly. The battle should never have been fought, and regardless of what the defenders contributed to the mythology of Texas, their contribution to the strategy of the Texas Revolution was nil or negative.
For months after the outbreak of the revolution, at Gonzales in October 1835, the Texas rebels debated the importance of San Antonio de Béxar. The first commander of Texas forces, Stephen F. Austin, argued in favor of an attack on the town, which was still in Mexican hands, but his lieutenants and the rank and file besieging the place adamantly refused. Had the Texas army at this point been anything more than a gaggle of irregulars jealous of their right to do as they pleased, Austin might have ordered an attack; as it was, he gnashed his teeth while his men sat still. “I have at various times submitted the question of storming the fortifications to a council of officers,” Austin complained to his brother-in-law, James Perry, “and they have uniformly decided against it. Yesterday I was in hopes the Army was prepared to do it, and I issued a positive order to storm at daylight this morning; but on trial I found it impossible to get half the men willing for the measure, and it was abandoned from necessity.”
Not least because his men wouldn’t follow him, Austin was replaced in command by Sam Houston, whose military stature (and physical stature—in those days the two weren’t unrelated) much surpassed Austin’s. Houston was in the process of eclipsing Austin as the great man of Texas, and as on many subjects, he disagreed with Austin regarding the importance of Béxar. Houston considered the town hardly worth fighting for and certainly not worth sacrificing for. It was too far from the American settlements in Texas and too close to the population centers of Mexico. Its people were too friendly to the Mexican government and too suspicious of Anglos. The war for Texas independence would never be won at Béxar, but it might be lost there. The proper line of defense of the American settlements was the Guadalupe River, where the rebels could count on a sympathetic populace and secure lines of communication.
Yet Houston was as helpless as Austin before the recalcitrance of his men. Besides, to order a withdrawal from San Antonio would risk appearing defeatist, which would make controlling the troops even more difficult. So Houston tried to talk the Texans back from Béxar, tactically holding out the prospect of a later return. Writing to James Fannin, the captain in charge of the forces before Béxar, Houston requested a reconsideration of the siege, which in any event was leaking badly: “Would it not be best to raise a nominal siege—fall back to La Bahía and Gonzales, leaving a sufficient force for the protection of the frontier … furlough the balance of the army to comfortable homes, and when the artillery is in readiness, march to the combat with sufficient force and at once reduce San Antonio?” Houston added, “The army without means ought never to have passed the Guadalupe without the proper munitions of war to reduce San Antonio. Therefore the error cannot be in falling back to an eligible position.”
But the army ignored Houston as it had ignored Austin, albeit with opposite effect. When Ben Milam, incensed at some personal ill treatment by the Mexican government, volunteered in early December to storm San Antonio single-handedly, he shamed three hundred volunteers into following him. The four-day battle