The Alamo Should Never Have Happened

Generations of Texas schoolchildren have been taught that the battle at the center of the Texas revolution was our finest hour. Maybe so— but it was also a military mistake of mythic proportions.

March 2003By Comments

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 was the longest and most evenly balanced of the war, but finally the Texans—minus Milam, who was killed by a bullet through the brain— succeeded in expelling the Mexican forces.

It was a brave victory, but what it won the Texans was hard to say. The Mexican capitulation included an agreement by General Martín Perfecto de Cós to evacuate Texas. Only the most optimistic of the Texans, however, thought that this single battle had decided the war. A larger Mexican army, likely commanded by Mexico’s most famous general, President Antonio López de Santa Anna, would return, probably at the beginning of spring.

This larger army was the one Houston had to fight, and he sought the most favorable ground for doing so. The victory at Béxar hadn’t changed his thinking on the strategic unimportance of the town, but it did complicate a retreat to the Guadalupe. Those who had risked their lives for Béxar wouldn’t withdraw simply because Houston told them to; as volunteers and stubborn individualists, they heeded their own judgment and ambitions.

Yet that judgment and those ambitions might work in Houston’s favor. Bored with guarding Béxar, many of the volunteers succumbed to what Houston derisively called “Matamoros rage” and headed south intending to sack the town on the Rio Grande. By mid-January Béxar’s garrison numbered only about seventy, a shadow of the force that had captured it. Houston hoped to erase even that shadow, and nominated James Bowie for the job. “Colonel Bowie will leave here in a few hours for Bexar with a detachment of from thirty to forty men,” Houston wrote from Goliad to Henry Smith, the provisional governor of Texas, on January 17. “I have ordered the fortifications in the town of Bexar to be demolished, and if you should think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place.”

But Houston couldn’t control Bowie any better than he controlled the rest of the army. When Bowie reached Béxar, he discovered that the remnant there had been busy. Green Jameson, the chief engineer under commander James C. Neill, had converted the old mission compound into what he proudly called Fortress Alamo. Jameson acknowledged that the garrison needed more men, but in light of recent intelligence regarding Santa Anna’s movements, perhaps not so many as to be out of the question. “We heard of 1000 to 1500 men of the enemy being on their march to this place . . .” Jameson declared. “In case of an attack we will move all into the Alamo and whip 10 to 1 with our artillery.”

Such confidence was infectious, and Bowie—whose experience at arms consisted mainly of a skirmish with Mexican forces near San Antonio, some Indian fighting, and an infamously bloody brawl on the banks of the Mississippi—caught the fever. Going over Houston’s head, he wrote to Henry Smith to second Jameson’s judgment that the Alamo should be defended. “The salvation of Texas depends in great measure in keeping Bejar out of the hands of the enemy,” Bowie declared. “It serves as the frontier picket 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.” Like most of his fellow rebels, Bowie took orders as recommendations, and now he disregarded Houston’s directive entirely. “Col. Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy. These citizens deserve our protection, and the public safety demands our lives rather than to evacuate this post to the enemy.”

Bowie’s connection to Béxar was stronger than most of the Texans’, as he had married into the family of Juan Veramendi, a leading bexareño, and had actually lived in the town. But even Bowie’s professed concern for the citizens rang hollow. While he and Neill and the others might conceivably hold the Alamo, they could never defend the town against the force Santa Anna was bringing. If anything, by making the town a battle zone, they endangered those they said they wished to protect.

Houston had no recourse against this ill-conceived and disingenuous judgment. Even had he exercised iron control over the army, he would have had difficulty denying Bowie and the others at San Antonio the right to take a stand for Texas. Generals often fret over how to make their men fight. Houston had the opposite problem: how to keep his men from fighting. His predicament wasn’t helped by the squabbling that continued to afflict the provisional government. Smith and the General Council couldn’t agree on the smallest matters, let alone where the defense of Texas ought to begin, and without the support of the civilian officials, Houston couldn’t enforce his views regarding military strategy. As a result, the decision to defend the Alamo—like nearly every other decision in the war—was made by those who would have to carry it out.

But they needed help. From beginning to end, the defense of the Alamo was premised on the reinforcement of the garrison there. Every few days Bowie, Jameson, or Neill wrote to Houston, Smith, or the council pleading for help. “Relief at this post, in men, money, and provisions is of vital importance and is wanted instantly,” Bowie told Smith. “Our force is very small . . . only one hundred and twenty officers and men.” The latest intelligence from the Rio Grande indicated that Santa Anna had more than five thousand men. “It would be a waste of men to put our brave little band against thousands.”

In answer to the pleas, Smith ordered Lieutenant Colonel William Travis to join Bowie and the others at the Alamo. Travis was skeptical at first, sensing that no one besides Bowie and those already at Béxar was serious about defending the place. Travis asked for five hundred men to accompany him; Smith said he could have one hundred and would have to raise those himself. Travis managed to muster fewer than three dozen, provisioned from his own pocket. “I must beg that your Excellency will recall the order for me to go to Bexar in command of so few men,” he wrote Smith from the Colorado River. “I am willing, nay anxious, to go to the defense of Bexar, but, sir, I am unwilling to risk my reputation (which is ever dear to a soldier) by going off into the enemy’s country with such little means, so few men, and with them so badly equipped.”

Smith, however, was more intent on fighting his enemies in the provisional government than on fighting the Mexicans, and he neither recalled the order nor increased the resources available to Travis. Perhaps deciding that his reputation as a soldier would suffer more from refusing this assignment than from complying, Travis reluctantly headed off to San Antonio with his small company. “I shall march today with only about thirty men,” he told Smith. He wasn’t hopeful. “Our affairs are gloomy indeed. The people are cold and indifferent. They are worn down and exhausted with the war, and, in consequence of dissensions between contending and rival chieftains, they have lost all confidence in their own government and officers.”

Travis’ gloom persisted after his arrival at San Antonio, on February 3. As a lieutenant colonel, he ranked below Neill, who nominally commanded the entire garrison but in reality controlled only those soldiers who had enlisted in the regular army or the organized volunteers. About half the garrison was made up of individuals who had never enlisted in anything and who followed Bowie, a man after their own independent hearts. Bowie got along with Neill but refused to defer to Travis, who inherited the regular command when family illness called Neill away. The result was a split in the garrison, with the enlisted men heeding Travis and the unenlisted, Bowie.

“My situation is truly awkward and delicate,” Travis complained to Smith. And it was made even more awkward by the fact that Bowie was behaving irresponsibly. “He has been roaring drunk all the time, has assumed all command, and is proceeding in a most disorderly and irregular manner.” Only Travis’ sense of honor kept him at his post. “If I did not feel my honor and that of my country compromitted I would leave here instantly.”

Eventually Bowie sobered up and agreed to share the command with Travis. Although this was hardly less awkward than the situation Travis had complained of, it improved morale. Meanwhile, the approach of Santa Anna encouraged cooperation between the Texas commanders. With fewer than 150 men to face the Mexican general’s thousands, neither Travis nor Bowie could afford to quarrel unnecessarily.

The one thing the fractious commanders had no trouble agreeing on was the need for more troops. David Crockett, the celebrated hunter, raconteur, and former congressman from Tennessee (who had answered his recent defeat at the polls by telling his constituents that they could “go to hell, and I would go to Texas”), reached Béxar with a small company during the second week of February. Crockett’s arrival boosted the spirits of the garrison. His stories relieved the tedium; more to the point, his coming indicated that someone out there knew of the garrison’s need. Maybe more help was on the way.

Soon the garrison discovered how much more help was needed. On February 23 the advance guard of Santa Anna’s Army of Operations reached Béxar. Travis and Bowie couldn’t tell exactly how many enemy troops there were, but the Texans were so outnumbered that they didn’t even consider trying to defend the town. They withdrew at once into the Alamo.

And they continued to cry for help. “The enemy in large force is in sight,” Travis wrote to the alcalde at Gonzales on the twenty-third. “We want men and provisions. Send them to us.” On the same day, in one of their last joint statements before Bowie fell incapacitatingly ill, Travis and Bowie appealed to James Fannin, now the commander at Goliad: “We hope you will send all the men you can spare promptly. . . . We have but little provisions, but enough to serve us till you and your men arrive. We deem it unnecessary to repeat to a brave officer, who knows his duty, that we call on him for assistance.”

As the burden of command fell on Travis, he grew into his authority in a way that must have surprised those who had known him as a young hothead with a checkered past. He had always been glib; now he became eloquent. He had been belligerent; now he was resolute. On February 24, the day after the joint appeal to Fannin, he penned his moving letter to “the People of Texas and all Americans in the world.” To Sam Houston, Travis wrote another letter, hardly less eloquent, begging for help: “I have every reason to apprehend an attack from [Santa Anna’s] whole force very soon. But I shall hold out to the last extremity, hoping to secure reinforcements in a day or two. Do hasten on aid to me as rapidly as possible, as from the superior number of the enemy, it will be impossible for us to keep them out much longer.” Yet, relieved or not, the garrison would fight till the end. “If they overpower us, we fall a sacrifice at the shrine of our country, and we hope posterity and our country will do our memory justice. Give me help, oh my Country!”

The response to Travis’ pleas was either disgraceful or realistic, depending on one’s view of his situation. Fannin halfheartedly attempted a rescue, setting out from Goliad with three hundred men and four artillery pieces in ox-drawn wagons. But one of the wagons broke down, and then the crossing of the Guadalupe went badly, and Fannin and his officers decided that the rescue mission was imprudent and gave it up.

Sam Houston didn’t do even that much. Precisely what Houston did do during the month of February is impossible to reconstruct, but it had no connection with the battle that was about to take place in the west. He journeyed in the opposite direction, toward Nacogdoches, to drum up support for the political convention that would meet in early March at Washington-on-the-Brazos and to arrange a treaty of friendship with the Cherokees. Perhaps Houston wanted to put as much distance as possible between himself and the debacle that was taking shape at Béxar. He had tried to prevent it, but no one would listen. He didn’t wish to be saddled with the blame.

DURING THE FIRST FEW DAYS of the siege, the defenders might have fought their way out of the Alamo, had they so chosen. But their prospects on the plains beyond the fort, against Santa Anna’s cavalry, were poor. And by the end of February they were clearly trapped; the only question was whether they would reconsider their refusal to surrender. According to what became the standard version of the Alamo story, Travis gave the men a choice between fighting and escaping. All who wanted to stay should step across a line he drew in the dirt; the others might try their luck outside the fort. Besides resting on the flimsiest of evidence, this story ignores the fact that escape in any significant numbers was almost impossible. The garrison’s odds weren’t good inside the fort, but—especially while hope remained of reinforcement—they weren’t much worse than the odds outside.

Some minor relief did arrive before dawn on March 1, when a company of 32 horsemen from Gonzales evaded the Mexican sentries and slipped into the Alamo. The reinforcements were hardly numerous enough to shift the balance between besiegers and besieged, but they let Travis know that his continuing pleas for help weren’t going unheard, and they raised hope that more might follow.

Yet the relief from Gonzales was apparently the last—doubt remains on this point, as on many touching the final days of the siege—and when the battle commenced before dawn on March 6, perhaps two hundred defenders confronted approximately two thousand attackers. Despite Green Jameson’s boast of beating the Mexicans at odds of ten to one, the Texans stood no chance. During the initial phase of the fighting, their cannon and rifles inflicted fearful damage on the advancing troops, but the walls of the Alamo were too low and weak to prevent the most intrepid Mexicans from mounting the ramparts and opening the gates for their fellows, who poured in and crushed the defenders by mass of numbers. Less than ninety minutes after the battle began, it was over.

For decades student of Alamo history have refought the battle, debating how many people died there and where they fell. Much less attention has been paid to the larger issue of whether it should have been fought in the first place. Questioning patriotic sacrifice is bad form, especially with the powerful words of the dead commander haunting the collective conscience.

But sacrifice is not synonymous with good judgment, and in truth the defense of the Alamo was woefully misguided. Houston was correct that San Antonio had little significance for the defense of the Texas settlements. Even if Travis and the others had held the Alamo, Santa Anna might easily have left a token force to pin them there and sent the main body of his army after Houston and the rest of the rebels. Nor did the delay caused by Santa Anna’s insistence on taking the Alamo slow his advance appreciably. Santa Anna spent two weeks at Béxar, two weeks in which Houston made scant progress in organizing or training the Texas army. The rebels were no readier for battle in early March than they had been in late February, as Houston’s subsequent forced retreat east demonstrated, and they would have been far readier had their ranks included the men killed at the Alamo. Santa Anna’s losses at Béxar were considerably greater than those of the Texans, but his army was so much larger that he could afford to be wasteful.

The primary result of the Alamo’s fall was precisely what Santa Anna intended: the terrorizing of the Anglo settlements in Texas. As word raced east of the disaster at Béxar, the settlers fled toward Louisiana in what later was called, with relieved levity, the Runaway Scrape. Santa Anna had long since decided that the American colonization of Texas was a mistake, which he intended to rectify by removing the Americans. The destruction of the Alamo, and the refugee flight it precipitated, got the process well under way.

The only thing that saved the revolution (as it really became after the declaration of Texas independence on March 2, 1836) was Santa Anna’s impatience. Hoping to catch the Texas government, which had joined the flight east, he committed a cardinal sin of invading commanders: He divided his army. And then he allowed Houston, who until this point had shown every indication of retreating clear to the Redlands of East Texas, to corner him where Buffalo Bayou joins the San Jacinto River.

Houston’s victory at San Jacinto had nothing to do with the defeat at the Alamo (or the subsequent massacre at Goliad), except that it (and Goliad) furnished a rousing battle cry and an excuse for a slaughter that matched in ferocity and scale anything the Mexicans had committed. And in fact, the victory at San Jacinto, though an enormous morale booster, neither ended the war nor guaranteed Texas’ independence. The captured Santa Anna was overthrown in absentia, and the agreements he negotiated with the Texans were immediately disavowed by the Mexican government. Mexico continued to claim Texas for another decade and in 1842 succeeded twice in reoccupying San Antonio. What finally settled the Texas question was the intervention of the United States, which annexed Texas in 1845 and defeated Mexico in the war of 1846-1848.

By that time the Alamo had entered the mythology of Texas. A prime characteristic of myth is that every sacrifice serves a purpose; the larger the sacrifice, the more profound the purpose. During the Texas Revolution itself, the legitimacy of the rebellion was disparaged by opponents of slavery, who held that the chief purpose of the breakaway was to ensure the future of slavery in Texas (Mexico had outlawed the institution), and by others who judged it a landgrab by armed speculators. The sacrifice of the Alamo afforded an emphatic riposte to the criticism. Would the heroes who died there have done so for the base motives ascribed to them by their critics? Hardly. They must have fought and died to secure democracy and individual rights.

And so they did—at least some of them, and at least the rights of some people. But whether the Alamo was the proper place to do it is another question entirely. It casts no aspersion on the defenders’ courage to assert that they got the answer to this question wrong. If anything, there is a certain sublime nobility in an act that reflects bravery undiluted by good sense. And it is entirely in keeping with everything about the Texas Revolution, and with much that is characteristically Texan, that this military mistake was not the work of ignorant or fatuous commanders, as has typically been the case in history. No Raglan ordered the Alamo garrison to stand against Santa Anna; the defenders’ decision to do so was theirs alone. Texans have long prided themselves on their individuality, including their right to be wrong in their own way. For them, the Alamo is the perfect shrine.

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