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“Remember the Alamo”
Texan Insurrection of 1836
The speaker was little past forty, not old as a peaceful and civilised generation would have reckoned him. But he and the men who listened lived in troubles times, in which the experience of many years was crowded into one. They were American frontiersmen, mainly of Anglo-Saxon race, who had drifted over from the Southern United States on to the limitless prairies of the Mexican province of Texas. And they were now in full revolt against the authority of General Santa Ana, the President of the Mexican Republic.
Ben Milam was a good sample of his class. Born in Kentucky, with rifle shooting and horsemanship for his sole education, he fought before he was out of his teens, with General Jackson against the British forces at New Orleans. Then he went trading for several years with the wild Indians around the headwaters of the Texan rivers. When Mexico rose against Spain, he was among the Revolutionists. After the independence, he took part in the first of the many uprisings against the newly established government. Being captured, he served his time in prison until another revolution freed him and gave him an extensive grant of lands in Texas.
The Texans had now risen in their turn. It was the year 1835, and first blood had been shed on the 29th of September. Ben Milam was once more captured, and hurried off in a caravan of prisoners toward the city of Mexico, a thousand miles away. At Monterey he escaped, and finding a horse, rode back alone six hundred miles to rejoin his comrades. On the 9th of October he issued, way worn and triumphant, from the mezquit where the little band of Texans were preparing an attack on a Mexican post. He was in time to share in their victory. A month later a provisional government was organised, and reinforcements of sharpshooters from the Mississippi valley arrived daily. With December the insurgents moved forward to San Antonio, the chief place of Texas. It was there the Mexican general Cos had concentrated his troops. In case of need, he could shut himself up behind the walls of the fortified Alamo mission to the northeast of the town.
It was the Alamo, which Ben Milam proposed storming first, but the leaders decided to begin by the town. They entered it successfully on the 5th of December, advancing under shelter from house to house by breaking through the walls between, instead of trying to force their way down the open street. Two days later Ben Milam was shot through the head as he crossed an unprotected space. But the next day General Cos took to the Alamo, and on the 11th surrendered. He marched away on parole with all his troops to the loyal provinces across the Rio Grande, and there was not a Mexican soldier left on the soil of Texas.
The heroic days of the Alamo had only just begun. Santa Ana at once made ready all his forces to crush out the rebellion. What Thermopylae was to the Greeks against the Persians, this mission fortress was to be in the long conflict between Anglo-American immigration and Spanish-American rule.
Spain had long recognised the danger to these northernmost provinces from the continual advance westward of “settlers” from the United States. To avert it, she first tried the policy, which European nations are now renewing in other quarters of the globe by constituting neutral or “buffer” States between the rival territories. In the year 1800 she made a cession to France of Louisiana. It had been originally colonised by the French, and separated the United States along the whole southern course of the Mississippi from the Spanish province of Texas. The cession was made on the express condition that Louisiana should never be turned over to the United States.
Three years later, Napoleon, who was conquering too many lands in Europe to remember his promises in America, sold Louisiana outright to the United States. The question of the boundary at once came up, and another effort was made to constitute a buffer. Political negotiations failed, and by 1806 Spain had 1,500 soldiers watching the hardy militiamen of Louisiana. War nearly broke out; but the two opposing generals, on their own responsibility, agreed that a broad band of territory west of the Sabine River should be considered neutral ground. Their government accepted this arrangement for the time being.
Spain-too late in the day, as it proved-now adopted the policy of colonising the desolate regions, which she claimed to the exclusion of all others. At that time there was in Texas a settled population of only 7,000 souls for 7,000 square leagues of land. It was made up of Spanish and French “Creoles” (the name given to men of European race born in America), of “Anglo-Americans,” as those from the United States were called, and of a few civilised Indians and half breeds. All these were huddled around San Antonio, far inland toward Mexico to the south, Espiritu Santo (or Goliad) on the gulf, and Nacogdoches in the north. The two former settlements were the scenes of heroic fighting when the final revolution came; the latter was the general rendezvous of immigrants from the United States. Besides these, there were a few military poets and about 14,000 wild Indians. Some of the Americans (to use the name which has been attributed to the settlers from the united States) were pursuing agriculture under difficulties on their ranches. Others, like Ben Milam, belonged to a sharp shooting generation of Westerners drawn hither by the chase of buffaloes and wild horses, or by mere restlessness and love of adventure. The lawful trade of the province was with the cities of Mexico many days weary journey to the south. The contraband trade, by the easier and more profitable way of New Orleans, flourished more, and consisted I the exchange of horses and mules for good silver and gold.
Until the end of the Spanish domination Texas had all the experiences of a troubled borderland. In 1811 Zambrano, the priest of San Antonio, captured for the Spanish authorities the embassy and money which the revolutionary priest Hidalgo was sending to the united States for men and arms, in his abortive attempt to secure the independence of Mexico. Two years later the same warrior cura decoyed an expedition composed of 850 Americans, 1,700 Mexicans, and 1,600 Indians into a fan ambuscade, from which only 93 Americans escaped. The pirate Lafitte took possession of the bay of Galveston, which furnished a safe harbour for privateers and slave traders with the southern United States. In the latter, popular feeling ran high against the treaty, which confirmed Spain in her rights over Texas. A favourite officer of General Jackson led 300-armed men into the country and declared it independent in the name of its few American citizens. He was easily defeated, but the repeated disturbances had done their work. A few months later, when the Mexican revolution triumphed, only 4,000 civilised inhabitants were left in the whole province, with a roving population of border ruffians on the north and wild Indians to the west.
The last act of Spain had been to poen the county in a measure to agriculture colonisation from the United States. It was this policy, cautiously preserved in for a dozen years by the new Mexican Republic and then suddenly reversed with a veritable persecution of the American settlers, which brought about the final conflict.
Moses Austin, a New Englander of education who had been a successful mine-projector in Virginia and Missouri, obtained a grant in 1820, through the good offices of the alcalde, or mayor, of San Antoni. This was the Baron de Bastro, who served as a young soldier of fortune under Frederick the Great, and then wandered in the love of adventure and science as far as this obscure colony of Spain. Moses Austin died, and his son Stephen was delayed in the proper working of his grant by the outbreak of the revolution. For the next two years Mexico played at government by an elected emperor. At last General Santa Ana established by force a republic on the model of the United States. He renewed the grant of lands to Austin, whom he named civil governor, administrator or justice, and commander of the militia, with power to make on the Indians, subject only to the Mexican governor and general commanding in Texas.
In 1842 the 300 first families of settlers arrived. The grant allowed one square league to each family, with 177 acres of tillage. It was surveyed by Bastrop, who did not live to know the fate of a colony, which he had laboured sincerely to plant in the interests of the Mexican Republic. In 1825 permission was given to bring in 500 more families, and soon other extensive grants were made to American immigrants. By 1827, there were 10,000 of these new inhabitants of Texas living widely separate on their ranches and developing the natural resources of the country. In 1830 the civilised population of the province rose to 20,000.
These newcomers believed in the manifest destiny of their race-as their favourite statesman, Henry clay, expressed it in the United States Congress-to occupy the vast regions which the Spanish-Americans seemed neither able nor willing to colonise and bring under settled law and order. For the most part they sympathised with the intense desire of the slaveholders of the Southern United States to extend their system of Negro slavery to the vast territory, and so strengthen their own position against the abolitionist North. They were not inclined to submit tamely to government annoyance from Mexico, for which they had neither respect nor fear. The Mexican Republic soon recognised that, in peopling this desolate province of the frontier, it had simply americanised large portions of its territory.
President Bustamante, who came into office in 1829, said publicly that the only law recognised by these frontiersmen of the two Republics was la razon del rifle (musket right). He expected Austin, who seems loyally to have fulfilled his obligations as a Mexican official, and who protested loudly against the agitation of the “Nacogdoches madmen.” The next year Alaman, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, introduced laws, which excluded all further immigration from the United States into Texas. Under pretext of levying taxes and controlling the ports, he sent troops to a dozen places. These soldiers were mainly convicts liberated from the Mexican prison, and their presence was not calculated to appease the exasperation of a people who had so long been a law to them. Only the settlements of Austin and two others were recognised by the government as existing on a legal basis.
An irritating attempt was also made to enforce other colonising laws, which weighed heavily on thousands of American settlers. It was exacted of them that they should profess the Roman Catholic religion, like the other citizens of the Republic. Where religion counted for so little, this requirement ended in a mere formality. A more serious matter was the positive discrimination made in favour of native Mexican settlers. The Americans, who now made up the immense majority of the population of Texas, were not like the old fugitives of the frontier. They were serious minded citizens, intent on working their land and inclined to resent any interference with their liberties. Their growing discontent was shown in partial insurrections breaking out in sympathy with the constant conflict of parties all through the Mexican Republic.
The Federal system of the United States, in which each separate State is free and independent to legislate for its own internal affairs, and subject to a central government only in what is of common interest to all the States, could not work well in a country so unsettled and ill organised as Mexico. Bustamante was accused of encroaching on the rights of the frontier States; and Coahuila, to which Texas officially belonged, rose against him. Arms were smuggled into Texas, and an outbreak was imminent. Bradburn, an English sea captain who had been pirate, privateer, and slave-trader, was sent by the President to put the coast under martial law. Suddenly Santa Ana, who for thirty years to come was to be President or professional Revolutionist by turns, declared against Bustamante. He had the soldiers of the frontier on his side, and the Texans, to be rid of the intolerable stress, consented also. The troops went off to aid Santa Ana, as the settlers had hoped, and the latter had a breathing space in which to plan their future action.
In 1833, Austin called a Convention, which demanded the rights of Statehood and Home Rule for Texas. Bearing these resolutions, which protested loyalty to Santa Ana’s own constitution of 1824, he set out to meet the latter, which had triumphed in the Civil War. To his surprise, he found that the new President, after winning his office in the name of State rights, was already turning back to the party of the Centralisers, who were more powerful to support him in his arbitrary rule. Santa Ana received Austin without giving satisfaction to the Texan demands. Time passed, and in 1834 he suddenly ordered that Austin should be thrown into prison. The news only strengthened the party of agitation in Texas, and Austin wrote in vain from his confinement in the capital to implore those settlers who had fixed homes and led laborious lives “between plough handles” not to give eat to dangerous counsels.
Santa Ana, meanwhile, marched steadily with an armed force through the States, which held out against his centralising policy. From Zacatecas, where he won after a bitter struggle, he sent General Cos to dissolve the Legislature of Coahuila and Texas, and to take up a position to watch the American settlers in the latter province. The governor o the city of Mexico joined with the governor of Coahuila in urging a coalition of States against this dictatorship of Santa Ana. All over the territory of the Republic there were constant small outbreaks in favour of State rights. Santa Ana, aided by the rich religious corporation and land proprietors, was able to overcome all opposition. On the 31st July 1835, he ordered that the revolting governors and the leaders of the Norte-Americanos should be seized. There were also persistent rumours that he was sending troops to dispossess the American settlers of their lands.
The Americans of Texas had now to make their choice-either to submit to Santa Ana or to fight for their independence. They were tired of the unceasing revolution of Mexicans among themselves; and they felt a general antipathy of race against the Mexican minority in the territory, which their own superior enterprise had developed. Besides, they were constantly encouraged by promises of assistance from and speculators and slaveholders in the United States.
At last Santa Ana deemed it prudent to release Austin, with specious promises that might allay the growing discontent. The two Mexican governors had already joined the Texans; and this time the fighting priest Zambrano declared against the authorities of Republican Mexico just as he had before supported the Spanish rule. In September, after an imprisonment of many months, Austin arrived in Texas, only to find “all disorganised, all in anarchy, and threatened with immediate hostilities.” General Cos marched forward so San Antonio; and, on the 29th of the month, 168 Texan volunteers fought at Gonzalez with 100 of the Mexican troops. On the 4th October Austin issued a proclamation against military despotism in behalf of State rights.
Through all the succeeding months the Texans still fought under the tricolour flag of the Mexican Republic, protesting their willingness to submit to the Federal Constitution of 1824. But General Santa Ana was unable to undo by force of arms the manifold blunders of his centralising policy. The Alamo was to decide the struggle of manifest destiny in favour of Texan independence.
The Alamo, in spite of the peaceful purpose of its original building, had been, made strong enough to resist any attack except from artillery. Built in 1744, it was the last of a line of Franciscan missions established along the San Antonio River for the conversion of the wild Indians. The neighbourhood of the Spanish military post was not sufficient to guarantee the friars and their converts against sudden raids; so they began by enclosing an oblong space, from two to three acres in extent, in the midst of the cottonwood trees (Alamo-a kind of poplar), which gave the name to the mission. The Mission Square, as it was called, was more than 450 feet long from north to south and 150 feet wide. Its wall was 8 feet high, and nearly a yard thick. On the east side was the convent, a two storey building of adobe (sun dried clay), 191 feet long and 18 feet deep. In front was the convent yard, 186 feet deep, and surrounded by another strong wall. At the southeast corner was the church, with walls of hewn stone 4 feet thick and 22 ½ feet high. In the southern wall of the Mission Square was the great gateway, beside a one-storey prison 115 feet long by 17 feet deep. Outside the wall a ditch and stockade went from the prison to the corner of the church. There was no lack of shelter from which the sharp shooting Texans might fire their guns, so long as the Mexican artillery made no breach in the outer walls; even then a retreating fight might be kept up through the various enclosures.
The friars had disappeared with the Spanish domination, and the mission had since been used for military purposes. In the roofless church were installed the magazine and soldiers quarters. The friar’s apartment in the convent building had also been divided up into armoury and barracks. There was plenty of water from two acequias, or waterways, which passed under the walls, one at the northwest corner of the Mission Square and the other to the east of the church. To strengthen the position, fourteen guns had been mounted at different parts of the walls. The three heaviest pointed north, south, and east from the church. There were two for the stockade, two for the gate of the Mission Square beside the prison, one for each of the corners of the square, and two each for the exposed walls to north and west. The more fortification of the place promised well against any ordinary attack.
The lack of foresight and union, which is common to raids and revolutions led by adventurers, destroyed these advantages of defence. On the 14th of February Colonel Travis had already complained to General Sam Houston, the commander-in-chief of the Texan army, that he had been left destitute in face of the threatened attack. Several hundred men and the greater part of the ammunition had been withdrawn for distant expeditions, which could not even turn aside the march forward of the Mexican army.
The provisional government, which had been organised in November, was not working well. Austin’s loyal policy had been put aside; but the new governor and the council quarrelled among themselves. The commander-in-chief was himself little more than an improvised soldier, and was powerless to take independent action. When the governor remonstrated about the unprotected state of the Alamo, the Council refused to listen. Time was frittered away in the oratory, which pleases the popular assemblies of new countries, or in mutual recrimination and vaunts of personal bravery.
Travis himself was careless about the service of his scouts, and knew little of the real strength and organisation of the enemy’s forces. It is also supposed that he had little control over his men, who were accustomed to the reckless skirmishing of the frontier and had never faced a disciplined body of troops. At the last moment, when the coming of Santa Ana was already forcing them to retire from San Antonio, they hurriedly stocked the Alamo with the scant provisions, which came to hand. For food they had to rely on twenty beeves and eighty bushels of Indian corn. Their supply of ammunition was more unsatisfactory still.
Santa Ana, while waiting for the remainder of his troops, was unable to complete the siege of the Alamo. On the 24th of February Colonel Travis sent out a final desperate appeal for help across the prairies. The messenger succeeded in reaching Gonzalez, where the first battle of the revolution had been fought. Captain Smith, with more than thirty men, responded to the appeal; and, at three in the morning of the 1st of March, they made their entrance into the Alamo. Besides the soldiers of the garrison, they found the wives of two of the officers with their two children, Mexican women, and the Negro boy of Travis.
The second in command bore a name of might in frontier warfare. It was James Bowie, the eldest of three brothers, the second of whom was the inventor of the long bladed “bowie-knife” used by the hunters and desperadoes of the plains. They had been engaged in buying Negro slaves for the Southern United States from the men of Lafitte, the pirate. When the pirate’s haunts were broken up, James Bowie remained to take due part in the Texan struggles. On the 27th of October he had already fought a bloody battle, with ninety-one others of his kind, against four hundred Mexicans. With him was Davy Crockett, who is remembered as one of the earliest of the “American humorists, “ but whose share in the tragedy of the Alamo should not be forgotten. He was a tall, powerful, fearless hunter from Tennesse; Irish by descent, with all the wit and careless courage of his race, and a thorough frontiersman, trained to use the rifle from his childhood. He had been elected once to the United States Congress; but he had not the sonorous eloquence required by his half-primitive constituents, and they choose another for the post when his term of office was over. Shouldering his rifle in disgust, he made his way to the Texan frontier, just in time for the last adventure.
General Santa Ana at once began work by setting up two batteries of artillery in the alameda (cottonwood grove) by the river. He also disposed five entrenched camps to command the mission from different points and guard against all attempts to force a way out. Then he began throwing shells, and by the 3rd of March the Texans counted two hundred, which had fallen inside their works. Not a man had been injured and little effect had been produced on the walls. On their side, they had picked off a number of Mexicans who showed themselves within range of their sharp shooting rifles. But it had already become necessary for them to economise their small store of ammunition. Moreover, their strength of endurance was sorely tried. Besides the skirmishing by day, they were harassed by constant fears of an attack by night.
On the 4th March, the third Mexican brigade arrived. This brought Santa Ana’s forces to the number of 5,000 men, well trained and organised. The next day was passed in making ready to storm the Alamo. Two thousand five hundred men were chosen for the attacking force, divided into four columns, which were to engage the garrison on every side at once. At the head of one of these columns Santa Ana placed General Cos, who had broken his parole and marched back to revenge his own recent defeat on this spot. All the columns were supplied with ladders, crowbars, and axes. The cavalry was stationed around, so as to cut off every chance of escape.
The next day (March 6th) was Sunday. At four o’clock in the morning the Mexican columns took their positions. They advanced in silence, but the strained senses of the besieged could hear their doom drawing nigh amid the darkness. Suddenly the bugle sounded, and the Mexicans made a first rush forward. The twelve cannons and all the rifles of the garrison spoke together, and the assailants fell back in disorder. On the north side, their leader had been wounded, leaving his men in confusion. The officers rallied their troops, and again drove them forward to the foot of the walls; but they could not scale them. Then a united attack was made from the north, and again the Texan fire wrought havoc and carnage in the dense mass of troops. But this last move had brought the attacking party below the range of the cannon on the walls. The garrison had fired only two shots, and s mall breach had already been made in the north wall. Travis, struck in the head, had fallen beside his gun at the northwest corner.
A third assault was at once made. This time the wall was scaled and the breach enlarged. The soldiers poured into the Mission Square faster than the Texan rifles could pick them off. On another side one of the columns forced the stockade, and captured the two guns at that point. The garrison, who retired to the shelter of the barracks and the church, now abandoned the outer walls. Soon their own cannon were directed against them, amid the increasing fire of the Mexican musketry. Apartment after apartment was forced. There ensued a series of hand-to-hand fights, ending in death struggles, as superior numbers overbore the successive groups of Texans. Through the convent cells, built for peace, the Mexican soldiers charged with fixed bayonets, only to be met by the clubbed rifles and flashing knives of their victims driven to bay. Early in the fight Bowie had fallen from scaffolding by the walls, and received such injuries that he was unable to move from the bed where he had been laid in an upper room of the convent barracks. But he was still able to die as he had lived, firing the pistols, which had been placed by his side before he was finally run through with a bayonet.
The church was the last to be taken. One of its guns bore directly on the Mexicans in the Mission Square, and did valiant execution until all who manned it had fallen. When the church itself was carried, its defenders too fell back inch-by-inch, fighting till each man was slain. Davy Crokett was among the last to fall, close to the passage, which the friars had made long ago to lead from their convent to be sacred precinct.
In less than an hour all was over. General Santa Ana, during the fight, had kept to his safe post by the southern battery. By his orders the bands played incessantly the shrill deguello-the signal that no quarter should be given. When he entered the Alamo at last a search of the now silent rooms brought to light five men of the garrison who had hidden away. The under generals begged the President to spare their lives, now that victory was complete. Santa Ana turned implacably to the soldiers, who ran the captives through before his eyes. Thus perished to the last man the defenders of the Alamo.
There were left to tell the tale only the two widowed American women, with their two children; the Mexican women, who was torn from Bowie’s side-by-side murderers; and the Negro slave boy of the dead commander. The widow of Lieut. Dickenson was given a horse and sent across the plains with an arrogant proclamation from Santa Ana to the Texan rebels, summoning them to surrender at discretion.
The inhabitants of San Antonio-Mexicans and Americans alike-asked to leave to bury the dead bodies of the Texan victims of the massacre. Santa Ana, following up his barbarous policy, refused, and ordered that the corpse should be burned. They were heaped together in layers, with wood and dry brush between. One hundred and eighty-two bodies were counted before the torch was applied. Under cover of the night, men of San Antonio gathered up the ashes and few bones, which were all that remained of the little garrison. A year later these were buried reverently in one coffin near the Alamo, which was left standing as a memorial of Texan independence, now definitely won.
On the Mexican side, Santa Ana gave a lying account of his victory, reporting the number of the Texans at 600, and assigning only 1,400 to his own attacking columns. Of these he admitted only 70 killed and 300 wounded. His more truthful secretary, when the speedy reverses of his master unseated his lips, gave numbers, which are confirmed, from other sources. 5,000 Mexicans, of whom 2,500 engaged in the attack, had besieged One hundred and eighty-two Texans, who were slain to the last man. Of the latter, 300 were killed on the spot, and 100 afterwards died of wounds. The Alcade of San Antonio, who was charged with the burial of the Mexican dead, thought even this estimate far too low.
The first news of the siege had roused the Texan authorities to action. On the 2nd of March the Convention proclaimed the absolute independence of Texas as a nation. On the 11th of the month, General Houston, who was still without news from the Alamo, arrived at Gonzalez with 400 men. The next day Mrs. Dickenson, worn out with emotion and fatigue, rode into camp. In a single village twenty women learned that they were widows like her. Houston, panic-stricken, retreated, after burning the town lest it should fall into the hands of the enemy.
Santa Ana marched on Goliad by the coast. Texans could not yet believe in the military power of the despised “greasers,” and several hundred men fell into his hands. He again ordered a massacre, but this time it was after surrender had been made. There could be no further doubt of his policy of extermination.
The triumphant army continued its march northward toward the heart of the American settlements. At San Jacinto, near Galveston, the Texan troops at last ventured on a pitched battle. Their training had been accomplished; they entered the fight to the cry of “Remember the Alamo!”
The Mexican President, and what remained of his army after the battle, was taken prisoners. It was with difficulty that the Texan officers prevented their men from revenging in kind the massacres of the Alamo and Goliad. Santa Ana, after the independence of the Texan Republic had been recognised, was handed over to the Government of the United States, who restored him to a diminished Mexico. After ten years, when Texas was definitely to be annexed to the United States, he was again at the head of the Mexicans. This war against the whole United States and not, as before, with the single province of Texas formed the bloody end of the strife begun at the storming of the Alamo. The Mexican Republic lost forever its immense northern territory from the Gulf to the Pacific Ocean.
In 1876 the aged widow of Lieut. Dickenson
revisited the Alamo. She
had seen its heroic defence of the liberties of 30,000 souls; she had
lived to see the State of Texas with a population well on towards
3,000,000. In the State House of Austin, capital city of Texas, on a
monument made of stones of the ruins of the mission fortress, are
inscribed 166 names-all that were known of the men whose death gave the
Anglo-American race eternal reason to remember the Alamo.
of the Nineteenth Century, By
Archibald Forbes, G.A. Henry,
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