The predawn morning of March 6, 1836, was silent—strangely so. For twelve days some two hundred men, along with a smattering of women, children, and slaves, holed up in the Mission San Antonio de Valero had endured an almost ceaseless cannonade from some two thousand Mexican soldados surrounding the mission’s adobe walls. For twelve days Mexican general and dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army pounded the walls and built entrenchments, creeping ever closer until the strains of the degüello could be heard—the bugle call sounding the attack. Santa Anna had warned the Texians (as the Anglos called themselves) and Tejanos (the Mexican nationals who sided with them) that the ensuring battle would end in no quarter. Upon his arrival in the village of San Antonio de Béxar, on February 24, Santa Anna hosted a red flag over the town. And with the blowing of the degüello on the morning of March 6, the fate of every man in the mission was sealed: death.
Béxar, as the village was commonly known, was established 118 years earlier. Built by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors—some hoping to Christianize the native population and others hoping to confiscate their gold and silver—the mission de Valero was situated on the east bank of the shallow, but wide San Antonio river. By the time Santa Anna’s army encircled the Texians and Tejanos the Spanish monks had long given up their mission. Now known as the Alamo, named after a presidial company once garrisoned there from Alamo de Parras, Mexico, the mission had been a military post for thirty years. The Alamo was a compound of several acres, enclosed by adobe walls and connecting buildings. At the southeastern end sat the roofless chapel.
A few months before, in December 1835, things were much different. The Mexican army, under the command of Martín Perfecto de Cós, had been cloistered within the walls of the Alamo, while Texian and Tejanos had surrounded it. Cós fortified the mission and at his defeat left behind a small arsenal. The Texians immediately occupied the deserted mission-fort.What they didn’t do was learn from Cós’s folly—the Alamo was a deathtrap if defended by too few men.
Its walls were designed to protect missionaries from arrows, not to withstand ball and shot from musketry and cannon. One section of wall, between the church and the galera, or Low Barracks, was completely missing. A wooden-earthen palisade—two rows of pointed topped logs driven into the ground and filled with dirt—was all that defended the southeastern portion garrison. The Alamo’s size was another worrying factor—it was too unwieldy. Interior lines of communication and reinforcement were too far apart. And in the heat of the battle that was to come this proved an insurmountable obstacle. Once inside, the soldados easily flanked the mission’s defenders.
At 5:30 on that silent morning of the 6th, John Baugh, the officer of the day, burst into his commanding officer’s quarters—William Barret Travis—informing him of the approaching Mexican army. Either because of the darkness or because they had fallen asleep, pickets hadn’t notice troops movements until the soldados were upon them. Travis threw off his blanket, grabbed his double-barreled shotgun, and yelled at his slave Joe to grab a gun and follow. Once in the courtyard, the three men ran up the rampart on the north wall.
Seeing the advancing army, Travis rallied the men manning the three cannons on the parapet, “Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us, and we’ll give them hell!” One of the cannon’s roared to life and cut a swath through the Mexican line. Before it could be reloaded, however, or the others could fire, a number of soldados reached relative protection at the base of the wall. Riflemen reached over and fired down, killing some and wounding many. But doing so silhouetted them against the increasing morning light.
Travis, stepping around one of the cannons, leaned over the wall and pulled the double-trigger of his shotgun. Joe, standing next to his master, did the same. But before Travis could recover and reload a salvo from below whistled pass. A single lead slug struck Travis in the forehead. He fell backwards against a gun carriage—dead. His shotgun dropped over the wall into the attackers below.
Transfixed, Joe stared at the body of his dead master, then ran down the rampart back to Travis’s quarters along the western wall. He locked the door and hid as the battle raged outside the walls and then outside the door. Once the Mexicans breached the north wall, Joe fired on soldados through a porthole in the door, but ceased when the fighting abated. Then Joe heard a Mexican voice call out in English, “Are there any Negroes here?” Joe emerged from his quarters, “Yes, here’s one.” Two soldados rushed him, one grazing his side with a bayonet and another firing buckshot. Neither wound was serious. An officer approached and escorted Joe to a slender, tall figure standing in the courtyard. Dressed in black clothes he looked “like a Methodist preacher,” Joe later remembered.
It was Santa Anna.
The general asked Joe to identify the bodies of Travis and David Crockett, the famous frontiersman and Congressman from Tennessee. Jim Bowie, the knife fighter, was well known by many Mexicans since he had married into a prominent Béxar family. Bowie had already been identified, his body found lying on his sickbed in the galera, in a room just to the right of the main gate. Travis still lay on the north parapet. Crockett was located with other Tennesseans in the small lunette halfway down the western wall. His shirt soak with blood, either from a musket ball or a bayonet thrust into his chest. (Some legends say Crockett survived the initial battle. Wounded, he was presented to Santa Anna, where a Mexican officer begged for the frontiersman’s life. Santa Anna ordered Crockett killed on the spot.)
In the church sacristy, women and children huddled in fear. Not long before the Alamo fell, Susanna Dickinson’s husband, Captain Almeron Dickinson, who commanded the cannon perched on the southeast wall of the church, ran down the rampart into the sacristy. “Great God, Sue,” he said, “the Mexicans are inside our walls! All is lost. If they spare you, save my child,” fifteen-month old Angelina.
Jacob Walker and three other unarmed Texians tore into the sacristy, chased by several soldados. Quickly dispatched with ball and bayonet, a Mexican officer followed behind and in excellent English asked for Mrs. Dickinson. Identifying herself and clutching Angelina, the officer said, “If you wish to save your life, follow me.”
It was just past 6:30—the morning light now illuminating the shattered remains of Texian, Tejano, and Mexican, and glistening in the blood soaked sod.
Taken to the Músquiz home on the Main Plaza in the village, Susanna was pardoned by Santa Anna, as were the other women and children. When she left Béxar, a few days after the battle, Susanna, Angelina, and a servant named Benjamin Harris rode past the Alamo and the charred remains of the defenders. Under orders from Santa Anna, soldados made two funeral pyres—one sixty feet long, the other eighty—where the bodies were burned. As a final act of desecration, as would happen at Goliad later that month, the bodies were left on the pyres, their ashes and bones scattered over time.
All the men who fought at the Alamo—Texian and Tejano alike—fought for freedom. They died martyrs and heroes. Everyone who loves liberty, whether Texan or not, should honor their sacrifice by remembering the Alamo every March 6.