Saturday, February 20, 2016

Last Stand at the Long Barracks

The Alamo

Colonel William Barret Travis raced across the old mission grounds to his battery.  “Come on boys,” he shouted. “The Mexicans are upon us and we’ll give them hell!”  Within an hour, Mexican forces had penetrated the walls and were fanning out toward the chapel.  Point blank cannon fire mowed down scores, but the Texans’ meager numbers couldn’t plug the onrush.  Travis himself was among the first to fall - a bullet through the forehead.  The only place left to make a stand was the barracks.  Before the battle ended, savage hand to hand fighting would occur within its long adobe interior.  It was the last stand at the Alamo.
If any place in Texas was ill-suited to be a fortress, San Antonio’s Mission San Antonio de Valero was certainly it.   Its remoteness ensured little support from the Texas populace further east.  The fort covered more ground than the Texans could adequately defend.  The walls were only good for fending off bullets and arrows, not artillery.  To make matters worse, the walls covered a standing man only to mid torso, a real hazard under heavy musket fire.  Even the redoubtable Texan commander, General Sam Houston, took note of its faults and ordered Colonel Jim Bowie to blow it up.  Nevertheless, the Alamo, as it was called, offered some semblance of a fort and the Texans’ small numbers precluded any kind of major offensive action.  Santa Anna’s thousands would soon be among them.  They had to hold them off somewhere.

In December 1835, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna set out from San Luis Potosi with six thousand men, mostly inexperienced conscripts bolstered by well-trained regulars.   One Mexican officer remarked that the Mexican Army was “created by bayonets and now had to be up held by them.”  Each battalion carried only a month’s supply of rations - the equivalent of one 8 oz corn cake a day per man.   The few supplies on hand were transported grudgingly by civilian teamsters.  Often unreliable, they abruptly deserted when they didn’t receive their pay on time.   The cooks and nurses, called soldaderas, were not military; they were the wives of the soldiers.  Needless to say, they were a distraction among their husbands, who were a lot more concerned about them than their duty to Santa Anna.  If the supply problem wasn’t bad enough, there was the weather.  In February, a freakish blizzard laid out a 16-inch ice carpet across Northern Mexico.  Troops from Yucatan, more accustomed to a tropical climate, suffered mightily from the bitter cold.  Lacking overcoats, many stuffed their uniforms with grass and hay.  Those that didn’t died from exposure.  Despite their ordeal, Santa Anna’s “Army of Operations” showed remarkable fortitude and willingly pressed onward to chastise their rebellious neighbors.   

Meanwhile, the Alamo’s commander, Colonel James Clinton Neill, did what he could to convert the Alamo into a bulwark.  With only a hundred men, crumbling walls were shored up with dirt and logs.  Nineteen cannons were brought in and placed in embrasures along the walls.  Due to his ailing family, Neill was forced to leave San Antonio for home.  He was replaced with a very young Colonel Travis.  When Bowie arrived, he was impressed enough to cancel Houston’s orders.  His problems only increased from there.  First, there was the problem of command; Bowie’s men refused to follow Travis.  That left the prideful Travis with just under thirty men to command.  A patchwork solution was reached when Bowie and Travis agreed to command jointly.  Second, reinforcements would be needed to defend the fort.  Two hundred men, armed with one-shot, flintlock muskets, was certainly not enough against 6,000 Mexicans.  Lastly, there was the problem of food.  The Alamo’s supply wouldn't last a month if a siege came about.

On February 28, a lookout, posted in the bell tower of the San Fernando Church, warned of Santa Anna’s approach.  The Alamo garrison hastily gathered up what food and water they could carry from San Antonio.  Upon the Mexican dictator’s arrival, an ultimatum was sent to the Alamo.  The Texans were to surrender unconditionally or face death.  Travis responded with a blast of cannon fire.  Santa Anna responded with the red flag of “No Quarter” hoisted over San Fernando’s bell tower.  To demoralize the garrison and weaken the Alamo’s walls, a daily bombardment from the Mexican artillery ensued.  Knowing his situation was critical bordering on hopeless, Travis sent out letters by courier requesting reinforcements.  Colonel James Fannin, with over 300 in Goliad, set out for San Antonio, but was delayed by broken supply wagons, contrary oxen and oddly forgetting to pack food before setting off.  The delay proved fatal for him, his men and the Alamo.  Mexican troops bagged them all then later massacred them.  Fannin was executed with a shot through the face.  In response to Travis’ plea, thirty men reached the Alamo from Gonzales.  Their spirits certainly took a nosedive when they saw just how desperate things really were.

With only a month’s supply of rations, a tight siege would probably have forced the Texans to surrender.  Santa Anna had a more grandiose plan in mind.  The Alamo would be stormed from all sides in a surprise dawn attack.  On March 6, 1836, Mexican troops rose from a midnight slumber, prodded by sergeants bearing wooden staffs.  Lines were quietly assembled and bayonets affixed to their British made muskets.   Santa Anna chose a 5:30 AM attack knowing the Texans would be drowsy and freezing in the night time cold.  Upon approaching the walls, the surprise ended when the Mexicans began shouting “Viva Santa Anna!”  The Texans, alerted to the attack, poured preloaded musket and cannon fire into their columns.  The attack wavered then picked up after Santa Anna committed his reserve forces.  By sheer force of numbers, the Mexicans breached the walls in a flood of bayonets.  The Texans’ muskets and cannons (only three men per cannon) couldn’t be loaded and fired fast enough.   Those who were not killed defending the walls sought positions within the long barracks and chapel; they were the only two places left.  The barracks’ doors were blocked shut while the others fired from the windows.  Unfortunately, they didn’t count on the Mexicans using their own artillery against them.  Cannons were rolled up to barrack doors then fired into the doors.  Afterwards, some sought surrender by affixing a white cloth to their musket and poking it out a window.  Those that didn’t continued shooting.  Enraged by seeing comrades gunned down under waving surrender flags, Mexicans took their anger out on the few still standing.  Bodies from both sides piled up in barrack’s interior – a charnel house of smoke and scorched bodies. 

The battle was over in less than an hour; all were killed.  Those that attempted to escape over the wall were speared by mounted lancers posted outside.  The legendary Davy Crocket, along with his Tennesseans, was overwhelmed near the Alamo chapel.  Contrary to legend, he may have been executed after surrendering; no one knows for sure.  Overtaken by illness, possibly pneumonia, Jim Bowie was killed on his sickbed.  

Mexican losses totaled close to 600, a figure accelerated by Santa Anna’s lack of field hospitals and doctors.  In a show of disrespect, no Texan was afforded a Christian burial; they were all burned on wooden funeral pyres.  Though Santa Anna gained “No Quarter” victories at San Antonio and Goliad, he lost the moral high ground in the process.  Vengeance provided more than enough incentive for Texans and their U.S. neighbors to enlist with Sam Houston.   It paid bloody dividends at San Jacinto.  

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