The Alamo and Fort Sam Houston
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The Alamo, which is famous for its heroic defense against the Mexicans by Travis and his men, is situated in San Antonio, Texas, and is the point of pilgrimage annually for many hundreds of the visitors to the southwestern part of the United States. On the outskirts of San Antonio is the modern great military plant. Fort Sam Houston, the Alamo’s lusty successor.
The Alamo, as late as 1870, was used for military purposes by the United States government, but of recent years it has been preserved purely as a monument to those brave men who lost their lives in it fighting bravely to the last a battle which they knew to be hopeless from the first. Upon the front of the building has been placed an inscription which reads, “Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat. The Alamo had none.” The building, itself, is a low structure of the familiar Spanish mission type, and its main walls, though constructed in 1744, are almost as solid today as when new. The chapel of the Alamo bears the date 1757, but this was of later building than the rest of the place.
The city of San Antonio owes its foundation to the establishment in 1715 by Spain of the mission of San Antonio de Valero, which in accordance with the custom of that country combined priestly enterprise with military prerogative. The Alamo was a quadrangular, central court structure built to house the troops of Spain and to sound the call to worship. It was acquired by Mexico with the rest of the Spanish possessions when this southern neighbor of the United States, in 1824, finally secured its independence from the parent country.
At the time of the siege, San Antonio was a town of about 7,000 inhabitants, the vast majority Mexican. The San Antonio River which, properly speaking, is a large rivulet, divided the town from the Alamo, the former on the west side and the latter on the east. South of the fort was the Alamo village, a small suburb of San Antonio.
The fort itself was in the condition in which it had been left by Cos, the Mexican general, when it had been surrendered in the fall of 1835. It contained twelve guns, which were of little use in the hands of men unskilled in their use, and owing to the construction of the works most of the guns had little width of range.
In command of the place at the beginning of the winter of 1835 was Colonel Neill, of Texas, with two companies of volunteers, among whom was a remnant of the New Orleans Greys. Early in 1836 Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis, a brave and careful officer, was appointed by the Governor of Texas, which had as yet only a provisional government, to relieve Colonel Neill of his command.
From a sketch upon Map of the Country in the Vicinity of San Antonio de Bexar made by J. Edmund Blake, 1st Lieutenant, Topographical Engineers, USA
The volunteers, a hardheaded and independent lot, wished to choose their own leader though they were willing to have Travis second in command, and called a meeting, where they elected as full colonel one of their number, James Bowie, a forceful figure of early Texan history. Bowie’s name today unfortunately is chiefly remembered by virtue of the ” Bowie ” knife. Travis arrived at the fort early in February, just two weeks before the Mexicans under the detested Santa Ana came in view, and naturally enough refused to recognize the superior authority of the officer so informally placed in power, as did the men whom he had brought with him. There was thus divided authority in the Alamo at the time of the siege.
All disputes were dropped, however, upon the approach of the enemy. The advance detachment of the Mexican force which came in four divisions arrived in San Antonio on February 22, and was welcomed by an eighteen pound shot from the little American garrison. Santa Ana procured a parley and demanded the surrender of the entire garrison, the terms to be left to his discretion.
A dramatic scene took place in the Alamo, tradition tells us, when news of this proposal came to the illstarred place. Colonel Travis drew a line upon the ground. “All those who prefer to fight will cross this line,” he is reported to have said. Every man crossed the line and Bowie, who had been stricken to his bed with pneumonia, roused enough to ask that his cot be carried with his men. It was well understood that the issue of the fray, if once Santa Ana succeeded in taking the post, would be the death of every man without mercy; and the chances of withstanding an attack were known to be weak.
When finally the Mexican host was assembled it numbered about twenty-five hundred men. The American garrison, which was swelled by a reinforcement of 32 men from Gonzales who managed to get through the lines of the besiegers into the fort, numbered altogether 188 men. The siege commenced on the 24th of February and continued without cessation until the morning of the 6th of March, when there was a grand assault.
The final assault occupied not more than half an hour. The blast of a bugle was followed by the shuffle of a rushing mass of men. The guns of the fort opened upon the charging columns, which came from all directions. The outer walls were taken despite the efforts of the pitiful handful of their defenders, and the battle then became a series of desperate fights from room to room of the old structure. Travis fell with a single shot through his forehead and his gun was turned on the building. Bowie was found on his cot in his room at the point of death from the malady, which had stricken him; with his last flicker of strength he shot down with his pistols more than one of his assailants before he was butchered where he lay, too weak to move his body.
The chapel was the last point taken and the inmates of this stronghold fought with unremitting fury, firing down from the upper part of the structure after the enemy had taken the floor. Toward the close of this episode Lieutenant Dickenson, with his child strapped to his back, leaped from the east embrasure. Both were shot in the act.
One of the garrison was Davy Crockett, a well known and beloved backwoodsman, known for his quaint sayings and homely wisdom. Crockett was found beside a gun in the west battery with a pile of slain around him.
The number of Mexicans killed has never been correctly estimated though it has been placed as high as a thousand. The most accurate estimate lies probably between 500 and 600.
A few hours after the engagement the bodies of the slaughtered garrison were gathered by the victors, laid in three heaps and burned. On February 25, 1837, the bones and ashes were collected by order of General Sam Houston, as well as could be done, and buried with military honors in a peach orchard then outside Alamo village and a few hundred yards from the fort. The place of burial was not preserved and the ground which contains the remains of these heroic men has long since been built over.
During the Mexican War the walls of the Alamo buildings were repaired and the buildings newly roofed for the use of the quartermaster’s department.
Fort Sam Houston, the modern successor of the ancient Alamo, was first located on Houston Street where one of San Antonio’s great new hotels now stands. Its present ideal situation on a high plateau 762 feet above the level of the Gulf of Mexico was chosen in 1872 and the grounds first comprised 162 acres of land. The fort was built around a quadrangle 624 feet square, in the centre of which was erected a gray stone tower 88 feet in height. Of recent years large accessions of land have made the post over one thousand acres in extent and the buildings have been largely added to, over two and a half millions of dollars being expended upon the fort by the national government. It is now one of the most important of the United States’ military possessions. During the Spanish American war the place acquired celebrity as being the scene of organization and training of the Rough Riders.
Immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War the Alamo was commanded by that soldier who was to lead the armies of the Lost Cause and whose name is a household heritage in the south today, Robert E. Lee. Associated with him here was Albert Sydney Johnston. The house occupied by General Lee was situated on South Alamo Street and here he wrote his resignation to the United States authorities before assuming command of the enthusiastic and untrained masses of Southerners.
During the Civil War San Antonio was the headquarters of the Confederacy in the southwest and the Alamo was used for storage.