In December 1835 the Texas Revolution was barely two months old. Mexican president Antonio López de Santa Anna and his Centrist Republic of Mexico had waged political war on both Texians (that is, Anglo-Americans who had relocated (mostly legally) to Mexican Texas) and Tejanos (that is, Hispanic residents of Mexican Texas) for almost ten years, and residents of Texas finally began fighting back. Before we go any further, I want to provide a couple of pronunciations for you. Texian is pronounced TEE-shen. Tejano is pronounced tay-HAHN-oh.
The Revolution itself saw an interesting alliance between those of both Anglo and Hispanic heritage, and in fact were it not for the cultural harmony between the two groups they would likely not have been able to eventually defeat Mexico and gain independence.
Of course, everyone remembers the Alamo, right?
Well, everyone remembers the Alamo. But have you ever wondered how a bunch of Texians and Tejanos (who, for the sake of brevity I will just lump together and call “Texans”) ended up at the Alamo to begin with?
The Siege of San Antonio
The City of San Antonio was once called San Antonio de Béxar (pronounced BAY-ar in that form of Spanish but more like BAY-er in modern Texas English, and that “y” sometimes gets slurred and it just sounds like someone saying the word “bear” with a weird accent), and was a key strategic stronghold as well as one of the most populous cities in Texas. Both the Mexicans and the Texans believed that one of the primary ways to secure a victory in the war was to take and hold Béxar, as it was then known colloquially.
The Texian Army consisted of some of the more famous names from the Texas Revolution: Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, James Fannin, William Travis, James Bowie, Davy Crockett, and Jack Shackelford. When the armed conflict of the Revolution began in late September 1835, the Texians were by and large a ragtag group of men who were fighting for a cause they deeply believed in but who did not have the extensive training and organization of the Mexican regulars.
However, sometimes passion and grit can make up for a lack of training, and in early October 1835 a group of Texians won a surprising victory over the Mexicans at the Battle of Gonzales, home of the famous “Come and Take It” flag. This marked the true beginning of the Revolution, and produced a surge of fighting spirit among the Texans. This is even more interesting when you consider that the Battle of Gonzales featured 250 total combatants (100 Mexican cavalry and 150 Texian militia), and resulted in only two deaths (both Mexican). But however slight the victory seems in retrospect, it provided the necessary motivation for the Texians to begin moving towards San Antonio.
In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Gonzales, Stephen F. Austin began marching 300 Texian Army towards San Antonio. The city was protected by 1,200 Mexican regulars, commanded by Santa Anna’s brother-in-law Martín Perfecto de Cos. Cos began placing men and cannon in strategic location, and included 6 cannon on the walls of the Alamo. By October 24, the Texians had begun their siege of San Antonio, capturing the Esada Mission and successfully cutting off many lines of communication between the Mexican regulars and the larger Mexican command outside San Antonio.
In a true boon to the Texian effort, additional Texians under James Rusk arrived in San Antonio to reinforce Austin’s group. Then on November 18 some members of the New Orleans Greys, volunteer soldiers from the United States, arrived to further boost the Texian numbers. With the addition of the Greys, Texian forces numbered about 600.
By early December morale was low on both sides. The Mexicans had gradually retreated to the Alamo and the area immediately around the mission, where men were in low spirits and horses were emaciated from being short on grazing land. The Texians were equally low-spirited because winter was approaching (back in the days when there was a “fighting season”) and they were running short on supplies themselves. However, while some men advocated a strategic retreat, Texian officers Ben Milam and Frank Johnson did their best to rally the men and prepare to attack the Mexicans.
On December 5, 1835, the Texians launched a surprise attack on the Mexicans. The Mexicans retreated and the Texians captured two houses in the Military Plaza (pictured left many years after this siege) about 2,000 feet from the Alamo but were unable to advance any further. Subsequent attacks on December 7 resulted in the Mexicans retreating fully to the Alamo, but at a cost: Ben Milam, the leader of those attacks, was killed.
Within the Alamo, Cos drew up plans for a counterattack. However, at least 150 and possibly as many as 175 soldiers believed the counterattack was a death trap, refused the orders, and deserted.
In the early morning of December 9, only about 120 experienced Mexican troops remained in the Alamo, the rest being untrained, untested, recent recruits. The Mexican commanders, finally acknowledging that they were at an extreme disadvantage, raised a flag of truce.
The Texians approved a ceasefire while terms of surrender could be negotiated, and at 2:00 a.m. on December 10, an official agreement was reached. The Texians had taken the city on December 9 at around 7:00 a.m., and just 19 hours later had terms for a Mexican surrender and retreat.
Under the terms of the surrender, the Mexicans had six days to gather their things and leave the Alamo. Mexican soldiers who were from San Antonio and the surrounding area could stay in the city, but the rest of the Mexican forces had to return to interior Mexico. Additionally, Texians and Mexicans would not be armed during that time when they interacted with each other, and in fact the Mexicans would leave their weapons in San Antonio before they retreated. Finally, each retreating Mexican was forced to swear an oath not to take up arms against the Texians in violation of the Constitution of 1824.
On December 11, the Texians paraded, and after the Mexicans retreated the Texians settled into the Alamo and the surrounding area.
Each side suffered losses during the siege. The Texians lost only 5 or 6 men while the Mexicans lost about 150. The siege, which lasted almost two months, was the longest campaign of the Texas Revolution, and really one of only two consequential victories, the other being the Battle of San Jacinto, which sealed the win for the Texans.
Santa Anna regrouped and began to personally lead soldiers from interior Mexico into Texas. In February and March 1836, the Texians (subsequently the Texans after Texas declared its independence on March 2, 1836) suffered three major losses. The first came at the Alamo itself, which fell after a thirteen day siege on March 6, 1836. All but a small handful of Texans at the Alamo were killed, and the Mexican Army showed that it could be merciless when needed. This decisive Mexican victory, however, turned into a rallying cry for the Texans.
On March 12–15, 1836, the Texans lost another battle near Refugio, Texas (pronounced, inexplicably, as re-FYUR-ee-oh), when 81 of the 148 Texans were slaughtered by the much larger Mexican forces. Then, on March 27, 1836, the most disheartening event of the Revolution occurred: the Goliad Massacre. Between 420–450 prisoners of war from the Republic of Texas were lined up and mercilessly shot. The remains of the men were burned and left in the open, unburied, to be feasted on by vultures and coyotes. When Texan commander Thomas Rusk found the site in June 1836 after the Mexicans had been permanently defeated, he ordered that a full military funeral be had. A memorial still exists to this day.
The horrors of Goliad serves as one final bit of motivation for the Texans, and on April 21, 1836, the Texans, with a force only about 2/3 the size of the Mexicans, routed the Mexican Army. The Texans only lost 11 men, whereas the Mexican lost 450. Santa Anna personally surrendered to a wounded Sam Houston (pictured), and Mexican forces retreated. Most Texans assumed the Mexicans would be back soon, but by June 1 Santa Anna ordered most Mexican forces to curb federal rebellions within interior Mexico, and Texas continued to exist as an independent republic until she was annexed into the United States in 1845.
Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin both survived the Revolution, but many other commanders did not. Sam Houston went on to be the first president of Texas, while Austin died later in 1836. Houston also served as governor of Texas from 1859 to 1861, but was kicked out of the governorship because he refused to take an oath to the Confederacy. In fact, Houston’s reputation in Texas was briefly tarnished because he did not support slavery or any other Southern cause. History, however, has shown Houston to have been on the correct side of that argument. Unfortunately, Houston died in 1863 and never got to see his beloved Texas return to the United States.
The history of Texas from 1824 on is a rollercoaster of chaos, crime, camaraderie, spirit, industry, questionable decisions, great decisions, and perhaps most importantly, individuality. To this day people like me who are native Texans have an inherent pride in coming from the Lone Star State, where for so long only the toughest men and women could survive. Who knows how things would have unfolded had Mexico not been so oppressive to the Texians and Tejanos? Who knows how things would have turned out had Texas lost the Revolution or not been annexed by the United States or refused to join the Confederacy? But none of that matters because none of it happened. The history of Texas is long and complicated, but independence from Mexico was, at the time, an important and worthy goal. Texans began the Revolution with victories at Gonzales and San Antonio, and ended the Revolution with a victory at San Jacinto. The all important siege of San Antonio was officially successful on this day 186 years ago.