The Alamo's Undertaker
The gallantry of the few Texans who defended the Alamo was really wondered at by the Mexican army. Even the generals were astonished at their vigorous resistance, and how deadly victory was bought.
Francisco Antonio Ruíz
In the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, the alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio de Béxar, Francisco Antonio Ruíz (Don Pancho, to his friends) stood outside a temporary fortification on the city’s main downtown street—now known as Commerce, but then called Protero Street—watching General Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army storm the Alamo, breach the walls, and put the 189 defenders1 to the, bayonet, the sword, or the ball. The battle lasted but ninety minutes. None survived. All were stripped and mutilated.
Afterward, Santa Anna called for Ruíz to accompany him inside the fort to identify the bodies of William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and David Crockett. Santa Anna then ordered Ruíz and other prominent resident’s of Béxar to gather the bodies of Mexican soldiers and bury them in Campo Santo, the cemetery to the west of town. The fallen Texians were denied a Christian burial. Ruíz and the others were ordered to gather their bodies and pile them on funeral pyres in a layered cake-like fashion: wood, flesh, wood, flesh. Two to four pyres were constructed in this manner, then grease and oil were poured over the whole and torched.
This gruesome task was assigned to Ruíz in retaliation for the disloyalty of his family to Mexican centralism—Santa Anna’s dictatorial rule—and their sympathy for the Texas cause of independence. Santa Anna knew Ruíz’s father, José Francisco Ruíz, had signed the Texas Declaration of Independence just four days before at Washington-on-the-Brazos.
Until the fall of the Alamo Don Pancho spent the previous twelve days of siege under house arrest. However, once the task of identifying the three famous defenders of the Alamo, participating in the burial of Mexican soldados, and burning the bodies of the Texians he was free to go. Twenty-four years later, Francis Ruíz set to paper what he witnessed that day on in 1836.2
On the 6th of March 1836, at 3 a.m., General Santa Anna at the head of 4,000 men advanced against the Alamo. The infantry, artillery and cavalry had formed about 1000 varas [about 2,750 feet] from the walls of same fortress. The Mexican army charged and were twice repulsed by the deadly fire of Travis’s artillery, which resembled a constant thunder. At the third charge the Toluca battalion commenced to scale the walls and suffered severely. Out of 830 men only 130 of the battalion left alive.
When the Mexican army entered the walls, I with political chief, Don Ramon Musquiz and other members of the corporation, accompanied the curate, Don Refugio de la Garza, who by Santa Anna’s orders had assembled during the night at a temporary fortification on Protero Street, with the object of attending the wounded, etc. As soon as the storming commenced we crossed the bridge on Commerce Street, with this object in view and about 100 yards from the same a party of Mexican dragoons fired upon us and compelled us to fallback on the river to the place that we had occupied before. Half an hour had elapsed when Santa Anna sent one of his aides-de-camp with an order for us to come before him. He directed me to call on some of the neighbors to come with carts to carry the (Mexican) dead to the cemetery and to accompany him as he desired to have Colonels Travis, Bowie, and Crockett shown to him.3
On the north battery of the fortress convent, lay the lifeless body of Col[onel] Travis on the gun carriage shot only in the forehead. Toward the west in a small fort opposite the city, we found the body of Colonel Crockett. Col[onel] Bowie was found dead in his bed in one of the rooms on the south side.
Santa Anna, after all the Mexican bodies had been taken out, ordered wood to be brought to burn the bodies of the Texans. He sent a company of dragoons with me to bring wood and dry branches from the neighboring forests. About three o’clock in the afternoon of March 6, we laid wood and dry branches upon which a pile of dead bodies was brought, and in this manner they were all arranged in layers. Kindling wood was distributed through the pile and about 5 o’clock in the evening it was lighted.
The dead Mexicans of Santa Anna were taken to the grave-yard, but not having sufficient room for them, I ordered some to be thrown in the river, which was done on the same day.
The gallantry of the few Texans who defended the Alamo was really wondered at by the Mexican army. Even the generals were astonished at their vigorous resistance, and how dearly the victory was bought.
The generals under Santa Anna who participated in the storming of the Alamo, were Juan Amador, Castrillion, Ramirez y Sesma, and Andrade.
The men (Texans) burnt were one hundred and eighty-two. I was an eyewitness, for as alcalde of San Antonio, I was with some of the neighbors, collecting the dead bodies and placing them on the funeral pyre.
Francis Antonio Ruíz
The total number of Alamo defenders has varied over the years. Before and during the thirteen day siege and battle many men passed through the Alamo’s gates, including the comings and goings of dispatch riders. The March 6, 1836, muster roll doesn’t exist, so historians construct the list from available data—primary and secondary sources. Ruíz sets the number of Alamo dead at 182, however the number was probably closer to 189, the current official number from The Alamo Trust and the Texas General Land Office.
The testimony of Francisco Antonio Ruíz was translated by J. H. Quintero and first published in the Texas Almanac of 1860; republished by Amelia W. Williams in “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and Personnel of Its Defenders,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. XXXVII, no. 1 (July 1933): 39–40.
Almost from the beginning of serious Alamo study there has been controversy about the death of Crockett, as to whether he died in combat or whether he surrendered and was executed. The controversy was renewed with the 2021 publication of the revisionist history Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, which paints Crockett as cowardly because instead of dying with this face to the enemy he surrendered and was then executed. However, James Donovan in his carefully researched and nuanced 2012 history of the Alamo, The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle fro the Alamo—and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation (unlike the politically motivated, hero-toppling, and unserious book mentioned above) makes a compelling argument that Crockett did not surrender but indeed died sometime during the ninety minute battle.