Victory or Death: The Travis Alamo Letters
“God and Texas—Victory or Death!”
William Barret Travis
On the outskirts of what was then little more than a village located in south-central Texas, along the banks of the San Antonio river, sat an old Spanish mission. Consisting of a chapel, a convento, storehouses, a workshop, and individual dwellings the Franciscans who established it in 1718 called it Mission San Antonio de Valero. In time, it would be known as the Alamo.
Thrice in its history the old mission was converted into a fort. First in 1803 by the Spanish. When the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1810 Spain and Mexico fought over control of the Alamo. Mexican forces occupied the onetime mission complex from 1821–1835. Under the direction of General Martín Perfecto de Cós, improvements to the mission-fortress were made by the Mexican army in 1835. When Cós and his army of one thousand men were driven from the Alamo on December 10 of that year the fort fell under the command of the provisional Texas army. Stripped of its munitions for the benefit of the (eventually ill-fated) Matamoros Expedition, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, the newly appointed commander of the Alamo, did what he could to bolster the mission’s fortification. He dispatched a number of letters to the provisional government and to Sam Houston, the Commander-in-Chief of the army, pleading for supplies. In Neill’s January 28, 1836, letter he wrote in part:
Texas ought and must again rouse to action, another victory will secure us forever from the attack of Tyranny and our existence will no longer be doubtful but prosperous and glorious to attain so desirable an end. I am ready to sacrifice my all, and if, as I expect, every citizen in the country and our collaborators from the United States are animated by the same spirit, Destiny will be compelled to acknowledge us as her favorites. From the time of my taking the field in defense of Texas liberties up to the present moment, my labors and watchfulness have been unremitting and they shall continue to be so until I see the land of my adoption free.
A few days later, on February 1, elections were held throughout Texas. Delegates were selected for the convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, where they would decide the question of independence. The citizens of San Antonio de Béxar elected two Tajanos: José Antonio Navarro and José Francisco Ruiz. The defenders of the Alamo elected two Anglos: Jesse Badgett and Samuel Maverick. The next day, James Bowie, who arrived with James Butler Bonham on January 18 with twenty-five or thirty men, wrote a letter to the provisional government. William Barret Travis arrived at the Alamo on February 3 with twenty-nine men, followed by David Crockett on the 8th with twelve men.
On February 11 Neill departed to attend to a family illness. He appointed Travis as commander of the regular army; the volunteers elected Bowie as their commander. Agreeing to command jointly, both men expected Neill to return and resume command before a general engagement ensued.
Five days later, the Mexican general and dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna marched his army across the Rio Grande. Two days after that, returning from Laredo, Blaz Herrera informed Travis that a large Mexican force had crossed the Rio and was heading for Béxar. Few believed the reports, but on the morning of the 23rd the Tejano popular of Béxar began a mass exodus. Travis sent a lookout to the steeple of the San Fernando Church, the tallest building in Béxar, with orders to ring the bell if Mexican troops were spotted. At noon, the bell rang out. A cavalry unit had gathered on a hillside outside of the city and then disappeared. The gathered Texians didn’t believe Santa Anna could have marched his army from the Rio Grande to Béxar in such short order. He had, arriving at the Medina River, about ten miles west of Béxar, three days earlier.
Travis needed better intelligence on Mexican movements. He sent two riders, doctor John Sutherland and John W. Smith, to reconnoiter the area where the lookout saw the cavalry. The sentry in the San Fernando belfry was ordered to ring the bell again if the riders came back at a run. Sutherland and Smith took the Laredo Road west. They road a mile and a half out of the city, still in sight of the lookout, and abruptly reined short at the crest of a hill. On the other side of the hill, was a cavalry unit, the commander of which was riding the line, waving his saber. Sutherland and Smith made a quick tally—maybe 1,200 to 1,500 men—wheeled and dashed back to Béxar. When the bell rang Travis knew Santa Anna’s army lay just outside the gates of the mission-fortress.
The garrison, which had been in the town the night before, rushed back into the Alamo. On their way out men searched houses for foodstuffs. Bowie and others herded cattle into the Alamo.
Rain had fallen earlier that morning making the roads muddy. Sutherland’s horse was unshod. It slipped, trapping Sutherland. Smith helped horse and rider to their feet. When Sutherland dismounted inside the Alamo his knee collapsed. Travis said to Sutherland, “I must send a message to Gonzales [the nearest town to Béxar] as quickly as possible so as to rally the people to my support.” Though injured, Sutherland could still ride and volunteered to carry Travis’s to Andrew Ponton, the alcalde of Gonzales. Smith volunteered to accompany Sutherland. Travis scratched a quick missive.
Commandancy of Béxar,
Feb. 23rd. 3 o’clock P. M., 1836
To Andrew Ponton, Judge and Citizens of Gonzales:
The enemy in large force is in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance.
W. B. Travis—Col. Commanding
P. S. Send an express to San Felipe with news night and day.
By the time Sutherland and Smith rode out of the Alamo, along the Goliad and then the Gonzales road, Santa Anna was marching into Béxar from the west. Upon entered the town, Santa Anna ordered a red flag flown from the steeple of the San Fernando church. Without consulting Bowie, Travis responded by firing the 18-pounder. At about the same time the cannon sounded from the walls of the Alamo the red flag was lowered and a white flag hoisted. Travis ignored this flag; Bowie did not. Without consulting Travis, Bowie dispatched a hasty communiqué to Santa Anna seeking a peaceful resolution before lives were lost. Bowie sent the letter under the protection of a flag of truce. It was received by Santa Anna’s aide-de-camp Colonel José Batres.
Commander of the Army of Texas:
Because a shot was fired from a cannon of this fort at the time a red flag was raised over the tower, and [because] a little afterward they told me that a part of your army had sounded a parley, which, was not heard before the firing of the shot. I wish, Sir, to ascertain if it be true that a parley was called, for which reason I send my second aid, Benito Jameson, under guarantee of a white flag which I believe will be respected by you and your forces. God and Texas!
Fortress of the Alamo, February 23, 1836
Commander of the volunteers of Bexar to the Commander of the invading forces below Bejar.
Santa Anna replied through Colonel Batres.
As the Aid-de-Camp of his Excellency, the President of the Republic, I reply to you, according to the order of his Excellency, that the Mexican Army cannot come to terms under any conditions with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no other recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, then to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations. God and Liberty!
José Batres to James Bowie
This is a copy.
General Headquarters of San Antonio de Bejar
Feb. 23, 1836
The white flag was replace with the red flag. There would be no negotiation and no quarter. The siege had begun.
Travis’s aggressive response to the red flag and Bowie’s conciliatory letter to the white flag give credence to earlier reports that the two men saw each other as rivals. Though they had agreed to a joint command, each acted on their own accord without consulting the other. An outraged Travis over Bowie’s olive branch harangued the men and made them swear an oath of “never surrender.” The conflict between the two men had the potential of splitting the command. With Neill away and Santa Anna’s army occupying Béxar a decision needed to be made about who actually was in command.
The command chaos may have blinded both men to a third option—escape. During the first forty-eight hours of the siege Santa Anna made little effort to seal off all exits from the Alamo. Mexican engineer and lieutenant colonel José Enrique de la Peña believed the Texians could easily have stollen away. “Travis [certainly] could have managed to escape during the first night,” de la Peña said—if he had he wanted to. Travis didn’t want to. And the joint letter of Travis and Bowie to Colonel James Fannin, commander of four-hundred and twenty men at Goliad, made both men’s determination perfectly clear.
We have removed all our men into the Alamo, where we will make such resistance as is due to our honor, and that of the country, until we can get assistance from you, which we expect you to forward immediately. In this extremity, we hope you will send us all the men you can spare promptly. We have one hundred and forty-six men, who are determined never to retreat. We have but little provisions, but enough to serve us until you and your men arrive. We deem it unnecessary to repeat to a brave officer, who knows his duty, that we call on him for assistance.
John Johnson delivered the Travis–Bowie letter on the 25th. With a pledge to march to the Alamo with three-hundred and fifty men and four cannons the attempt quickly bogged when wagons broke down and Fannin’s men had difficulty crossing the cannons over the flooded San Antonio River. Troubles with draft animals caused further delays. Only a mile from from Goliad—and some eighty miles to go—Fannin called a “conference of officers” to decide whether the effort to march to the Alamo’s defense was worth it, or whether they should countermarch to Goliad. The decision was to return.
The dispute between Travis and Bowie was eventually solved on February 24. Bowie, who had fallen from a scaffold earlier while mounting a gun and seriously injuring himself, and possibly suffering from tuberculosis, was suddenly stricken with typhoid-pneumonia. He was bedridden throughout the siege and the battle to come. Travis had sole command.
The walls of the Alamo were twelve feet high and two feet thick, but were built to protect friers from arrows not to withstand artillery and siege guns. Its perimeter was nearly a quarter mile long, impeding interior communication and reinforcement and spreading the men treacherously thin. Both Texian and Mexican commanders knew the Alamo couldn’t hold—that the siege would either starve the defenders out or the artillery would eventually pound the walls into dust and rubble. Without reinforcements the Alamo defenders would all die. To discourage outsiders from bolstering the Alamo’s defense Santa Anna left cavalry patrols in the field.
On the evening of February 24, with Santa Anna bombarding the Alamo and the sound of entrenching tools hacking at the ground, inching closer to the walls, Travis sat at his desk and wrote what has become in the annals of Texas our own declaration of liberty or death.
Commandancy of the Alamo
Béxar, Feby. 24th, 1836
To the People of Texas and All Americans in the world—Fellow Citizens and Compatriots:
I am besieged with a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call upon you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, and every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will not doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his own honor and that of his country.
VICTORY OR DEATH.
Willam Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt.
P. S. The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found in deserted houses 80 to 90 bushels and got into the wall 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
Travis handed the letter to Captain Albert Martin, who slipped out of the Alamo, and carried the letter to Andrew Ponton at Gonzales.
The cannonade continued—as did the entrenching. On the 25th Travis wrote Sam Houston apprising him of the situation at the Alamo.
Headquarters, Fort of the Alamo
Feb. 25th, 1836
To Major-General Sam Houston:
Sir: On the 23rd of Feb., the enemy in large force entered the city of Béxar, which could not be prevented, as I had not sufficient force to occupy both positions. Col. Bartes, the Adjutant-Major of the President-General Santa Anna, demanded a surrender at discretion, calling us foreign rebels. I answered them with a cannon shot, upon which the enemy commenced a bombardment with a five inch howitzer, which together with a heavy cannonade, has been kept up incessantly ever since. I instantly sent express to Col. Fannin, at Goliad, and to the people of Gonzales and San Felipe. Today at 10 o’clock a.m. some two or three hundred Mexicans crossed the river below and came up under cover of the houses until they arrived within virtual point blank shot, when we opened a heavy discharge of grape and canister on them, together with a well directed fire from small arms which forced them to halt and take shelter in the houses about 90 or 100 yards from our batteries. The action continued to rage about two hours, when the enemy retreated in confusion, dragging many of their dead and wounded.
During the action, the enemy kept up a constant bombardment and discharge of balls, grape, and canister. We know from actual observation that many of the enemy were wounded—while we, on our part, have not lost a man. Two or three of our men have been slightly scratched by pieces of rock, but have not been disabled. I take great pleasure in stating that both officers and men conducted themselves with firmness and bravery. Lieutenant Simmons of cavalry acting as infantry, and Captains Carey, Dickinson and Blair of the artillery, rendered essential service, and Charles Despallier and Robert Brown gallantly sallied out and set fire to houses which afforded the enemy shelter, in the face of enemy fire. Indeed, the whole of the men who were brought into action conducted themselves with such heroism that it would be injustice to discriminate. The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty. Our numbers are few and the enemy still continues to approximate his works to ours. I have every reason to apprehend an attack from his whole force very soon; but I shall hold out to the last extremity, hoping to secure reinforcements in a day or two. Do hasten on aid to me as rapidly as possible, as from the superior number of the enemy, it will be impossible for us to keep them out much longer. If they overpower us, we fall a sacrifice at the shrine of our country, and we hope prosperity and our country will do our memory justice. Give me help, oh my country! Victory or Death!
W. Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Com.
For the next five days (February 1836 being a leap year) Mexican and Texians skirmished. Artillery continued to pound the walls of the mission-fort as entrenching lines crept ever closer. On March 1, answering Travis’s first letter to Ponton, thirty-two men from Gonzales—the Immortal Thirty-Two—snuck through the Mexican lines in the early morning and entered the Alamo to cheers and huzzahs. They died with their compatriots and friends five days later.
On the 3rd of March, in a daring daytime feat of horsemanship, James Butler Bonham rode through the lines and into the Alamo. He was carrying information from Goliad—dreadful news. Fannin was not coming. The Alamo was an isolated island in the midst of the Mexican army.
Neither Travis nor the men were under any illusions. When the assault came all would be put to the bayonet or sword. That evening, Travis wrote at length to interim president, David G. Burnet. It was his last official dispatch, carried by John Smith.
Commandancy of the Alamo, Béxar,
March 3, 1836
To the President of the Convention,
Sir: In the present confusion of the political authorities of the country, and in the absence of the commander-in-chief, I beg leave to communicate to you the situation of this garrison. You have doubtless already seen my official report of the action of the twenty-fifth ult. made on that day to General Sam Houston, together with the various communications heretofore sent by express. I shall, therefore, confine myself to what has transpired since that date.
From the twenty-fifth to the present date, the enemy have kept up a bombardment from two howitzers, one a five and a half inch, and the other an eight inch,—and a heavy cannonade from two long nine-pounders, mounted on a battery on the opposite side of the river, at a distance of four hundred yards from our walls. During this period the enemy has been busily employed in encircling us with entrenchments on all sides, at the following distance, to wit: In Béxar, four hundred yards west; in Lavilleta, three hundred yards south; at the powder-house, one thousand yards east by south; on the ditch, eight hundred yards north. Notwithstanding all this, a company of thirty-two men from Gonzales, made their way into us on the morning of the first inst, at three o'clock, and Col. J. B. Bonham (a courier from Gonzales) got in this morning at eleven o'clock without molestation. I have so fortified this place, that the walls are generally proof against cannon-balls; and I shall continue to entrench on the inside, and strengthen the walls by throwing up dirt. At least two hundred shells have fallen inside our works without having injured a single man; indeed, we have been so fortunate as not to lose a man from any cause, and we have killed many of the enemy. The spirits of my men are still high, although they have had much to depress them. We have contended for ten days against an enemy whose numbers are variously estimated at from fifteen hundred to six thousand, with Gen. Ramirez-Sesma and Col. Bartres, the aid-de-camp of Santa Anna, at their head. A report was circulated that Santa Anna himself was with the enemy, but I think it was false. A reinforcement of one thousand men is now entering Béxar from the west, and I think it more than probable that Santa Anna is now in town, from the rejoicing we hear.
Col. Fannin is said to be on the march to this place with reinforcements; but I fear it is not true, as I have repeatedly sent to him for aid without receiving any. Col. Bonham, my special messenger, arrived at La Bahia fourteen days ago, with a request for aid; and on the arrival of the enemy in Béxar ten days ago, I sent an express to Col. F., which arrived at Goliad on the next day, urging him to send us reinforcements; none have arrived. I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it arrives soon, I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms. I will, however, do the best I can under the circumstances; and I feel confident that the determined valor and desperate courage, heretofore exhibited by my men, will not fail them in the last struggle; and although they may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse for him than a defeat. I hope your honorable body will hasten on reinforcements, ammunitions and provisions to our aid, as soon as possible. We have provisions for twenty days for the men we have. Our supply of ammunition is limited. At least five hundred pounds of cannon powder, and two hundred rounds of six, nine, twelve, and eighteen pound balls, ten kegs of rifle powder and a supply of lead, should be sent to this place without delay, under a sufficient guard.
If these things are promptly sent, and large reinforcements are hastened to this frontier, this neighborhood will be the great and decisive battle ground. The power of Santa Anna is to be met here or in the colonies; we had better meet them here than to suffer a war of desolation to rage our settlements. A blood-red banner waves from the church of Bejar, and in the camp above us, in token that the war is one of vengeance against rebels; they have declared us as such; demanded that we should surrender at discretion, or this garrison should be put to the sword. Their threats have had no influence on me or my men, but to make all fight with desperation and that high-souled courage which characterizes the patriot, who is willing to die in defense of his country’s liberty and his own honor.
The citizens of this municipality are all our enemies, except those who have joined us heretofore. We have but three Mexicans now in the fort; those who have not joined us in this extremity, should be declared public enemies, and their property should aid in paying the expenses of the war.
The bearer of this will give you your honorable body a statement more in detail, should he escape through the enemy’s lines.
God and Texas—Victory or Death!
Your Obedient servant,
W. Barret Travis
Lieut. Col. Com.
P. S. The enemy’s troops are still arriving, and the reinforcements will probably amount to two or three thousand.
On the same day he wrote to President Burnet, Travis wrote two personal letters to friends. These too were carried by Smith. To Jesse Grimes Travis wore:
Do me the favor to send the enclosed to its proper destination instantly. I am still here, in fine spirits and well to do, with 145 men. I have held this place for ten days against a force variously estimated from 1,500 to 6,000, and shall continue to hold it till I get relief from my country or I will perish in its defense. We have had a shower of bombs and cannon balls continually falling among us the whole time, yet none of us has fallen. We have been miraculously preserved. You have no doubt seen my official report of the action of the 25th ult. in which we repulsed the enemy with considerable loss; on the night of the 25th they made another attempt to charge us in the rear of the fort, but we received them gallantly by a discharge of grape shot and miraculously, and they took to their scrapers immediately. They are now encamped in entrenchments on all sides of us.
All our couriers have gotten out without being caught and a company of 32 men from Gonzales got in two nights ago, and Colonel Bonham got in today by coming between the powder house and the enemy's upper encampment. . . . Let the convention go on and make a declaration of independence, and we will then understand, and the world will understand, what we are fighting for. If independence is not declared, I shall lay down my arms, and so will the men under my command. But under the flag of independence, we are ready to peril our lives a hundred times a day, and to drive away the monster who is fighting us under a blood-red flag, threatening to murder all prisoners and make Texas a waste desert. I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms, yet I am ready to do it, and if my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect. With 500 men more, I will drive Sesma beyond the Rio Grande, and I will visit vengeance on the enemy fighting against us. Let the government declare them public enemies, otherwise she is acting a suicidal part. I shall treat them as such, unless I have superior orders to the contrary.
My respects to all friends, confusion to all enemies. God Bless you.
W. Barret Travis
To his friend David Aryres, who was taking care of his seven-year-old son Charles Edward, Travis wrote:
Take care of my little boy. If the country should be saved, I may make him a splendid fortune; but if the country should be lost and I should perish, he will have nothing but the proud recollection that he is the son of a man who died for his country.
This was the last known letter Travis wrote. He was twenty-six. He would not see his twenty-seventh birthday.
Two days later, on the 5th, Travis formed the garrison in the compound. He notified them of their desperate situation, and then, according to William Zuber, Travis drew his saber and scratched a line in the dirt. He called on all men of courage and patriotism to cross the line in defense of Texas. Death was certain. Bowie was carried over on his sickbed. All crossed, but one—a Frenchman named Louise “Moses” Rose. That night Rose climbed the walls and dropped on the other side and slunk away into the darkness. He was the sole source for Zuber’s tale. Years later, when asked why he abandoned his friends within the walls of the Alamo, Rose said, “By God, I wasn’t ready to die.” He died fifteen years after abandoning the Alamo.
In the early morning hours of March 6 Santa Anna attacked, the stains of the degüello playing in the background. Travis was killed in the first few minutes—a bullet to the forehead. He was commanding the north wall. Bowie was killed on his sickbed in the galera (Low Barracks), in one of the rooms just to the right of the main gate. The battle raged for an hour and the sudden silence. Santa Anna burned the bodies of the dead. He marched out of Béxar on the 29th, to his own destiny of defeat.