Vowing to crush the rebellion against his dictatorial regime in early 1836, Generalissimo Antonio López de Santa Anna launched his army units up the two roads leading from the Mexican interior into Texas. He planned a surprise attack on the two rebel forts that stood athwart those two roads: Presidio La Bahía at Goliad and the Alamo in Béxar.
When Santa Anna arrived in Béxar on February 23, the garrison under the command of Texians (as American colonists in Texas were then called) James Bowie and William B. Travis withdrew behind the stone and adobe walls of the Alamo. Santa Anna demanded surrender. Travis replied with a cannonball. There was no mistaking that response, so Santa Anna ordered his artillerymen to reduce the walls. Outnumbered, the beseiged defenders’ only hope was for reinforcements.
Travis believed he could hold the fort until help arrived and pledged that he would “never surrender or retreat.” On March 1, 32 men from the settlement of Gonzales reached the Alamo, raising the number of defenders to about 190, far from enough. On March 3, he wrote, “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.”
Around 5 a.m. on March 6, after many nights of bombardment, Santa Anna hurled his columns at the battered walls. The 1,800 Mexican assault troops were met by the Texians’ concentrated cannon and rifle fire. Mounting the walls, the Mexicans forced the defenders to abandon their perimeter and withdraw to interior rooms. The Mexicans prevailed in about 90 minutes, wiping out all resistance. As many as seven defenders initially survived, but Santa Anna ordered their execution. By 8 a.m., every Alamo fighting man lay dead. As Travis had predicted, however, his bones did reproach his fellow Texians and ignited a righteous anger.
- When facing a siege, hole up in a real fort. The Alamo was built in 1718 as a Franciscan mission with walls designed to stop Comanches, not artillery.
- Do not place garrisons beyond your reach. Béxar was more than 90 miles from the nearest other settlement and any hope of reinforcements.
- Secure your lines of communication. Surrounded, Travis’ only recourse was to sneak an occasional mounted courier past the Mexicans at night.
- Expect the unexpected. No one thought that Santa Anna would fight in winter. When the Mexican army arrived in Béxar, it caught the Alamo garrison off guard and unprepared.
- Don’t underestimate your enemy. Tactically, Santa Anna was no slouch. Not only was his arrival a surprise, so was the size of his army. He bombarded the Alamo night after night for nearly two weeks to deprive the Texians of sleep— then silenced his guns the night before his assault to lull the defenders. When Santa Anna struck at 5 a.m., Travis and most of his men were asleep.
- Consider political realities. Texas officials ignored Travis’ calls for assistance because the provisional government that was supposed to help had disbanded in a fit of squabbling. By the time they reorganized, it was too late.
- Arrange ample transportation. The 190 Alamo defenders had far fewer than 190 horses, so a breakout was unthinkable: The Mexican lancers cavalry would have skewered fleeing foot soldiers.
- Don’t neglect perimeter security. Santa Anna wisely used pre-dawn darkness to conceal his movements. Travis had placed picket guards outside the walls, but the Mexicans neutralized them before they could sound the alarm.
- If you’re the general, act like one. When the final attack came, Travis behaved like a good soldier but not a commander: He manned a gun at the Alamo’s most vulnerable spot and was an early casualty. When he went down, command and control crumbled.
- Never annihilate your enemy. The Alamo defenders did not fight to the last man. Rather, Santa Anna had them killed to the last man. If he had taken prisoners, he would have deprived the battle of its moral power, and Americans would “Remember the Alamo” only as a terrible defeat. Instead, the slaughter at the Alamo fired the enduring rage of all Texians and just six weeks later at San Jacinto, Santa Anna paid the price: He was captured when the vengeful Texians won the battle and their independence.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.