REMEMBER THE ALAMO
By Tony Storey
This article was originally published in the December 2010 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
1960 Hollywood produced a film entitled 'The Alamo', with John Wayne as the heroic but ultimately doomed Davy Crockett and Richard Widmark as the equally charismatic Jim Bowie. Four years earlier a television series with Fess Parker and a hit record by Tennessee Ernie Ford called 'The Ballad of Davy Crockett' resulted in Davy Crockett hats suddenly becoming as popular with young boys as Nintendo games and iPods are today. Both film and television series were loosely based on the historical events of 1836 and in March 2011 Americans will celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo.
In 1835 Texas was a region of Mexico which had attracted a large number of immigrants from the United States. America had attempted to purchase the territory from the Mexicans but in general the settlers had been content with a constitution which allowed them a certain freedom and individual rights. However, the constitution had been repealed and the new president of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, attempted to impose more dictatorial policies. A local Texan army, dominated by American settlers and adventurers, responded by forcing the Mexican troops to withdraw from the region and declaring Texas to be an independent republic. Santa Anna was furious and wrote to President Andrew Jackson protesting at what he regarded as American interference in Mexican affairs and informing him that foreigners who fought against the Mexican authorities in Texas were pirates and would be subject to summary execution.
After the Mexican army had been expelled from San Antonio de Bexar in December 1835, the Texans established a garrison at the Alamo Mission. The buildings had once been a Spanish religious mission and, although converted to a fort, it had been intended as a defence against hostile native tribes and could never hope to withstand an attack by an army supported by artillery. In January 1836 the Alamo had fewer than one hundred soldiers and lacked adequate supplies of clothing and ammunition. Fearing a counter-attack from the Mexicans, the Alamo's acting commander wrote to the provisional government requesting additional troops and supplies. Instead the government decided that the fort could not be defended and sent Colonel James Bowie and a task force of thirty men with orders to withdraw, destroying the buildings and remove any artillery so that it did not fall into enemy hands. However, when Bowie reached the garrison he made a fateful decision. Rather than dismantle the fort and withdraw, he concluded that defending the Alamo represented the best chance of stopping Santa Anna from winning back the territory. He promptly wrote to request more men, money and rifles. On 3 February 1836 cavalry officer William Travis reached the Alamo with reinforcements of thirty men, and on 8 February a small party of volunteers arrived, which included Davy Crockett. Travis and Bowie were put in joint command of the garrison.
While the provisional government and the small force at San Antonio de Bexar were debating how best to proceed, Santa Anna was gathering his army and preparing to march into Texas to reclaim the land he had lost. The Mexican advance was slow because of bad weather, sickness and Comanche raids but by 21 February they were within 25 miles of San Antonio. The Texans' intelligence and communications were poor and they had no inkling as to how close the enemy troops were until the early hours of 23 February, when residents began fleeing the town of Bexar. Only when Santa Anna's army was within two miles of the garrison did the defenders gather what provisions they could find and secure the gates of the fort. The garrison strength included twenty-two members of the Gonzales Ranging Company of Mounted Volunteers, one of whom was Marcus Sewell. On the first day of the siege Bowie collapsed and took to his bed, leaving Travis in sole command.
The Mexicans took over the town of Bexar and set up artillery batteries to bombard the fort. At first the garrison returned fire but after three days Travis had to order his artillery to conserve powder and shot. When the rest of Texas heard news of the siege, a relief column of 320 men, four cannon and several supply wagons was assembled and began a ninety mile march to the Alamo only to turn back almost immediately. Meanwhile on 3 March the garrison defenders could only watch as a further one thousand Mexican troops marched into Bexar. Unaware that his own relief column had turned back, Travis despatched three scouts including Davy Crockett to find his expected reinforcements. The scouts located about fifty volunteers who had continued their march when the rest of the column had turned back, and were able to lead about half of them through Mexican lines to boost the Alamo defences. Even so, the besieging force outnumbered the defenders by about ten to one.
After a thirteen-day siege the Mexican forces attacked at 5.30 a.m. on 6 March 1836. Two attempts to breach the walls failed and the Mexicans suffered heavy losses. At the third attempt the attackers were able to scale the north wall and open the postern gate, allowing them to pour into the compound. Despite pockets of resistance the defenders were soon overwhelmed and fell back to the chapel and barracks building. Once in control of the outer walls and compound, the Mexicans turned the Alamo's own cannon on each building and barricaded door in turn. The defenders had been prepared to fight to the death and, apart from the women and children hiding in the sacristy of the chapel, only two defenders were left alive when fighting ceased at 6.30 a.m. The Battle of the Alamo had lasted barely an hour.
One of the defenders who lost their lives that day was Marcus Sewell. Although some sources believe him to be Demarcus Sewell, born in Tennessee, the son of George Sewell, a bronze plaque at the Alamo suggests he was born in England, possibly around 1806. Many of the Alamo defenders were settlers hoping for a new life or just young men seeking adventure, perhaps far from their humble origins. Four of them were born in Scotland, David Wilson, Isaac Robinson, Richard Ballentine and John McGregor, and there would have been others who crossed the ocean, only to die in the defence of their adopted home. The Mexican dead were buried in the local cemetery but the remains of the Alamo's defenders were piled up and burned and their ashes left to blow away.
The Battle of the Alamo was a Pyrrhic victory for the Mexicans as not only did they suffer heavy losses, but the heroism of the garrison inspired fellow Texans to take up the fight for independence. Men flocked to join the Texan Army and on 21 April 1836 the Mexicans were routed at the Battle of San Jacinto and Santa Anna was captured.
Nowadays the Alamo in San Antonio is said to be the most popular tourist destination in Texas. The events of 6 March 1836 are a quintessential part of American history and the names of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie have passed into folklore. Marcus Sewell is just one of the many other men who made the same sacrifice that day but who are largely unremembered.
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