In the summer and autumn of 1835, Texian and Tejano separatists threw out the Mexican troops of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the reigning dictator of the Centralist Republic of Mexico, due to his heavy handed rule and revocation of the Constitution of 1824. The Texian success sparked rebellions across the length of Mexico. In the winter of 1835/36, Santa Anna’s army brutally suppressed those rebellions, and then turned north on Texas. After the disastrous Texian invasion of Matamoros, Gen Sam Houston’s volunteers needed time to retrain and organize to repel Santa Anna. To buy him that time, Col William Travis, decided to occupy and hold the old Franciscan Alamo mission outside of the town of San Antonio de Bexar.
Travis, a regular army officer, shared command with famed knife fighter Col Jim Bowie, a Texian volunteer with ties to Bexar. But even with a group of Tennessee volunteers under frontiersman and former US congressman Colonel Davy Crockett, The Texian defenders of the Alamo still amounted to less than 200 men, and Travis sent increasingly desperate (and dramatic) letters asking for reinforcements. On 23 February 1836, Santa Anna’s army arrived in Bexar. It would take ten days for Santa Anna’s entire army of 4000 to arrive, while Travis and Bowie received less than 80 reinforcements. As Santa Anna’s army gathered, he besieged the Alamo for 13 days.
At dawn on 6 March 1836, Santa attacked the Alamo to the sounds of Deguello bugle calls which announced no quarter for the “pirates” as Santa Anna had decreed the Texians. He attacked with four columns of a total of about 1800 men: one column from each cardinal direction. He hoped to overwhelm the overextended defenders of the Alamo’s long walls. However, the north, east, and west columns all massed on the north wall in the confusion of two previous failed attacks.
The third assault finally carried the north wall after a hastily patched breach, caused by ten days’ worth of bombardment, was finally captured and opened, allowing Mexican soldiers to stream into the mission. (Travis was killed defending this breach.) Texian soldiers on the south wall turned their cannons around and attempted to defend in both directions but were soon overwhelmed. (Crockett, with his Tennesseans, initially defended the low wall outside the chapel. He died fighting along the makeshift wall facing north. Or, according to one report, was captured and executed there.) Many of the remaining defenders attempted to escape but were cut down by Mexican cavalry. Those that didn’t barricaded themselves in the barracks and chapel, where they were systematically rooted out and killed (which was where an ailing Bowie died). Any prisoners were slaughtered and only a few Texian non-combatants walked away from the assault. However the defenders sold themselves dearly and the Mexicans took about 600 casualties.
Santa Anna thought the utter destruction of the Alamo’s defenders would end Texian resistance but he was gravely mistaken. Texian civilians fled Santa Anna and volunteers flocked to Gen Sam Houston’s retreating army. Santa Anna would follow but Houston’s galvanized army would turn and attack at the Lynchberg ferry on the San Jacinto river. Houston’s Texian victory at the Battle of San Jacinto captured Santa Anna, and subsequent negotiations led to the Texian independence from Mexico.