The Siege of the Alamo began on this date in 1836 and ended on March 6th in the Battle of the Alamo. In 1835, as the Mexican government began to shift away from a federalist model, violence erupted in several Mexican states, including the border region Mexican Texas. By the end of the year, Texian forces had expelled all Mexican soldiers from the area. In Mexico City, president Antonio López de Santa Anna had begun gathering an army to retake Texas.
When Mexican troops departed San Antonio de Béxar (now San Antonio, Texas), Texian soldiers established a garrison at the Alamo Mission, a former Spanish religious outpost which had been converted to a makeshift fort. Described by Santa Anna as an “irregular fortification hardly worthy of the name”, the Alamo had been designed to withstand an attack by local Indians, not an artillery-equipped army. The complex sprawled across 3 acres, providing almost 1,320 feet of perimeter to defend (the size of a modern 400 meter race track). An interior plaza was bordered on the east by the chapel and to the south by a one-storey building known as the Low Barracks. A wooden palisade stretched between these two buildings. The two-storey Long Barracks extended north from the chapel. At the northern corner of the east wall stood a cattle pen and horse corral. The walls surrounding the complex were at least 2’9” thick and ranged from 9–12 ft high.
On February 11th, the commander of the Alamo, colonel James C. Neill, left the Alamo to recruit additional reinforcements and gather supplies. In his absence, the garrison was jointly commanded by newcomers William B. Travis—a regular army officer— and James Bowie, who had commanded a volunteer company. As the Texians struggled to find men and supplies, Santa Anna’s army began marching north. On February 12th they crossed the Rio Grande. On February 16th and February 18th local resident Ambrosio Rodriguez warned his good friend William Barret Travis that their relatives further south claimed that Santa Anna was on the march towards Béxar. Two days later Juan Seguin’s scout Blas María Herrera reported that the vanguard of the Mexican army had crossed the Rio Grande. There had been many rumors of Santa Anna’s imminent arrival, but Travis ignored them. For several hours that night a council of war held at the Alamo argued over whether to believe the rumors. Travis was convinced that the Mexican army would not arrive in Béxar until at least mid-March. He, and others in the Texian army thought Santa Anna would not march until spring, when the grass had begun to grow again. They overlooked the fact that mesquite grass sprouted earlier than normal grass. Travis had also assumed that Santa Anna would not have begun gathering troops for an invasion of Texas until after he had learned of the expulsion of the Mexican forces from San Antonio. The Texians did not realize that Santa Anna had begun preparations for an invasion months before.
Despite the Texian disbelief, by the evening of February 20th many of the residents of Béxar began to pack their belongings in preparation for leaving. The next day, fifteen of the Tejano volunteers at the Alamo resigned. Juan Seguin, Tejano captain, had asked Travis to release the men so that they could help evacuate their families, who were in the path Santa Anna would take to reach Béxar. Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande on February 16th. The next night, his army camped on the Nueces River, 119 miles from Béxar. Texians had previously burned the bridge over the Nueces, forcing the Mexicans to build a makeshift structure of branches and dirt in the pouring rain. The delay was brief, and on February 19th the vanguard of the army camped along the Frio River, 68 miles from Béxar. The following day they reached Hondo, less than 50 miles away. By 1:45 pm on February 21st Santa Anna and his vanguard had reached the banks of the Medina River, 25 miles from Béxar. Waiting there were dragoons under Colonel Ramirez y Sesma, who had arrived the previous evening. With no idea that the Mexican army was so close, all but 10 members of the Alamo garrison joined about 2000 Béxar residents at a fiesta to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. Centralists in Béxar soon alerted Santa Anna to the party, and he ordered General Ramirez y Sesma to lead a cavalry force to take the Alamo while the garrison celebrated elsewhere. The raid had to be called off when sudden rains made the Medina unfordable. The next night, Santa Anna and his army camped at Leon Creek, 8 miles west of what is now central San Antonio.
In the early hours of February 23, residents began fleeing Béxar, fearing the Mexican army’s imminent arrival. Although unconvinced by the reports, Travis stationed a soldier in the San Fernando church bell tower—the highest location in town—to watch for signs of an approaching force. Travis then sent captain Philip Dimitt and lieutenant Benjamin Noble to scout for the Mexican army’s location. At approximately 2:30 that afternoon the church bell began to ring; the soldier stationed in the tower claimed to have seen flashes in the distance. Dimitt and Noble had not returned, so Travis sent Dr. James Sutherland and John W. Smith on horseback to scout the area. Smith and Sutherland spotted members of the Mexican cavalry within 1.5 miles of the town and returned to Béxar at a run.
According to later reports from Santa Anna, the cavalry, under General Joaquín Ramírez y Sesma, were supposed to execute a surprise attack on the morning of February 23rd. Historian Thomas Ricks Lindley concluded that Sesma’s troops had captured a Texian spy, Trinidad Coy, who lied about a Texian ambush further ahead, prompting Sesma to halt at 7 a.m. and wait for reinforcements. Historian Lon Tinkle speculated that the combination of the church bell ringing and the sight of the two Texian scouts led Sesma to believe that the Texians were planning an assault on the cavalry.
At this point there were approximately 156 effective Texian soldiers in the Alamo, with another 14 in the hospital. The men were completely unprepared for the arrival of the Mexican army, and had no food in the mission. The men quickly herded cattle in the Alamo and scrounged for food in nearby houses. They were able to gather enough beef and corn into the Alamo to last a month. The Alamo garrison also had a large supply of captured Mexican muskets, with over 19,000 paper cartridges, but only a limited supply of powder for the artillery. Several members of the garrison dismantled the blacksmith shop of Antonio Saez and moved much of the material into the Alamo. A few members of the garrison brought their families into the Alamo to keep them safe. Among these was Alamaron Dickinson, who fetched his wife Susanna and their daughter Angelina, and Bowie, who brought his deceased wife’s cousins, Gertrudis Navarro and Juana Navarro Alsbury and Alsbury’s young son into the fort. It is likely that Navarro and Alsbury also brought their family’s servants, Sam and Bettie.
While the bulk of the garrison prepared for the attack, a few Texians remained in Béxar and raised a flag in the middle of Military Plaza. According to historian J.R. Edmondson, “The flag was a variation of the Mexican tricolor with two stars, representing the separated states of Texas and Coahuila, gleaming from the white center bar.” Within an hour the first of the Mexican cavalry, commanded by colonel Jose Vicente Minon, entered Béxar. The Texians lowered their flag and brought it into the Alamo.
As the Mexican cavalry approached, Travis dispatched a man named John Johnson to ask Colonel James Fannin, 100 miles southeast, to send reinforcements immediately. Travis then sent Smith and Sutherland to bring a message to the alcade at Gonzales, 70 miles (110 km) away. The note to Gonzales read: “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.”
By late afternoon, Béxar was occupied by about 1500 Mexican troops, who quickly raised a blood-red flag signifying “No Quarter.” Soon after, a Mexican bugler sounded the request for parley. Travis ordered the Alamo’s 18-pounder cannon fired. The Mexican army responded with four balls from 7-in howitzers; the balls hit the interior of the Alamo but caused no damage or injuries. Santa Anna later reported that the initial Texian cannon fire killed two Mexican soldiers and wounded eight others. No other Mexican officer, however, reported fatalities from that day.
Bowie believed that Travis had acted hastily and sent Green B. Jameson to meet with Santa Anna. Jameson carried a letter addressed to “The Commander of the invading forces below Bejar” and signed “Commander of the volunteers of Bejar.” Angry that Bowie presented himself as Santa Anna’s equal, the Mexican general refused to meet with Jameson, but allowed colonel Juan Almonte and José Bartres to parley. Almonte later said that Jameson asked for an honorable surrender, but Bartres replied “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 recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, than to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations.” Travis was angered that Bowie had acted unilaterally and sent his own emissary to the Mexican army; he received the same response. Bowie and Travis then mutually agreed to fire the cannon again.
By the time the parleys were over it was nightfall, and the firing ceased. That evening the Mexicans erected an artillery battery near the Veramendi house. Santa Anna also sent General Ventura Mora’s cavalry to circle to the north and east of the Alamo to prevent the arrival of Texian reinforcements. According to Edmondson, the Texians sent a small party to forage that evening. They returned with six pack mules and a prisoner, a Mexican soldier who would later be used to interpret Mexican bugle calls. The Texians received one reinforcement that night, when one of Seguin’s men, Gregorio Esparza, arrived with his family. Texian sentries refused to open the gate, but others helped the family climb through the window of the chapel. Several other Texian soldiers were unable to make it into the Alamo. Dimitt and Noble, who had been scouting for signs of the Mexican army, were told by a local that Béxar was surrounded, and they would be unable to re-enter the town. Andrew Jackson Sowell and Byrd Lockhart had been out that morning looking for provisions; on hearing that the Alamo was surrounded they left for their homes in Gonzales. Thus ended the first day of the siege.
San Antonio is a great foodie town these days. Last time I visited I pigged out on menudo, tacos de lengua, cabrito, etc. This is not your usual Tex-Mex fare of nachos, fajitas, and crunchy tacos, but – to me at least – a much more engaging cuisine. Standard Tex-Mex with its reliance on an abundance of cheese, seems geared to a rather bland palate (and palette). The dishes you get in San Antonio, provided you are looking in the right places, are strongly influenced by northern Mexican styles and have less of Texas about them. Here’s a fairly stock sopa de fideos (noodle soup) that you can readily find in the region. The Spanish word “fideo” means “noodle” but what counts as a fideo varies all over the Spanish-speaking world. In Mexico fideos are close to spaghetti. I’ve given the recipe in Mexican Spanish, which actually does not come naturally to me. Spanish dialects are mostly mutually intelligible but food vocabulary is the main area where the dialects part company.
Sopa de Fideos
2 cucharadas de aceite vegetal
8 onzas de pasta de fideos
10 onzas de jitomates asados
1 diente de ajo grande o 2 dientes pequeños
½ taza de cebolla blanca picada
6 tazas de caldo de pollo
sal y pimienta al gusto
queso fresco Mexicano desmenuzado y aguacate en cubitos.
Coloca los jitomates, el ajo y la cebolla asados en tu licuadora. Procesa hasta que tengas una mezcla suave. Cuela esta mezcla usando un colador en un recipiente y reserve. Algunas personas pasan la salsa de tomate por el colador, eso es al gusto personal tuyo y de como te gusta tu sopa de fideo.
Calienta el aceite en una cacerola grande a fuego medio bajo y agrega el fideo. Fríe los fideos ligeramente, revolviendo a menudo, hasta que tengan un color dorado claro, 3-4 minutos.
Vierta la mezcla de jitomate en la cacerola y cocina durante 1 minuto aproximadamente. Agrega el caldo de pollo (o agua mezclada con el consomé de pollo en polvo). Lleva a ebullición, luego reduzce la temperatura a media-baja y cubra la cacerola. Cocina a fuego lento hasta que los fideos estén suaves, aproximadamente 8 minutos. Sazona con sal y pimienta al gusto.
Para servir, divida la sopa de fideo en tazones y adorna con queso fresco y aguacate en cubitos