Fortress Alamo

By: Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo Director of History and Curation

After serving as home to the La Segunda Compañía Volante de San Carlos de Alamo de Parras — or, more informally, the Alamo Company — since 1803, the mission-turned-presidio received new residents in the winter of 1835. Following the Texan victory during the Battle of Bexar, and the departure of the Mexican Army from San Antonio, the city and the Alamo were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill. Neill was faced with the decision of whether or not to abandon the town or to continue defensive efforts begun by the Mexican Army.

Neill’s post at San Antonio de Béxar consisted of two fortifications separated by the San Antonio River: the main plaza and the Alamo. He commanded eighty effective men who were split evenly between the two locations. Neill’s headquarters were in the town while Captain William R. Carey commanded the Alamo.

On January 14, Neill informed General Sam Houston that the post’s undermanned state had been caused by the departure of several hundred volunteers who recently left the town in favor of a campaign against Matamoros. Three days later after receiving Neill’s letter detailing the dire situation in Béxar, Houston concluded that the town could not be held by Neill’s small garrison and should be abandoned. He immediately asked James Bowie to go to Béxar to demolish the fortifications in the town. He informed Governor Henry Smith of his actions, further stating, “and if you think well of it, I will remove all of the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo, and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers.” Both Smith and the General Council overruled Houston and ordered Béxar defended.

On January 18, 1836, Green B. Jameson wrote to General Sam Houston from “Fortress Alamo.” It appears that lawyer turned military engineer used the words somewhat in jest since he told the commander of the Texas Army, “you can plainly see by the plat [I’m sending] that the Alamo was not built by a military people for a fortress.” True, the compound had been built originally as a mission or Indian pueblo. However, even Jameson admitted that it was “strong” and could be made more defensible with improvements he was then undertaking. He noted that Neill planned the next day to move all members of his post to the Alamo as well as carry all of his cannon inside the old mission. This Neill decided even before Bowie arrived with Houston’s orders.

Jameson’s original drawing has sadly been lost over the years. This map is a modified copy of the 1836 original.

The rebel victory over General Martín Perfecto de Cos at the Battle of Béxar in early December 1835 had given them control the Alamo. The site already had served as a military barracks for more than thirty years by the outbreak of the Texas Revolution. During the Siege of Béxar (October-December 1835), Mexican military engineers strengthened the compound, erecting an artillery platforms at the east end of the church and at various points on the perimeter walls. They had also constructed a palisade to close the opening between the church and the Low Barrack. A lunette (a “U” shaped earthen fieldwork) had been thrown up to protect the entrance to the compound. Thus, the Alamo’s defenses already had been significantly enhanced when the rebels moved in.

Jameson recognized the main problem the Texans faced in defending the Alamo from an all-out attack by the Mexican Army. It was too large to be manned by the force they had at hand. The situations was exacerbated by the fact that the Alamo could more accurately be called a “fortified village.” Unlike an actual military fort, the compound consisted of separate structures enclosed by a perimeter wall. In many places structures formed part of the outer wall. The compound’s walls could be easily scaled and the buildings entered through doors and windows. Most serious of all, none of the artillery platforms were positioned to provide enfilading fire along the walls, meaning attacking soldiers who reached the walls would be safe from cannon fire. These shortfalls may have been Jameson’s meaning behind his words, “Fortress Alamo.”

Jameson worked to remedy the situation as best he could. He had ditches dug around the walls that could be flooded to impede an attacking force. He also worked on erecting half-moon batteries along the walls from which the garrison could fire down the length of the walls. On February 16, 1836, he offered a more drastic solution to Governor Smith in order to make the place more defensible with a small garrison. He proposed “to square the Alamo and erect a large redoubt at each corner supported by Bastions & leave the ditch all around full of water.” He explained, “When squared in that way four canon & fewer men would do more effective service than twenty pieces of artillery does or can do in the way they are now mounted.”

Unfortunately, for Jameson and the rest of the garrison, time was not on their side. Less than a week remained before the Mexican Army returned to Béxar and the siege of the Alamo began. The Texans would have to make do with the Alamo as it was.