San Antonio and the Alamo in the Civil War

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

In the mid-nineteenth century, sectional tension was growing between the American north and the south. While their differences were both economic and ideological, one issue more than any other drove them apart: slavery. Following the Mexican War in 1848, territory acquired from Mexico — land that included the future states of New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma — heightened the debate. Would slavery be extended to these new lands? Positions hardened during the 1850s as leaders on both sides refused to compromise, making the breakup of the Union increasingly likely.

Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner, 1863 printed ca. 1900 by M.P. Rice. Photograph. Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.

The election of Abraham Lincoln brought the crisis to a head. The old two party system composed of Democrats and Whigs was a casualty of the political battle between the sections. By 1860, the Democratic Party had splintered into a northern branch and a southern branch. The Whigs had faded away, making the party’s last appearance in a presidential race in 1852. Attempting to preserve the peace, the Constitutional Union Party attempted to pursue a course of reconciliation. However, it was “Honest Abe”, candidate of the four-year-old Republican Party, who was declared the official winner of the race.

Lincoln’s election outraged many in the south. He owed his election to the unsettled political situation that griped the nation. The larger but divided Democratic Party failed to rally around a single national figure and instead supported their respective sectional favorites. With even more votes drawn off by the Constitutional Union Party, the staunchly anti-slavery Republican Party emerged victorious. Lincoln’s name had not even been on the ballot in the south, making southerners feel that the political system had failed them. The alternative to domination by the north appeared to be secession from the Union and the formation of a new nation. South Carolina was the first southern State to act, voting on December 20, 1860, to leave the Union. Other southern states quickly followed: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. Their officials hoped that they would be joined by other states as members of a new government — the Confederate States of America.

“The Republic of Texas is no more”-President Anson Jones, Annexation Ceremony, February 19, 1846. Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Prints and Photographs Collection.

Many Texans had come to regret the state’s entrance into the Union only fifteen years earlier. Although there were several thousand federal troops stationed in Texas, they were scattered across the state at a number of distant posts located west of San Antonio. Manned mostly by infantry, these troops had not been able to protect the frontier against Comanche raiders who, mounted on horseback, easily evaded pursuit by the slow moving foot soldiers. Thus, in addition to the ongoing sectional crisis, Texans were also unhappy with the federal government’s inability to provide security and stability on the Texas frontier. On February 1, 1861, a convention in Austin voted in favor of secession, clearing the way for Texas to leave the Union.

San Antonio was the headquarters of the Military District of Texas. Supplies shipped to the Texas coast were transported to San Antonio for storage at the U.S. Army Quartermaster Depot at the Alamo before being sent to the various frontier army posts. State leaders believed that the public property in possession of the U.S. Army, which included a large stock of weapons, should be turned over to Texas and the federal troops removed from its borders. The question was, could this be accomplished without bringing on war between the state and national government?

David E. Twiggs, ca. 1860. LC-B813- 6776 A [P&P]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A delegation of Texas officials contacted General David E. Twiggs, a decorated officer who commanded the Military District of Texas. Twiggs had anticipated Texas’ secession and asked his superiors in Washington, D.C. for instructions. He let it be known to his superiors that he was not prepared to fire on fellow Americans unless forced to defend his post and the nation’s honor. Twiggs received no answer from Washington. Without direction, Twiggs was left on his own to decide what to do. Twiggs told the Texan commissioners that he would turn over the public property they sought if his men were allowed to leave Texas under arms. The fact that Twiggs was a Georgia-born southerner who didn’t believe that the Union could or should be preserved by force comforted the commissioners but worried his superiors. As discussions between Twiggs and the Texans were underway, Twiggs received word that pro-Union officer, Colonel Carlos A. Waite, was replacing him as commander of the Military District of Texas. The commissioners decided they could not wait for the change to take place and called for immediate action.

Ben McCulloch, who had an impressive military record in the service of Texas, was asked to organize a battalion of volunteers to seize San Antonio. Many of the volunteers were former Texas Rangers who had fought against Mexico and the Comanche and Apache. On the afternoon of February 15, 1861, McCullouch’s men began moving towards San Antonio. Both Twiggs and McCulloch were careful not to bring on a fight, knowing the incident would have serious consequences for the nation. On the morning of February 16. the federal soldiers discovered that McCulloch had positioned men on the rooftops overlooking the army installations at the Alamo. Any resistance by the 160-man federal garrison against the thousand or so Texans commanded by McCulloch seemed futile.

As the day wore on, the Texas commissioners contacted Twiggs and again demanded the public property in his possession. He replied that he would not give up the arms in the hands of his soldiers — which in his mind would amount to a capitulation — but would order San Antonio evacuated and send an order for all U.S. troops to leave Texas. The commissioners accepted his terms, thus postponing the first battle of the Civil War by two months.

Surrender of ex-General Twiggs, late of the United States Army, to the Texan troops in the Gran Plaza, San Antonio, Texas, February 16, 1861. Harper’s Weekly : a journal of civilization. (New York : Harper’ s Weekly Co., 1857–1916) .

For his actions, Twiggs received laurels from southerners and criticism from northerners. The seventy-one year old general was stricken from the rolls of the army in disgrace, a form of a dishonorable discharge. Although he accepted a position in the newly formed Confederate Army, ill-health kept Twiggs at home, where he died on July 2, 1862. Once a national hero awarded a gold sword by the U.S. Congress, Twiggs is most remembered for his role in permitting Texas to leave the Union.

The Alamo, now in the hands of the Confederacy, continued its role as a quartermaster depot supplying southern forces. It initially provisioned, armed, and equipped Sibley’s Texas Brigade for its ill-fated 1862 campaign. During the war, a thriving trade developed between San Antonio and Matamoros involving the exchange of cotton for supplies needed by the Confederacy. Once the war was over in 1865, the U.S. Army reestablished control over the Alamo, remaining there until 1877.

This article is dedicated to Bruce Avertt, Rudy Krisch, and Wayne Vic.