The Battle of Béxar: Forgotten Fight for San Antonio

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

Mention the Texas Revolution and the Battle of the Alamo most likely comes to mind. The epic battle has dominated the story of Texas’ struggle for independence since it occurred in 1836. However, historians and students of history know that the Battle of the Alamo may not have happened if the Battle of Béxar had not preceded it. Even before the outbreak of hostilities in early October 1835, some Texans already lobbied for their fellow colonists to occupy the town. Their explanation: San Antonio de Béxar was too important of a place to let it become a Centralist stronghold.

Texas erupted into open rebellion against the Centralist government of Mexico on October 2, 1835. The occasion was the government’s attempt to retrieve a small cannon that had been loaned to the colonists at Gonzales. The colonists refused to give the cannon up, and even fired on the troops sent to collect it. They realized that this act of armed resistance was going to bring a sharp rebuke from Santa Anna and his supporters. With war now a reality, “On to Béxar” quickly became the war cry. “Béxar” was the town of San Antonio de Béxar which was located seventy miles west of Gonzales. Founded early in the 18th century by the Spanish, Béxar had become an important center for trade, politics, and frontier defense. Following the advice given earlier in the summer, the colonists determined that the town must be taken and its Centralist garrison driven out of Texas.

The colonists at Gonzales formed themselves into the Federal Army of Texas. The army was made up of three hundred colonists who flocked to Gonzales after hearing that the fighting had begun. They elected Stephen F. Austin, Texas’ most famous empresario, to command them. On October 13, 1835, General Austin and his men began the march on Béxar, reaching the outskirts of town several days later. Once there Austin laid siege to the Béxar, bottling up the Centralist garrison quartered there. The colonists won several important skirmishes but the siege gradually bogged down, prompting some of them to leave citing the approach of cold weather as their reason. In fact, Austin was urged to break off the siege and send his army home for the winter. Although Austin refused, he soon had to leave Texas to embark on a fundraising mission in the United States.

Henry McArdle. “Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers,” 1901. The Alamo Collection. Photo: Michael Smith

Austin’s successor, Edward Burleson, inherited a difficult situation. His army was on the verge of disbanding and going home. Two events saved the day. First, volunteers from the United States had reached Béxar and they had come to fight. Second, a respected colonist stepped forward to rally the army by dramatically asking, “Who will follow old Ben Milam to San Antonio?” The situation stabilized. Early on the morning of December 5, 1835, two columns of colonists and American volunteers fought their way into town.

Over the next few days, the rebels battled their way house to house towards the town’s main plaza where San Fernando Church was located. They suffered a loss on the morning of December 7th when Milam was stuck down by a bullet as he exited the Veramendi House. General Martín Perfecto de Cos, the commander of the 1,350 man Centralists garrison, faced an increasingly desperate situation: he was running low on food, his men’s moral was poor, and reinforcements sent to him during the siege were untrained recruits. He signaled for a parley. Early on the morning of December 10, the two sides agreed to a cease fire. The rebels received control of the town and all public property in it. Cos and his garrison were allowed to leave Texas and take their arms with them. Even though they had succeeded in their goal of capturing Béxar and driving the Centralist’s garrison away, some rebels considered it a bad bargain. Their concern was justified because Cos’ troops would soon be back.

The Centralist government had long planned a crackdown on dissidents in Texas. Now with a full-blown rebellion on its hand, restoring order was a must or Texas would be lost. General Antonio de López de Santa Anna, Mexico’s president, prepared a devastating counterattack. The rebels at Béxar had to be taught a lesson that all of Texas would never forget. He gathered all the troops he could, including Cos and his men, and personally led them back to Texas. On March 6, 1836, he stormed a fortified mission on the outskirts of Béxar, ordering his troops to take no prisoners. Although not in the way Santa Anna intended, he insured that Texans would indeed “Remember the Alamo!”