by Alamo Historian, Bruce Winders, Ph.D.
“I have little doubt but that the Alamo has fallen.” — General Sam Houston, Gonzales, March 11, 1836.
We live in an age when news stories unfold on our televisions as they occur. Reporters on the scene describe what they see happening, as it happens. News crews rush to interview distraught survivors even before these people have had a chance to collect their thoughts. Footage captured by bystanders on their cell phones is quickly uploaded to social media platforms. The public receives news almost instantly.
It has not always been this way, though. People used to have to wait hours, days, weeks, or even months to learn about events after they occurred. Stories often changed as additional information arrived. News gathering in the past was less immediate and much slower. The story of the Alamo conformed to this old pattern of gathering and disseminating news.
The first to know what happened at the Alamo on March 6, 1836, were the Mexican soldiers, survivors, and townspeople who participated in or witnessed the battle. That afternoon, General Antonio López de Santa Anna wrote the first official report of the battle and forwarded it to Mexico City. He praised his troops’ actions in winning this hard-fought victory and said the nation owed them its gratitude. He numbered his losses at 70 killed and 300 wounded. Among the enemy slain were Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. Not all of the rebels had been killed inside the fort as “a great many fell in the vicinity under the sabres of the cavalry.” Santa Anna insisted that Mexico would not “suffer any foreigners, whatever their origin may be, to insult our country, and pollute its soil.”
Although his soldiers had captured several of the enemy’s flags, Santa Anna made a special point of sending the banner of the New Orleans Greys to prove to his government that foreigners were helping the rebels.[i] The victorious general also forwarded letters and documents found at the Alamo.[ii] Other Mexican officers recorded their feeling about the day’s events in their journals, which initially remained private. Survivors who had been sent back to their homes told relatives and neighbors about their experiences. Townspeople who had watched the assault from their houses and the streets of Béxar discussed what they had witnessed. Even though Santa Anna correctly exclaimed that few of the rebels survived to tell “their associates the tidings of their disaster,” news of such a dramatic event was bound to spread.[iii]
Word of the battle reached the outside five days later on March 11, when two ranchers, Anselmo Bergara and Andrew Bargana, arrived at Gonzales. Coincidently, General Sam Houston and his staff had just arrived in town fresh from the Convention at Washington on the Brazos River. Houston, who believed the men might be spies, had the two Tejanos examined to verify their story. Later that day, he wrote to Colonel James Fannin at Goliad, declaring “I have little doubt but that the Alamo has fallen.” Houston provided what information he had learned with the caveat that “whether or not [the] above particulars are true or not may be questionable.” As relayed by Houston, the attack had begun at dawn, the attacking force numbered 2,500 while the defenders numbered 150, seven men who were found alive asked for quarter but were ordered put to death by Santa Anna, and the defenders’ bodies were collected and burned. Although Houston did not mention David Crockett’s fate, he wrote that James Bowie was killed in his sick bed. Two details he forwarded to Fannin — one that William B. Travis had committed suicide himself rather than surrender and another that Almeron Dickinson had jumped with his young son to their death from the walls of the church — proved false. Dickinson’s wife, he wrote, “is now in the possession of the officers of Santa Anna.”[iv]
Houston continued to pass on the news of the Alamo’s fall. On March 12, he wrote to Phillip Dimmit that “the Alamo has fallen., and all of our men murdered!”[v] The next day, Houston informed James Collinsworth, the chairman of the provisional government’s Military Committee and his friend, Henry Raguet, repeating to the latter what he had told Fannin about the Alamo’s fall.[vi] On March 15, Houston further informed Collinsworth that “the lady of Lieutenant Dickinson, who fell at the Alamo, had arrived, and confirms the fall of that place, and the circumstances, pretty much as my express detailed them.” Angelina Dickinson did not arrive alone: “She returned in company with two negroes — one the servant of Colonel Travis, the other a servant of Colonel Almonte. They both corroborate the statement first made and forwarded to you.”[vii]
News continued to spread eastward. On March 15, word of the Alamo’s fall reached the town of Washington, where delegates were meeting to decide Texas’ future. William F. Gray, a land agent from Virginia watching the proceedings, recorded in his diary that “a Mr. Ainsworth” arrived from Columbia with the news. Later that afternoon, copies of Houston’s letters dated March 11 and March 13 also arrived “bringing the sad intelligence.” Gray noted that delegates José Francisco Ruiz and José Antonio Navarro also received a letter from Gonzalez written by Juan Seguín that contained the same news.[viii] Upon learning of the Alamo’s fall, another delegate, Benjamin Briggs Goodrich, wrote to his family that his brother, John C. Goodrich, had been “murdered in the Texas fortress of San Antonio de Bexar.” His letter contains many of the details first conveyed by Houston, including the story that Travis had stabbed himself. The grieving man vowed to his relatives in Nashville, Tennessee, that “The blood of a Goodrich has already crimsoned the soil of Texas and another victim shall be added to the list or I [will] see Texas free and Independent.” Goodrich left Washington two days later to join up the army once the Convention broke up. His letter is important because it is one of the earliest known examples of news of the Alamo’s fall being forwarded to the United States.[ix]
Word of the Alamo’s fall reached San Felipe on March 16, 1836, carried there by Houston’s aid-de-camp. Members of the committee of public safety issued a circular addressed “To the People of Texas” that conveyed the news from Thomas Gay that he had “just received information by Col. William T. Austin of the fall of the Alamo, and massacre of our countrymen in that garrison.” As further confirmation, Gay wrote “John Seguin gives the same information.” The committee hoped the news would stir their fellow citizens into action.[x]
The newly elected officials of the Republic of Texas left Washington on March 17, 1836 and headed up river to Groce’s Plantation where Houston had established his camp.[xi] On March 20, 1836, Gray, who was still traveling with government, recorded in his journal that Travis’ slave, Joe, had arrived and had been interviewed by the cabinet. According to Gray, Joe “related the affair with much modesty, apparent candor, and remarkably distinctly for one of his class. The following is, as near as I can recollect, the substance of it.” The main details of Joe’s account told to the Cabinet can be summed up as follows: (1) Joe and Travis were in their shared quarters when the dawn attack began; (2) as master and slave raced together to the north wall, Travis shouted, “Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us, and we’ll give them Hell”; (3) after the two exchanged several shots over the wall, a musket ball struck Travis in the forehead; (4) although mortally wounded, Travis killed General Mora with his sword before dying; (5) with Travis dead, Joe retreated to his quarters; (6) only one man — Warner — asked for quarter; (7) Bowie fired from his sick bed before being killed; (8) Crockett and his companions were found surrounded by twenty-four dead Mexican soldiers; (9) as the fighting died down, Mexican officers collected the women and slaves who were inside the Alamo; (10) after the battle Santa Anna entered the fort and vigorously addressed his soldiers like a “Methodist preacher”; (11) Joe and the other survivors were taken into town and then released; (12) and the bodies of the Texans were burned later that day.
Gray also included a list the men believed killed at the Alamo at the end of Joe’s account.[xii] Four days later on March 24, the editors of the Telegraph and Texas Register published an article clearly based on Joe’s account as recorded by Gray entitled “More Particulars of the Fall of the Alamo.”[xiii] The publication of this account was significant because since 1836 Joe’s story has served as the basic narrative of the battle.
Without national news gathering organizations, newspaper editors relied on information gleaned from other publications in a journalistic version of the popular parlor game “gossip.” In this fashion, news of the Alamo’s fall reached the American public. An example of this type of exchange is an article which appeared in the New York Sun on April 12, 1836. Its editors had received the March 28 issue of the Commercial Bee from New Orleans. Based on the content of the Bee, the Sun’s article repeated details about the battle that had previously been noted by Houston, Goodrich, and Joe through Gray. By now, editors had dismissed the notion that Travis had killed himself, although they contended that Cos had mangled Travis’ face with his sword when he was shown the Texian commander’s body. As for the Alamo’s other notables, it reported “Cols. James Bowie and David Crockett are among the slain — the first was murdered in his bed, to which he had been confined by illness — the latter fell, fighting like a tiger.” However, just a few sentences later after declaring the Crockett died fighting like a tiger, the Sun’s provided contradictory evidence regarding his death. “The Mexicans fought desperately until daylight, when seven only of the garrison were found alive. We regret to say that Col. David Crockett and his companion Mr. Benton, also the gallant Col. Benham of South Carolina, were of the number who cried for quarter, but were told there was no mercy for them. They then continued fighting until the whole were butchered.” The New York Sun was not the only newspaper making that claim. Across the county, Little Rock’s Arkansas Gazette published a similar account on the same day.[xiv] Soon readers in the country were presented two versions of Crockett’s death from which to choose: Crockett died “fighting like a tiger” or Crockett survived the battle only to be murdered by the express order of Santa Anna.
An even more detailed version of the execution scenario appeared two months later. A letter from Galveston dated June 9, 1836, submitted by an unnamed correspondent for the New York Courier and Enquirer reported that General Manuel Fernández Castrillón had found six men alive at the end of the battle, one of whom was David Crockett. The general promised them his protection before presenting his prisoners to Santa Anna. Enraged that these men had been captured and not killed, Santa Anna ordered Crockett and the other five men put to death, an order which his junior officers immediately carried out.[xv] On July 19, 1836, George M. Dolson, a Texian soldier stationed at Galveston wrote his brother to tell him the latest news in Texas. Similarities with the June 9 Courier and Enquirer article make it likely that Dolson had also authored it. The Detroit Democratic Free Press published the “Dolson Letter” on September 19, 1836.[xvi] It is possible that the description of Crockett’s execution arose to highlight Santa Anna’s brutality, not as a slight against the famous frontiersman-turned-congressman as late twentieth century critics have inferred. If that were the case, it cemented a lasting impression of Santa Anna as a ruthless tyrant.[xvii] In 1836, though, the public clamor for authorities to hold Santa Anna accountable increased following the publication of these accounts of Crockett’s supposed execution.[xviii]
Details about the battle continued to emerge over the years, but these early letters and news accounts formed the basis for what would become the traditional story of the Battle of the Alamo. The general accounts of the battle that appeared during the 1830s and 1840s relied heavily on information that emerged in the days and weeks after March 6, 1836. Not until 1860, with the publication of Ruben M. Potter’s Fall of the Alamo, was the public presented a detailed analysis of the battle. Renewed interest in the battle after the Civil War sent a new wave of reporters looking for survivors to add their tales to the story, an effort that brought both clarification and controversy. That interest continues with the search for answers to what happened at the Alamo still going on today.
[i] John H. Jenkins, ed., “Antonio López de Santa Anna to José María Tornel, March 6, 1836,” Papers of the Texas Revolution (10 vols.; Austin: Presidial Press, 1973), 5:11–512.
[ii] Todd Hansen, ed., “Robert McAlpin Williamson, letter, March 1, 1836,” The Alamo Reader (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stakepole Books, 2003), 601; Jenkins, ed., PTR 4:485. The PTR version of Santa Anna’s report omits the mention of captured letters and documents, but a transcription of a letter March 1, 1836, from Williamson to Travis appeared in El Nacional, Suplemento al Numero 79. Jenkins mentioned the letter’s existence but did not provide a copy of it.
[iii] Jenkins, ed., “Antonio López de Santa Anna to José María Tornel, March 6, 1836,” PTR, 5:512.
[iv] Jenkins, ed., PTR: “Barsena et al Deposition, Gonzales, March 11, 1836,” 5:45–46; E. N. Gray to Unknow Recipient, Gonzales, March 11, 1836,” 5;48–49; “Sam Houston to Convention, March 11, 1836,” [report not included], 5:51; Sam Houston to James W. Fannin, Gonzales, March 11, 1836,” 52–53; Sam Houston to James W. Fannin, Gonzales, March 11, 1836,” 5:53–54. Houston’s letter to the Convention appears not to exist. Jenkin’s cited as his source William F. Gray’s mention of several letters from Houston that arrived at Washington on March 15, 1836, which apparently referred to the receipt of copies of Houston’s letters to Fannin and Collinsworth.
[v] Jenkins, ed., PTR, “Sam Houston to Phillip Dimmit, Head Quarters (Gonzales), March 12, 1836,” 5:57–58.
[vi] Jenkins, ed., PTR, “Sam Houston to James Collinsworth, Headquarters, Gonzales, March 13, 1836,” 5:69–71; “Sam Houston to Henry Raguet, Gonzales, March 13, 1836, 5:72.
[vii] Jenkins, ed., PTR, “Sam Houston to James Collinsworth, Camp at Navadad, March 15, 1836,” 5:82:84; “Santa Anna to Citizens [of Texas],” 5:20–21. It is usually stated that Susanna Dickinson carried a proclamation from Santa Anna promising to protect those loyal to his government and punishment for those who opposed it. However, Houston informed Collinsworth that Santa Anna had “sent [the address] by a negro to the citizens.”
[viii] William F. Gray, From Virginia to Texas: Dairy of Col. Wm. F. Gray, (Houston: Gray, Dillaye & Co., Printers, 1909; Houston: Fletcher Young Publishing Cp., 1965), 131. “Mr. Ainsworth” was apparently A. C. Ainsworth, who served as purchasing agent for the Republic of Texas in New Orleans.
[ix] Jenkins, ed., PTR, “B. B. Goodrich to Edmond Goodrich, March 16, 1836,” PTR, 5:81–82; “Charles B. Stewart to Ira R. Lewis, March 16, 1836,” 5:93. Stewart, a delegate at the Convention, wrote Lewis at Natchez, Louisiana the news that “The Alamo has fallen, and every unfortunate creature murdered and burnt, some even before they were dead.”
[x] Jenkins, ed., PTR, “Houston Army Orders,” Camp on La Baca, March 14, 1836, 5:77–78; “Gay et al to Public,” San Felipe, March 16, 1836, 5:90. Jenkin’s only mentions Gay’s address but the full text can be found in Streeter, Texas Broadside, #134.
[xi] Gray, Diary of Col. Wm. F. Gray, 134. Gray recorded the effect of the news of the Alamo’s fall and the Mexican advance had on the delegates gathered at Washington, writing on March 17, 1836, that “The members are now disappearing in all directions. A general panic seems to have seized them.”
[xii] Gray, Diary of Col. Wm. F. Gray, 136–141.
[xiii] “More Particulars of the Fall of the Alamo,” Telegraph & Texas Register. Thursday, March 24, 1836.
[xiv] Reprinted in the San Antonio Express, March 6, 1936, “Melancholy News from Texas,” New York Sun, Saturday, April 12, 1836; “Important News from Texas,” The New Yorker, April 16 and 30, 1836; Jenkin’s ed., “[Andrew] Briscoe to Editor [Louisiana Advertiser], 5:258. Information supplied by Briscoe to the Louisiana Advertiser, published on March 28, 1836, said, “Colonels James Bowie and Crockett were among the slain; the first murdered in his bed in which he had been confined by sickness. The latter [Crockett] fell fighting like a tiger.”
[xv] Hansen, ed., “Texas,” Commonwealth, Frankfort, Kentucky, July 27, 1866,” The Alamo Reader, 563–564.
[xvi] Hansen, ed., “George M. Dolson Letter, July 19, 1836,” The Alamo Reader, 608–610.
[xvii] For a full discussion the executions at the Alamo, see Richard Bruce Winders, “This is a Cruel Truth, But I Cannot Omit It: The Origins and Effect of Mexico’s No Quarter Policy in the Texas Revolution,” Southwest Historical Quarterly, Vol. 120 №4 (April 2017), 413–439.
[xviii] Jenkins, ed., PTR, “Santa Anna to the Texans,” Velasco, June 1, 1836, 6:487; “Menucan Hunt to President and Cabinet,” Velasco, June 3, 1836, 6:512 “Santa Anna to Burnet,” Velasco, June 3, 1836, 7:20; “Thomas Rusk to Mirabeau B. Lamar,” La Bahía, June 3, 1836, 7:23–24. A careful reading of both the June 9, 1836 Commonwealth article and Dolson’s July 19, 1836 letter reveals that the author’s motive was to prove that Santa Anna was “a cold-blo0ded murderer, and worthy only of the sympathy of cowards and the scorn of great men.” The execution scene as described contrasted Santa Anna’s brutality with Castrillon chivalry. Dolson’s accounts, which he said were based on the eyewitness report of Colonel Juan Almonte, bolstered the case for Santa Anna’s continued captivity — if not death — for his crimes. The main points conveyed in Dolson’s letters were that Crockett was “brave,” Castrillon was “noble,” and Santa Anna was a “monster.” A second Treaty of Velasco between officials of the Republic of Texas and Santa Anna allowed the defeated general to return to Mexico to secure his government’s acceptance of the first treaty. When word leaked out that Santa Anna was to be set free, anger and dismay grew. The two letters appeared shortly after Santa Anna had been removed from the Invincible docked at Velsaco by Texian volunteers. These men, who opposed Santa Anna’s return, took matters into their own hands and refused to allow the ship to sail, setting off a chain of events that delayed his return to Mexico until January 1837.