Herman Ehrenberg, born in 1818 in Marienwerder, Germany, was the son of a royal officer in Prussia and came to the United States entering New York and working his way to New Orleans. On 11 Oct 1835, he attended a meeting on behalf of Texas and responded to a call for volunteers. He was the youngest member of the first company of New Orleans Greys. His unit arrived in San Antonio at Gen. Burleson’s camp in November after having passed through Natchitoches, San Augustine, Nacogdoches, Washington and Bastrop. After the Battle of Bexar described below, he participated in the Matamoros Expedition and was with Col. Fannin at the Battle of Coleto where he escaped the massacre and was taken prisoner. He moved to California after 1840 until his death at the hand of Indians in Oct 1866. His memoirs were published first in Germany in 1843 as Texas und Seine Revolution and later under other titles.
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The Siege and Battle of Bexar
One of the main diversions we had in our camp on the San Antonio river was to go through the cornfield lying between us and the city to a small redoubt, which Cook’s Greys had set up in that vicinity. This small outwork possessed only two guns, with which my comrades tried to shell the old Alamo. Their aim was clumsy and uncertain, yet their missiles would now and then hit the fortress, and we could see fragments of its wall crumbling down. We all thought this cannonading huge fun; loud yells of triumph accompanied each successful discharge, our glee being more or less boisterous according to the damage done. Meanwhile the enemy was not idle; from the muzzles of eight or nine artillery pieces showers of grape-shot would pour over the empty field around the redoubt and beyond it. The ground was drilled with holes everywhere, and the camp filled with great clouds of dust. Our short trips back and forth between the camp and the battery had now become a perilous adventure, for in order to reach our destination we had to walk a distance of six or eight hundred paces under a raking fire from the enemy’s artillery, which was far better manned than ours. The projectiles of our foes made things lively for the Greys who ran across the field to join their friends in the redoubt, and their progress through the dangerous zone supplied the occupants of the small fort with a few moments of intense hilarity and excitement.
The Greys had no special reason for visiting the battery; mere curiosity or idleness drew me thither, and I imagine that similar motives directed the steps of my comrades to the same spot. The merry laughter of the men around the guns, and perhaps a desire to get a closer view of the old Alamo fortress, were strong enough inducements to tempt us away from the shelter of the camp into the exposed and barren neighborhood of the redoubt. Of the many visits which my comrades and I paid to the battery, I remember one very vividly, probably because on that occasion we narrowly missed being severely hurt and also on account of the exciting events that followed. There were eight of us altogether. It seemed as if on that day the Mexicans had turned all the guns of the Alamo on the one spot in the field which interested us. But in spite of this heavy shelling, we started to run up the hill leading to the redoubt, hoping that our brisk pace would save us from danger and delay. Such a deluge of grape-shot assailed us, however, that we were forced to take shelter behind the trunk of a pecan tree. Falling in line quietly one behind the other, we felt both amused and enraged at our predicament, for all our comrades, those in the redoubt as well as those in the camp, laughed loudly each time a volley hit our tree or snapped its branches. The bombardment around our refuge was so intense that we dared not move, and as the minutes elapsed, one of us, Thomas Camp, a future hero of the Revolution, remarked: "I must say that this is war in earnest." "And this" replied another, as a shell darted past us, "is what I call a variation on Yankee Doodle." "Let us call it," broke in a third, "the death rattle of Santa Anna’s tyranny." The next second saw us scurrying away as fast as we could to the redoubt, for a cannon-ball had hit our tree and scattered its branches on the ground where we stood.
Deaf Smith’s Marksmanship
Inside the redoubt, we found our friends busy with the loading, pointing, and firing of the guns. Every one of the men had his turn, but before letting off the charge the gunner on duty had to indicate which part of the Alamo he intended hitting. This was the occasion for a good deal of lively chatter, as bets were taken for and against the shooter and his target. "A hundred neat and handy musket balls against twenty," shouted one, "that I hit the old barracks between the third and fourth windows." "Done, " answered two or three voices at once. The gunner fired – and then had to spend the whole of the next day casting bullets. "My pistols – by the way, the best in the place," yelled another contestant, who likewise was going to fire the gun, "against the worst ones in the camp." "Well, sir, I reckon I can risk it" said a pioneer wrapped in a green frieze-coat. His pistols may not have been quite so good as those which had just been offered as a wager, but at any rate they were next best. Away flew the shot, and the forfeited pistols of the pointer now adorned the belt of the man in the frieze-coat, who magnanimously took his own and handed them to the loser, as he said: "Look here, friend, I will also fire the gun once. If I miss my aim, then I’ll return your pistols."
Immediately after saying these words, this new competitor in our shooting match loaded the gun and brought it to the proper elevation. He went about his task more slowly than those who had tried before him, but his experience and skill seemed greater than theirs. Screwing up one eye, he carefully examined his objective, ascertained its probable distance, and for a while remained deeply absorbed in his mathematical computations. As he was deaf, the noisy bustle in the redoubt left him undisturbed, for nothing but the thunderous discharge of the cannon could have interrupted the train of his thoughts. Finally, after he had spent some time adjusting his aim, he lit the fuse. The fatal shot, impelled by the heavy charge of powder, struck the designated spot. A sudden crash of stones warned us before the smoke had cleared away that the mark had been hit, and when the vapors which darkened the atmosphere had blown off, the Greys and their comrades looked in vain for the third and fourth windows of the fortress. Unanimous applause greeted this feat of old Deaf Smith, as he was called. A little later on we found that this proficient gunner was also the boldest and most expert hunter on the Texas prairie. The Revolution added to his reputation for daring and success, for during the war he did excellent work with his scouts between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Smith was a most skillful marksman, and his well-aimed shots filled the enemy with dread. As a hunter he had never met his match; he always struck his game neatly in the head, and for this reason he had the greatest contempt for the Mexicans, whose bullets, except by the merest chance, never hit their target.
An Attack on the Mexicans
Smith’s success stimulated our zeal. So to pass away the long hours which hung heavily on our hands, we kept chipping off the walls of the Alamo. But owing to a stratagem of the enemy, matters suddenly took a turn for the worse. A few Mexicans crept unnoticed to a part of the river bank exactly opposite our battery. Lying flat in the high grass or taking cover behind dense thickets, these sharpshooters directed against us a brisk and effective fire without fearing retaliation on our part, for we were compelled to keep our heads below the wall of our entrenchment. This continuous shooting soon made the place too hot for us, and we found ourselves in a painful quandary. Unwilling to leave the redoubt yet unable to endure a situation which was fast becoming intolerable, we finally made up our minds to dislodge our foes from their advantageous Position. As there was no time to lose, we carried out our plans at once. A detachment of thirty or thirty-five Greys, of whom I was one, left the battery. With rifles loaded and primed, we stationed ourselves on the edge of the stream close enough to the Mexican sharpshooters but beyond the reach of the shells from the Alamo. This maneuver obtained the desired effect; we silenced the enemy’s firing, and I do not doubt that we killed several of our foes. Elated by this satisfactory ending to a disagreeable episode, we felt no desire to return to the camp or to the redoubt, and without consulting friends or superiors, we attacked several of the enemy’s outposts stationed at some distance from the city. The Mexicans withdrew. Encouraged by the lack of resistance, we pursued them into the city with yells of triumph. Our onset took both soldiers and residents by surprise. Confused and frightened, they fled to the central quadrangle of the city. In the first flush of victory we forced our way into the empty houses; and as we needed cooking utensils badly, we seized all we found. We acted quickly, for from the center of the city the shrill notes of bugles and a sharp rattle of drums summoned our careless or truant adversaries to arms against us. While part of us got their loads, the others fought to keep off the Mexican soldiers, whose numbers were steadily increasing. Pressed by this more immediate danger, the enemy ceased cannonading the redoubt and directed their attention and firing against our small detachment. As the deadly bullets of our rifles weakened the resistance of those who tried to stop us, we continued our hurried visits from house to house’ thus adding considerably to our loot. Fearing, however, that the whole Mexican army would soon be hot on our heels, we decided to retreat, especially since the prizes secured for our kitchen were now quite numerous. Our decision came almost too late, for hardly had we proceeded to withdraw when volleys of grape-shot began to furrow the air above us on the right. In the rear a similar danger threatened us from two small four-pounders set up on the roof of the church situated in the center of the city. Fortunately, these projectiles, after glancing off the ground, merely whizzed over those of us who were farthest away. Instinctively the Greys ducked their heads when the shots flew over them. Such low salaams were quite distasteful to these staunch republicans, but they were forced to submit to stem necessity. The heavy artillery which defended the center of the city also came into play, and its volleys gave wings to our retreat.
A Close Call
Our situation was precarious, for we had not only to run but also to fight, turning around at brief intervals and firing at the Mexican artillery, which at first raked our rear with its shells but now as we drew closer to the outskirts of the city peppered our left flank. So well adjusted were our shots, however, that we compelled the enemy’s gunners to abandon their position; but this brought us only a short respite, for we were unable to spike the guns or haul them away. The Mexican bluecoats were now coming in swarms out of all the streets, and unless we hurried to safety they would cut off our retreat. In the midst of this confusion and noise we heard dearly the lively notes of a military march which was being played in our camp. The well-known tune with its familiar associations cheered our depressed spirits and helped us to accelerate our step. Such encouragement was sorely needed, for we were still in great danger. As soon as the Mexican artillerymen saw that we could no longer reach them, they returned to their guns and harried us with, shot, but they did us very little harm, for as the vibration of the atmosphere and the sharp report of the firing warned us of every discharge, we merely repeated our previous tactics and ducked our heads under the shower of bullets which General Cos, commander of San Antonio, sent after us.
For a while our way lay along the bank of the river, among woods which afforded us some shelter against the heavy cannonading, but when we left this temporary refuge we found ourselves within range of both the guns of the Alamo and those on the roof of the church. Our situation became even more difficult when we discovered the cornfield crowded with Mexican soldiers. The following circumstance alone saved us: When the Mexicans fired their arms they did not, as we did, keep an eye on their targets, but jerked back their heads to avoid the recoil of their rifles, which are more dangerous for the marksman than for his target. This aimless shooting would send the bullets flying twenty or thirty feet above their mark, so that many of the shots directed against us went a quarter of a mile beyond us and dropped harmlessly at the feet of our comrades in camp or elsewhere.
Hard pressed on all sides, and in danger of being hit by stray bullets, we gained a cluster of trees which ran a few hundred yards inland from the river bank and stood across our ‘way. During this brief spell of comparative safety we opened fire on the Mexicans, hoping to intimidate them. Fully aware, however, of their advantage, they did not abandon their pursuit, but, encouraged by the blare of their trumpets, kept up their advance with the hope of outflanking us. We were growing desperate. Our only alternative if we wanted to escape this encircling movement was the resumption of a dangerous and unprotected retreat. Death and defeat loomed menacingly before our eyes, when suddenly the loud and inspiriting notes of Yankee Doodle struck our ears and revived our waning hopes. This unexpected and cheerful outburst of song was but the prelude to another more joyful surprise, for we saw a detachment of pioneers and volunteers hastening through the woods to our rescue. They had come, they told us, to get the Greys out of their scrape; and a fatal one it had almost turned out to be, for without the timely assistance of our comrades we might have paid dearly for our rashness.
Deaf Smith to the Rescue
Our friend, old Deaf Smith, headed the party of our rescuers. He was frantic, rushing excitedly up and down the front row of the column and waving his arms wildly. In his right hand he held a gun; in his left a staff hung with the unfurled colors of our flag, Mexican bullets disturbed him as little as the din of drums and bugles. He thought that his long-deferred hopes had on that day been fulfilled and that he could now have some real fighting with Santa Anna and his troops. The apathy of his fellow-citizens had always been for him a source of bitter disappointment. Up to the present time he had vainly urged commanding officers and men to attack, but he had always been put off with what seemed to him unworthy excuses. Today he fondly imagined that their sluggish spirits had been roused at last, and he looked forward to a general battle between Mexicans and Texans, but the cowardice of our opponents defeated once more the expectations of this brave Texan. As soon as the Mexicans saw the advancing line marching to our aid, they fled back to the city in such frantic haste that they did not give the relieving force a chance to use their rifles.
Now that the danger was over, our companions triumphantly escorted us back to camp with our precious spoils, the kitchen pots and pans, which none of us had thrown away during our hurried and hazardous retreat. This rash but successful raid on the enemy’s ground put the Greys in high favor with good old slow-hearing Smith, who from now on called us his children. Several days went quietly by; nothing important occurred save a few skirmishes between the outposts of the enemy and the restless volunteers. It was about this time that Smith’s aggressive energy drove the militia into a hostile encounter, known in history as the Grassbattle. In this fight the Texans took one hundred and sixty men; these captives, however, were of little use to the victors and even proved, in this case, to be a serious handicap, for although they did nothing, it was necessary to feed them. Finally, as there seemed to be no other way of getting rid of them, they were set free. All departed, with the exception of a few who stayed behind, saying they were better off with us than with their own countrymen. The militia, whose commander was Burleson, made up the greater part of the army. Up to the present time the Greys had failed to secure Burleson’s consent to a general plan of attack in which our joint forces would storm San Antonio and its fortress. As a result dissatisfaction and restlessness prevailed in our ranks; furthermore, our inactive life wearied us, and the uncertainty into which we were thrown by the aimlessness of our chiefs depressed and irritated us. In order to soothe our discontent and raise our spirits, Colonel Grant, formerly an officer in the Scottish Highlanders and afterwards a citizen of Mexico, induced Burleson to call a general assembly of the whole army. Word went around that on this occasion the commander of the militia would explain his plans, and it was suggested that if they received the support of the majority of the men they would be carried out without delay.
A lively tattoo summoned us to the meeting. In joyful expectation of warlike schemes and decisions we shouldered our rifles and hastened to the parade ground, where we waited impatiently for the arrival of our superiors. Our enthusiasm ran so high that with the exception of the wounded every man was present. After we had been standing some time, the commander appeared with several other officers, stepped forward, and, though he seemed ill, addressed us as follows:
Citizens: Your zeal for liberty and your loyalty to Texas have aroused in your hearts the wish to strike a decisive blow on behalf of freedom. Urged likewise by your ardent devotion to our common cause, you are eager to carry your arms beyond the territories which we reclaimed from savagery in the early days of our colonization. Eager to give you the fullest satisfaction, I have long and deeply considered your wishes. Furthermore, in order to give you a more general and unbiased opinion on these matters, I have sought the advice of Major Morris and Colonel Johnson. Both the Colonel and I agree that, with winter so close to us, it would be wiser for the militia to retire behind the Guadalupe, select there suitable camping grounds, and wait until next spring for reinforcements from the States. We could resume our campaign in February or March with a larger body of troops and launch a general offensive against San Antonio, or, if that still proved an impracticable step, we might again make camp in the neighborhood of this city.
Loud cries of disappointment broke out among the men, and Grant himself, our brave Scot, shared our bitter disappointment. "If we withdraw" said one of the captains of the Greys, "let us then return to the United States, for five or six months of enforced idleness would be unbearable for all of us. Not one of us could endure it until next spring. If we intend to act, let us do it now or never." Uproarious cheers hailed the Captain’s short oration. When this sudden outburst of enthusiasm had died down, Burleson resumed his speech:
"My friends, since I felt that you might be averse to the proposal I have just now submitted to you, I made other plans which may suit you better. If you approve of them, we will put them into effect tomorrow at dawn."
We warmly applauded this part of our commanding officer’s discourse; he continued:
"This is the scheme I have in mind. The army will be separated into three detachments. The first detachment, under Colonel Milam, will attack San Antonio on the northwest side, down the river. Meanwhile the second division, commanded by Major Morris, will fall upon the center of the city, on the western side, and Mr. Smith, who is well acquainted with the place, will lead Major Morris’s men to the point where they will launch their attack. The third group will stand on the defensive with me in the camp so as to protect it and cover the retreat of the others in case of mishap."
The scorn which filled us on hearing this proposal soon turned into contemptuous laughter; and as there was no reason for staying longer in the ranks, the militiamen began to disperse. Having nothing better to offer, Burleson concluded his address by pointing out to those of us who were still present that since the army received his suggestions with such contempt, immediate retreat was imperative. He then urged us to be patient and cautioned us once more against choosing this unfavorable time for our attempt against Cos and his forces. The Greys vehemently protested against such a weak policy. Cook, one of our captains, was very emphatic in his criticism, and made it quite clear that if the militia moved away and postponed a general attack until spring, he and his men would not go to the distant Guadalupe, but would set up their winter quarters in one of the old fortified missions below San Antonio. Burleson did not insist, but left our final decision to our own judgment. Thus ended the meeting to which we had come with such sanguine expectations of bold leadership and enterprising action. We separated, and, beset with misgivings for the future, returned to our huts.
Departure of the Militia
Bustle and confusion now filled the camp of the militia, as the men were busy packing their belongings and saddling their horses. Convinced that there would be little active service for the present, the pioneers were getting ready for their return to the settlements. So great was their hurry to go that some left the camp immediately after the meeting, and a few hours later half the men of the militia were on their way to the Guadalupe. The glow of the deserted fires flickered on. in the half empty camp of our Texan friends, and the dimly burning embers reminded the Greys more sharply of their solitude. The frustration of our immediate designs had cast both my friends and me into doubt and despondency as regards our immediate prospects. Fighting was unthinkable, for what could a hundred and thirty men accomplish against fifteen times their number? Such a mad endeavor could result only in a useless loss of life. Would the other alternative, an idle life in the settlements for two or three months, be preferable? Hardly so. The Greys could not give up for such languid and profitless repose the safe and brilliant expectations which had been held out to them in New Orleans. It was not love of soldiering that had drawn them away from their homes, for as a rule the glamor of military life makes no appeal to the industrious citizens of the States. No selfish mercenary motive, but the generous desire to help friends in need had brought these volunteers to Texas. They had come eager to serve and to fight, so that the chilling realization that their help was not wanted at present was indeed a bitter disappointment. As we were struggling among the perplexities of such a cheerless and baffling situation, the arrival in camp of five Mexican riders gave a new turn to our affairs. The leader of the party was a small, slender man wearing the uniform of a Mexican lieutenant; he actually held this rank. A white flag fluttered in his left hand. After the usual preliminaries in such cases, he hurriedly asked for our commanding officer. We took him to the latter to whom he declared that he could manage to bring our troops close to the center of the city without anyone’s noticing their presence. He even added that if a few of our men would follow him, he could slip undetected beneath the very windows of General Cos’s residence.
The informer’s offer was tempting, but there were so many obvious reasons for suspecting his good faith that it would have been the height of rashness to trust him implicitly. He was not only a traitor but also a Mexican half-breed, a fact which in our eyes made him even more unreliable. Therefore Smith’s warning to be cautious in our dealings with him was unnecessary, for no one was foolish enough to stake the safety of all on the pledges of a man of doubtful character, an enemy, and a stranger to all of us. Everyone, however, especially Smith, warmly approved of the idea of storming the city, now that it seemed possible to do so.
When the Greys heard the good news, they romped and yelled with joy in the half-deserted camp, although they soon found that most of their comrades in the militia were opposed to the surprise attack. With half the army already gone to the Guadalupe, most of the Texans who had remained behind thought it would be very rash to fall upon San Antonio with so small and unprepared a force. They said that there were hardly four hundred men left and that with such small numbers victory was improbable. The Greys declared very plainly that they were determined to make the attempt even though the volunteers were the only ones ready to see it through. The volunteers, whose willingness to fight was thus left unquestioned, were represented not only by the Greys but also by a company from Mississippi, which, I must admit, took in the ensuing expedition as great a share as my comrades from New Orleans. After we had decided to attack the city, our next step was to call the roll of those who wanted to share in our expedition, arranged for the early hours of the next morning. A list was then sent through the, ranks, and each man who wanted to join the storming party was to sign his name. After the paper had gone around the lines of the assembled volunteers, there were two hundred and thirty names written down on the sheet. Only a few men of my company were missing, and they were the wounded.
This is how we planned our attack. Part of the troops which had stayed behind to defend the camp left it some time after twelve and took a position a little higher up the river. During the night they hauled a few artillery pieces to a point opposite the Alamo, but at a reasonable distance from the fortress. Their directions were to wait on that spot until four o’clock, and then make a feint attack against the fort so as to draw upon themselves the attention of the enemy. In the meantime, the rest of the troops would form two columns and march at a rapid pace along the two roads parallel to the river until they had come to the center of the city. Their next move would be to station themselves near the central quadrangle behind the thick walls of the houses in that section of the city. Finally, when daylight came these men would reconnoiter their ground and determine how to conduct the assault from those quarters. In spite of the nearness of this momentous day, we slept soundly that night. Wrapped in our rugs from head to foot and lying around the fire, with our rifles near us and our saddles serving as pillows, we were not in the least disturbed by the norther whose icy gusts swept over us.
The Surprise Attack
The men of the watch stepped silently around the tents at two o’clock to arouse us. We got up quietly and soon stood in line with our rifles slung over our shoulders and our rugs held closely about us. The cold was penetrating, and as the icy gusts whistled about our stiff limbs, we shivered while awaiting the signal for our departure. As our movements had to be timed with those of our friends who were to attack the Alamo, we could not start before the hour previously agreed upon. At last Major Morris came into our midst; and our names were called once more, but now only two hundred and ten men were on the assembly grounds to answer the roll. Night had dispelled the enthusiasm of the missing volunteers, and the cold wind had extinguished the wavering flame of their courage, just as it had put out the sparks of our fires. But this desertion left us unmoved, for if we won, the smaller our numbers the greater our glory. Moreover, we very wisely thought that timid and frightened soldiers would harm us more by their cowardice than they could help us by their mere presence.
Our silent and fireless wait lasted an hour. At three o’clock we hurried noiselessly through the cornfield on our way to the city. There were many Mexican sentries scattered around the Alamo, not very far from us, but evidently they suspected nothing and thought they had faithfully discharged their duties if they shouted at intervals, "Centinela alerta." Their monotonous cries and the howling of the storm were the only sounds around us as we ran briskly across the field. The exercise warmed us and made us less sensitive to the cutting edge of the north wind. The feverish excitement into which the thought of the coming attack had thrown us also kept us from paying much attention to the unpleasantness of the chilly weather. A little after our start from the camp, the password for the day, "Bexar" went down our column, each man whispering it to the other.
When we were near the middle of the cornfield we heard a deafening noise – not the sharp hiss of the storm, but a loud, booming crash. This explosion did not take us unaware, for we had expected it. It merely told us that the other contingent was doing its share of the work and shelling the Alamo. The hollow roar of our cannon was followed by the brisk rattling of drums and the shrill blasts of bugles. Summons, cries, the sudden trampling of feet, the metallic click of weapons mingled in the distance with the noisy blare of the alarm and the heavy rumblings of the artillery. Our friends had done the trick. Their cannonading had put the Mexicans on the alert, and many of them would probably rush to the defense of the fortress. The success of this first part of our scheme encouraged us, for we thought that in the midst of the din and confusion we should have a better chance of slipping into the city unnoticed.
The Entry into San Antonio
Our guide, the Mexican lieutenant, moved on warily. Not a word passed his lips and his eyes were constantly turned toward the Alamo, as if the dense shadows about the fortress held the secret fate of our adventure. He wavered, perhaps fearing some unforeseen betrayal, an unexpected and disastrous breakdown of his plans. All of a sudden several rockets went up over the Alamo and lit up the darkness with their vivid glow. Our Mexican at last broke his long silence and asked us to look at the short-lived but brilliant illumination. Noticing our astonishment, he added that these fireworks were signals of distress to summon out of the city a part of the garrison. It meant, he said, that the road was free and that we were safe. He urged us to quicken our pace so as to be inside the city within the next ten minutes. As we started running, we noticed a small outpost in front of the city, with several soldiers standing around the fire. Our Mexican guide forbade our molesting them, saying that even though our shots might kill a few of them, the noise would bring upon us the rest of the garrison, who would delay or prevent our entrance. Speed and quietness were what we needed most if we wanted to effect our purpose. The men at the outpost fled as soon as they saw us. We dashed along behind them, for the Mexican lieutenant had warned us that it would be best for us to reach the center of the city as soon as they; he pointed out that the farther into the city we ran, the more stone houses we should be able to occupy.
No resistance held up our entrance into San Antonio. Our detachment consisted of two columns. The one to which I belonged was under the command of Breece, whose directions were to push his way down the road along the river. To play safe, we kept to the left. Sometimes our way lay across small Mexican gardens, which afforded us a good deal of shelter; sometimes over bare, exposed patches of ground close to the edge of the stream. We were in a hurry to reach the center of the city, because we were afraid that the enemy would soon get word of our arrival and would scour the streets with artillery so as to check our advance. Our fears were not groundless. We were barely within two hundred yards of our goal when a discharge of grape-shot flew past us. The pale light of dawn, slowly growing in the east, increased our risks, for it dispelled the gloom of the streets and left us exposed to the running fire of our foes. The increasing danger of our unprotected position compelled us to seek shelter in a massive stone building nearby, an old guard-house. When we got in, we stared curiously at the black outline of the square walls around us, for we had never seen buildings of this type before. The houses of the Mexicans are not unlike small fortresses, with walls whose thickness is as impressive as it is suitable; for this massive masonry keeps the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter. This explains why one seldom sees a fire lit in these apartments, which, I must add, are likewise unadorned by costly furniture.
It was quite early yet; most of the objects around us were still wrapped in the receding shadows of departing night, but in spite of this semi-darkness, we easily detected the enemy’s position. The lurid glow of the explosions lit up the central quadrangle of the city, from which the Mexican artillery poured forth continuous volleys of shot. A dozen or more six-pounders seemed to have chosen our small fortress as a special objective, and one of them, which stood within eighty feet of us, gave us a good deal of anxiety. This intensive shelling fell mostly on the rear wall, which ran parallel to the quadrangle, and therefore lay open to the incessant fire of the Mexican guns. During the furious bombardment several of us stood behind that very wall and were busy setting up a fine, long six pounder with which we hoped to check the enemy’s furious attack. Cannon-balls and bullets whizzed and crashed above our heads, leaving us frightened and bewildered.
A few men of our detachment who had taken their stand on the roof fared worse. The continued shooting made it dangerous for them to raise their heads above the low wall which bordered the roof and compelled them to keep quite still. Finally, an avalanche of cannon-shots dislodged them from their position. These projectiles came from the church roof, which was now used as a battery, and the guns of which dominated all the buildings within range of their fire. They commanded our roof also, and as soon as daylight showed the position of our sharpshooters a deluge of missiles sent the latter scurrying downstairs, where laughter greeted their dismay.
Friends, or Enemies?
The hours flew on without bringing us news from our comrades, and though it was eight o’clock now, we did not know where they might be. We felt sure they were not far from us, but we were unable to ascertain their exact location. In the end we found them only through an unfortunate accident. On our right and somewhat farther back than we were, little clouds of smoke were rising at intervals from. several stone buildings. Judging from the intermittent shooting that these were held by a small number of our adversaries, we promptly made up our minds to seize the houses and use them as part of our quarters. Just as our plans were completed, several discharges from these same houses informed us that they were in the hands of our friends, who likewise had mistaken us for enemies. While they were firing upon us, one of their bullets had hit a tall Mississippian named Moore, but fortunately it had glanced off a two-dollar piece which he had in his coat pocket. The second bullet struck another very tall fellow, also from Mississippi, tore off part of his forehead, and dashed its fragments on the flagstone and on those of us who stood around him.
When the clear report of the shot and the small size of .the bullet which had glanced off the piece of money had confirmed the suspicions of a few of my comrades that it was our own men who were firing from the building, several of us immediately went to Colonel Milam, who now commanded us, and asked him to let us go at once to our friends in the other houses in order to warn them of their mistake. The motion was agreed to and carried out without delay, but not before another man had fallen a victim to this blunder. This time it was a German, who was posted at another window and was preparing to fire at the central quadrangle. There was a detonation, smoke issued from the building of our friends, and at the same instant the German’s rifle clattered to the ground. The wounded man, moved by an irresistible force, turned around automatically.
A gust of wind blew past him and blood gushed from his shoulder. White as a sheet, he looked around him in a daze, tapped his shoulder with his left hand, and remarked anxiously that he thought he must be hurt, although he felt no pain. He suffered terribly later on, and his fractured shoulder gave more trouble to the surgeon than the wounds of all the others on the casualty list. As soon as we had made ourselves known to our friends, the shooting stopped, and we all set to work to dig a trench between their building and ours. We also cut doors in the thick walls of the houses at each end of the passage, thus making it possible for the two detachments to communicate with each other promptly and safely. Crossing the street had become dangerous; the enemy was vigilant, and scores of lead and copper bullets greeted the appearance of volunteers bold enough to run the gauntlet of this well-sustained fusillade. One of our most urgent needs was a sheltered, convenient passage between our respective quarters.
As soon as we had attended to that matter, we turned our attention to another but no less pressing difficulty. Sound strategy required us now to disable the Mexican cannon which stood within eighty feet of our back wall and pelted us with its shot. Several of our best sharpshooters stationed themselves close to the loop-holes in our walls and mercilessly struck down every bluecoat who came near the artillery piece, which was very soon reduced to silence because the Mexican soldiers were unable to reach it. On the other hand, with our bright, slim six-pounder we inflicted no little harm on the row of houses which were opposite us. But our limited stock of ammunition prevented us from using this cannon as often and as effectively as we should have liked to use it; for, fearing to be left wholly unsupplied in case of an emergency, we drew sparingly upon our scanty stores.
As time passed, the temperature grew hotter and the atmosphere in the house closer, and thirst parched our throats. There was no well in the building; if we wanted a drink we had to go to the river, which was about fifty yards away. Pails in hand, we would hurry over this short distance, dip our vessels into the water, and fly back to shelter under a hail of bullets. The Mexicans soon became aware of our predicament and took position close to the spot where we ran to the water’s edge. This stratagem greatly increased the peril of our short trips to the stream, until finally a man to be paid three or four dollars each time he filled up a pail of water. After a time an even larger sum failed to induce any one to undertake this dangerous errand.
There was in our present quarters a Mexican woman whom we had found there when we first came and had kept with us to cook our food and bake our bread, tasks which she performed willingly enough. As soon as she saw our predicament, she offered to go alone to the river to get water for us all. Colonel Grant as well as the volunteers would not at first hear of her doing such a thing, for we feared that the Mexicans would show her no more mercy than they had shown the rest of us. But she laughed at our objections, saying that we did not begin to realize the fondness of the Mexicans for the fair sex. She added that since there was no danger it would be foolish to stop her, and was off before we had time to hold her back. She had filled the buckets and was preparing to go back when the enemy opened fire on her. Four bullets went through her body and she fell lifeless on the green grass. Our men, horror-stricken, gazed over the walls, and after a few moments several of them rushed outside and dragged in the well-meaning but unfortunate woman. While the Mexicans were reloading their rifles, a few others among the Greys, taking advantage of their’ momentary disablement, ran down to the river, filled their vessels, and came back safe and sound, to the great disgust of the Mexicans.
Storming the Stone House
The evening came, but it brought us no respite. Sharper fighting went on, and greater danger on our right brought a call to our detachment for volunteers who would attack and seize a small building in our immediate neighborhood. This stone house stood on our right and a little closer to the center of the city than our shelter. Volleys of shot came from the interstices of its pallisaded windows and its nearness to our own quarters made this rifle-fire very dangerous. Thus its capture would yield a twofold advantage: it would rid us of undesirable neighbors, and it would bring us closer to the enemy’s depot. Breece’s volunteers, of whom I was one, determined to storm the house without the help of the second detachment, which had just conquered another building. This feat had put us on our mettle, for we wanted to emulate and, if possible, surpass the success of our comrades. But we came too late, for as we leaped out of the windows and rushed ahead with our crowbars, we met our tall and athletic allies, the Mississippians. Under the heavy blows of the crowbars, driven in by the muscular arms of our friends, the walls crumbled down. Hardly ten minutes had elapsed when the first stone rolled down. As it crashed on the ground we aimlessly discharged our rifles into the dark through the aperture. Terrified screams of women and children inside told us that the house was full of helpless people. We ceased our shooting immediately, but kept tearing down the walls. Soon the Mississippians had made a large opening through which a train of women, children, and men staggered. The latter gave up their rifles, no doubt imagining we would cast them into prison. Knowing quite well that we had hardly anything to eat and therefore could not afford to keep any prisoners, the Mississippians magnanimously told their captives that the colonists and their friends had no desire to interfere with the liberty of the citizens of Mexico. They therefore dismissed all the Mexicans who had fallen into their hands and let them go back to the houses which lay between our present quarters and the camp.
An Artillery Duel
Meanwhile, a third building had fallen into the hands of Cook’s Greys. But not content with this victory, they intended in the early hours of the following day to seize another house which stood near a small canal, for they hoped through this new conquest to provide us with an abundant supply of good drinking water. On the next morning the pale light of a stormy dawn showed us a crimson flag floating over the church in the center of the city. The menacing color of the Mexican pennant seemed to us very appropriate, for was it not the fitting emblem of Santa Anna’s cruel and treacherous tyranny? What was the meaning of this change in the enemy’s flag? Did General Cos hope to intimidate or insult us by flaunting this new ensign over his army? Derisive laughter was our answer to this foolish notion of the Mexican commander. His innovation had one good point, however. It drew a clearer line of separation between our party and that of Santa Anna. Now that our foes were fighting under the blood-red banner of despotism, our own three colors would symbolize more forcefully the ‘deals which inspired our enthusiasm and led us to battle. The enemy’s new flag soon lost its claims to our attention, held by a more important object – a long twelve-pounder, with a larger caliber than any other gun in San Antonio. This cannon had been hauled to our walls during the preceding night, and our first occupation upon its arrival had been to cut a loophole for it in the masonry of our walls and set it up at an angle from which we could conveniently shell the enemy’s position.
The day progressed favorably for us. Many stone buildings fell into our hands, and the rows of mesquite thickets which ran down to the river between the enemy’s walls and ours caught fire. The blaze, which began in the late afternoon, lasted until eight o’clock and left nothing but smouldering ashes of the cover under which our foes had crept unnoticed to our line. When the second day was over, we had already connected by trenches the blocks of houses we had seized. That night the Mexicans kept up their shooting without interruption. Sheltered by the darkness, they bombarded us at close range with a six-pounder which stood exactly opposite our own walls. Yet our labors on the preceding day had been so strenuous that in spite of the noise and danger we slept as soundly as if we were residing in one of the large, peaceful communities of the Eastern states.
The third day brought on fiercer fighting and hostilities conducted on a larger scale. Our iron twelve-pounder was a most effective weapon of attack. Hurling its thunderbolts through the new loophole, it battered the roof of the church from which the enemy had been inflicting heavy losses upon us. A Brunswickian called Langenheirn was in charge of our artillery piece when its projectiles demolished part of the church dome. The terrific crash temporarily forced the Mexicans to vacate their position on the roof. Unwilling to destroy this venerable monument entirely, we ceased shelling it and directed our volleys toward a few buildings which we intended to take a little later on. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that laughter and humor had altogether deserted us during this grim and unequal struggle with its unavoidable burden of death and suffering. We snatched a few moments of hilarious fun from the practical jokes which we played on our adversaries. One of these harmless tricks was the source of a good deal of merriment. This is how it came to my notice. On returning from my rounds, I was surprised to see several men who looked hale and sound although their caps were riddled with bullets. I thought it strange that such severe shooting should have left so many of my comrades unhurt. My curiosity was aroused, and I was eagerly seeking an explanation when at that very minute a volunteer set his cap on the ramrod of his rifle and raised it slowly over the wall. Hardly had it emerged from the edge when a shower of bullets whizzed around it until it sank behind the walls among the cheers of the Mexicans, who thought that they had dispatched another worthless heretic to Hades. A pause followed on our side, but the enemy kept up its firing, indifferent, as it seemed, to the waste of powder and ammunition which such random shooting entailed. Their bullets continued to hum in the empty air over our building although not one report came from our walls or loopholes. A few minutes later another enterprising cap rose above our wall, and as we had all expected, the enemy greeted its appearance with a loud rattle of musketry. Bullets flew right and left, above and through the daredevil that fearlessly faced this furious attack and seemed to defy the adversary’s destructive rage. Soon, however, the fury of our opponents turned into amazement when they beheld their victim still in the same position and apparently impervious to their violence. The loud laughter of the Greys roused our foes from their stupefaction, and when one of my comrades exposed the empty cap to their bewildered gaze, understanding flashed through their minds. This was the end of our joke, and for some time after that the enemy would have nothing to do with our caps or broad-brimmed hats, nor would any attention be paid to our heads if part of our bodies were not also seen.
Our inventive wits soon fastened on another trick to spur on the interest of our Mexican audience. Setting up our caps on our bottle-gourds, we propped the latter against the wall so that part of this masquerade should be visible over the top of the masonry. Our success was immediate – our adversaries merrily resumed their firing, with the result that they wasted their powder and not infrequently exposed themselves to the view of the pioneers or Greys, who either shot them down or at least disabled their right arms. So far our heaviest losses of man power had been among the gunners, who, when they adjusted or fired their pieces, offered their whole bodies as targets for the bullets of the bluecoats. Their unprotected position made them such easy marks for the enemy that almost all the gunners had been severely wounded save a tall, good-looking Brunswickian, who until now had miraculously escaped the fate of his comrades. One of our best artillerymen, an.Englishman named Cook, was killed during the third day of our siege. This was a serious blow for us, for having served in the British fleet, Cook was an experienced hand and we greatly missed the skill of this well-trained marine. He was the first man to die while on duty at the twelvepounder.
The death of our valiant Colonel Milam on the same day was another and greater tragedy. He was struck in the head by a bullet while he was standing in the yard of the house occupied by the first detachment, and died instantly. We buried the two bodies quietly at night. Their funeral march was the loud, monotonous boom of the enemy’s cannon, while the black and idle muzzles of our silent artillery were the only tokens of grief and esteem we could give to the two brave men who had died in action. The officers next to Milam in command were Major Morris and the two captains of the Greys, but they did not attempt to fill the Colonel’s vacant post during the remainder of the siege. Even during these moments of stress and danger, strict military discipline did not exist within our ranks. No orders were given. Whenever special duties had to be performed, the call was sent out for men ready to offer their services, and tasks were entrusted to volunteers willing to discharge them. Yet the lack of authority and proper subordination was not injurious to our success, because we all firmly believed that victory would be impossible without close unity in our ranks, and this conviction insured cooperation and order among our resolute though untrained troops.
On the fourth day a reinforcement party of five hundred men under Colonel Ugartechea marched into the Alamo. They came from the other side of the Rio Grande and had escaped the vigilant eyes of our scouts by crossing the wild prairie of Tamaulipas. But the arrival of this fresh contingent did not frighten us, for we knew that no civic pride, no patriotic urge drove these men to the assistance of their fellow-citizens.
An Attack of the Volunteers
That evening at five o’clock the roll was called. Men were needed to storm and occupy several buildings which were now held by the bluecoats. This appeal met with a generous response, and before sunset those of us who had volunteered for this attack stood in random groups close to the doomed houses. Equipped with our tools and weapons, we waited for the men of the militia to complete with their crowbars the demolition of the walls. Although the soft stone crumbled down rapidly, we thought the time passed slowly, for the Mexicans harassed us from a small redoubt which they had dug on the other side of the river opposite our division. It was not long, however, before a small part of the wall fell, and a second later our rifles poured their fire into the house. These openings were enlarged, and as soon as we had loaded our arms, we sent in another volley. The enemy’s bullets whizzed dangerously around us from the loopholes which the crowbars were ripping open. This brisk musketry fire, however, was ineffective, as during the pulling down of the walls the militiamen exposed only their tools to the foes’ gaze. At last the gap in the masonry was large enough to admit us one by one, and after another volley from our rifles had chased the bluecoats away, we entered the now deserted room.
The door to the next room was stoutly barricaded, and in order to tear it down we had to use our axes. This we did with the greatest caution, for while we were smashing the wooden panels the Mexicans tried to shoot us and had already wounded two of our comrades though not seriously. The sun had set during our struggle and, as is usual in the South, night closed in upon us at once, so that when the door to the next room was forced open under our repeated blows, black, impenetrable darkness filled the apartment. It was empty, and as we could not see a thing, we groped our way along the walls. The sharp reports of the explosions and the flash of burning powder, visible through an aperture close to the ceiling, warned us that our adversaries still held the room adjoining ours. Their random shooting was harmless, for most of the bullets after hitting the ceiling fell dead at our feet with a little loosened plaster. We continued our blind search for an exit until we came to a door, which we had to batter down, for it was locked and bolted. This entrance gave us access to another vacant room, possession of which made us the sole masters of the house. This place was an important point, for it stood only ten or fifteen yards from the central quadrangle. Our next and last step would be to take one of the houses which formed part of the block of buildings surrounding the large square. This would enable us to gain control of the church depot in the middle of the square, and as this military magazine was the key to the city, if it fell into our hands San Antonio would be ours. But fatigue and the lateness of the hour prevented us from carrying out our scheme at once. Our friends from the backwoods shouted that they had had enough glory for one day, and wrapping themselves in their blankets, stretched out on the floor to rest.
The Fifth Day
The dawning sun of the fifth morning rising in crimson, autumnal splendor shed its warm rays over the bloody scene of our strife. An Indian-summer day spread its rich and serene brilliance over the immense prairie, no longer green, but bleached like a ripe cornfield rolling endlessly on until it merged in the distance with the blurred skyline. Fearful was the contrast between these peaceful and radiant grasslands and the empty streets and charred areas which surrounded our quarters. Blackened tree-stumps, battered walls, smoldering ash heaps gave to our immediate neighborhood a look of utter desolation. The enemy’s cannon still shook the dilapidated houses, and muskets kept firing at the half-empty ruins. The stones crumbled, the men crouched under shelter, and fighting went on between Greys and Mexicans, who probably gave no thought to the mellow beauty of this magnificent autumn day. On this day both the enemy’s artillery and our own were very active. Our mighty twelve-pounder did wonders, and its heavy projectiles shattered one wall of the building we had proposed to seize that evening. Unfortunately, the ammunition we had for our sixpounders gave out, and they would have remained silent for the rest of the siege if the Mexicans had not supplied us with the missing shot. This is how it happened. Each time the enemy’s missiles hit the quarters of the Greys, the men immediately sprang over the walls, picked up the cannon-balls, and loaded our cannon.
At three o’clock in the afternoon the Mexicans made a sally, but nothing came out of it. With a great rattle of drums and flourish of trumpets, a detachment of five or six hundred bluecoats left the walls of the Alamo. They marched down the river in the direction of our camp as if they intended to assault and capture it. This was merely a feint, intended to draw most of the besiegers out of the city so as to give General Cos a chance of making a mass attack on the few left behind. Unafraid, we saw through the design of the Mexican general, and decided to remain where we were. Should the camp be attacked, then those who guarded it would defend it; if they could not do so, they would make a dash to the city and try to join us. This rounding up of all our forces would not be untimely, for during the night we should need all the hands and rifles we could muster in order to deal a final blow to the Mexicans and at last clear from the prairie the rabble of the central government. After the sallying party had paraded for a while with a good deal of swagger, but at a proper distance from the range of our guns, they returned, crestfallen and silent, to the Alamo, for it was evident now that their ruse had failed.
The field was now clear for the military operations we intended to carry out that night. My friends and I in the first division had planned to occupy a stone house near the quadrangle, and the men of the second detachment, who were staying in a house a little apart from ours, decided to help us in this undertaking. But a mass attack which the enemy launched against the first division at nine o’clock at night forced us at the last minute to do things differently.
The Mexican Offensive
This offensive of the Mexicans surpassed in vigor and persistence any of their previous attacks. The din and confusion which had harassed us in other encounters were trifling annoyances compared to what took place now. Our walls were shattered, almost leveled to the ground, and the best we could do was to seek refuge behind the crumbling stones or falling adobe. Crouching close to our ruins, we waited anxiously, expecting every minute to see the bluecoats scaling our battered barricades. With our guns at full cock, we were ready to shoot the first Mexicans who should venture close enough to us. Pioneers stood at the loopholes we had bored through the walls, and their unerring aim struck down every Mexican who came within their firing. Our opponents, however, aware of our decided advantage in marksmanship, kept at a safe distance, and as our expectations of a fierce hand-to-hand fight grew smaller, we began to tire of our inaction. Impatient of further delay, about twenty Greys decided to attack the enemy on one of his flanks. The numerical strength of our foes did not alarm us, and although we were only a handful against six or eight hundred men, we stormed the four walls of a dilapidated blockhouse which stood at a little distance from the scene of the main conflict. Darkness favored us; before the enemy could suspect anything, we had advanced almost up to the buildings occupied by the Mexican squadrons. Startled and unnerved by the sudden, simultaneous flashes and reports of our rifles and pistols, the Mexicans beat a hasty retreat to the buildings of the center, where, selecting our roofless conquest as a special target, they resumed their firing.
Cannon-shots and musket-balls boomed and rattled around the quarters of the second detachment, so that the predicament of our friends seemed even worse than ours. While we were speculating upon their luck, the central quadrangle rang out with a shrill call to arms. The bugles blew and the drums rolled, swelling the clamor which already arose from the enemy’s ceaseless fusillade and blasphemous yells. At intervals a deeper note drowned this deafening noise as the flaming muzzles of the Alamo’s cannon bellowed out their wrath. Such a tumultuous uproar in the middle of the night had a kind of sublimity which gripped my heart. The strange exaltation which possessed me recalled to my mind the emotion which I had experienced when for the first time I saw a large towboat sailing up the Mississippi. This strong, heavily built tug hauled in its wake schooners, brigantines, and other ships with such a noise of hissing steam, puffing engines, and creaking machinery that it held me spellbound, and I remained listening to the loud gasps of the monster’s panting breath long after it had vanished from sight.
The turmoil of the conflict lasted until eleven o’clock. At that hour the bombardment ceased; and now that quiet had been restored we left our four walls, for we wanted to find out our party’s plans about the storming of the center. Imagine then our surprise when we found all the buildings of the second division empty. As we stood there, unable to explain the absence of our comrades and at a loss what to do, we discovered a wounded man lying in a corner. He told us that immediately after the enemy’s assault against the first division, all the men of the second detachment had left their quarters to capture that section of the central quadrangle which, earlier in the day, we had decided to occupy during the night. The present circumstances, however, had greatly altered the situation of the besiegers. Therefore, the volunteers in charge of this expedition had attacked the center from a totally different direction and had taken the enemy completely off guard. Success rewarded their daring. They drove the Mexicans from two large buildings and spiked a cannon, which owing to its nearness to our building had worked terrible havoc among us during the siege.
The rash undertaking. which I have been describing above may justly deserve censure. Indeed, the surprise attack conducted by the men of the second detachment can hardly escape criticism, for they not only deserted us in our hour of danger, but gave up a safe position for the sake of a very uncertain gain. I have no excuse to offer except that we considered ourselves almost invincible, an opinion which later on brought us and our friends very near ruin. The fifth day, with its drastic events, likewise ended in victory; and we looked forward with excitement to the next day, which fell on the tenth of December. The enemy’s firing had ceased; only the small redoubt on the other side of the river sent solitary volleys, the shots of which flashed like stray bullets through the empty space which during the preceding five days had been plowed up by thousands of cannon – and musketballs. The deafening explosions of the artillery no longer shook the earth, and only the groans of the wounded reminded us of the cruel sacrifices imposed upon us by the cause we served.
As the shadows of the night stole away in the east before a radiant December sunrise, the sixth day of our siege dawned and ushered in the downfall of our foes. A white flag, the meek token of surrender, floated over the ruins of the Alamo. It was nine o’clock before the two armies came to an agreement over the terms of the capitulation, which were as follows: The Mexican troops should depart at once from the city, with a hundred and fifty rifles as well as enough powder and lead to protect themselves against the Comanches. Furthermore, they were to take an oath never again to fight against Texas, to abandon the Alamo by the twelfth, and to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico as soon as possible. On the appointed day Cos marched off with his men and left in our possession the Alamo with its stores of ammunition. Forty-eight cannon, an important supply of powder, four thousand muskets, ready-made cartridges, and a large quantity of cannon and musketballs fell into our hands.
We also found in the depot many uniforms; they were not of the slightest use to us, however, for every Texan would rather have worn the hunting tunic and moccasins of the wild prairie Indians than put on the garb of the despised Mexican mercenaries. The losses of the Mexicans amounted to seven hundred and forty dead. Of their many wounded, those whose injuries were slight accompanied Cos; the others were put under the care of our doctor and given the same treatment as our own sick. Six of our men were dead; twenty-nine had been severely injured and put into the hospital; while a few others, not seriously hurt, found lodgings in the city. The disproportion between the respective losses of the two parties is enormous and seems hardly credible, but in almost every fight between the two forces, the number of men killed by the Texans was several hundred times greater than the casualties inflicted by the Mexicans.
Our management of the enemy was wise, and wise also our treatment of the citizens of San Antonio, although they had sided with Cos against us. At that time we still considered Texas and Mexico as one large unit, and for this reason, now as before, the three colors floated over the church. We hoped that in a brief lapse of time reports would carry to the other Mexican states the news of our success against the Usurper’s troops, and that once more the whole nation would rise in revolt in order to overthrow Santa Anna and his administration.
(Permission granted to reprint this article in email of Nov. 14, 2014 from Dr. Wallace L. McKeehan.)