Frequently Asked Questions

How big was the attacking force?

Santa Anna had his units march two days apart, presumably to let the grass grow and the water holes replenish after each unit passed. (Comanches also disrupted the march.) So the entire force had not arrived in time for the assault. The best estimate for the force on-hand March 6, 1836, is about 2,500 soldiers, of whom about 1,400 were used in the assault. Sources mention that reserves had to be committed, so some of the remaining troops were probably also used. 

What were the casualties?

The Alamo garrison was destroyed. The alcalde of San Antonio reported cremating 182 bodies. (Others report about 250.) Additionally, the body of a local Tejano was claimed by his family and given Christian burial. One other Tejano defender may have talked his way out of being killed by claiming to have been a prisoner in the fort. Travis's slave Joe survived. Several other men, wounded or unwounded, passed through other parts of Texas in coming weeks with "sole survivor" tales of having been in the Alamo, and then dropped from history.

Santa Anna's report of killing 600 Texans can be dismissed. Santa Anna may have been basing his report not on any body count but on an intercepted letter that detailed the reinforcements that might be diverted to the Alamo. The numbers reportedly added up to about 600.

As for Mexican casualties, Santa Anna reported losing 70 dead, and other sources place the dead as high as 600, or more. While observers are likely to dismiss Santa Anna's Mexican casualty figures, the grossly higher figures also present problems:

  • The killed to wounded ratio in organized military operations, where retreat is possible, is usually about one  to three. (With modern medicine and helicopter evacuations, the U.S. Army had it down to one to six in Vietnam.) With the available medicine being often of negative value, many of the wounded might later die, but that's another issue.
  • Historically, the likelihood of pressing home an attack falls off dramatically -- in fact, units fall apart -- as casualties for the attacking force exceed about 30 percent.
  • As stated above, the attack force probably did not exceed 1,400.
So if you allow 600 dead, you have to allow another 1,800 wounded, giving about 100+ percent casualties for the Mexican assault force, and you have to assume that Santa Anna was leading lemmings.

If you allow 70 dead, then you have to allow another 210 wounded, for total casualties that exceeded the Texan loss by 50 percent, and amounted to 20 percent of the attack force. (Santa Anna actually did report 300 wounded, hiking his losses to 26 percent.)

Meanwhile, Santa Anna had every reason to lie, and his report was made hastily. Also, the Mexican army does indeed seem to have been seriously damaged. So other reports that place the casualties at about 200 dead and 400 wounded have been easier to accept. This would have amounted to 43 percent casualties -- which Santa Anna's professional officers would have rightly viewed as catastrophic.

The scale of casualties indicates that had there been no Mexican reserves, or had the fort been reinforced significantly, the assault may well have been repulsed.  

Wasn't Davy Crockett captured?

Within days a report was circulating in Texas that a half-dozen defenders had survived the initial assault, and were brought before Santa Anna -- who curtly had them killed on the spot. One of these was Davy Crockett. Several Mexican eyewitnesses gave a version of the event. That one version that names Crockett is not creditable. Aside from that, consider:

  • No one was checking IDs.
  • The Mexicans did not know Crockett from Adam.
They did know Crockett from reputation, and perhaps were willing to assume that anyone who appeared well-dressed and distinguished was Crockett. 

Weren't the defenders nearly over-run by the unexpected advance of the Mexican army into San Antonio?

The Mexicans had attempted a quick thrust the previous night, but had gone astray in the darkness. That morning, the defenders' scouts made contact with the Mexican army when it was about eight miles away, and so had half a day's notice to get into the fort. They had received reports of a Mexican advance for the previous week but discounted them. They did not expect an advance until the spring grass came, in mid March. They did not know that the "curly mesquite grass" of the western dry lands matures earlier.

What was left of the Matamoros expedition on the coast was indeed caught by surprise and summarily dispatched.  

Why didn't the Texans retreat?

Due to their inferiority in cavalry, it would have been suicidal to venture into the open once the Mexican Army had arrived. Mexican cavalry would have caught up with them and pinned them down until the infantry arrived. And then they'd be surrounded again by overwhelming numbers, without the walls, artillery and store rooms of the fort.

Also, they presumably thought they were accomplishing something by holding out where they were. If that involved danger, so be it.

But Travis was not self-destructive. If he received enough reinforcements and supplies, as he requested, there was hope for successful, sustained resistance. The logistical situation meant that the Mexican army would eventually (after eating up the resources of San Antonio de Bexar) have to advance or retreat. Presumably, he assumed that successful resistance at the Alamo would eventually trigger a Mexican  retreat.  

Didn't they stick around because they knew that shipments of silver from Bowie's silver mine in San Saba was buried in the well in the center of the compound?

And how much silver would it take to get you to commit suicide? Seriously, archeologists have recently searched for that well, with no luck. And while Bowie did once lead an armed excursion to the supposed site of the mines at an abandoned mission, it is not certain he got there, recovered any silver, or brought any back. Actually, he seems to have spent the time fighting for his life against Comanches, then a popular pastime in Texas.

The friars did operate such a mine -- and then they closed it, indicating it was played out and that passing tourists would have little opportunity to enrich themselves. 

How reliable is the list of names?

Good question. No final garrison roster survives. There were early, partial rosters, expense accounts, and recollections of other Texas Army survivors. Many of the names stem from Texas veterans land claims filed by survivors. People were fast and loose in the spelling of their own names, and fathers and sons are easy to get confused, and people went by nicknames or initials. 

Did they really wear coon-skin hats?

That, and any other head covering they could find, stylish, uncouth, or whatever. This was before sunscreen was invented. 

Other sources give slightly different dates for some events. Why?

Because no one really knows what dates are accurate. Correspondence by participants connected with the domain of paperwork -- Houston, Santa Anna, and some others -- can be assumed to have been dated accurately, but on the frontier calendars were rare, and rarely consulted. Even when dates were available, terms like "yesterday" were used loosely.  

Does not the John Wayne movie about the Alamo indicate that Bowie's family died of cholera during the siege, rather than two and a half years earlier?

It's wrong. Also up in the air is the question of whether he had any children with Ursula. Some reports say there were children, but there was no paper trail. 

You keep implying that the Texans feared the Mexican cavalry. Why is that?

Being dirt farmers from wooded country, the Texans lacked the tradition of horsemanship possessed by the Mexicans, and respected Mexican abilities. That also meant they could not match the Mexican cavalry forces. (The available Texan mounted force, the Texas Rangers, remained on guard against the Comanches during the period and did not participate in the revolution.)

Lack of a mounted force was no trivial matter. In the wooded country that most Texans came from (Tennessee, Kentucky, etc.) their single-shot muzzle-loading rifles had been effective in combat. There, fighting involved darting from tree to tree, on foot. Cavalry was used for scouting, to mop up after a victory, or to prevent the enemy from mopping up after a defeat.

On the open prairie, however, their rifles turned out to be an encumbrance. Your first shot had better be effective, because the foe could charge in and settle matters before you could reload. In the open, these riflemen rightly feared Mexican lancers and Comanches, who might not be carrying firearms at all. But once the Texans reached cover -- woods, buildings, or broken terrain -- the balance was restored. (Incidentally, due to subsequent overgrazing, the Central Texas terrain has more cover now than it did then.)

The balance tipped permanently in the Texan's favor in the decade after the revolution, when the Texas Rangers became the first military force to adopt the Colt revolver. 

What do you mean, "logistics?"

Logistics is the task of moving and supplying troops -- the mechanics of military operations. While books often treat military events as if they were huge chess matches between generals on beautiful, detailed maps, in reality events were often dictated by the logistical situation on the ground. Many moves that later looked like strategic flourishes were literally just searches for greener pastures. Consider:

  • You eat about two pounds of food a day.
  • A horse, when worked, will eat about 50 pounds of wet fodder (i.e., grass) or half that much dry fodder (oats, corn, hay) per day. (When idle, it might eat a third that amount.)
  • Counting the cavalry, the supply wagons, the officer's mounts, the couriers, the artillery, etc., an army might have two horses for every three men.
A horse-drawn wagon would use six horses or mules to pull one ton 20 miles in a day. If you are going short distances, of if there is plenty of grass, the animals can just graze. If grass is out of season, or if 20,000 animals are using that same road (as happened in the U.S. Civil War) then you'll have to bring along your own fodder. That means you won't get more than 260 miles (13 days) from your base. (Your six animals will eat up your one-ton payload at a rate of 150 pounds a day, emptying the wagon in 13.32 days.) Since you would want to make round trips (especially when supplying an army) you could not go farther than six days, or 120 miles. Since you want to do more than feed your cart horses, you would probably not end up going more then three days out. (There are people who actually believe wars traditionally began in the Spring because of some association between sunlight and aggression. Now you know the real reason: without Spring grass, armies were nearly immobile.)

Civilians used the same transportation technology and their agriculture was geared to support it. A town was expected to be able to supply an army equal to its population for two weeks, before local supplies began running out. The army would then starve (horses first) or move on. Naturally, they liked to move on, to greener fields, or to some place by a seaport or barge canal (which cured all supply headaches.)

Hence, in lightly populated country, the only hope was to keep moving, and trust the populace would have at least enough food to feed your force while you marched through. If that did not work, you could break the force into small columns that could move even faster. But if you encountered the enemy, things would have to be settled quickly, since then there would be two armies living off the land.

 In the situation at hand:

  • Texas was lightly populated.
  • And huge.
  • The Mexican army had set up supply "magazines" along the line of the approach march. These had been carried off by the Commanches.
  • The Texans were mostly afoot. The Mexicans had a lot of horses.
  • The Texas navy prevented Mexican seaborn supply efforts.
  • It was early in the season, and it had been cold.
So it is plain that the Mexican army was in a precarious logistical situation. After leaving San Antonio (where they stayed just long enough to exhaust its supplies) the only way to carry out operations was to break into smaller columns and move fast. The former it did. The latter proved impossible, due to Spring rains, sabotaged river ferries, and the presence of Houston's army. Fleeing in panic, the Texans burned their towns and left behind a logistical desert. Urrea, commanding the coastal column, evidently took stops not to trigger panic, and so his force remaining in good shape. Santa Anna burned what remained standing, and was apparently having problems even before San Jacinto. 

What was the military importance of the Alamo?

It didn't have any. That's right, none. Its significance was symbolic and psychological.

Santa Anna could have suppressed the rebellion without sending a single unit to San Antonio de Bexar. Having sent the army there, he could have ignored the fort and moved on, leaving a militia battalion to watch it. The defenders were simply not strong enough, outside their fort, to threaten his army. Nor could they threaten his "line of communications" back to Mexico since, basically, he didn't have any. Had it not looked bad politically, he could have pretended the garrison wasn't there. But, of course, Santa Anna's goals were political, not military, and his actions did not always contain military logic. 

What was Santa Anna's strategy?

He sought to polish his image as savior of Mexico. Demonizing the Texans as threats to the Mexican way of life and then eradicating them looked like the ticket. (The names of other dictators who have used a similar approach may immediately spring to mind.) Rushing his army directly to San Antonio was a symbolic act, since that town was the farthest outpost of the Mexican culture he was supposed to be protecting. He was also reliving his youth -- he had served there in 1813 putting down a local rebellion that was abetted by some American freebooters. His first impulse was probably to retrace the steps he had taken then. Also, his brother-in-law had been driven out of San Antonio in December by the rebel Texans, an event he considered shameful. Being a dictator, no one was going to point out that his move was pointless, since the rebellion was farther east, near the coast.

Arriving in Bexar, he found the Alamo held by the rebels, and decided that crushing it would cause the "sensation" he was after -- terror among the Texans, presumably. His main fear seemed to be that Travis would surrender before an attack could be mounted.  

Wasn't Travis about to surrender when Santa Anna attacked?

That story comes from several Mexican officers bent on showing up Santa Anna as a fool, wrecking his army in an unnecessary attack, as bloodthirsty with his own men as he was toward the enemy. They said the mysterious woman who came to Santa Anna actually asked for terms on behalf of Travis, saying that food and ammunition was nearly gone. But Travis's reports showed that he had food for a couple of weeks more, and the results of the assault indicate that his ammunition was a long way from exhausted. Joe, Travis's slave and one of the two defenders known to have survived, was interviewed two weeks later by Texas government officials, and made no mention of a surrender initiative.

But keep in mind that Travis would have been wise to keep open some line of communication with the enemy. The Texans had allowed the Mexican forces to evacuate San Antonio a few months earlier under a cease-fire agreement, an agreement inspired by several days of street fighting. (Such arrangements had become the traditional way of ending sieges in European wars.) So it would have been reasonable to expect that, after some serious fighting took place, Santa Anna would be similarly inspired to back off from his no-prisoners posturing and begin negotiating. Reasonable, but wrong. 

What did the defense of the Alamo accomplish?

In military terms, little except the weakening of the Mexican army. It did not delay the Mexicans while the Texans organized further forces -- at the time, the only other Texan force was with Fannin. Houston's force did not start forming until after the Alamo fell. Since Santa Anna was still bringing his army up, the siege may not even have extended the time the Mexican army spent in San Antonio.

Psychologically, it was devastating, galvanizing the Texans, demonstrating that their lives were on the line -- that the time had come to take a stand. And it showed future generations how one does so, when necessary. 

Wasn't the Mexican defeat at San Jacinto caused by U.S. intervention?

No. But things could have worked out that way.

The U.S. Army had two infantry regiments (about 2,000 soldiers) in Fort Jessup, in Louisiana east of Nacogdoches, to watch the situation. The commander on the spot had broad instructions in which you could see hints that a rerun of Gen. (now president) Andrew Jackson's 1818 incursion into Florida in hot pursuit of Indians would not be unwelcome. (That incursion led Spain to cede Florida to the U.S.) He had plans for calling up militia from several states (that could get to him in a few days via the Red River) for a total concentration of 8,000 men. (The two regiments and the Texan army would have been enough to defeat any one Mexican column, or stalemate a concentrated Mexican army until it had to retreat for lack of supplies. The full 8,000-man concentration would have been enough to sweep Santa Anna out of Texas.)

He scouted extensively for signs of an Indian uprising, but they actually seem to have gone into hiding. So he canceled the militia call-up. San Jacinto happened before he made new plans.

Meanwhile, it appears he let private soldiers desert to join the Texan cause as long as they promised not to be captured in uniform by the Mexicans.

There is no evidence Houston was aware of these details. His constant retreat eastward could mean he planned to fall back to Nacogdoches, where he could link up with the U.S. Army. However:

  • If there was collusion, it must have been based on telepathy. No documentation has surfaced.

  • And even at San Jacinto, Houston was still 120 miles south of Nacogdoches, and Nacogdoches to the border was about another 50 miles. Given the primitive travel conditions, coordination with the U.S. Army over that distance would not have been possible, and the deserters would barely have had time to reach him before the fighting ended. The following summer a U.S. Army scout reported about 200 deserters hanging out in Nacogdoches, still in uniform, which implies they did not exert themselves to get into the fighting.

  • By taking his army to San Jacinto, Houston had turned away from the road leading to Nacogdoches. Elements of the Mexican Army were closer to Fort Jessup than Houston was.
So, a desire to nullify the Mexican cavalry by moving into the Piney Woods of East Texas would appear to satisfactorily explain Houston's moves. Facing five to one odds, perhaps he was just hoping to reach the Sabine River with his force intact. From there he could fight with a safe retreat path. And if he could lure Santa Anna into making a border incursion and triggering intervention, so much the better.  

There were elements in the U.S. that wanted Texas to be added to the union as slave territory, and intervention against a bloody foreign tyrant to keep him from slaughtering expatriate Americans was a plausible vehicle for that aspiration. So judging by actions rather than words, it is Santa Anna who was doing the bidding of the expansionists. Had he pushed his scattered under-supplied army to the border while continuing his bloody excesses, he might not only have triggered intervention, but would have fallen easy prey to it. But had he moderated his behavior from the beginning, Texas might still be part of Mexico. 

What documentation supports the story concerning the "distraction" of Santa Anna at San Jacinto by the voluptuous mulatto Emily Morgan?

 None. But hey...

How long did the assault last?

From one to five hours -- sources disagree, probably because it was dark and if they had watches they were not synchronized. Time tends to crawl when you're in mortal danger.

For whatever reason, this question keeps coming up. A careful reconstruction of events shows that the Mexicans did not get over the walls until the third attempt. That means they had to reorganize twice under fire. And then at least a third time after gaining the walls, to crush the strong points inside the compound. Each of these events could easily take an hour -- or happen in moments, depending on discipline and luck.

Didn't one of the Tejano defenders of the Alamo have a brother in Santa Anna's army?

Yes and no. One of several brothers of defender Gregorio Esparza was Francisco Esparza. The latter gave a sworn deposition in 1857 in support a veteran's land grant for the heirs of Gregorio Esparza.

The deposition says that his brother, Gregorio, volunteered for the Texan army in October 1835 and "entered Bexar between the morning of the 5th and the 10th of December 1835 with the American forces..." In other words, he was with the Texan Army during the Siege of Bexar.

Francisco, meanwhile, was in the Presidal Company of Bexar (the local defense unit of the Mexican Army.) Commanded by General Cos, they were part of the force defending San Antonio de Bexar against the Texan siege. Under the terms of Cos' capitulation to the Texans, Francisco was allowed to return to his home, in San Antonio, which he did.

So there was indeed a "brother versus brother" element to the Siege of Bexar.

Gregorio remained in the Alamo garrison. When Santa Anna arrived Fransicso remained at his home. He and other local soldiers were told to hold themselves in readiness for a call-up, but none came. (Nor, apparently, did Francisco volunteer.) After the storming Francisco went to General Cos, who was now back in town, and got permission to recover Gregorio's body, finding it in one of the rooms of the Alamo, shot in the chest and stabbed in the side.

When the Mexican army moved on into the interior, Francisco stayed home. The land grant was approved in 1860.

Meanwhile, during the storming of the Alamo, Juana Navarro Alsbury told of being rescued by her former brother-in-law, who was reportedly a sergeant in the Mexican Army.

Was the Alamo also serving as a hospital?

A couple of Mexican sources mention that the bodies of about 250 defenders were found in the Alamo. And Susana Dickinson said more than once that there was a hospital in the fort housing about 75 sick and wounded men left over from the siege of Bexar. With the 184 known defenders, that gives about 250. While absent on leave, Col. James Neill, the original commander of the fort, spent government money on medicine to bring back to the fort. But Travis's reports and appeals never explicitly mention these men. And other Mexican sources give the usual death toll of 183.

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