The March, The Siege and the Battle for Bexar Oct-Dec 1835
Told by DeWitt Colonist Creed Taylor ca. 1900 (in Tall Men with Long Rifles by James T. DeShields)
The heroes the Texas Revolution introduce themselves in rapid, gallant style: Colonel Moore and colleagues at Gonzales; Collingsworth and comrades at Goliad; Bowie and Fannin at Conception; Deaf Smith and others in the "Grass Fight"; Austin and Burleson around San Antonio, and now the noble patriot and intrepid old soldier, Ben Milam, bursts upon the attention of the reader with all the impetuosity of his liberty-loving nature and in most glorious manner.
Restless troops for storm, officers against. The Texan army had encamped about San Antonio for a full month, maintaining a quasi-siege, but one altogether too inactive for the restless and impetuous citizen -soldiers who were anxious to push on into town and deal the enemy a crushing blow the victory at Conception and the few skirmishes following, only serving to whet their appetites for a real fight. Each day brought new recruits who, if possible, were more clamorous for an immediate advance upon the old Mexican town. We could hear the drums and bugles of the enemy, morning and evening, and our scouts approached sufficiently close to enable them to see that unusual activity was being displayed in strengthening the Alamo fortress and the main plaza defenses.
When Burleson took command the army was divided, one faction arguing that it would be a piece of unwarranted foolhardiness to undertake to capture Bexar. Cos had an army, they contended, of one thousand or more well-armed and well-trained troops, that the streets of the place were commanded by many heavy guns, and to undertake the reduction of the old stronghold with only two small pieces of artillery, would be an act of unexcusable madness. Those in favor of the assault brought forth the argument that, while the town was well fortified, the Mexicans could not stand up before the Texas riflemen; that their numerous big guns, as observed by our own spies, were so placed that they could not be trained other than along the streets; that in their rude embrasures they could be veered to neither right nor left, and by keeping to the houses on either side the assaulting columns would be out of reach of their guns; that General Cos did not have over six hundred effective men in Bexar, and that his ammunition was short, his men on half rations, unpaid and woefully disspirited, all of which was true as was eventually shown.
Col. Jack's speech, Burleson for storm, capture of Lt. Vauvis. I distinctly remember the excitement that prevailed in the camp when an order was issued to raise the siege and retire to old Fort La Bahia (Goliad) for winter quarters, and I remember that the younger men, those sons of the early colonists, were loudest in their protests-demanding that they be led forward to the assault. Meantime, on the second of December, the fiery Colonel Jack had called the men together and made them a speech, in which he declared that it would be an everlasting shame for Texans to turn their backs to the enemy and go trucking home. He said our mothers would be ashamed of us, our sisters would despise us, and our country would brand us as being a set of cowards and weaklings, unworthy to bear the name Texans. He closed his ringing speech with a call for volunteers who were willing to join in a determined attack upon the town, and perhaps four hundred men rushed into line, wildly shouting, "On to Bexar." "Down with the Mexicans." Among those who came forward were many of the volunteers from the "States."
When quiet was restored, General Burleson ordered those who favored an immediate attack to fall in line, and when drawn up, he made a short speech in which he stated that at dawn the next morning the assault would be made; that we should get our arms and ammunition in good shape, since there would be some desperate fighting at close quarters and every man should be well prepared. Of course we knew nothing of the plan of attack and cared less-all we wanted was to meet the enemy. December 3 dawned cloudy, dank and chilly. Long before daylight the boys were astir, expecting every moment to be ordered into line. But no orders came, nor was a satisfactory explanation ever given as to why an assault was not made at this time. The only explanation I ever heard was to the effect that one of the men who opposed the attack, had deserted during the night, and had no doubt reported our plans to Cos. Of course much excitement and rebellious feeling now prevailed. Burleson counseled the men to remain quiet until further developments came, and for the boys not to think that he was going to turn his back upon the Mexicans until they had whipped him, and that could never be done so long as he had a Texan soldier left.
And now another exciting incident occurred. About three oclock on the following morning, three Americans, Sam Maverick, Jack Smith, and a Mr. Holmes, non-combatants, and residing in Bexar, aided by Deaf Smith, succeeded in making their way out and to our camp. These men gave a full report of conditions in town, the numerical strength of the Mexican army, the number of cannons, the scarcity of supplies, and the general discontent of the men. All the boys soon gathered at headquarters to see and bear these men, and there were several short and sharp speeches made by different individuals, some few opposing, but the greater number favoring the taking of Bexar.
At this juncture the excitement was further increased when one of the scouts, Bates Berry, rode up with a Mexican officer whom he had captured while scouting below the "Old Mill." Of this villainous fellow and arrant horse-thief and of his tragic fate at a later period, the novelist, Capt. Mayne Reid, has graphically told in his absorbing narrative, "The Headless Horseman." Lieutenant Vauvis gave a report of the conditions of Cos army which coincided with that just reported by the three Americans. An interpreter was called and as the excited men drew near to hear and see, their menacing presence gave the lieutenant extreme alarm and, mistaking me for a Mexican, he appealed to me for protection, declaring that he had deserted the Mexican army and was on his way to our camp when intercepted. I gave him assurances that soon allayed his fears.
Naturally, these incidents and reports tended to increase the discontent and somewhat mutinous spirit of the restless and disgusted volunteers, many declaring their intentions of leaving the army if the officers did not do something at once; that home would be better winter quarters when Texas was free of "greaser" soldiers and that they would never retreat before Mexican "escopetas." Somehow I felt that something was going to happen and that pretty soon, and as I stalked around among the boys I told them to be patient, that I believed they would soon see some of the hottest fighting they had ever experienced.
Ben Milam's line in the sand. Thus matters stood. But as the hours passed the climax approached. Ben Milam and Frank Johnson were heard in animated conversation, and presently they were observed walking rapidly in the direction of the commanders quarters. Minutes now passed as hours. Suddenly, the flap of General Burlesons tent was thrown back and a man stepped boldly out and forward. He drew a line on the ground with the stock of his rifle. Then waving his old slouch hat above his head, he cried in stentorian voice, "Boys! Wholl go with Ben Milam into Bexar?" The quick commingled responses, "I will," were almost deafening. "Well, if you are going with me, get on this side," shouted Milam. And with a rush , animated cheers, and loud hurrahs, the men formed in a line to the number of about three hundred very one eager to follow the old hero in any venture and at all hazards Burleson, who had stood the while silent, but looking on in approving manner, now stepped forward and made a stirring appeal to those who stood back. He showed that many of their comrades were going into the town; that a reserve force was needed; and that since they were unwilling to join in the assaulting column they should remain in camp and be ready to assist in case of emergency. He further told them that to abandon us at this critical moment when every man was needed and expected to do his duty, would be treasonable and would be looked upon by all Texans and by the people of the "States" as an act of basest cowardice. "Remain like men," said the speaker, "and win or lose, you will share the glory with your brave comrades. Abandon us, and you will merit the contempt of posterity!"
I well remember some of the quips of merriment on that eventful day; which showed the spirit of levity and joviality that animated the boys on the eve of the most daring achievement in all previous Texas history. One of those who had been loud in his contention to retreat, said, "I wouldnt mind going with you fellows, but I have no gun. My horse fell with me yesterday and broke the stock of my rifle." "Well take you along to cut bullet patchin," roared Frank Johnson; and for years afterward that man went by the name of "Bullet Patchin."
Much activity now prevailed in camp and the remainder of the evening, and until far into the night, was spent in preliminary organization, polishing guns, distributing rations and ammunition. In fact, but few of us slept any that night. The excitement was too tense, At last we were "going into town." "Tall Men with Long Rifles" were in evidence in the camp that night, and the boys were as joyous as if waiting a festive affair. Long before dawn of the day every volunteer was ready, anxious for the fray; but as they armed, formed, and fell into line for marching, a marked decrease in the levity was observed - they all felt, and knew, that great danger confronted them, and that they must do some tall fighting to achieve victory over such a well-armed and strongly fortified enemy. I afterwards talked with many of the men who joined Ben Milam and followed him into that desperate struggle, Everyone realized the seriousness of the situation and the desperate fight ahead; and yet not one of them ever doubted but that they would win victory over the fearful odds. It was valor and long rifles that won in that fight.
The first campaign in the war of Texas independence lasted about three months, closing in a blaze of glory. The capture of Bexar was one of the most brilliant affairs in our history. The mode of battle was planned by the intrepid Ben Milam, and was won by some of the tallest fighting ever done on Texas soil. The victory was a glorious one; the pity is that the heroic old soldier fell in the very hour of victory. The attack was to be a break-of-day surprise, and the conditions favored the plans. The beautiful starlit night had given way to heavy fog, a curtain of mist hung thick around every object, concealing forms but a few feet distant, the plan of attack was well executed. Colonel Niell, with one of the guns and Captain Roberts company, was sent in advance, and silently crossing to the opposite side of the river, took position commanding the Alamo. Erelong the peal of Niells cannon told he was at his post of duty, and with this signal the main force began their silent march toward the mist enshrouded town. For two hours Niells gun played upon the fortress-more as a feint to draw the enemys attention while the main force attack was to be directed toward the barricaded plaza.
Storm and taking of Bexar. With the first boom of Niells cannon the glad words, "Forward, boys! Were going into town" rang out and the men were in motion. The two divisions had been formed, their courses divergent. The first, and the one to which I was assigned, was led by Colonel Milam; the second by Col. Frank Johnson. The advance of both divisions was prompt and simultaneous, Milams marching down Acequia Street and having for its main point of attack the Navarro house; while Johnsons force entering the town at the bead of Soledad Street, was to take the Verimendi place. Each column moved under direction of experienced guides and along its designated course in single file.
As our advance scout under Deaf Smith approached the Verimendi place they encountered an enemy picket with whom they exchanged shots. The Mexicans now sounded a general alarm and opened fire from every quarter. Our instructions were to waste no ammunition and to bold our fire till well within range. The streets along which we approached were swept by Cos artillery, planted in the barricades at the plaza, but we soon found the report of the spies touching the range of these guns to be true. They had been trained to sweep only the center of the streets, and a man on the sidewalk on either side was in little danger of being hit by a cannon shot.
Our troop was here divided, one advancing from jacal to jacal, from house to house, on one side; the other following the same course on the opposite side. The advance of the two main divisions while some distance apart, were yet almost on parallel lines, and for the first two days of fighting were in reasonably close communication. The enemys fire increased as we drew nearer the plaza where the buildings were stronger and more compact, all of them being of stone or adobe with flat roofs, and a wall projecting around and about four feet above the surface of the roof. These walls were manned by Mexican troops who kept up a brisk fire upon us during the day, and if they had been trained marksmen, armed with any other gun than the "escopeta," few of us would have escaped death. I saw volley after volley fired from an "aratea" in our front and not a mans head to be seen. Crouching behind the roof-walls, those Mexican soldiers would load, thrust their guns over the crest of the low wall and send a constant shower of balls in our direction, with harmless effect. On their part it was a matter of self-preservation, since no sooner did a head appear above the walls than it served as a target for a dozen hunting rifles, and there was always another dead Mexican. As night came the terrible fusillade of small guns and the deafening roar of the artillery ceased. My division had not lost a man, while the enemy had suffered heavily.
Dawn and break of day 2. With the lull of the guns and under cover of darkness we made considerable advance, erected a few barricades in exposed places, and at dawn of the second day pandemonium again broke loose. While we were engaged in erecting barricades during the night, the enemy had not been idle, and when the fight began that morning it seemed that Cos had assembled his entire force in front of Milams division.
Our historians in their accounts of the storming of Bexar, have had much to say about our artillery, and doubtless readers have often wondered why Milam and Johnson did not bring this artillery into action on the first day of battle and demolish those barricades about the plaza. The truth is we had only two old cannons-a six, and a twelve pounder, and about the only service we obtained from them was the noise they made when fired. Those two guns were the ones captured in the fight at Conception; they were of ancient vintage, small bore, and at this day and time, would hardly pass as low grade scrap iron. Moreover, most of our ammunition for these guns had been consumed by Captain Niell while firing on the Alamo, the first morning of the attack.
Quartermaster William Cook's BBQ, Karnes crowbar. When we went into action on the morning of the fifth, each man was supposed to carry two days supply of rations, but by morning of the second day there was not a morsel in my (Yorks) company, and every man was ravenously hungry - fighting all the day and working hard all the night gave us a ravenous appetite. But thanks to Quartermaster Wm. G. Cook, about nine oclock that morning, and while the air seemed filled with flying missiles, and the smoke from the enemys guns hung in dense clouds over the old town, he sent forward an abundant supply of nicely barbecued beef. This was issued to the men while they stood or crouched under cover of fences, walls of houses, etc., and was devoured with a relish.
When the quartermaster found that the reserve force - those who had refused to go into the assault - had nothing to do but loaf around the camp and watch us do the fighting, he ordered out a detail to bring in cattle from the range, others to bring in wood, dig pits, build fires, slaughter beeves, and barbecue meat. It was thus during the entire siege, and no man went hungry as long as he was within reach of the quartermaster. The captain became a favorite with the men who fought at Bexar, and he later won great distinction in camp and forum. He was a member of the ill-fated Santa Fe Expedition. He married a niece of patriot José Antonio Navarro- Navarro was a native of Corsicana, and not a Mexican, as many suppose. The hardest fighting of the second day was in the afternoon. From the flat roofs and barricades the Mexicans poured an incessant storm of shot upon us. They brought up two heavy guns with which they knocked to pieces the few jacales and adobe walls that sheltered us. Just opposite us was a large stonehouse, and our only hope lay in getting possession of this building, although its flat roof, and those of the building adjoining, swarmed with Mexican soldiers. And now a thrilling episode of dauntless daring. Henry Karnes seized a heavy iron crowbar which he had found, and said,
And with rifle in one hand and crowbar in the other, he flew across the street, and after a few well-directed blows, the door gave way, by which time our whole company was at his heels. As we entered, it was amusing to see the Mexicans tear out through a partition door. Several were made prisoners, but were paroled at once, as we had no men to spare for guard duty. And here I digress to say that the parolling of a Mexican soldier required a slight knowledge of the Mexican character. To administer an oath after the American usage had no effect on a Mexican. He regarded it as a form of no value and, if a prisoner, he was liable to be found next day in line of battle, ready to shoot at you again. The Mexicans were Catholics, and no oath was binding upon them unless the Roman cross figured in the proceedings. So with a charcoal snatched from an abandoned "brasero" it took Captain York but a few minutes to make a cross for each captive on the white lime-plastered wall. The men were marched up, the right hand of each on an outlined cross, their left bands on their breasts, and the oath was administered and they observed it.
From this point, fighting from house to house began in earnest, and it was during this procedure that our crowbar proved an invaluable adjunct as a weapon of warfare. From room to room we slowly advanced, with armed foes in front and overhead. Every room had its heavy iron-grated windows (no glass)
[pg. 72-73 missing]
of provisions, a full treasure chest, and the men would be fed and long past-due wages paid in full. Ugartachea had come, bringing a reinforcement of 500 men, but no provisions and no money. The additional troops came ragged and hungry, and they only helped to consume the meager supply of food yet remaining. "Tonight, or tomorrow night, at most," said the Mexican officer, "will witness the departure of a large force under command of one of Cos most trusted officers - they are going to desert!"
The death of Ben Milam. The Garza house, the Navarro house, the Verimendi house, the house occupied by the priest, and Zambrano row now had been taken by our forces. The Mexicans still held their barricade on the main or Military Plaza and also the Alamo. The Verimendi house was considered the most important of the positions we had captured. It was in front of this house that our brave Ben Milam fell; and it was on the roof of this building that Deaf Smith and Lieutenant Hall, of the New Orleans Greys, were wounded. They had ascended to the roof in order to get a better view of the enemys position. Sharpshooters were evidently watching them, and they were fired upon and wounded, fortunately, not seriously.
There have been many accounts written of Colonel Milams death, scarcely any of them agreeing. Being within thirty feet of him when he fell, I believe myself competent to give a correct statement of the facts as I saw them. Milam, Johnson, Cook, Morris, Karnes, York, and other leaders had assembled at the Verimendi house to formulate plans for the final assault. Milam carried a small field glass (a present to him by General Austin). With this glass, and while standing in the front yard of the building, Milam was viewing the Mexican stronghold on the plaza. At this moment a shot rang out and Milam fell, the ball piercing his head. I heard the shot and saw Milam fall and instantly turned to ascertain the direction from which the shot was fired. There was firing going on all the time, more or less, and this particular shot would have attracted no particular notice but for its fatal and most deplorable result. One of those present in the yard called attention to the fact that at the report of the shot he saw a white puff of smoke arising from the branches of a large cypress tree that stood on the margin of the river. At this announcement all eyes were turned in the direction of that tree, the outline of a man was seen, several rifle shots rang out and the corpse of the daring sharpshooter crashed down through the branches and rolled into the river.
False news of assasination of Cos and massive defection to Texians. After the surrender, Colonel Sanchez told Col. Frank Johnson and Captain Bennet, in my presence, that this sharpshooter, Felix de la Garza, was the best shot in the Mexican army, a half-brother of Almonte, and that General Cos was deeply grieved over his death. On the morning of the eighth, General Cos called a council of war at which it was determined to withdraw his forces from the main plaza and concentrate his entire army within the walls of the Alamo. Orders were issued to this effect and the movement was begun at three oclock on the following morning. During the early part of the night, Colonel Condille, commander of the forces on the plaza, received notice that General Cos had been assassinated and that he Condille, should hold his position until further orders. Early next morning at roll call, he discovered that he was short 174 men, among whom were Capt. Juan Galan; Manuel Rudecindo Barragan; Adjutant Inspector of Coahuila and Texas, Don Juan José Alguazabel; and the Captain of Lancers, Don Ignacio Rodriguez. Colonel Condille was also informed that General Cos was not dead, as reported, but was anxious to know why he refused to obey his orders of the previous evening.
When the report of these desertions spread, the utmost consternation prevailed in Cos army, and among the Mexicans of Bexar. A rumor went forth and gained credence to the effect that these deserters had gone over to the Texans and were going to turn their guns on their former comrades. Deaf Smith was credited with having fathered this report. When the news of the desertion reached our quarters we thought of the wounded Avilas statement and we all felt assured that his prediction would soon be verified. When General Cos was informed of the desertion of his troops, and of the intrigue, he lost his self-control and exclaimed to Sanchez,
Surrender of the centralistas. The morning of the ninth was cloudy, damp and cold. From our position on the north side of the plaza, we could plainly see there was confusion in the ranks of the enemy. We saw the Morelos battalion, commanded by Colonel Sanchez, march out of their stronghold on the opposite side of the plaza, in the direction of the Alamo, taking with them their only remaining gun, a four pound cannon. A few minutes later, three Mexican officers, accompanied by a bugler, appeared in our front. They wore no arms except their swords. While yet at a safe distance, they halted, and their bugler sounded a parley. In an instant the windows and loopholes in our quarters bristled with rifles each one trained on the party. We were frontiersmen who knew how to fight, but we knew little of military etiquette and ceremony. In other words we did not understand the signal, and if someone had given the order to fire, the treaty negotiations might have been postponed for the time being, at least.
Seeing our attitude, one of the officers produced a white handkerchief which he held aloft and by this we understood their mission. Dr. Cameron was called and in company with Frank Johnson and several others advanced to meet the group of Mexican officers who proved to be Colonel Sanchez, Lieutenant Rada and Don Ramon Musquiz. When asked as to the object of their coming, Colonel Sanchez, their spokesman, said he wished to speak to our commander- in-chief . He was informed that our commander was not present but would be on the ground by nine oclock and if they had any message for him it would be delivered at once. Colonel Sanchez then stated the General Cos desired to save the further effusion of blood and was ready to surrender if satisfactory terms could be arranged and that he, Sanchez, and the two officers with him were empowered to meet a like number of commissioners from the Texan army to agree upon the terms of surrender, and to say to General Burleson that they awaited his pleasure.
The message was carried to Burleson who, without delay, named Frank W. Johnson, James G. Sylvester, and Robert Morris, to serve as commissioners. Dr. John Cameron was appointed to act as interpreter for the Texans, while Miguel Arcinega, a Nacogdoches Mexican, performed that office for General Cos. By two oclock, or thereabouts, on the evening of December 10, 1835, the terms of surrender were agreed upon, signed, and ratified, and the town was ours. At the outset, the demands of the Mexican commissioners were exorbitant. They wanted to be permitted to march out with flying colors. They wanted us to fire a salute in honor of their flag as they took up the line of march. They wanted to retain and remove all their artillery, government stores everything. They wanted us to furnish provisions sufficient to supply them until they reached Laredo. They wanted their parole to terminate when they passed beyond the Rio Grande. They wanted their sick and wounded to be maintained at our charge. These and many other unreasonable demands were presented and as promptly rejected.
This brought the Mexicans to their senses and an agreement was concluded, which, in every respect, was most liberal on the part of the Texans. Four days later General Cos, with the remnant of his army, took up the line of march for the Rio Grande, where two months later they were joined to Santa Annas army of invasion, returned to Bexar, participated in the siege of the Alamo, and when that venerable fortress lay in ruins, Cos said to his men,
"The fall of Bexar has been avenged: The stain of our national honor has been erased!"
Cos violated his parole and when taken at San Jacinto, should have been court-martialed and shot. Thus was achieved by a mere handful of brave men, through the most remarkable display of chivalric daring, a brilliant feat of arms - a great victory saddened only by the loss of its inspirer and leader, intrepid old Ben Milam. And thus closed the first swing of our war of independence. The Yuletide of 1835 was a happy one in Texas.
After the capture of Bexar I obtained a thirty day furlough and went to my home which was then on the east bank of the Guadalupe about five miles below the present site of Cuero in DeWitt County. There was great rejoicing in that humble cabin home over my return. The scattered settlers in that region gathered in to welcome me in their midst and to bear the stories of adventure and daring achievements around San Antonio. As trophies of war, I had a fine horse, a bridle of costly make, a silver mounted saddle, and a beautiful sword, all of which I had taken from one of General Cos captains. Two fine Mexican blankets, a pair of silver spurs, several silk sashes, and a pair of silver-mounted bolster pistols, were also among my spoils, all of which were viewed with wonder and admiration by the neighbors.
But the pleasures of home life, in this instance, were destined to be brief. Santa Anna with a large army had crossed the Rio Grande at Laredo and was approaching San Antonio. General Urrea with a strong force was advancing on Goliad from Matamoros. Orders came from Colonel Fannin for all troops to rendezvous at San Patricio on or before the twenty-seventb of January. I was among the first to respond to this call. At San Patricio I found about one hundred men under Dr. Grant, whose aim was the invasion of Mexico. After a few days rest I was sent as a courier with dispatches for the commanding officer at Goliad who, in turn, sent me with important messages to General Houston who was then at Refugio. From this until a short time before the fall of the Alamo, March 6, I was kept on detached duty either as a scout or courier until the burning of Gonzales.
On the first of March I and my brothers received orders to join Colonel Niell at Gonzales. We reported at once and found about four hundred Texans, as brave men as ever shouldered a rifle, every one of whom had a record as a Mexican or Indian fighter. Most of them had been at Conception, Bexar, and the Grass Fight, and they were in high glee over the prospect of an early opportunity for a fight with the Mexicans. Travis was hernmed up in the Alamo and, as we all believed we were to go to his relief. Those of us who, under Ben Milam, had smoked old Cos and his convict soldiers out of Bexar the previous December, knew that we could clean up old Santa and his whole outfit of cutthroat "greasers" if given a chance. That was the only theme of conversation among the boys around the campfires.
On the third of March, General Houston received Travis appeal for help at the Alamo. Fannin had been ordered to leave Goliad and join his force to ours on the Cibolo. All these facts were known to us in camp the boys and we were all hopeful of a great victory over Santa Anna at Bexar. Every man wanted to push on at once to the relief of Travis. We could have reached him easily in two days - by the fifth of March at the utmost; but no, we must await dilatory orders from hesitating authorities - and so the Alamo won a place in history at the price of the best blood ever poured out upon the altar of liberty.