The Siege and Battle of Bexar by Herman Ehrenberg
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.
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 Rfo 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:
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:
We warmly applauded this part of our commanding officer's discourse; he continued:
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, 1 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 a~ 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.