The West Wall:
Then and Now
In the early morning hours on the 6th of March, 1836, General Santa Anna’s attack force, a total of some fifteen-hundred soldados, were poised to overwhelm the sleeping and unsuspecting Texan garrison fortified inside the Alamo. Santa Anna’s battle plan called for four assault columns to simultaneously storm the walls of the mission-fortress from four directions; north, south, east, and west. But the north wall would receive the heaviest blow. It seemed a perfect plan.
Sometime after midnight Santa Anna quietly moved his assault columns into position within easy striking distance of the Alamo – silence was imperative. Eleven-hundred soldados lay flat on their stomachs on the frozen ground while another four-hundred soldados held in reserve stood in the cold night air. Denied blankets, overcoats, or anything that would hinder speed, the anxious Mexican troops would suffer and shiver as they awaited the attack signal and their fate.
At about 5:00 A.M., a supremely confident Santa Anna appeared at the north cannon battery where he had positioned his reserve column. At just the right moment, Santa Anna would instruct his bugler to sound the attack. The shrill bugle call would be followed by signal rockets. At that moment, all the assault columns would race toward the Alamo, place their scaling ladders against the walls, and capture the fortress with minimal resistance.
As the hour neared, Santa Anna had his attack columns stand at the ready. He would quickly dispatch the Alamo’s defenders and capture the fortress; his losses should be light. But something unforeseen occurred that infuriated Mexico’s president-general. Some overly-anxious soldados could no longer restrain themselves and began to scream “Viva Santa Anna! Viva la Republica! Viva Mexico!” The cheering rapidly spread throughout the assault columns; the element of surprise had vanished.
Inside the Alamo, adjutant Captain Baugh was checking on the lightly manned north wall when he was alerted to the presence of the soldados. Baugh was quick to raise the alarm as he raced toward Colonel Travis’s quarters. “The Mexicans are coming! The Mexicans are coming! Colonel Travis, the Mexicans are coming!” The Texans, aroused from their deep slumber, began to stumble out of the Long Barracks and other rooms and race to the walls. Travis too, was now rushing to his post at the north wall battery to meet the threat; “C’mon boys, the Mexicans are upon us and we’ll give them Hell!”
Realizing that the Alamo garrison had been alerted, General Santa Anna gave the command to fire the signal rockets and for the bugler to sound the Deguello, the call of no quarter…no mercy. Eleven-hundred determined Mexican soldados were now surging forward with scaling ladders at the forefront. Santa Anna’s plan of light resistance and a quick capture of the fort went up in smoke as the guns of the Alamo erupted into thunderous flame. The garrison delivered a hail of devastating cannon and musket fire, killing and wounding scores of soldados rushing toward the fort. Only a few of the ladders needed to scale the walls could be found. Within a few minutes, a thousand soldados from Santa Anna’s assault force were crowded at the base of the north wall in one confused mass. Although greatly outnumbered, the defenders were making the Mexican army pay a fearful price in dead and wounded.
From his place of observation, Santa Anna believed his attack had stalled and he quickly ordered his reserves into battle. Once again, the Alamo’s cannon inflected heavy casualties on the attackers as the four hundred men of the reserve column joined the battle. The additional men initially added to the confusion but the sheer amount of soldados eventually overwhelmed the dwindling number of defenders. Colonel Travis may have been the first of the garrison to fall as the Mexicans gained a foothold at the northwest and northeast corner of the plaza. Hundreds began to assail the thinly defended west wall and the Texans were forced to fall back.
The 100-man assault column assigned to capture the main gate and the defensive lunette was forced to divert its point of attack to the southwest corner where the Alamo’s largest and most dangerous cannon, an eighteen-pounder, was positioned. The Mexicans placed two ladders against the wall and began to climb up. The swiftness of this attack caught the defenders by surprise. A brief but vicious hand-to-hand struggle ensued for control of the southwest corner. The Texans fought heroically and the Mexicans exhibited great courage in the life or death contest but the defenders were too few and were quickly overpowered. The Mexicans were now in control of the gun position and were pouring into the plaza. Some of the surviving defenders would try to make last stands in the Long Barracks and the Church, but the battle and the Alamo were already lost.
Today, there is scarcely a trace of the West Wall to be found. The places where some of the most intense fighting occurred are gone. The destruction begun by Santa Anna’s troops was completed through urban sprawl. With the exception of a remnant of foundation, all vestiges of the West Wall structures have been eliminated; its history nearly lost; buried beneath layers of asphalt and concrete. Although the buildings and walls that witnessed the birth pangs of Texas independence are no more, the ground is unchanged. It is just as sanguine, just as historic, and just as significant. It is hallowed ground; consecrated long before it was developed for commercial use, it retains its value as sacred soil. There is still a story to tell to those who will listen; it still has meaning for those who treasure Texas history.
At present, the west wall of the Alamo is unrecognizable; transformed by commercialism from the noble edifice it once was. Gone is the place where the eighteen-pound cannon fired the opening shot of defiance. Gone is the Alamo headquarters where Travis slept and penned his historic letters of appeal. Gone is the Castaneda House where Juana Alsbury – cousin to Ursula Bowie and niece to Jose Antonio Navarro – took refuge with some of her family during the siege.
Looming large in place of these historic locations are carnival-like attractions that pander to the young, and the dilapidated buildings that house the commercial oddities have no real history of their own. The historic ground adjacent to the northwest corner of the Alamo remains in a neglected and depressed state. Gutted and untenable structures marked with graffiti, numerous vacant buildings, trash receptacles, and parking lots occupy the space where hundreds of Mexican soldados battled with the defenders of the Alamo, many losing their lives in defense of their country.
Is there not a more appropriate way to recognize bravery and sacrifice? Can we not do a better job interpreting and presenting our storied past?