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Today, February 24, marks the 177th anniversary of what many would say is the most important letter ever written in the State of Texas. On February 24, 1836, Lt. Col. William Barret Travis wrote his “Liberty or Death” letter requesting additional troops be sent to the Alamo in their battle against Mexican General Santa Anna. While history has been more amenable to some of his compatriots, most notably Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, Lt. Col. Travis was tasked with leading this disparate group against the formidable Mexican army. For the first time since he penned his immortal words, the letter is back at the Alamo.
Travis was born in August of 1809 in South Carolina. At the age of nine his family moved to Sparta, AL. It was there where he received his education and became an assistant school teacher. He then served an apprenticeship with a local lawyer and hung out his shingle at about the age of eighteen or nineteen. By the age of 20 he was married and became a father. Travis was very active in the local business scene, even starting a newspaper – the Claiborne Herald. But alas, as many young men have encountered, his marriage began to fail and he decided to move to Texas in 1831 at the ripe old age of 22.
Upon his arrival in Texas, Travis obtained land from Stephen F. Austin and began practicing law in Anahuac, TX, a town just to the east of Houston. The current population of Anahuac is just over 2200. Not a thriving metropolis by any means. As frictions began developing between Texas and Mexico, Travis joined up with the Texans. In October, 1835 the Battle of Gonzales occurred and Travis travelled there but not before the battle was over. This battle was the beginning of the Texas Revolution and its main claim to fame is the “Come and Take it” flag.
On December 19, Travis was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel of the Legion of Cavalry and became the chief recruiting officer for a new regular Texan army. His command was to consist of 384 men and officers, divided into six companies. Despite his rank, Travis had to recruit the men who were to serve under his command, but he had difficulty in finding willing colonists to enlist as regulars, because the majority wished to remain in their local militia units. “Volunteers can no longer be had or relied upon”, he wrote to acting governor Henry Smith.
Smith ordered Travis to raise a company of professional soldiers to reinforce the Texans at the Alamo Mission in San Antonio. Travis considered disobeying his orders, writing to Smith:
“I am willing, nay anxious, to go to the defense of Bexar, but sir, I am unwilling to risk my reputation … by going off into the enemy’s country with such little means, so few men, and with them so badly equipped.”
On February 3 Travis arrived in San Antonio with eighteen regulars as reinforcements. On February 12, as the next highest-ranking officer, Travis became the official commander of the Alamo garrison. He took command of the regular soldiers from Col. James C. Neill, of the Texan army. Neill had to leave to care for his ill family, but he promised to be back in twenty days. Meanwhile, the surrounding militia units were asked to volunteer to serve under the regulars. In turn, James Bowie (1795–1836), a noted frontiersmen, soldier, duelist, and notable of the community would command the volunteers as Travis commanded the regulars.
Meanwhile, the Mexican army, under dictator/General Antonio López de Santa Anna, had begun its rapid movement northward and caught the Texans unaware in early February. By the second week of February, Mexican regulars were scouting the Alamo and by February 22 began laying siege to the fort. The Mexicans began their attack on the mission on February 23, 1836. In a brief letter, Travis wrote:
“The enemy in large force is in sight… We want men and provisions … Send them to us. We have 150 men & are determined to defend the Alamo to the last.”
On February 24, 1836, during Santa Anna’s siege of the Alamo, Travis wrote a letter addressed “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World“:
Fellow citizens and compatriots;
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country. Victory or Death.
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt.
P.S. The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
He gave this letter to courier John William Smith to deliver. The envelope that contained the letter was labeled “Victory or Death”. In a letter to the Texas Convention, dated March 3, Travis wrote:
“…yet I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”
In Travis’ last letter out of the Alamo, which reached the convention the same day on March 3 to David Ayres, he wrote:
“Take care of my little boy. If the country should be saved, I may make him a splendid fortune; but if the country should be lost, and I should perish, he will have nothing but the proud recollection that he is the son of a man who died for his country.”
The letter, while unable to bring aid to the garrison at the Alamo, did much to motivate the Texan army and helped to rally support in America for the cause of Texan independence. It also cemented Travis’s status as a hero of the Texas Revolution.
On March 6, 1836, following a thirteen-day siege, Santa Anna ordered the assault on the Alamo at the predawn hours. The Mexicans used ladders to climb over the wall’s tops and broke down the fort’s outer defenses. After a half-hour of heavy fighting throughout the fort, Travis, Bowie, and most of the defenders were dead. Travis had been killed early in the battle by a single shot to the head.
All of the militia and soldiers defending the Alamo (under 200 men) were killed; however, these men’s lives cost the Mexican army dearly: approximately 1600 Mexican soldiers were killed in the battle.
Travis’ personal slave, Joe, who was present during the final assault, stated afterward that he saw Travis stand on the wall and fire into the attackers. He saw Travis shoot and kill a Mexican soldier climbing over the wall from a ladder, with Travis falling immediately afterward.
When Santa Anna came into the fort he asked the alcalde of San Antonio, Francisco A. Ruiz, to identify the bodies of the rebel leaders to him. Ruiz later said that the body of Travis was found on a gun carriage on the north wall. Within a few hours of the final gunshots being fired, Santa Anna ordered a company of soldiers to gather wood and burn all the Texans’ bodies. By five o’clock that evening, the bodies of Travis, Crockett, Bowie and Bonham, were burned along with the other rebels.
The Battle of the Alamo was led by a young man aged 26 who was tasked with fending off an army of thousands with 183 men. While we all know how this battle ended, it enabled the Texas army to amass strength and numbers and defeat the Mexican army just a short time later at the Battle of San Jacinto.
For those who may travel the highways and byways of Texas you will see these men all around. There are many streets, towns and counties named after these heroes. Travis County is where you will find the city of Austin.