Harper's Round Table, August 11, 1896
Copyright, 1896, by Harper & Brothers. All Rights Reserved.
|published weekly.||NEW YORK, TUESDAY, AUGUST 11, 1896.||five cents a copy.|
|vol. xvii.—no. 876.||two dollars a year.|
AN AMERICAN THERMOPYL∆.
BY KIRK MUNROE.
"My!" exclaimed Bryce Gordon, with a deep sigh, as he softly closed theGreek history over which he had been intently poring for the lastfifteen minutes, "I want to go and see that place some time."
"What place?" asked his army uncle, Captain Frank Gordon, looking upfrom the evening paper.
"The Pass of Thermopylś," answered Bryce, who had just been reading ofLeonidas and his wonderful battle with the hosts of Xerxes. "That is thekind of place I want to visit whenever I have a chance to travel," hecontinued, with flashing eyes, "and I should think Greek boys would beawfully proud of it. I only wish we had a Thermopylś in this country;but there doesn't seem to be any such thing nowadays."
"Doesn't there?" replied his uncle, laying down the paper. "Then I amafraid you are better posted concerning old Greek history than in thatof the United States; for I know of a Thermopylś in which, only sixtyyears ago, a handful of Americans made as glorious and heroic a defenceagainst overwhelming numbers as was ever recorded."
"You do?" cried Bryce, excitedly. "Where is it? Tell me about it, quick!Please do!"
"Yes, tell us," pleaded Jackanapes, May, and little Miss Blue, who,scenting a story from afar, had made a magic appearance, and were nowclustered about Captain Gordon's chair like so many hungry bees about ahoneycomb.
"Well," laughed their uncle, good-naturedly, "I see that I am in for it,and suppose I must do as my tyrants command. So here goes. To beginwith, did any of you ever hear of the Alamo?"
"Seems to me I have," answered Bryce; "but I can't remember what itis."
The faces of the others were so blank that it was evident the word heldno meaning for them.
"I didn't much think you would know anything about it," continued theiruncle; "for it belongs to American history, which, of course, is nothalf so important as that of the old Greeks and Romans. The Alamo, then,is, or rather was, an old Spanish mission located in a cottonwood grovethat gave it its name—for Alamo means cottonwood—near the San AntonioRiver in southwestern Texas. On an opposite bank of the stream stood theMexican town of San Antonio, built of low flat-roofed adobe or stonehouses, and containing at the time of my story very few Americans,though in other parts of Texas these already formed an important part ofthe population. Texas was then a Mexican state, and Mexico itself hadbut recently thrown off the yoke of Spain. In its struggle for libertythe American residents had rendered such splendid service, that whenfreedom was finally gained they were granted many especial privileges bythe Mexican government. These were highly prized, and everything wentsmoothly, until General Santa AŮa headed a revolution, overthrew theexisting government, and made himself Dictator.
"Hating Americans, and jealous of their increasing power, Santa AŮabegan to withdraw their privileges, and declared that Texas,disappearing as a separate territory, should thereafter belong to theolder Mexican state of Coahuila. Worst of all, he replaced the civilwith a military government, and ordered that all citizens should bedisarmed. Of course the free-born sons of fathers who had fought atLexington and Yorktown—for these things happened in 1834—would notsubmit to such oppression, and the first thing Santa AŮa knew the stateof Texas was in open revolt, declaring itself to be an independentrepublic. As San Antonio was its most important city, the MexicanGeneral Cos was ordered to fortify and hold it against the rebels; butone thousand Texans under General Edward Burleson marched against him;and three hundred of them, led by brave old Ben Milam, captured theplace after a three days' fight from house to house, and from street tostreet. General Cos and his two thousand soldiers were allowed to retireto Mexico as paroled prisoners of war, who solemnly promised never againto take up arms against the Texans.
"Soon after this, General Burleson's army scattered to different pointswhere there seemed a chance of more fighting, until only eighty troops,under command of Colonel James Bowie, inventor of the famous bowie-knifeand son-in-law of the Mexican Governor, remained to defend the city.These troops had not received one cent of pay, were poorly clad, andpossessed but little ammunition. Early in February, 1835, Colonel Bowie,worn out by his efforts to obtain re-enforcements and make adequateprovision for the defence of his important post, fell sick of a fever,and Colonel William Travis, who had just arrived with thirty-five men,assumed command. Soon afterwards the renowned David Crockett arrivedfrom Tennessee with thirty more men, so that the garrison now numberedone hundred and forty-five.
"On the 22d of February the Mexican Dictator appeared before San Antoniowith an army of 4000 regular troops, and marched straight into the town,the Texans crossing the river and retiring before him to the ruinous oldAlamo Mission, which they hastily barricaded, and so converted into arude fortress. They carried fever-stricken Bowie with them, and, as theyretreated, gathered up a few bushels of corn and a few beef cattle,which formed their sole stock of provisions.
"From this place of refuge, when Santa AŮa demanded its unconditionalsurrender, Travis replied with a cannon-shot. He knew that the longer hecould hold the Mexican army in check the more time would be allowed themen of Texas to gather and organize for the defence of their homes. Uponreceiving this defiant reply, Santa AŮa displayed blood-red flags fromevery church-tower in the town, to signify death without quarter to therebels, and began a furious bombardment of the Alamo. This was continuedalmost without intermission, by night as well as by day, until the 6thof March, or through two weary weeks. During that time Travis managed todespatch several couriers in different directions, with urgent messagesimploring assistance. In every message he wrote, 'We are determinedneither to surrender nor retreat, but will maintain our position to thebitter end.'
"Every now and then the little garrison made desperate sorties for thedestruction of some galling battery or to seize a few supplies, andduring those twelve fearful days whenever a Texas rifle was fired aMexican soldier fell dead. In the early morning of the 1st of March agreat shout of rejoicing rang out from the battered mission, for CaptainJohn Smith, who, with thirty men, had hastened from Gonzales to theassistance of his friends, had succeeded in passing the enemy's line andgaining the shelter of the fort. Now the bombardment became so fiercethat all the outlying walls of the mission were demolished, and only itsstout stone church remained standing. Into it the Texans retired,barricading every entrance and repairing every breach.
"Shortly before sunset on the evening of the 3d the fire of thebatteries suddenly ceased. Two thousand fresh troops, the army ofGeneral Cos, which had been captured and paroled at this very place, hadretraced their steps, and now, in violation of their pledged word, wereprepared once more to fight against their conquerors. While they werebeing welcomed with acclamations and every form of rejoicing by theMexicans, the grim walls of the Alamo were witnessing one of the mostsolemn and pathetic scenes of history. In their dim shadow ColonelTravis paraded his handful of heroes in single file, and addressed themin substantially these words:
"'My brave comrades, stern necessity compels me to employ the momentsafforded by this probably brief cessation of conflict in making known toyou the most interesting, yet the most solemn, melancholy, and unwelcomefact that humanity can realize. Our fate is sealed. Within a few days,perhaps a few hours, we must all be in eternity. Our provisions aregone, our ammunition is nearly spent, and our strength is almostexhausted. My calls for assistance remain unanswered, and theprobabilities are that our couriers have been cut off. The enemysurrounds us in overwhelming and ever-increasing numbers. Then we mustdie, and have only to choose such method of death as may best serve ourcountry. Shall we surrender, and be deliberately shot? Shall we try tocut our way out through the Mexican ranks, and be butchered before wecan kill twenty of our adversaries? I am opposed to either plan, butleave every man of you to his own decision. Should any one choose tosurrender, or attempt to escape, he is at liberty to do so. My ownchoice is to remain in this place, and die for my country, fighting solong as breath shall remain in my body. This will I do even if you leaveme alone. Do, then, as you think best; but remember that no one of youcan die with me without affording me comfort in the hour of death.'
"Here Colonel Travis drew his sword, and with its point traced a line onthe earthen floor extending the whole length of the motionless file.Then resuming his position in front of the centre, he said:
"'Now let every man who is willing to remain here and die with me crossto this side of that line. Who will be the first? Forward! March!'
"Tapley Holland leaped the line at a bound, exclaiming, 'I am ready todie for my country!' And in another instant every man, save one, of thatheroic file had followed him and stood beside their gallant leader.Every wounded man who could move crawled or tottered across the fatalmark. Colonel Bowie, too weak to lift his head, called out feebly,'Don't leave me behind, boys!' and in a moment four men had lifted hiscot over the line. The other helpless ones begged that they too might belifted across, and finally only Moses Rose remained behind. He stoodalone, with his face buried in his hands. Travis, Bowie, and Crockettall spoke to him kindly, and asked him if he were afraid to die. When heanswered that he was, and believed in the possibility of an escape, theybade him go in peace. So he left them, scaling a rear wall of thechurch, dropping to the ground outside, and finally escaping, aftereluding innumerable dangers. It is from him alone that[Pg 991] we have adescription of that memorable scene, for of all that devoted band whomhe left in that gloomy fortress no man was ever again seen alive beyondits walls."
"Then he was the Aristodemus of your American Thermopylś," interruptedBryce, who was listening with breathless attention to this tale ofmodern heroism.
"Yes," replied Captain Gordon, "only he was more of a coward thanAristodemus, for the latter did not escape until after his comrades hadbeen killed, and, if you remember, was himself killed in battle thefollowing year, after performing more valorous deeds than any of hisfellow Spartans."
"I suppose Moses Rose was more truly a coward," admitted Bryce; "butlot's not stop to talk about him now, Uncle Cap. What became of thesplendid fellows he left in the fort? Did they finally surrender, orwere they captured, or what?"
"They neither surrendered nor were made prisoners, but fought with thestubbornness of desperation for three days longer. At length, on the 5thof March, Santa AŮa, believing the Americans to be too exhausted tooffer a serious resistance, ordered the Alamo to be carried by assaultat daylight of the following morning. At that hour the thunder ofbombardment was again stilled, and as though the silence were a signal,dark masses of Mexican infantry, provided with scaling ladders, anddriven to their deadly work by a pitiless cavalry pressing close ontheir rear, rushed at the walls of the devoted church.
"Less than one hundred of the defenders were left to resist thosethousands; but three times did this handful of dauntless fighters repeltheir swarming assailants, and three times did the furious MexicanGeneral drive them back to