Remember the Siege of Béxar!
Dr. Bruce Winders, Alamo Historian & Curator
While many visitors to San Antonio Remember the Alamo, few recall the Siege of Béxar, an important event that laid the groundwork for the world famous battle. Understanding this early Texan victory increases appreciation for San Antonio’s role in the Texas Revolution and helps explain why the Battle of the Alamo occurred.
On October 2, 1835, a small band of Texan colonists at Gonzales drove off a detachment of Mexican soldiers who had come to retrieve a cannon loaned to the citizens for protection against nomadic raiders. Word of the skirmish spread quickly and more than four hundred colonists rushed to Gonzales. The volunteers formed themselves into the Federal Army of Texas and elected empresario Stephen F. Austin as their commander. As October drew to a close, General Austin led his army westward to San Antonio.
San Antonio, then commonly called Béxar, was both strategically and politically important to the Mexican government. The town, the population of which in 1835 numbered around 2000, was located on the old Camino Real that led from the Rio Grande to the Louisiana border. Béxar was also the seat of political power in Texas, being the traditional home of the governor during Spanish rule. Its political role continued after Mexico declared its independence. Occupying the town when the revolution erupted were 650 Mexican soldiers under General Perfecto de Cos.
Austin and the Federal Army of Texas arrived outside Béxar in late October to find that Cos had already begun fortifying the town in anticipation of the upcoming battle. The area fortified included the plaza around San Fernando Cathedral and the old mission compound known as the Alamo. Austin sent a 100 man detachment under the command of James Bowie and James W. Fannin to scout out enemy positions on the south side of town. Cos countered by ordering Col. Domingo de Ugartechea to intercept the probe. Early on the morning of October 28, the two forces fought a brief but fierce battle along the bank of the San Antonio River within sight of Mission Concepción. The outnumbered Texans inflicted heavy casualties on Ugartechea’s men who retreated back to town. The action then settled down to a siege operation, with the Texans camped on the outskirts of the town and Cos and his men occupying Béxar.
On November 8, the Texans scored another victory when William Barret Travis and his command located and captured Cos’ horse herd grazing near the Medina River. The Texans struck again on November 26 when they intercepted and prevented a train of horses and mules loaded with forage for Cos’ remaining mounts from entering town. The skirmish, know as the Grass Fight, occurred near Alazán Creek west of the town. Little by little, food, supplies, and time were running out for Cos trapped inside Béxar.
However, despite their successes things were not going well for the Texans either. The drudgery of life on a siege line had little appeal for the volunteers and many began to leave with the arrival of cooler weather. Austin, who had been appointed commissioner to the United States by the Provisional Government, left the army to assume his diplomatic duties. Austin’s replacement as commander, Edward Burleson, had trouble controlling the independent minded Texans who remained, even though they had elected him to lead them. By December, strong sentiment emerged for the army to end the siege, withdraw to the east, and establish winter quarters.
Fortunately for Texans this course of action was not adopted. On the eve of the army’s breakup Benjamin Rush Milam, a respected colonist, spoke out against the withdrawal and asked: Who will follow old Ben Milam? Nearly 300 men volunteered to attack the town with him the next morning. The remainder of the Texans agreed to stay and support the attack by protecting the rear of the assault columns. Entering Béxar on the morning of December 5, Milam and his men began a five-day-long engagement that consisted of close range fighting. Battling house-to-house, the Texans gradually gained control of the Mexican positions around San Fernando Cathedral. Late on the 9th, Cos’ men fell back on their defenses at the Alamo. Soon afterward, he asked for terms and surrendered to the Texans on the following day.
The Texans had paid a price for taking Béxar. At least five Texans had been killed with another thirty or so wounded. One of the Texans slain, however, was Col. Milam, who died instantly on the morning of December 7 when a Mexican soldier sent a bullet through his head when he stepped from the doorway of the Veramendi Palace. The Texans took satisfaction in learning that they had killed or wounded an estimated 150 Mexican soldiers during the battle.
The Siege of Béxar had far reaching ramifications. The surrender terms allowed Cos to retire to the Rio Grande with his force intact. Violating his promise to sit out the rest of the war, he soon returned to Texas with General López de Santa Anna who planned to recapture Béxar and place the town under control of the Mexican government once more. For the Texans who had fought hard to take the town, giving up Béxar without a fight was unthinkable. Thus, the stage was set for another battle in San Antonio de Béxar — the Battle of the Alamo.