Texan Colonel William Travis sends a desperate plea for help for the besieged defenders of the Alamo, ending the message with the famous last words, “Victory or Death.”
Travis’ path to the Alamo began five years earlier when he moved to the Mexican state of Texas to start fresh after a failed marriage in Alabama. Trained as a lawyer, he established a law office in Anahuac, where he quickly gained a reputation for his willingness to defy the local Mexican officials. In 1832, a minor confrontation with the Mexican government landed Travis in jail. When he was freed a month later, many Anglo settlers hailed him as a hero. As Anglo-American resentment toward the Mexican government grew, Travis was increasingly viewed as a strong leader among those seeking an independent Texan republic.
When the Texas revolution began in 1835, Travis joined the revolutionary army. In February 1836, he was made a lieutenant colonel and given command of the regular Texas troops in San Antonio. On February 23, the Mexican army under Santa Ana arrived in the city unexpectedly. Travis and his troops retreated to the Alamo, an old Spanish mission and fortress, where they were soon joined by James Bowie’s volunteer force. The Mexican army of 5,000 soldiers badly outnumbered the several hundred defenders of the Alamo. Their determination was fierce, though, and when Santa Ana asked for their surrender the following day, Travis answered with a cannon shot.
Furious, Santa Ana began a siege. Recognizing he was doomed to defeat without reinforcements, Travis dispatched via couriers several messages asking for help. The most famous was addressed to “The People of Texas and All Americans in the World” and was signed “Victory or Death.” Unfortunately, it was to be death for the defenders: only 32 men from nearby Gonzales responded to Travis’ call for reinforcements. On March 6, the Mexicans stormed the Alamo and Travis, Bowie, and about 190 of their comrades were killed. The Texans made Santa Ana pay for his victory, though, having claimed at least 600 of his men during the attack.
Although Travis’ defense of the Alamo was a miserable failure militarily, symbolically it was a tremendous success. “Remember the Alamo” quickly became the rallying cry for the Texas revolution. By April, Travis’ countrymen had beaten the Mexicans and won their independence. Travis’ daring defiance of the overwhelmingly superior Mexican forces has since become the stuff of myth, and a facsimile of his famous call for help is on permanent display at the Texas State Library in Austin.