We could hear the Mexican officers shouting to the men to jump over, and the men were fighting so close that we could hear them strike each other.
–Enrique Esparza, San Antonio Daily Express, 1902
The distant cadence of drums from the nearly deserted town of San Antonio de Bexar sent a shiver of fear through Juana Navarro Alsbury. She clutched her baby son closer and strained to hear. Mexican president and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, enemy of her uncle and her husband, had come when least expected, bringing thousands of men and artillery as well as a thirst for vengeance. The baby wailed at the nearby roar of exploding powder from the cannon mounted at one corner of the Alamo.
That shot signaled defiance by the Texians and Tejanos holed up in the old mission. Juana soothed the baby and waited, holding her breath for Santa Anna’s response.
It was said he had 1,500 to 6,000 troops, cavalry, and cannon at his command. Inside the crumbling fortress were several dozen women and children protected by fewer than 200 defenders. Juana’s new husband, Dr. Horatio A. Alsbury, had galloped off to find volunteers to join the fight, leaving Juana and the baby behind.
Dr. Alsbury had warned that Santa Anna would come down with a heavy hand on the Tejanos (Texans of Mexican descent) and Texians (from the United States) who had settled in the area. Her husband’s activities were known to the Mexican dictator, as were those of her father, who opposed Santa Anna’s overthrow of the constitution of 1824. Her father’s brother, Jose Antonio, had put his name on the Texas Declaration of Independence. If the Alamo fell under the general’s onslaught, the respected name of her Spanish forebears would not protect her little family.
Juana recognized the futility of attempting to hold off the overwhelming force of hardened troops surrounding the old mission turned fortress. Those inside the Alamo’s walls were also ill prepared to fight Santa Anna, in part because too many people had discounted the Mexican dictator’s determination. He had already killed all prisoners taken in a battle the year before and been granted by the Mexican government permission to treat as pirates all Tejanos as well as Texians found armed for battle, meaning they would be executed immediately.
The Tejanos and Texians had dismissed reports that the Mexican dictator was nearby. After all, they argued, two blue northers had recently swept through the area, their freezing winds covering the barren landscape to the south with snow. What commander would move his troops, many of them barefoot, in such conditions?
Thinking themselves relatively safe, they had celebrated the arrival on February 11, 1836, of the naturalist Davy Crockett with a fandango, a party with music and dancing and merry good spirits, despite the ominous threat said to be marching toward them. Then, on February 20, a messenger galvanized the town with news that Santa Anna’s army was but twenty-five miles away. Many townspeople rushed within the walls of the old mission for protection, including Juana, her baby son, and her sister Gertrudis. The next morning, Juana’s husband had galloped off to bring back reinforcements.
That afternoon Juana clutched her son in fear as she heard the drums beating a cadence for Santa Anna’s march into the town square just a few hundred yards away, across the San Antonio. As the sun sank toward the horizon, the defiant cannon shot thundered from the Alamo. Santa Anna’s howitzers quickly fired four grenades in answer. Juana held her crying son close, praying that the saints protect him from harm. The first flurry of shots ceased. Juana began to hope.
Those hopes would be in vain.
According to Jose de la Pena, a Mexican officer in Santa Anna’s regiments, a white flag was raised from behind the crumbling walls of the old fort following the first artillery volley. From inside the Alamo, James Bowie, second in command under Lieutenant Colonel William Barrett Travis, sent a message saying they wanted to discuss surrender agreements with the Mexican general.
Santa Anna was enraged. He considered the men inside the fort bandits. There could be no honorable surrender as soldiers–only death.
“When our commander in chief haughtily rejected the agreement that the enemy had proposed,” de la Pena later wrote, “Travis became infuriated at the contemptible manner in which he had been treated and, expecting no honorable way of salvation, chose the path that strong souls choose in crisis, that of dying with honor, and selected the Alamo for his grave.” While loyal to Mexico, de la Pena heaped criticism on Santa Anna’s leadership and his brutal orders.
The red flag signifying no quarter flew over the Mexican troops as they waited. Juana understood its meaning, and the potential fate of her little family. There was nothing she could do but help prepare meals from the scanty supplies, rock her baby, and pray.
Neither the Tejanos nor the Texians inside the old fort would agree to unconditional surrender. Travis explained Santa Anna’s terms to the small corps of volunteers without mincing words. “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 waves proudly over the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat.”
The siege began that very day. Only the hope that her husband would return with reinforcements kept Juana’s spirits up as she went about her daily chores.
First, Santa Anna’s troops cut off the water that flowed in a ditch near the back of the church. The only other water supply came from a well in an area exposed to rifle shots from Mexican troopers surrounding the fort.
Situated as she was in the same building as the officers, near Travis and the critically ill James Bowie whom she occasionally nursed, Juana heard much that others did not, but everyone knew there was little food and only a small supply of ammunition.
That first night of the siege, according to survivor Enrique Esparza, a company of Alamo defenders went out and captured some prisoners, including one soldier who interpreted bugle calls from Santa Anna’s troops. “After the first day, there was fighting every day,” Esparza recalled. He was eight years old at the time, his father a Tejano defender. Santa Anna’s artillery dropped cannonballs into the fort, and sharpshooters prevented access to the well.
Juana, along with the handful of other women with children at the fortress, worried that a stray bullet or a cannonball would kill her baby, or her sister Gertrudis, who shared her room. The defenders were a pitifully small force, and after more than a week any expectations that reinforcements would arrive had dimmed.
Facing the inevitable fall of the fortress, Juana slipped her baby son into a dress in the hope that Mexican troops would not harm him if they thought he was a girl. That she and her family were in grave danger could not be denied.
While he had once been close to Santa Anna, Juana’s father, Jose Angel Navarro, made no secret of his support for the Mexican Constitution and his opposition to the dictatorship of General Santa Anna. The general considered her father a traitor to Mexico and had threatened him with death.
Even when they had been on good terms, Santa Anna had not been favored by the family; his courtship of one of the Navarro daughters years before had been rejected. Added to that, in 1835 her cousin Ursula had married James Bowie, well known for his support of more independence from Mexico for the Tejanos and Texians who were building a prosperous future for the region.
The political troubles of Mexico had always affected Juana’s family life. The Navarros had been important in government affairs for two generations and owned ranches as well as valuable properties in the town. Juana was born late in 1812 at San Antonio de Bexar, just across the river from the Alamo. Her mother died when she was a girl, and she was raised by her aunt Josefa Navarro Veramendi at the Veramendi Palace in San Antonio.
About the age of twenty, she married Alejo Ramigio, and they had a son. Little Alejo was just an infant when his father died in the cholera epidemic of 1834. She met Dr. Horatio Alsbury when he came to confer with Bowie, a frequent visitor on political affairs as well as affairs of the heart as he courted Ursula.
Dr. Alsbury had been spying on Mexican forces for months and had published a broadside warning to the colonists in Texas that Santa Anna posed a serious threat. He and Juana married in 1836.
Juana prayed now that her husband would return safely with the badly needed reinforcements as well as food and medicines. She prayed for her baby and her sister and the other women and children trapped inside the walls. She spoke little English but a few years later told two American friends of her feelings and the events that led up to and included the battle and its aftermath. Mary A. Maverick and John S. Ford recounted Juana’s recollections of events at the Alamo.
Juana thought it was typhoid fever that had made Bowie so ill. He refused to stay near them in case they should contract the illness, but Juana helped nurse her cousin-in-law on occasion. She described him as a handsome and gentle man who promised to care for them. Bowie and the other defenders were counting on reinforcements. Only a few men braved the battalions of Mexican troops guarding the Alamo to come to the aid of those barricaded inside.
Juana’s husband had galloped off on his mission February 23. On March 1, thirty-two men from Gonzalez had arrived in a rush. Their cornmeal and coffee brought welcome relief from the diet of fresh beef supplied by the cattle corralled inside the Alamo wall. Sadly, Juana’s husband was not among the new arrivals.
In a room on the northwest corner of the fort in the officers’ quarters near Travis and Bowie, Juana endured the ceaseless cannonade. There was some protection from the cannonballs and rifle shots, but the situation was dire. The fort had sustained a lot of damage, and the walls had not been completely repaired.
The condition of the walls was no secret from the enemy. Mexican general Martin Perfecto Cos had fought a battle there late in 1835. Though he’d been beaten, Cos had had the walls breached in several places before he departed. Repairs were flimsy and incomplete. A ramp of dirt ascended to the east wall of the largely roofless church–that ramp proved useful to haul cannon to the top and position them for defense. Another cannon on the opposite side pointed toward Santa Anna’s headquarters.
Every dawn for twelve days, Santa Anna fired into the fort. The defenders fired back. Juana and the baby were awakened each night by bugle calls from Santa Anna’s troops, and the rifle and artillery fire during the day allowed no peace. The garrison was exhausted. Food was scarce. The children were fretful, the women anxious. Juana’s cousin-in-law, who had tried to see that she and her son were safe, was failing rapidly. James Bowie and Juana spoke a few days before the final battle. “I never saw him again, either dead or alive,” she mourned.
Then, Sunday, March 6, in the darkest hours of the night, Santa Anna secretly moved his troops into position for an assault. The moon shone dimly through clouds, hiding the movement of 1,500 to 6,000 men from the exhausted defenders inside the crumbling walls of the Alamo.
A soldier hardened by many battles in Mexico, de la Pena recalled a moment of peace just before the call to arms. “Light began to appear on the horizon, the beautiful dawn would soon let herself be seen behind her golden curtain; a bugle call to attention was the agreed signal, and we soon heard the terrible bugle call of death, which stirred our hearts, altered our expressions and aroused us all suddenly from our painful meditations.”
Inside the fort, the garrison struggled awake. Juana listened in the darkness, straining to hear whether the horn meant an attack. Within minutes a volley of shots was fired, and an answering fusillade came from the fort. She could not see what was happening, did not know that the Mexican army had fired too soon, doing no damage to the forces inside the Alamo. Travis had shrewdly armed each man with several loaded rifles, making the return fire rapid and deadly.
The overwhelming numbers prevailed, and Santa Anna’s forces breached the walls and advanced despite the withering fire of the defenders, retreating toward the old church. Juana and Gertrudis were trapped in the rooms in the northwest walls as the battle raged outside the barracks.
Travis, reported de la Pena with respect, did not take refuge as did others of the garrison. “Travis was seen to hesitate, but not about the death he would choose. He would take a few steps and stop, turning his proud face toward us to discharge his shots; he fought like a true soldier. Finally he died after having traded his life very dearly. None of his men died with greater heroism, and they all died.” Bowie, who had fallen into a coma, was shot where he lay, completely unaware, on a cot in the chapel.
Juana soon understood that the “brave Texians had been overwhelmed by numbers,” and hoped the Mexicans in their bloodlust would not fire on the women. Gertrudis faced the attackers first as she opened the door to find out what was happening. She ran toward Juana and the baby as the blood-spattered troopers streamed forward. The soldiers crowded into the small room shouting, “Your money or your husband!” Some broke open Juana’s trunk and confiscated gold coins, jewelry, and even her clothing. They took the watches Travis and other officers had given her for safekeeping.
In the screaming melee inside her room, a weak and ill Texian fought his way to her side, where he was felled by bayonets of the enraged Mexican soldiers. Another man, a young Tejano, caught her arm and tried to use her as a shield, but soldiers bayoneted him and then shot repeatedly into the lifeless body at her feet. Juana clutched the terrified baby and prayed for help, a place to run, a place to hide her baby and her sister.
A Mexican officer dashed into the room and stopped the soldiers from killing the women but forced Juana and Gertrudis out and ordered them to wait near a cannon. All around was blood and death, shots and screams, and the moans of the dying. Another Mexican officer ran up shouting a warning. “Why are you women here?”
“An officer ordered us to remain here,” Juana cried out over the clamor of battle. “He would have us sent to the president.”
The officer yelled that the cannon was about to be fired and they were in great danger. Cradling the terrified baby, Juana grabbed Gertrudis and threaded through the bodies to their room. Later as the sounds of battle dimmed, Juana heard her name called. She looked up to see her brother-in-law, Mexican soldier Manuel Perez, beckoning to them. Perez, her first husband’s brother, had been given permission to search for them. He took them to their father’s home in San Antonio. Even from there she heard gunfire that did not cease until noon.
The next day, Juana, Gertrudis, and the other women were interviewed by Santa Anna. At his elbow on the table were piles of silver coins; on the other side, piles of blankets. When each woman declared her allegiance, she was given two coins and a blanket. Contrastly, for the daughters of the Navarro family, Santa Anna had only scorn.
Three months later, Juana’s husband returned with the news of the victory over Santa Anna at San Jacinto. He took Juana, little Alejo, and Gertrudis to a Navarro cattle ranch far from town. Juana’s life of adventure did not end with the fall of the Alamo. A few years later, in 1842, as the struggle for Texas independence continued, Juana left home for Mexico where her husband had been captured. She followed the prisoners as they marched, stopping at Candela, where again she waited, this time for two years, until he was finally released.
Dr. Alsbury did not retire from his quest for independence. He joined a company of soldiers formed to fight in the Mexican War and crossed the Rio Grande. Juana was informed of his death in 1847 “somewhere between Carmargo and Saltillo.”
Juana was seventy-eight when she died on July 23, 1888, at her ranch near San Antonio. Her son Alejo, whom she had protected during the fall of the Alamo, wrote her death notice.