The Alamo Flag — Derrick G. Jeter (2022)

Sometime during the evening of February 24, 1836, Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis, the commander of the garrison at San Antonio de Béxar, sat down at his desk and wrote a letter calling on Texian and Americans to come to the aid of the besieged defenders within the Alamo walls. The letter was carried under the cover of darkness by Captain Albert Martin; it was a death dispatch. Without significant reinforcements, or some action to draw the Mexican Army away from the Alamo, all inside knew their deaths were inevitable. All but one stayed, willing to sacrifice their lives in the fight for freedom.

The letter has become famous because of their sacrifice—and because of Travis’s bold declaration of VICTORY OR DEATH. What has intrigued historians about the letter, however, is the line about the garrison’s flag: “Our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat.” There has been much speculation about which flag Travis was referring to—at least four banners could have been the Alamo flag.

The 1824 Flag

The first person to do a serious academic study of the thirteen day siege and battle of the Alamo was Amelia Williams. She maintained that the standard flying over the walls of the Alamo in February-March 1836 was a modified Mexican tricolor flag of green, white, and red. The Mexican eagle was replaced with the numbers “1824” emblazoned on the white bar, signifying that the defenders in the Alamo were fighting for their rights as Mexican citizens under the Constitution of 1824, which the dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna had abolished.

Williams contends that what was true during the American Revolution was also true during the Texas Revolution, namely that during the early days the struggle was not a fight for independence, but a fight to reestablish rights under the constitution that governed the Republic of Mexico. She argues further that the Alamo flag couldn’t have been the Coahuila y Tejas banner because one of the reasons for hostilities was trouble between the two sister states. She concludes that no Texian would fight under a flag celebrating the union of these two states.

Williams’s view has been the popular one for more than a century. But there are problems with this position. First, historian Walter Lord says no original descriptions of the 1824 flag exists from eyewitnesses. According to his research, the story that Travis flew the 1824 standard over the Alamo originated with R. M. Potter, who published several Alamo accounts in 1860, one of which included the 1824 flag. But Potter doesn’t provide sources. He draws his conclusion, as does Williams, on the belief that the defenders in the Alamo were fighting for the restoration of the Mexican Constitution of 1824, and not for Texas independence—at least, not until it was officially declared on March 2, 1836. Others agree with Lord. Based upon their letters and writings as early as December 1835, the defenders in the Alamo had abandoned the federalist cause for the renewal of the 1824 constitution and no longer sought their rights as Mexican citizens. Rather, they fought to wrest Texas from Mexican hands in hopes that American hands would embrace her.

The New Orleans Greys Flag

The New Orleans Greys were a volunteer militia that formed in New Orleans on the evening of October 13, 1835, in the grand coffee room of Thomas Banks’s Arcade. Banks was a supporter of Texas independence and often held meetings to bolster the Texas cause. When the alcalde of Nacogdoches, Nicholas Adolphus Sterne attended that evening’s meeting he promised weapons for the first fifty men who to volunteer for Texas. No official muster roles exist, but at least one hundred and twenty men signed up. They were divided into two companies, commanded by Captains Thomas H. Breece and Robert C. Morris.

Morris and his men left New Orleans on October 22 and sailed to Velasco, Texas and then on to Brazoria before securing horses and riding into Béxar to take part in the battle that ousted Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cós and his men from the Alamo.

Breece and his men boarded a steamer and paddled their way up the Mississippi and Red rivers before cutting across overland, following the Old Spanish Trail into Texas. A delegation of women from San Augustine presented Breece and his company with a flag bearing the inscription of FIRST COMPANY OF TEXAS VOLUNTEERS FROM NEW-ORLEANS. After being wined and dined in San Augustine and Nacogdoches, this company rode to San Antonio, where they too took part in the siege of Béxar.

After the battle of Béxar some of the Greys went on the Matamoros fiasco. Those who stayed behind entered the Alamo and died with the other defenders on March 6, 1836. They carried their standard into the garrison with them.

After the assault on the Alamo, their flag was sent to Mexico City as a war trophy. Writing to his Minister of War and Navy José María Tornel, Santa Anna said, “The bearer takes with him one of the flags of the enemy’s battalion captured today. The inspection of it will show plainly the true intention of the treacherous colonists and of their abettors who come from parts of the United States of the North.”

Though Santa Anna doesn’t describe the flag, most historians believe he was referring to the one belonging to the New Orleans Greys, since Mexico is in possession of this banner. It is housed in the National Museum of History at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Various Texas and American organizations, individuals, and politicians have, over the years, petitioned the Mexican government to return the flag to no avail. It remains a battle trophy to this day.

According to historian James Donovan, “On the roof [of what is today known as the Long Barracks], three Zapadores were killed trying to capture a blue banner waving from a pole atop the convento that read FIRST COMPANY OF TEXAS VOLUNTEERS! FROM NEW-ORLEANS. José María Torres, a determined young Zapador sublieutenant, watched them die and decided he would try to reach the foreign flag. He climbed to the rooftop and ran to the flagpole through thick rifle fire. He managed to lower the banner and raise the red, white, and green of his battalion’s standard before a rebel round found him. He fell, mortally wounded.” This is supposedly taken from first hand accounts, particular that of José Enrique de la Peña, a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican Army, who served as an engineer during the thirteen day siege at the Alamo. However, what is interesting, given the description of the rifle fire directed toward the soldiers trying to capture the banner, is that the original flag bears no battle scars—no bullet holes, shrapnel tears, blood stains, or dirt smudges.

The Coahuila y Tejas Flag

The other tricolor flag that could have flown over the Alamo is the Coahuila y Tejas flag. Like the 1824 flag, this banner represents the Mexican colors of green, white, and red. But in place of the numbers “1824” are two six-pointed stars of either gold or blue.

Colonel Juan N. Almonte, like de la Peña, was also present at the Alamo. As the army entered Béxar, marching into the Main Plaza, Almonte wrote in his journal on February 23, that a tricolored banner flew over the Alamo walls. “The enemy,” he recorded, “hoisted the tricolored flag with two stars, designed to represent Coahuila and Texas.” This was supported by another Mexican officer, Lieutenant Colonel José Juan Sánchez-Navarro, who sketched the elevation of the Alamo depicting the Coahuila y Tejas flag. However, Almonte observed that when the first skirmishers approached the battlements the defenders “lowered the flag and fled.”

This flag has never been found. It could be that it was destroyed. The flag of the New Orleans Greys proved that American pirates, as Santa Anna often called the Alamo defenders, were aiding Texas in her push for independence and hopes for annexation to the United States. This battle trophy makes sense. But claiming either the Constitution flag—the 1824 flag—and the Coahuila y Tejas as trophies did nothing to bolster Santa Anna as supreme ruler of Mexico. He faced stiff resistance in other Mexican states and wouldn’t want to display a reminder to the rest of the country that at one point the Constitution of 1824 governed Mexico and that one of the states now in rebellion had once been loyal.

The Lone Star and Stripes

Shortly after Texas won its independence at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, a book was published in Philadelphia entitled Colonel Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas as Written by Himself. The publishers claimed the book was based on a diary Crockett wrote, part of which described his last days in the Alamo. A man by the name of Charle T. Beale allegedly visited San Antonio soon after the Alamo’s fall and somehow came in possession of Crockett’s journal. Using this diary Beale wrote the manuscript for Exploits. Scholars are universal in their condemnation of Beale’s manuscript, which was written to capitalize on the death of the famous frontiersman. It is highly unlikely Crockett would have left a written record, and if he had it is even more unlikely that it would have survived the battle or the scavenging of the Mexican soldiers.

Nevertheless, Beale’s book is remarkably accurate in many details about the siege and battle at the Alamo. He was familiar with the various names of Santa Anna’s battalions and recorded the correct number of Mexican attackers—about 1,600 (not 4,000 that is usually reported). He knew their commanders, the chronology of events, and had a working knowledge of Béxar and its people. It’s likely Beale was in San Antonio shortly after the Alamo’s fall and received firsthand accounts from those outside the wall. But because he got so many of the details correct, there is a good chance Beale’s (aka Crockett) description of the flag flying over the Alamo is also accurate. According to Exploits, Crockett recorded in his journey on February 23 that the Texians flew a national flag. “We have had a large national flag made; it is composed of thirteen stripes, red and white, alternating on a blue ground, with a large white star, of five points, in the center, and between the points the letters TEXAS.”

We know Travis bought a flag for five dollars in San Felipe in January 1836, before departing for the Alamo. On March 3, he wrote Jesse Grimes urging the convention meeting at Washington-on-the-Brazos to declare independence. “If independence is not declared,” Travis wrote, “I shall lay down my arms, and so will the men under my command. But under the flag of independence, we are ready to peril our lives a hundred times a day, and to drive away the monster who is fighting us under a blood-red flag, threatening to murder all prisoners and make Texas a waste desert.”

Travis’s declaration of fighting “under the flag of independence” is a rhetorical and patriotic flourish, and is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but it is striking that the tenor of the language, its rousing patriotic spirit, and calls for independence would fit a flag that does not harken back to their Mexican citizenship (the 1824 flag), their Mexican statehood (the Coahuila y Tejas flag), or to a particular insignia of a volunteer milia (the New Orleans Greys flag).

Vexillologist—experts on the history of flags—contend that a semiofficial and generally recognizable banner of Texas emerged in late 1835, consisting of a field of thirteen red and white alternating stripes and a blue canto displaying the white five-point star. Robert Maberry Jr. concludes that the Lone Star and Stripes, or a variant, is what few over the Alamo, led the troops at San Jacinto, and identified the warship of the new Republic of Texas. This flag represented Texas to the world until the traditional Lone Star of two horizontal stripes (white and red) was officially adopted in 1839.

Like the 1824 and the Coahuila y Tejas flags, the Lone Star and Stripes flag has never been found in the archives of the Mexican government. But if this flag flew over the Alamo it would make sense that Santa Anna would have burned it on one of the funeral pyres that consumed the bodies of those who would presume to rebel against his rule. Santa Anna would have seen in the Lone Star and Stripes a proclamation that the chief desire of the defenders was to seek disunion from Mexico and union with the United States. And he would have been right.

Joseph Hefler, an expert on the Mexican Army during the time of the Texas Revolution, asserts that three flags flew over the Alamo at one time or another: the Coahuila y Tejas, the New Orleans Greys, and the Lone Star and Stripes. I think this is highly possible. When the Alamo was first occupied by Texians and Tejanos after Cós was driven out in late 1835 the Coahuila y Tejas was hoisted. This is the first flag spotted by the Mexican Army when they arrived in Béxar. It was lowered, just as Almonte observed, sometime after the bombardment commenced. This certainly could have been the flag referred to in Travis’s February 24 letter. Or if “Crockett’s” diary is accurate, Travis was alluding to the Lone Star and Stripes in his famous letter.

Without a doubt the flag of the New Orleans Greys was at the Alamo during the siege and battle. And it probably even made an appearance over the walls. However, I’m skeptical that it was flying during the battle and was the object for which four Mexican soldiers gave their lives—for reason I’ve already articulated. Further, it doesn’t make sense that a company’s standard would be used as the banner for the whole garrison, most of which weren’t part of the New Orleans Greys. Nor does its symbolism capture the patriotic spirit of Travis’s February 24 or his March 3 letters.

I believe by March 3, if not before (perhaps even as early as February 23–24), “the flag of independence” was the Lone Star and Stripes.

In the end, regardless of which flag(s) flew over the Alamo—or the banner Travis had in mind when he wrote, “our flag still waves proudly from the walls”—it most likely flew over the south end of the main building, the convento, which housed the armory on the first floor and the hospital on the second floor. As is clear from Sánchez-Navarro’s sketch of the Alamo at the time, the two-story convento was the highest point of the Alamo complex, making it the ideal spot to hoist the garrison’s standard. (Though some historians maintain the flag flew over over the southeast corner of the chapel.)

Sources:

Almonte, Juan N. “The Private Journal of Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, February 1-April 16, 1836,” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, no. 48 (July, 1944–April, 1945).

Anonymous. Davy Crockett’s Own Story: As Written by Himself. New York: Citadel Press, 1955.

Davis, William C. Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

Donovan, James. The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012.

Lord, Walter. A Time to Stand. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.

Maberry, Robert Jr. Texas Flags. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2001.

Williams, Amelia, “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of its Defenders,” The Southwest Historical Quarterly, no. 3 (January, 1934).

Shackford, James Atkins. David Crockett: The Man and the Legend. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolin Press, 1956.

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