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'Victory or Death' letter returns to the Alamo

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SAN ANTONIO – A written plea for help in which the commander of the besieged rebel Texas forces at the Alamo vowed "Victory or Death" will return Friday to the old Spanish mission for the first time since it was penned in 1836.

William Barret Travis' famous letter to "the People of Texas and All Americans in the World," will get a police escort from the state archive in Austin to the Alamo, which is now in the heart of downtown San Antonio. The weathered, single-page letter will go on display for two weeks, starting this weekend, and will be kept in a special display cabinet and given round-the-clock guards.

The exhibit coincides with the 177th anniversary of the siege, which culminated with the March 6, 1836, fall of the Alamo and the deaths of Travis and the roughly 180 men in his command.

"I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch", Travis wrote in the roughly 200-word letter dated that Feb. 24.

Travis, a 26-year-old South Carolina native and lawyer who left his family in Alabama for Texas, wrote that the forces under Mexico's president, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, were subjecting him and his men to "continual" cannon fire. Knowing the odds were against them, Travis wrote that he responded to a surrender demand with a single cannon shot of his own and the promise that, "I shall never surrender or retreat."

"It's something about martyrs and last stands," Michael Parrish, a Baylor University history professor, said of the letter's allure. "There's just something very, very romantic and epic and heroic and all the grandiose terms you want to apply."

The letter was smuggled out of the Alamo at night by a courier on horseback, though by the time it was published in leaflets and newspapers, Travis and his men were dead. But volunteers crying "Remember the Alamo!" and led by Gen. Sam Houston routed Santa Anna's forces more than a month later outside what's now the city of Houston, securing Texas' independence from Mexico.

Ultimately, Texas was annexed by the United States, contributing to the Mexican War in the late 1840s. An American victory led to the acquisition of much of what is now the southwest U.S., including California.

"The writing of the letter by Travis is a pivotal and very, very dramatic moment in the story of the Alamo with all its famous characters, (David) Crockett, (James) Bowie, Travis and many more who willingly decided to give their lives in a cause they considered bigger than themselves," Parrish said. "In fact, the Alamo is considered one of the great epic stories of American history, and indeed, world history."

Ceremonies to mark the document's return to San Antonio from Austin, where it's kept in the Texas State Library and Archives, were scheduled for later Friday. The public display at the state's most popular tourist spot begins Saturday with the start of what Texas historians call "The High Holy Days."

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose office assumed ownership of the Alamo in 2011, last year proposed bringing the letter back to put on display to the public, at least temporarily.

"I think it should come out from the darkened corners and be displayed to the public at certain intervals. ... I think every Texan in their lifetime should have an opportunity to view it in person," Patterson said Wednesday.

The letter, which was folded to serve as its own envelope, has been displayed previously, including the State Fair in Dallas to mark Texas' 1936 centennial and 1986 sesquicentennial. It also was inside the Texas Capitol for years in the early and mid-20th century under light conditions archivists now know damaged it.

"If you take a look at it, particularly in the ink, there's been a lot of fading," said Sarah Norris, a conservator at the state archives. "Light damage is cumulative and irreversible. And there are no conservation treatments that can undo it."

At the Alamo, some windows have been covered, lights will be dimmed and the glass and wood air-controlled cabinet holding the letter will be surrounded by drapes. The document itself will stand perpendicular in the trapezoid-shaped bulletproof case inside a glass enclosure and between two panels of plastic glass treated to block ultraviolet light.

Travis penned the letter in a room across the plaza from the mission's main entrance. The spot is now a Ripley's Haunted Adventure, which is part of a block-long strip of tourist-focused businesses.

Capt. Albert Martin of Gonzales, a Rhode Island native, slipped through the Mexican lines outside the Alamo and handed it the following afternoon to Lancelot Smither, a former Alamo defender who had left earlier to spread word that Santa Anna's army had arrived. Smither delivered it to San Felipe, the unofficial capital of revolutionary Texas about 145 miles east of San Antonio.

After the war, in circumstances that are unclear, the letter was returned to Travis' family in Alabama, said John Anderson, a preservation officer at the state archives. Travis' great-great grandson sold it to the state in 1893 for $85, or the equivalent of $2,179 today.

Parrish said the letter's blending of passion for democracy and religious faith — it closes "The Lord is on our side" — is "quintessentially American and even more quintessentially Texas."

"The letter is just simply wonderful," he said. "For one thing, it is short, it's like the Gettysburg Address. ... It's just powerful.

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