The Price of Freedom

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Every year on July 4th Americans celebrate Independence Day. We remember how we threw off the yoke of oppression, and we honor those who gave their lives in defense of freedom. It is commonly forgotten, however, that there is another day of liberation for the citizens of one particular state. That day is March 2nd. On that day in 1836, delegates at Washington-on-the-Brazos declared Texas independent from the despotic Mexican regime of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. This declaration gave new meaning to the fight raging outside of San Antonio de Bexar where two hundred men were defending a fort against several thousand Mexicans. One of those defenders was a legendary frontiersman from Louisiana. He had earned a reputation as a fighter, and now he put his skills to use defending liberty. His name was James “Jim” Bowie. This is the story of how he gave his life for Texas independence.

Long before his death at the Alamo, Jim Bowie had already made a name for himself. He was born in Logan County, Kentucky in April 1796 but spent his youth in Bushley Bayou, Louisiana. As a young boy, he hunted alligators, bears and other wildlife in the nearby swamps. His weapon of choice was a large modified butcher knife that carried his name. He left home in the late 1810s and joined the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte on Galveston Island. Later he worked as a land agent in Alexandria, Louisiana where he developed a fierce rivalry with Major Norris Wright, a political and business opponent. One afternoon in 1826 the two men met on a street when Wright fired his pistol at an unarmed Bowie. Enraged, Bowie charged Wright and would have beaten him to death if not for several nearby observers who separated the two. Jim swore he would never go unarmed again, so he fashioned a leather scabbard for his famous knife. The knife helped save him at the “Battle of the Sandbar” a year later.

On a Mississippi River sandbar just west of Natchez, Mississippi, Jim served as a witness to a duel between Samuel Wells and Dr. Thomas Maddox. As the men prepared to return home, Colonel Robert Crain, a friend of Maddox and Wright, took the opportunity to shoot Bowie, wounding him in the hip. Pushing himself up, Bowie unsheathed his knife and charged Crain who battered Bowie over the head with a pistol. Wright then rushed forward and stabbed Jim in the chest with his sword-cane. To everyone’s shock, Bowie grabbed hold of Wright and plunged his knife into his rival’s chest, disemboweling him. Jim stood up with Wright’s sword still dangling from his chest to confront two more Maddox supporters, Alfred Blanchard and his brother. The men raised their pistols and fired, one round striking Bowie in the hip again. Jim pulled his knife and sliced Blanchard across the forearm. As both men fled, Jim collapsed to the ground, and a surgeon removed the sword and staunched the blood flow. Word of Bowie’s fearlessness spread throughout Louisiana. It was a reputation he built on after arriving in Texas.

In 1828, after recovering from the wounds received at the Sandbar, Bowie decided to leave Louisiana and settle in Texas. He traveled past the Anglo settlements in the east to the village of San Antonio de Bexar, which was mostly populated by Mexicans. After gaining Mexican citizenship, he was given command of the town’s Ranger company and pursued renegade Indians across the plains. His most famous encounter came on December 2, 1831 when he and ten companions were searching for the lost silver mines of San Saba. Without warning, 164 Tawakoni, Waco, and Caddo Indians attacked them. The Indians set fire to the grass and forced Bowie and his men to withdraw into a nearby thicket where they built a barricade out of rocks. The small band fought for their lives. By late afternoon they were nearing the last of their ammunition and knew they could not hold out much longer. After talking, they decided to stand back to back and fire their remaining rounds. Then they would use their knives until the last man was killed. As night approached, however, the Indians miraculously withdrew and allowed the Texans to return to San Antonio. Yet again, Bowie had extricated himself from an impossible situation, and his already formidable reputation grew even larger and more widespread. It was natural, therefore, for Texans to turn to him for leadership when trouble with Mexico arose.

By late 1835 Bowie had become one of the central leaders of the rebellion. Coming to Texas in 1828 in search of opportunity, he was fully aware that his success depended on the favor of the Mexican government, and indeed, the government supported him when he had opened several prosperous wool mills. Initially, this knowledge kept Bowie from joining other Texans in clamoring for independence. By 1833 however, his sentiments began to change, and that year he served as a delegate to the Colonial Convention, petitioning the Mexican government for separate statehood. Those hopes were dashed when Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna ascended to the presidency and began to centralize authority in Mexico City. He abolished the state legislatures all across Mexico and arrested principal leaders, including Texan Stephen F. Austin. To resistance in any form, Santa Anna proved ruthless. When the citizens of Zacatecas province challenged him, Santa Anna responded by killing two thousand provincial soldiers and butchering many non-combatants. It was clear he would crush any rebellious activity. With the American Revolution only sixty years in the past, Bowie and others refused to live under what they saw as a new yoke of tyranny. They chose to fight. On October 5, 1835 a Mexican force approached the town of Gonzales in order to repossess the cannon given to the colonists for protection against Indians. One hundred fifty Texans stood against them with a flag defiantly daring them to “Come and Take It.” The Texans fired, and the Mexicans retreated to San Antonio. The Texas War of Independence had begun.

Determined to aid his fellow countrymen in their struggle for freedom, Bowie joined the Texan army outside San Antonio in late October to oust General Martin Perfecto de Cos’s army stationed in the town. The Texan commander, Stephen F. Austin, back in Texas after his release, knew what an asset Bowie could be and ordered him to lead patrols around the town and the forts surrounding it. On October 28th Colonel Bowie and 92 men took up a defensive position near the mission Concepcion to oppose Cos’s 300 troops. The Mexicans marched to within 200 yards of Bowie’s position, but the terrain prevented the enemy’s muskets and cannons from coming to bear on the Texans. Cos ordered his men to attack, but they were easily repulsed. He ordered his men to retreat into the town. Bowie and the Texans followed them and began to besiege the garrison. In the weeks following, Bowie continued to patrol the countryside and on November 26th attacked a Mexican column sent out by Cos to gather grass for the horses. In the ensuing battle known as the “Grass Fight,” the Texans captured 70 enemy horses, further diminishing Mexican hopes to outlast the Texans. In early December the Texans attacked San Antonio and, after fighting street by street, forced Cos to surrender. Bowie was not present, having been sent to join Sam Houston at Goliad, but he was determined to return to the city when word came that Santa Anna himself was leading an army to quash the rebellion.

In January 1836 Bowie and thirty men rode into San Antonio and occupied the Spanish mission known as the Alamo where 100 men still remained after the December fight. Houston had ordered him to destroy the mission-turned-fort and remove all the artillery. After surveying the fortress, however, Colonel Bowie decided he would “rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy.” Believing “the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar out of the hands of the enemy,” he pleaded with the new provisional government for reinforcements. His cry was heard. William Barret Travis and David Crockett arrived with a number of soldiers in early February. Travis and Bowie shared command until Bowie suffered from a bad fall and a mysterious illness, likely pneumonia or typhoid fever, and was confined to a sick bed. He was lying there on February 23rd when Santa Anna’s army reached the outskirts of San Antonio. Despite his confinement, Bowie dispatched his aide, Benito James, to seek surrender terms from Santa Anna. The Mexican general replied the Texans must surrender “at discretion.” Their fate would rest with Santa Anna, meaning they would likely be killed. The message was reinforced and made brutally clear by the red flag flying over the San Fernando church. The surrender demand was rejected with a cannon shot, and the next morning, February 24th, the Mexicans began a bombardment of the fort. Over the next thirteen days, Bowie and his fellow defenders held out in hopes of receiving reinforcements. Only thirty-two men from Gonzales answered the call, however. No other reinforcements came. On the evening of March 5th Travis gathered the men in the Alamo courtyard and told each man he had to choose between escaping or staying and dying. He drew a line in the sand and asked all who wished to stay to cross the line. As the men marched by, Jim asked to be carried over. Although Bowie and the others inside the Alamo were not aware that Texas had declared its independence, they had made their decision and now only had to wait for the final attack to come.

At 4:00 A.M. on March 6th Mexican bugles played the “Deguello,” signifying no quarter would be given to the defenders. The columns of Mexican soldiers raced toward the fort as the Texans fired at them with Kentucky long rifles and shotguns. Within moments thousands of Mexicans were surging over the fort’s walls, killing William Travis in the process, and forcing the remaining defenders to fall back. Suddenly the gates of the fort were flung open and hundreds more Mexicans raced into the courtyard.   From the Long Barracks and the Chapel, Crockett and the other Texans continued to fire as the fighting switched to hand-to-hand combat. In his room Bowie lay on his sick bed listening to the sounds of battle outside. Suddenly a group of Mexicans burst in. According to some sources Bowie raised two pistols and fired as the Mexicans charged him. Then he grabbed his famous knife and started swinging. It is said he took several Mexicans with him to the grave. His body was later found and thrown onto a funeral pyre with Travis, Crockett and the other defenders, all physical evidence of their lives extinguished. His legend was not so easily destroyed.

James Bowie died as he had lived — with ferocity. He was never one to back down in the face of danger; rather, he confronted it head-on. Like the other Alamo defenders, Bowie determined to sell his life dearly rather than give in to tyranny. When he rode into the Alamo, he knew the risks and he knew the costs. He was willing to accept both in the cause of liberty. He would never know that the price he and his fellow defenders paid would not only buy freedom but would also inspire patriots across the generations with the rallying cry — “Remember the Alamo.”

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