Travis' 'Victory or Death' letter returns to the Alamo

Posted Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The Travis letter's text

Commandancy of the Alamo

Bejar, Feby. 24th. 1836

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World

Fellow citizens & compatriots

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man 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, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, 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 The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country Victory or Death.

William Barrett Travis.

Lt. Col. comdt.

P. S. The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.

Travis

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When it left the Alamo in the dark of night 177 years ago, William Barret Travis' "Victory or Death" letter had to be slipped past the Mexican army before courier Albert Martin could deliver the besieged commander's stirring call for help that never came.

The iconic letter's first ride back to the Alamo on Friday won't be either as stealthy or perilous.

The document Travis penned on Feb. 24, 1836, was escorted from Austin to San Antonio by a squadron of police and state troopers on the road with air support in the sky.

Travis' "amazing letter" is worthy of the grand commotion, says historian Stephen Hardin, a McMurry University professor and authority on the Texas Revolution.

"Even at the time, people understood that this was a dynamite letter. Travis knew what he was doing when he addressed it to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world. He knew it would attract attention and it did," he said.

"That was his finest hour. I really think the man and the moment all came together," Hardin said

And that bloody moment -- when a garrison of about 189 men, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, stood their ground against an overwhelming assault force of about 1,800 Mexican soldiers -- has become an enduring symbol of patriotic sacrifice.

The letter illuminates the cost of freedom, says Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who led the charge to bring it back to the Texas shrine.

"It is not surprising, but still fulfilling to see everyone fall in like this to celebrate the historic importance not only the Travis letter, but the Alamo," he said. "Bringing this letter to the people, where it was written, is bound to inspire a new generation for liberty."

The letter received a hero's welcome at 4 p.m. Friday at the Alamo with speeches and a reading of the defiant dispatch by Denton County Sheriff Will Travis, a fifth-generation great-nephew of the Alamo commander.

Four Alamo Rangers carried the crated letter into the shrine behind a flag honor guard and under the arched sabers of the Ross Volunteers of Texas A&M University. The ceremony was streamed live on the Internet at www.travisletter.org.

The exhibit will be guarded around the clock by Alamo Rangers and state troopers. Two state archivists will also be duty on while the letter is on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through March 7.

When it leaves the Texas State Library and Archives, the letter will be protected in a Mylar sleeve and mounted between sheets of anti-reflective Plexiglas. It will be transported in a specially built wooden crate in a climate-controlled truck, said Jelain Chubb, director of the state archives

Inside the Alamo, the letter will have bullet-proof protection inside a custom $20,000 exhibit consisting of a dual-layer, UV-inhibiting, laminated security glass display on a weighted, steel-reinforced base to prevent toppling.

Alamo reunion

More than 200,000 people are expected to visit the Alamo on the anniversary of the Feb. 23-March 6, 1836, siege, said Mark Loeffler, a Texas history lover and the communications director for the land office, who came up with idea for the Alamo reunion about a year and a half ago.

Patterson hopes the response to the display will spur the Legislature to provide an additional $1.6 million to protect and preserve the Alamo.

"I am confident that lawmakers will remember the Alamo this session and help us protect the Shrine of Texas Liberty for another 177 years," he said.

But it took a fight that lasted longer than the Texas Revolution to pry the document out of the vault at the state archives where staffers resisted the move because of concerns about the risks of theft, vandalism or damage to the letter caused by excess light.

Last fall, after months of wrangling, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission voted to permit the letter to be exhibited by the land office. Two years ago, the agency assumed control of the Alamo from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas after allegations of financial mismanagement and insufficient maintenance plagued the group's stewardship of the historic site.

"There have been a lot of questions about management of the Alamo and what's going on there. I think this event is going to be an important message to folks that the Alamo is doing great," Loeffler said, noting that donations have funded the $100,000 cost of the exhibit.

Loeffler said the land office has met every standard the archives set in terms of security, environmental controls and protections for the letter.

Nonetheless, Chubb said, archivists still have concerns about temperature and humidity in the Alamo.

"I've already had some sleepless nights worrying about this," she said.

The letter has done some traveling since Martin took it 70 miles to Gonzales. The courier added a postscript that the garrison was short of ammunition and that its defenders were determined to "do or die."

True to his word, Martin returned to the Alamo with a small relief force of 32 and died there on March 6, 1836, said John Anderson, preservation officer at the archives.

A second courier from the Alamo, Lancelot Smither, then carried the letter to San Felipe to a citizen's committee. He also added a postscript, urging a "rendevu" at Gonzales to aid the Alamo. Ironically, Smither survived the revolution but was killed in 1842 when a Mexican army invaded Texas.

Copies of Travis' letter were quickly distributed, and it appeared in Texas newspapers as early as March 2, 1836.

"We don't know how it got from San Felipe to Travis' family in Alabama," Anderson said.

In 1891, Travis descendant John Davidson loaned the letter to the state Department of Agriculture, Insurance, Statistics and History. Two years later, he offered to sell it for $250 but eventually agreed to take $85, Anderson said.

'Butts in a crack'

But it's not the only letter Travis wrote from the Alamo and the others provide more information about the siege as well as illustrating Travis' dismay over being "hung out to dry," Hardin said.

"People like this one because it's short and there's all this patriotic grand eloquence which obscures the fact that the substance of the letter is not victory or death. The substance of the letter is that we've got our butts in a crack," he said.

"Remember, that's the letter he wrote on the second day of the siege. Nobody thought they were going to die. They expected help. ... I don't think it occurred to him that rest of Texas would not come.

"But read the letter he wrote on March 3; the tone is completely different; he's bitter," Hardin said. "He says, 'my bones shall reproach my country for its neglect.' The change in tone between those two letters is chilling."

Travis wrote another short letter on March 3 and it, too, "will take your breath away," Will Travis said.

In the message to David Ayer, Travis asked him to look after his young son, Charles, who had recently come to Texas from Alabama.

"Take care of my little boy. If the country should be saved, I may make him a splendid fortune; but if the country should be lost, and I should perish, he will have nothing but the proud recollection that he is the son of a man who died for his country," he wrote.

Three days later, Travis, who was only 26, was among the first casualties when the Alamo fell.

"I can only imagine what he was thinking when he looked out over the walls and saw what was coming," Will Travis said.

Online: www.travisletter.org

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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