Briefing - The Alamo: About that "Line in the Sand"
The heroic defense of the defense of the Alamo at San Antonio for thirteen days in 1836 by a small band of Texians against vastly superior Mexican forces under Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, is of the stuff of legend. And has sparked numerous legends in turn.
One of the most enduring – and heroic – of these legends, is that of William Barrett Travis’ "Line in the Dirt." *
The tale is simple. On the night of March 3-4, 1836, as the Mexican Army made preparations for a final assault, William B. Travis, commanding the small Texian garrison, mustered his men, including the sick and wounded, in the Plaza of the Alamo. Making a short speech about the hopelessness of the situation, he announced that he was resolved to stay and die, but would not force any man to do so. Then he drew his sword, and etched a line in the dirt of the plaza. Pausing, he looked at his men, and invited all who wished to die with him to cross the line.
The men hesitated for a moment.
Then one, the 26-year old Tapley Holland, boldly stepped forward. He was followed by a few more of the men, in ones and twos. As they walked across the line, the desperately ill Jim Bowie raised his head from his sick-bed, saying something like, "Boys, I can't make it across that line, will some of you give men a hand?" At once, four men sprang forward and, each taking a corner of his cot, carried him across the line. With that, the rest of the men surged forward. Within minutes it was over, as every man strode across.
Every man, that is, save one, by name Louis Moses Rose, an older man and a veteran of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Quietly, without harassment, Rose was allowed to gather his few belongings. Soon afterwards, with kind words from both Travis and Bowie, he dropped down from the wall and slipped away into the darkness.
Great theater, certainly, and done well in several cinematic versions of the Alamo, perhaps best of all in The Last Command.
Unfortunately, not very good history. Although the story of Travis' line in the sand has been accepted by many writers, even some who are hostile to the Texan cause, the tale is seriously flawed.
The incident is not mentioned by any of the known survivors of the Alamo. Mrs. Susanna Dickinson, the only Texian woman in the place, whose husband Almaron would have been among those who crossed the line, did recall, many years later, the Travis had spoken to the men on the last night, suggesting that any who wished to depart could, but made no mention of a line. Neither did the teenaged James Allen, whom Travis dispatched as a courier on the very last night of the siege, mentioned the incident, nor did Brigido Guerrero, who survived the Mexican assault by convincing the attackers that he had been imprisoned by the Texians. Nor did Travis' slave, Joe, who gave a detailed account of the last days of the garrison before the Texian Congress soon after the fall of the mission-fortress.
There is other evidence to suggest that the tale is a fabrication.
The bit about Bowie, for example, ignores the fact that during the siege, he was so ill as to be unable to recognize his friend Juan Seguin, when the latter asked to borrow his horse on the night of February 25-26. Nor does it seem likely that Travis, arrogant and self-important, a fanatic on the matter of Texas independence and something of a martinet, would have had the nobility of character to have given his men a choice.
But there is more.
The story of Travis’ line did not come into circulation until many years after the fall of the Alamo, when a man identifying himself as Louis Rose gained some notoriety by telling it. Yet Rose himself is a shadowy figure, perhaps a “wannabe” or a drifter looking for a handout who fabricated the whole tale, perhaps inspired by an incident during the Texian siege of San Antonio in December of 1835, when Texian hero Ben Milam called for volunteers to storm the city.
So Travis almost certainly did not draw a line in the dirt.
On the other hand, if you plan on making a movie about the Alamo . . . , well, leaving out this bit of Alamo folklore will probably mean you won’t sell many tickets.
* Prior to President George H. Bush’s "Line in the Sand" speech during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Travis’ line was always referred to as “in the dirt.”