My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Señora Candelaria's Account of the Death of Jim Bowie


March 6, 2013 was the 177th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo and the death of Jim Bowie.

I have come across several newspaper articles featuring interviews with Señora Candelaria Villanueva, who claimed to have been nursing Jim Bowie at the Alamo at the time of its fall. Until her death in 1899, Señora Candelaria made a small income by recounting her story and posing for tourists' photos. As the website of the Texas State Historical Association puts it, "Since evidence of survivors is sparse, her claims may never be confirmed, but in 1891 the Texas legislature granted her a pension of twelve dollars a month for being an Alamo survivor and for her work with smallpox victims in San Antonio."

The following account of both those events is from Hero Tales of the American Soldier and Sailor (1899), by James William Buell.
FOR TEXAS INDEPENDENCE.

Story of the Most Terrible Battle ever Fought on American Soil.

Senora Candelaria, A Witness.

SENORA CANDELARIA, who died in San Antonio, Tex., on February 10, 1899, at the great age of 114 years, was the sole survivor of the Alamo. She alone could tell how Travis, Crockett, Bowie and 114 other heroes defended the old mission house for fifteen days against 5,000 Mexican regulars, led by the ferocious Santa Anna; how they held the Mexicans in check so that the Texans might rally to the defense of their homes; how they fought until they were overwhelmed and annihilated, and won this immortal legend for their monument:

"Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none.''

Three days before her death Señora Candelaria told the tragic story of the fiercest fight ever waged on American soil. Notwithstanding the great age of this extraordinary woman her mental faculties were singularly clear, her memory was unimpaired and her powers of description were remarkable, as the story taken from her lips and recorded here shows, constituting one of the most valuable contributions to history that was ever made.

"Yes, it is true that I was in the Alamo during its siege and terrible fall, and I am the only survivor of that awful struggle.

"Colonel Bowie died in my arms, shot dead by a Mexican bullet that grazed my own chin. Good old Davy Crockett died fighting like a wild beast within a few feet of me, and brave Colonel Travis within a few feet the other way, while all around in heaps lay the dead bodies of every man who had defended the Alamo, tumbled together with three dead Mexicans to every one of them.

"I was in the fort as a nurse for Colonel Bowie. I was living in San Antonio, near by. Five days after the cannonading began in the fort—I can never forget that frightful, incessant rumble of guns!—five days after it began I received a letter from General Sam Houston, which I took as an order and obeyed immediately. It read: "' Candelarita,' as General Houston always called me, 'go and take care of Bowie, my brother, in the Alamo.' It was signed 'Houston.' Bowie had typhoid fever."

Mme. Candelaria briefly recalled the events that led up to the tragedy and sketched the heroic men that figured in it. The commander of the garrison, Lieutenant-Colonel W. Barrett Travis, was a native of North Carolina, twenty-eight years old, six feet tall, a lawyer. He was on the proscribed list of Santa Anna. The second in command was Colonel James Bowie, famous as the inventor of the knife which bears his name. He was a native of Georgia. David Crockett was a native of Tennessee and a typical frontiersman, famous as a mighty hunter. He was elected for two terms in the House of Representatives, where he figured as a sort of eccentric. Failing a third term, he went to Texas. With twelve Tennesseeans he arrived in San Antonio three weeks before the siege of the Alamo.

Determined to subjugate Texas, Santa Anna had pushed on through Mexico to San Antonio, appearing before the Texas city on February 22, 1836. After consolidating with Cos and Sesma, Santa Anna's army numbered between six and seven thousand men. This force had been depleted to about five thousand during the hard winter march.

The small Texan garrison at San Antonio was taken by surprise and it hastily retreated across the river to the Alamo, Lieutenant A. M. Dickenson catching up his wife and child on his horse on the way.

Santa Anna's demand for immediate surrender was answered by Colonel Travis with an emphatic "No" from a cannon. The blood-red flag of "no quarter" was hoisted on the tower of the church of San Fernando and the siege was begun.

The mission of the Alamo was established by the Franciscan friars where it then stood, and still stands, in 1722. The buildings consisted of a church with walls of hewn stone 5 feet thick and 22 1/2 feet high. The church faced the river and the town. The central portion was roofless at the time of the siege, but arched rooms on each side of the entrance and the sacristy, which was used as a powder magazine, were strongly covered with a roof of masonry. The windows were high, close and narrow, to protect the congregation from Indian arrows.

Adjoining the church was the convent yard, a hundred feet square, with walls 16 feet high and 3 1/2 feet thick, on the inside embanked by earth to half their height. At the further corner of the convent yard was a sally port, defended by a small redoubt. The convent and hospital building, of adobe bricks, two stories in height, extended along the west side of the yard 191 feet. The main plaza in front of the church and convent covered nearly three acres. It was enclosed by a wall 8 feet high and 33 inches thick.

To defend this place Travis had fourteen pieces of artillery, but none of the Texans had been drilled in their use. It was impossible to perfectly guard so wide a space, so the defence was concentrated about the church and convent. Travis had been careless about provisions. Only three bushels of corn were found at first in the Alamo, but some eighty or ninety bushels were afterward discovered in one of the houses. When it took refuge in the Alamo the garrison numbered 145 men, which was increased during the siege to 177 men. Few as they were in number, the men were without military organization and were held together only by a common heroic purpose.

Santa Anna erected batteries and prepared to make a long siege, rather than trust the results of an assault upon the stronghold. The defenders were equally cautious, and, husbanding their ammunition, made little use of their cannon, placing their reliance in the rifle, which they knew so well how to handle. General Castrillon attempted to build a bridge across the river, but the constructing party was within reach of the rifles of the Texans, and in a few minutes thirty were killed and the survivors withdrew.

Little by little the Mexicans advanced, fighting during the day and pushing forward during the night, until the investment was nearly complete. On March 3 Travis sent his last message to the government. In it he said:
I am still here, in fine spirits and well-to-do. With 145 men I have held the place against a force variously estimated from between fifteen hundred to six thousand, and I shall continue to hold it until I get relief from my countrymen, or I will perish in its defence. We have had a shower of bombs and cannon balls continually falling among us the whole time, yet none of us have been injured. ... A blood-red flag waves from the church of Bexar and in the camp above us, in token that the war is one of vengeance against rebels. . . . These threats have had no influence upon my men but to make them fight with desperation and that highsouled courage which characterizes the patriot who is willing to die in defence of his country, liberty and his honor, God and Texas, victory or death.
The Mexicans had effected little by their cannonade, their guns being only field pieces of light calibre. The Texans, however, were worn by constant vigilance and frequent alarms in expectation of an assault.

After the last of Santa Anna's troops had arrived, on March 2, they took three days to rest. On the fifth the Mexican general held a council of war and determined on an assault the next day. In the meantime, Madame Candelaria had entered the Alamo to nurse Colonel Bowie.

"After fighting like a demon for ten days," continued the centenarian, every muscle in her wrinkled face twitching as she warmed up to the most tragic part of her story, "brave Colonel Travis got word that no more men could come to his aid. He knew then that there was no hope, but he never thought of such a thing as giving up the Alamo; no, not he. He called his men together at night, told them how matters stood, and drawing a line on the ground with his sword, said: 'Those who want to fight it out with me come inside that line, and those who have had enough and think they can escape go outside.' All stepped over the line to Travis' side but one Mexican. Some say he escaped. I do not know what became of him.

"All day and all night long there was shooting with cannons and with rifles. Sometimes the Mexicans got brave and advanced in small parties, but they were always driven back. God must have been with the Texans up to the last day, for not a man was killed until then, although bombs and cannon balls came thick and fast inside the fort at times, and bullets kept whizzing through the air.

"All this time I was taking care of good Colonel Bowie. Besides his fever he was suffering from a fall from a platform. He was not able to get out into the yard to fight, but he would stay with his men, and I nursed him as well as I could.

"With so many in the fort, and with working and shooting going on all about, it was not easy to take care of a man with a fever. But it made little difference, well or sick was all the same after Santa Anna's savage men broke into the fort. All were shot, clubbed or bayoneted to death together.

"Between three and four o'clock in the morning of March 6, Sunday, the Mexican forces were formed for assault. The troops were divided into four columns and each column was supplied with scaling ladders, crowbars and axes. The cavalry were drawn around the fort to prevent any attempt at escape, but, laws! there wasn't any need of that!

"Through the gray light of the morning the bugle sounded, and the bands began playing the Spanish air of 'Deguelo' (cut throat). It was the signal of no quarter. The troops came on a run. The men in the Alamo were ready for them, and they were received with a fire from the artillery and rifles which must have killed scores.

"The column headed for the northern wall was driven back in a hurry by Davy Crockett and his men. The attack on the eastern and western walls failed, and then all four columns hurried around to the north side of the Alamo and were driven forward like cattle, by the blows and curses of their officers.

"There was an awful drove of them—more men than I had ever seen together or ever have since. Once again the Texans drove them back, but on the next trial they scaled the wall, tumbling over it twenty at a time, while the retreating Texans shot them at a frightful rate. The Mexicans carried the redoubt at the sally port and swarmed into the convent yard, driving the defenders into the convent and hospital.

"It was an awful scene—Mexicans and Texans all mixed up. The range was too short for shooting, so they clubbed their rifles and fought hand to hand. The terrible bowie knife did great service. Some of the enemy turned the captured cannon against the soft adobe walls and began firing. Soon all was bang! bang! smoke, swearing and general confusion. Crazed men were fighting everywhere, bullets rattled against the stones and blood spattered all about. Oh, there was never anything so bad before and I know there never has been since.

"The Texans fought from room to room in the convent, using their clubbed rifles and their bowie knives so long as they had life in them. Colonel Travis and Colonel Bonham fell dead early in the struggle near the door. Twice the Mexicans fired a howitzer loaded with grapeshot into the big room of the hospital. Fifteen Texans were found dead in that room and the bodies of forty-two Mexicans lay just outside.

"The last of the fight took place in the church, into which the Mexicans poured in droves, having got through the stockade. Seeing that it was all up with the defenders, Major T. C. Evans started for the powder magazine to blow up the building, as agreed upon by the defenders. But as he entered the door he was shot dead. I shudder when I think what would have happened if he had succeeded. I wouldn't be here, that's certain; no, there wouldn't have been even one survivor of the Alamo. Poor Davy Crockett was killed near the entrance to the church, his rifle in his hands. He was the last to die.

"I had hard work keeping Colonel Bowie on his couch. He got hold of his two pistols and began firing them off, shouting all the while to his men not to give up. He was raving. I had moved his cot to the arched room to the left of the entrance to the church.

"Finally a bullet whizzed through the door, grazing my chin—see, it left a scar which is there to-day—and killed Bowie. I had the Colonel in my arms. I was just giving him a drink. Mrs. Dickenson and her child had gone into the room opposite the one I was in. A wounded man, Walters, I think was his name, ran into that room with Mexicans after him. They shot him and then hoisted his body high on their bayonets until his blood ran down on them.

"At nine o'clock the Alamo had fallen. Not one of its defenders was alive. It seemed to me that the fighting lasted days instead of only a few hours.

"The Mexicans spared all of us women and the children in the fort. The survivors were Mrs. Dickenson and her child; Mrs. Alsbury, a niece and adopted daughter of Governor Veramendi, and her little sister, who had gone to the Alamo with Colonel Bowie, their brother-in-law; a negro boy, servant of Colonel Travis, and myself. They all died long, long ago, and poor old Señora Candelaria cannot live much longer.

"After the fighting was ended, five men who had hidden themselves were found by the victors. By this time Santa Anna had left his shelter and come to the shattered fort. The five men were brought before him. A kind officer asked that they be kept prisoners, but Santa Anna laughed and ordered his soldiers to kill the men with their bayonets.

"Then, by order of Santa Anna, the bodies of all the dead Texans were piled in a heap with brush and wood and burned. That was the end of the heroes of that great struggle. Is it any wonder that the old senora's thin blood runs a little faster whenever she hears 'Remember the Alamo?'"

Señora Candelaria did not tell the story as connectedly as it is here set down. She was very feeble then, but possibly realizing that her end was near she threw all of the fire left in her worn old brain into the telling. Sitting in the sunshine in sight of the Alamo she loved so much, she unfolded the narrative slowly, with frequent intervals for rest. She spoke mostly in Spanish, with occasionally a sentence in broken English. Her voice had lost its force, but her hands had not. Her gestures were eloquent. Much of the story was told by gestures, for which words have been supplied.

Apart from her wonderful experience in the Alamo, Señora Candelaria's life was full of incident. She was born amid turmoil. Her parents, Don Jose Antonio and Señora Castanon, led a party of settlers along the Rio Grande in 1785. They halted for a night on the bank of the river where Laredo now stands. That night they were attacked by Indians. During the panic which ensued, while the settlers were shouting, clapping their hands and swaying the bushes in order to lead the savages astray as to their number, the future Madame Candelaria was born. After soldiers from Rio Grande had driven the Indians away, the settlers returned and founded the town of Laredo. There the battle-born Mexican child grew to womanhood, noted for her beauty. When she was eighteen she married and moved to San Antonio. Her first husband was killed by Indians while on a surveying expedition. She married again, and her second husband met an equally violent death. She had three sons, only one of whom lived to manhood.

The State of Texas long ago voted her a small pension, and she lived in a little cottage near the Alamo. Toward the end she grew blind, and tottered the last few steps of her long road to the grave in darkness.

Texas will see that her memory is kept green.
Many authentic accounts of the Alamo's fall can be read here.