Lee at the Alamo
Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee strolled through the streets of San Antonio. It was a bright February morning, the air mild and moist: almost a promise of spring. But, as Lee knew from his service on the Texas frontier, such promises were more easily made than kept. Another norther might yet howl down to cover the ground with snow and wrap ice around hopeful young leaf buds.
You never could tell with Texas weather. And you never could tell with Texas politics. More promises there had been made than kept, too. For all his efforts, Governor Sam Houston hadn’t been able to keep his state in the Union. A secession convention had voted Texas out of the Union. Once a referendum ratified that vote, it would join the Confederate States, whatever the Confederate States were or would become.
As Commander of the Department of Texas (the U.S. Department of Texas, a distinction that would have been meaningless before the North elected Abe Lincoln President), Lee found himself in a delicate position, which was putting it mildly. He wished illness hadn’t kept Brigadier General David Twiggs from assuming command of the department a couple of months before. Then the responsibility would have lain heavy on someone else’s shoulders. With it pressing down on his, he felt like Atlas trying to bear up under the weight of the heavens.
Nothing has happened yet. He’d told himself the same thing every day since the secession convention met. Every quiet day was another day won, another day in which reason and good sense still prevailed against the madness tearing the country to pieces.
Virginia remained in the Union. If the Old Dominion left the United States, Lee feared he might have to go with her. How could a man fight against his own state? But for the time being he himself remained an officer in the U.S. Army. And he would do his duty as an Army officer, wherever that duty took him—and took the United States, and took the new-hatched Confederate States.
In the meantime . . . In the meantime, a cardinal chirruped at him from an evergreen bush. He smiled back at the bird, liking the splash of color it lent the drab late-winter world.
San Antonio wasn’t such a bad town, no matter how close to the frontier it lay. It held close to 10,000 people, divided more or less equally among Americans, Germans, and Mexicans. Old men among the latter remembered when this was an outpost of the Spanish Empire. They had become Mexicans when Mexico broke free from Spain, and Texans after Houston beat Santa Anna. They’d turned into Americans when Texas joined the Union. Now they were suddenly on the point of finding themselves Confederates. If any of the abrupt changes in nationality altered the way they lived by so much as a cent’s worth, Lee couldn’t see it.
The square centering on the Alamo was purely Mexican in its architecture. Some of the cabins were of stakes plastered with mud. Others, larger, were built with adobe bricks. Those had thatched roofs with wide overhangs to keep rain from eating into the unbaked mud. Some were still their original brownish hue; owners had given others washes of white or yellow or blue. The thick bricks fought San Antonio’s savage summer heat as well as anything could.
Lee had first seen the Alamo when he came to Texas fifteen years before to serve in the Mexican War. Then it had still been scarred from the fight Colonel Travis, Jim Bowie, David Crockett, and their fellow Texas patriots put up against Santa Anna’s vastly larger army back in the 1830s. In 1849, Major E. B. Babbitt repaired the building so the Army could use it as a quartermaster depot. The new roof and the arched front were of his construction.
Eyeing the place with a military engineer’s perspective, Lee nodded approval. If anything, the fortress was more defensible now than it had been in Travis’ day. The new outwalls enclosed a much smaller perimeter. Men on them wouldn’t be stretched so thin as the Texans had been a generation earlier. They’d won everlasting glory, but only at the cost of their lives.
If he had to defend the place, his own garrison wouldn’t be much bigger than the one that had served under Colonel Travis. There were, all in all, about 2,600 U.S. soldiers in the Department of Texas. But they were spread thin, divided among dozens of forts and encampments along a frontier hundreds of miles long.
Military expediency said he ought to concentrate them somewhere: probably here in San Antonio. The only trouble was, he couldn’t. No telegraph lines stretched to most of those scattered strongpoints. Sending out riders would eat up time he knew he didn’t have.
Worse still, he feared not all his soldiers and officers would obey his commands. Many of them came from the South: the South now splitting away from the Stars and Stripes. And most of those men were more passionately attached to their section than Lee was himself.
A Mexican drove a two-wheeled cart piled high with vegetables past Lee. The burro in harness didn’t seem big enough for the job. Lee knew how the poor, overworked beast had to feel. The cart’s large, ungreased wheels creaked and squealed. The driver gravely lifted his wide-brimmed straw hat in salute to Lee.
With equal gravitas, the commander of the Department of Texas returned the courtesy. The way things looked to him, few Mexicans worked as hard as they might. Lee loathed idleness and indolence above almost all other things. No one could say this fellow wasn’t busy, though. And some of his lettuces and radishes and onions were very fine.
The produce vendor’s wagon rattled on toward the German part of town on the north back of the San Antonio River. There, fair, bushy-bearded men in plug hats had built snug homes of the golden local limestone. Most of the houses were small, but they were all neat, with roofs of slate or tile. A greater contrast to the ramshackle Mexican quarter would have been hard to imagine.
Many American houses were made of stone, too, but set back from the street rather than right up against it. Some were of brick, and rose to three stories. Lumber hereabouts was scarce and expensive; hardly anyone built with it. Even the white picket fences that marked off gardens and flower beds cost a pretty penny.
An uncommonly large group of men—fifteen or twenty—rode into the square the Alamo dominated. Almost all of them were young—Lee saw no one he would have thought older than thirty-five. Every one of them was armed, some with a musket, some with a shotgun—a good cavalry weapon—some with a revolver or two. One of them had tied a strip of red flannel around his left arm, up near the shoulder.
He noticed Lee’s blue U.S. Army uniform and rode up to him. Fanning the air with his hat to put down some of the dust he’d raised, he asked, “And who might you be, sir?” He spoke civilly enough, but with the plain expectation of being answered.
Lee saw no reason not to oblige him, saying, “I am a lieutenant colonel in the Army of the United States of America, and have the honor to command the Army’s Department of Texas. And who, sir, are you?”
“Robert Lee, eh?” The stranger stared down at him from horseback. He was a big, broad-shouldered ruffian, with long, greasy hair and a beard that straggled down his chest. “You’re just the fellow we’re looking for, by thunder!” Several of his men—for they plainly followed his lead—nodded.
“Who, sir, are you?” Lee repeated. He stayed polite, but a little iron came into his voice. He was the Commander of the Department of Texas, and expected to have his questions answered the first time.
“Me?” The fellow seemed astonished that anyone should need to enquire. “Why, I’m Ben McCulloch, that’s who!”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. McCulloch.” Lee raised his own hat from his head for a moment. “And you are looking for me because . . . ?” He waited, the very image of attentiveness.
“I was looking for you on account of I’m a colonel in the militia of the great state of Texas, that’s why.” McCulloch tapped his red flannel armband as if it were a rank badge. Perhaps, at the moment, it was.
“Do you require aid from the United States for some reason?” Lee asked, hoping against hope. He even went so far as to propose a reason: “Is that devil Cortinas on the loose again, for instance?” The year before, he’d led cavalry to chase bandit chief Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas away from Brownsville, near the Gulf of Mexico, and back over the Rio Grande.
Ben McCulloch—Colonel Ben McCulloch—shook his head and laughed scornfully. “Nah, that son of a bitch is still skulkin’ down below the border. Long as he leaves white folks alone, I don’t give a damn what he does amongst the greasers.”
Lee frowned at the needless profanity, but agreed with the sentiment. “Well, then, ah, Colonel” —he used the rank and denied it at the same time— “perhaps you will be so good as to tell me what I can do for you. Since you say you do not need the Army’s help, I cannot imagine that you were looking for me in particular.” A genuinely modest man, he meant that.
“I don’t need the U.S. Army’s help, Colonel Lee,” McCulloch said, his voice deep and raspy and fierce. “I need the God-damned U.S. Army gone.”
“I beg your pardon?” Lee knew—knew only too well—that Texas was in the process of dissolving the bonds linking her to the Union. He knew as much, yes. That a jumped-up militia colonel should dare to speak to him so took him aback all the same.
“Gone,” McCulloch repeated, as if to a simpleton. “If you will surrender your forts and your guns and muskets and munitions without kicking up a fuss, you and any of your men who don’t care to join the great Southern cause can march on out of Texas, and nobody will touch a hair on your head. But if you say no, sir, I cannot answer for the consequences, and that is the Lord’s truth.”
“You are joking!” Lee blurted.
“Neither joking nor jesting,” McCulloch said. The mounted toughs behind him nodded as if their heads were on springs.
`”But surely you can see how absurd it is for you to come threatening me with no more than a handful of soldiers” —Lee very much gave McCulloch’s followers the benefit of the doubt— “and demand that I yield not only myself but also the whole Department of Texas up to you.”
“I’ve only got a handful of men along with me on account of I reckoned we could do this quick and easy and peaceful-like,” McCulloch answered. “You have the name of a reasonable man, Colonel Lee, and I was hopin’ you’d go ahead and do what was reasonable for Texas.”
“What you want, you mean.” Lee had no trouble translating that into plain English.
Colonel McCulloch shrugged in the saddle. “However you please. But if you don’t feel like actin’ reasonable . . . Well, in that case I can have me two thousand Texans in San Antonio by day after tomorrow.”
The U.S. Army garrison in town numbered between three and four hundred. No doubt McCulloch was stretching—Texans were past masters at it, in Lee’s experience—but even so. . . . The weather might be springlike, but winter lived in Lee.
“If you take up arms against your country, you plunge your state over a precipice.” Even here, even now, Lee would not name the Confederacy, an organization whose legitimacy he was at the moment obliged to deny. He did add, “One certain truth is that it is easier to start a war than to end one.”
“I don’t aim to start a war. I aim to take for Texas what belongs to Texas,” McCulloch said. Again, the men at his back nodded to show their support.
“A man may aim for one target but unfortunately hit another,” Lee said. “And the forts and munitions in Texas do not belong to your state, however much they may have benefited you in days gone by. They belong to the government of the United States of America.”
“We are done with that government, Colonel Lee. We will have no truck with the damned abolitionist from Illinois who has grabbed ahold of the reins,” McCulloch ground out. “I heard tell you were a Southern man yourself, sir. You talk like one. How can you stomach taking orders from a no-good son of a bitch who’s only going to steal your property?”
“I am a soldier. A soldier has no politics.” Lee would rather have seen any of the other three presidential candidates in the crowded election of 1860 inaugurated come March 4. But it was going to be Abraham Lincoln, even if he had won only forty percent of the popular vote. Not showing that on his face or in his voice, Lee continued, “I aim to obey all legal and proper orders from the executive branch.”
“Legal and proper, yes.” Ben McCulloch bore down hard on the words. “But what happens when he tells you you’ve got to start taking niggers away from honest white men?”
“He has promised not to interfere with chattel slavery where it exists,” Lee answered uncomfortably.
McCulloch hooted in derision. “Yes, and a promise is worth its weight in gold, too. When he does what he does and calls in the Army to help him do it, that’ll be just exactly too late, won’t it? Texas won’t put up with getting shoved around by a pack of nigger-lovers, so we’ll stick with the other states as think the same way.”
“He is not even President yet. You are leaving before the train comes to the station,” Lee said.
“Like I told you a minute ago, better too soon than too late,” Colonel McCulloch retorted. “Now let’s get down to brass tacks. Are you going to turn over those forts and those guns and those munitions to us, or not?”
Lee’s eyes filled with tears. “Has it come to this?” he whispered.
“Damn straight it has. What’s your answer?” McCulloch glared down at him.
The Devil take you. Lee didn’t say it—it wasn’t his style—but he could feel it inside of himself. It stiffened his back, which was stiff enough already. He felt as if he stood on a level with the Texan, regardless of whether he had to look up in fact. “My answer, Colonel, is no,” he said. Iacta alia est went through his mind, as it had through Julius Caesar’s.
McCulloch gaped. The Texas militia officer hadn’t looked for a flat refusal. “I ought to shoot you down like the yellow dog you are!” he said.
“I cannot stop you. If you want war so badly, let it begin here.” Lee touched the brim of his hat. “Otherwise, if you will excuse me . . .” He walked away, not looking back. The Texans’ stares bored into the skin between his shoulder blades; he could feel them. But the militiamen did not open fire, whether out of respect for him or lingering awe of the government they craved to abandon, he never knew.
Major George Thomas was a fellow Virginian. Unlike Lee, he had always placed the Union ahead of his state or his section. Now Lee found himself in the same stance, however little it pleased him. Thomas, then, was the logical man with whom to discuss the Department of Texas’ predicament.
Having heard him out, the younger officer said, “They should have killed you when they had the chance, sir. They’ll be sorry they didn’t. You’re far and away the best man we’ve got.”
“You give me too much credit,” Lee murmured.
“Like blazes I do,” Thomas replied. “All the troops in San Antonio respect you. They all admire you.” He paused to light a cigar.
“They will not all follow me, not against the revolutionary government of Texas,” Lee said dolefully. “Too many of them are in accord with its aims. And the revolutionaries are in earnest. I do not know if the self-styled Colonel McCulloch can have his promised two thousand armed men here by day after tomorrow, but bands of desperadoes have been riding into town all day.”
“Yes, sir. I know. I’ve seen them, too.” Thomas did not seem impressed. “A lot of ’em headed straight to the taverns to drink themselves blind, or else to the brothels to scratch a different itch.”
“Indeed,” Lee said with fastidious distaste. “This being so, it behooves us to make haste.”
“‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,’” Thomas agreed. Lee raised an eyebrow. The ginger-bearded major grinned at him. “Macbeth. Shakespeare wouldn’t have made a half-bad officer. He knew what was what, all right.”
“Oh, I recognized the line. Something to what you say, too, I shouldn’t wonder, though it hadn’t occurred to me till now,” Lee replied. If he didn’t read the Bible to make time spin by at a little fort in the middle of nowhere, he commonly did read the Bard. He far preferred Shakespeare to trashy, vulgar modern novels. He came back to the business at hand: “We had better find out who stands with us and who in opposition.”
“I was going to say we’d better make sure the ones who want to be Confederates don’t grab the chance to run off and tell this son of a bitch of a McCulloch what we’ve got in mind, too.” George Thomas chuckled. “But since I don’t know that my own self, it’s not likely they will, either.”
“I will gladly tell you what I purpose doing. If you have a notion you think better, believe me when I tell you I would be delighted to hear it.” Lee spoke for some little while.
Major Thomas listened intently. After his superior finished, he let out a soft whistle. Then he said, “Well, sir, if we can get there, that sounds to me about the best way to play the hand we’ve got. The only trouble is, it’s a bad hand any which way. Chances are we won’t end up any better off than the last batch of fellows who holed up there.”
“That did cross my mind, yes,” Lee said. “But the Texans’ demands are intolerable. We may not win—”
“We can’t win,” Thomas broke in.
Lee nodded, conceding the point. “Nevertheless, we must make the effort. An open break will show the country the madness engulfing it.”
Thomas puffed out his cheeks and blew a stream of smoke through parted lips. “Well, let’s get cracking, then.”
Four in the morning. Blackness cloaked San Antonio. The moon had set more than an hour earlier. Jupiter and Saturn still shone close together in the southwest, but neither their light nor that of the fixed stars let Lee see anything but the faintest and dimmest shapes.
Behind him, Major Thomas hissed, “Remember, you bastards, keep it quiet. Broken step—no marching. And no cussing if you trip or step in some horseshit. Save it for when we get there, you hear?”
No one answered. Lee had to hope that meant the couple of hundred men he led fully grasped what he and Thomas had been talking about. Another thirty soldiers stood guard on the men who had declared for the Confederacy. Lee hoped they wouldn’t have to shoot anyone, not only because losing good men who happened to have politics different from his grieved him, but also because gunfire would give the game away to the Texas militiamen.
Or it might. Most of them were asleep at this hour. The ones who weren’t were carousing for all they were worth. Ben McCulloch already had more men in town than Lee boasted loyalists. But he hadn’t even thought to set out sentries. The U.S. soldiers slowly moved through the pitchy streets, and not a soul challenged them.
In a near-whisper, Thomas said, “You know something, sir? We could clean out the lot of them without breaking a sweat.”
“We could clean out this lot of them. More would come,” Lee replied. “Besides, I will not be the first to open fire on my countrymen. If they want war so badly, they must begin it.”
“Do you think they’d be so mad?” The tiny voice in which the other U.S. officer spoke stressed his reluctance to believe it.
“They do not demand our powder for a fireworks show, nor our bayonets to beat them into plowshares,” Lee said. His foot came down in a hole he hadn’t seen—couldn’t have seen. He stumbled and almost fell. Something most un-Christian came close to crossing his lips. He bit it back. Flailing his arms, he kept himself upright. Major Thomas caught his elbow and helped steady him. He wondered how Thomas did it. Could he see in the dark like a cat?
“Just luck, sir. Luck and hearing where you were,” the younger man answered when Lee asked.
The U.S. Army soldiers stole through San Antonio’s silent streets. They weren’t as silent themselves as Lee would have liked. But then, no commander ever thought his men moved quietly enough. As long as McCulloch’s men failed to realize they were out and about, he couldn’t really complain.
Lee had thought he knew San Antonio well. And he and his men were going less than half a mile. All the same, they took two wrong turns—at least two. Had the night been overcast so they couldn’t steer by the heavens, they might never have found their way at all. As things were, Lee thought more than half an hour passed before the arched top of the front of the building he sought blotted out the stars near the horizon.
A man on the roof saw, or perhaps more likely heard, them coming. “Halt!” he called softly. “Who comes?”
“Friends,” Lee answered, also in a low voice. They would be nervous in there. If the militiamen had got wind of this move . . .
“Give me the word, then, ‘friend,’” the watcher up there said.
“Liberty.” Since Lee had chosen the word, he knew it, sure enough.
He heard the soldier call, “You can open up, Fred. It’s the right bunch.” Someone—presumably Fred—unbarred the stout door beneath that arched front. Torches and lanterns burned inside. To Lee’s dark-accustomed eyes, they blazed bright as the sun. He could see—now he could see—several of his men lifting hands against the sudden, startling glare, so he wasn’t the only one it caught off-guard.
“Made it!” Major Thomas said: the first exultant murmur Lee had ever heard.
“We did,” he agreed. Since they’d made it, he could raise his voice a little. “Come on, men,” he said, and hurried forward. In a neat column of fours, the blue-clad soldiers followed him into the Alamo.
The sun came up around seven. By then, Lee and the new loyalist garrison were busy making their stronghold as defensible as they could. Lee did not care to recall that the Alamo had fallen before. Despite the war cry from the Texans’ fight for independence, he would sooner have forgotten that.
Bricks and mortar turned the row of windows above the entrance into firing slits. The stone wall around the compound was three feet thick. He put out as many extra ladders as his men could find, and had them nail together a few more from planks. The faster they could get up to any threatened part, the better.
That he had ladders to deploy was one of the advantages of holing up in a quartermaster depot. There were others. Ammunition would not be a worry. He had plenty of cartridges for the Model 1855 rifle muskets most of his men carried. There were also bullets and loose powder for smoothbores and for revolvers, crates of percussion caps for the six-shooters, and Maynard percussion tapes for the rifle muskets.
Nor would the U.S. soldiers starve. Hardtack was uninspiring, but it kept body and soul together. The same went for salt pork. This being San Antonio, the depot also boasted several hundred pounds of spicy Mexican sausage. It was tastier than salt pork, but also more likely to give a man the runs. The quartermaster sergeant proudly showed off tobacco and three small barrels of coffee, still in the bean to prevent adulteration.
Just as the sun rose, the men who’d guarded the pro-Confederate soldiers came in. They’d released their quondam comrades once secrecy mattered no more. As soon as they arrived, Lee turned loose the handful of quartermaster’s assistants who also favored the South. Then he set his men to nailing planks to the inside of the doorway and piling anything hard and heavy they could find behind it.
And he ordered the men to mount a flagpole on the Alamo’s roof and to fly the Stars and Stripes from it. The American flag’s canton displayed thirty-four stars. Lee was obliged to believe that each state a star represented still belonged to the Union. The entity using the Stars and Bars had no legal existence. The Lone Star flag was the flag of a state in the United States, even if Texas’ referendum was about to ratify a secession convention that had declared otherwise.
“What do we do now, sir?” George Thomas asked as the sun’s first rays touched the red, white, and blue.
Looking up from the walled-off compound behind the Alamo, Lee doffed his hat to salute the colors. Then he said, “We await developments, Major. I am at war with no man and no government. If any man or government be at war with me, deeds must inform me of that unfortunate fact.”
For developments he had not long to wait. Somebody started shouting in the square in front of the Alamo. The shouts were not ones of delight. “Will you talk to that fellow?” Thomas asked.
“I will talk to anyone who will talk to me,” Lee answered.
He went into the Alamo and up to one of the newly bricked-in windows. Out on the bare dirt of the plaza in front of the former mission stood a Texan with a strip of red flannel tied around his left sleeve and a flag of truce in his hand: not Ben McCulloch but a younger man, an emissary.
“You wish something of us?” Lee called through the narrow opening in the brickwork. The sharp smell of still-wet mortar filled his nostrils.
“Damned right I do!” the Texan said angrily. “What in blue blazes do you sons” —he checked himself— “you people reckon you’re up to?”
“Protecting the property and the sovereignty of the United States of America,” Lee replied. “I swore an oath to do so against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I aim to keep it.”
“But Texas ain’t in the United States no more!” the man outside cried, with more passion than grammar.
“There, I fear, we must disagree,” Lee said.
“Colonel Ben, he’ll make you sorry for playing the fool,” the Texan predicated. “He’ll blow the lot of you to smithereens.”
“And start a senseless war against his own government? Believe me, sir, I hope not. With all my heart, I do,” Lee said.
“You’ll be sorry—that’s all I’ve got to tell you.” The Texan turned on his heel and stormed out of the plaza.
Lee did not leave the windowslit. A soldier brought him a tin cup of coffee, which he sipped gratefully; he’d been up a long time. As he’d expected, Ben McCulloch rode into the square less than a quarter of an hour later. The militia commander cupped both hands in front of his mouth and bawled, “Lee! Colonel Lee! You there?”
“I am here,” Lee answered calmly.
“Are you going to give us what’s ours or not?”
“If I have anything of yours, sir, nothing will please me more than to furnish it to you. But I may not give you anything belonging to the United States.”
“Nothing in Texas belongs to the United States any more,” McCulloch said furiously.
“As I told your comrade not long ago, we differ on that score.”
McCulloch fished out a gold-cased pocket watch—a finer timepiece than Lee would have expected him to own. He flipped it open and made a show of studying the hands. “I’ve got twenty minutes till eight, Colonel. I’ll give you a day—twenty-four hours on the nose—to come to your senses and hand over what belongs to us anyways. If you don’t, me and my boys’ll come in and take it.”
“If you are mad enough to make the attempt, sir, I must tell you you will not enjoy a hospitable reception,” Lee said.
“Twenty-four hours,” McCulloch said grimly. “After that, by God, we’ll see who enjoys what.” He rode away, his horse’s hoofs clopping amidst vast silence.
Lee stayed at the windowslit. Men—he was sure they would be armed men—began peering out at the Alamo from the buildings and alleyways across the plaza. He had no spyglass to read their expressions at such a distance, but he doubted he needed one. Could their looks have killed, he would have lain dead on the badly planed floorboards here.
Footsteps behind him made him turn. He nodded to George Thomas. “Do you think we can hold out two weeks?” his fellow Virginian asked.
“It depends on how vigorously they press the assault, of course.” Considering the situation as an abstract military problem helped ease Lee’s mind. “Most of all, I should say, it depends on whether they command any proper artillery. Why do you ask in that particular way?”
“Because Lincoln doesn’t take office till the fourth proximo,” Thomas replied. “No matter what happens up till then, Buchanan won’t do a thing about it.” He didn’t try to hide his contempt. “Old Head-in-the-Sand, that’s him.”
“He is the President. He is your commander-in-chief.” Lee’s voice was starchy with rebuke.
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, in a way that couldn’t mean anything but No, sir. “I respect the office, of course. I truly do. But I’m afraid respecting James Buchanan is beyond my poor, humble powers. Sir.”
Since Lee himself had no great personal regard for the current inhabitant of the White House, he let that go. He had no great personal regard for Abraham Lincoln, either. But Thomas had to be correct in guessing that Lincoln would make a more energetic chief executive. Nothing this side of a kitchen stool could make one less energetic. Lee did say, “The Texans might have done better to attack at once. Now we have another day to strengthen things here.”
This time, Thomas’ “Yes, sir” sounded sincere. He went on, “Odds are, though, that they’re no more ready to come at us than we are to hold ’em off. Didn’t you tell me McCulloch looked ready to swallow his chaw when you said he couldn’t have what he wanted?”
Lee hadn’t phrased it that way, which didn’t make the younger officer wrong. And Thomas had a point, an important point, that Lee hadn’t considered. He’d unconsciously assumed that the Texas militiamen would show the same automatic competence as his own long-service veterans. Most of the Texans, though, including many if not all of their leaders, would be rank amateurs, one short step above Cortinas’ bandits—if that.
As his own men worked, Lee wondered what Ben McCulloch was doing. Conferring by wire with state authorities in Austin? Lee doubted it. Despite the secession convention, Sam Houston remained governor, and he would have opposed a move like McCulloch’s with every fiber of his being. He was doing everything in his power to keep Texas in the Union. But his power shrank by the day: indeed, by the minute. And Edward Clark, the lieutenant governor, was as much a secessionist as any South Carolina fire-eater.
More and more militiamen rode into San Antonio. Maybe McCulloch hadn’t been stretching things so much when he said he could soon bring in a couple of thousand of them. The alleged officers with their red flannel armbands did less and less to keep them under control as their numbers swelled.
Taking advantage of the truce, militiamen showed themselves all around the Alamo. Some were obviously drunk. They shook their fists at any blue-uniformed soldiers they saw. They cursed them, too; Lee had long since resigned himself to the foul mouths on the frontier. Some even pointed muskets or pistols at U.S. Army men. Lee had ordered his troops not to shoot first no matter what. To his relief, the militiamen didn’t open fire ahead of schedule, either.
Night fell. The regulars inside the Alamo worked on. The irregulars outside lined up for supper at stewpots hung over large fires. Then they started carousing. Guitars twanged. Women laughed. Men sang raucously. Were they holding a dance out there? By everything Lee could hear and glimpse, that was just what they were doing.
He snatched a few hours’ restless sleep on a lumpy mattress plopped atop an iron bed frame. “Have me awakened at once for anything even the least bit untoward, and at half past six in any case,” he told Major Thomas.
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, and not another word. Lee needed no other words. He knew he could rely on Thomas.
No one rushed in the rouse him in the middle of the night. He woke up on his own, a few minutes before six. The eastern sky was just beginning to go gray. He broke his fast on hardtack and Mexican sausage and two cups of the quartermaster sergeant’s excellent coffee.
Then he had nothing to do but wait. He took his place at the windowslit through which he’d conversed with Colonel McCulloch the day before. From time to time, he checked his own watch, then slid it back into his pocket. The appointed moment rapidly approached. Would McCulloch prove punctual? Lee had no idea whether he could rely on the Texan even that far.
The event proved he could. McCulloch rode into the plaza in front of the Alamo at twenty-five to eight. “Colonel Lee!” he shouted. “You there, Colonel Lee?”
Since McCulloch’s men surrounded his own stronghold, Lee found it unlikely that he should be anywhere else. Nevertheless, he answered, “I am here, Colonel McCulloch.”
“Right.” McCulloch went straight to business: “The great state of Texas is no longer part of the misbegotten thing that calls itself the United States of America. Since we aren’t, we are taking possession of U.S. property in Texas. Will you give it up to me like a peaceable fella, the way I asked you to this time yesterday?”
“My fixed view, Colonel, is that neither you nor Texas has the right to make any such demand,” Lee said. “That being so, I must refuse. And I must tell you I shall resist any effort on your part to take U.S. government property by force.”
“Oh, you will, will you?” Ben McCulloch made a great show of looking at his pocket watch. When he closed the top, Lee distinctly heard the click. McCulloch said, “The twenty-four hours I gave you to think again are gone. One more chance, though—will you change your mind?”
“No,” Lee said: perhaps the hardest word he’d ever spoken. “On your head be it, then.” McCulloch raised his voice so the bluecoats in the Alamo and his Texans around it could all hear: “The U.S. soldiers won’t give us what’s our property now. On account of they won’t, we’ve got the right to come take it. We’ve got that right, and we’re gonna use it.”
He drew a heavy Colt revolver from the holster on his left hip and took deliberate aim: not at Robert E. Lee through the firing slit, but higher, at an easier target. Lee realized the pistol pointed at the Stars and Stripes streaming above the Alamo. McCulloch pulled the trigger. Flame and a big puff of gunpowder smoke spat from the six-shooter’s muzzle.
The gunshot echoed across the plaza. Lee feared it would echo down through the years. Wild, raucous yells from the Texans said their leader had succeeded in wounding the American flag.
“War!” McCulloch shouted. “By God, let it be war!” He wheeled his horse and rode out of the square.
“If you ask me, sir, you should have had the dirty son of a bitch shot down like the cur dog he is,” George Thomas said. “That would’ve given the fools who follow him something to chew on, damned if it wouldn’t.”
With a weary sigh, Lee shook his head. “Whoever succeeded him would not be much worse, and might even represent an improvement. This being so, what point to puncturing McCulloch’s pretensions?”
“I don’t know about that, sir, but seems to me there was plenty of point to puncturing his liver and lights,” Major Thomas said.
Lee peered out once more through the slit in the bricked-in window. “Good heavens! What are they playing at now?”
“Let me see, sir?” Thomas asked. Lee stepped aside. Thomas looked for himself. His grunt of astonishment might have come from a hog suddenly seeing itself in a mirror. Lee made no such uncouth noise, but he was similarly amazed. Thomas went on in words: “Dog my cats if that’s not a battering ram!”
And so it was. Where the Texans had found such a stout tree trunk in this land of chaparral Lee couldn’t imagine, but find it they had. Not only had they found it, they’d plated the business end with corrugated sheet iron. The weapon was ancient and ugly. It also might prove most effective.
He and Thomas weren’t the only besieged U.S. soldiers to see it, of course. “Shall we kill ’em, Colonel?” a man called to Lee.
The Texans were within range. With a rifle musket, a decent shot could hit what he aimed at out to a quarter of a mile. The smoothbores the new weapons replaced weren’t accurate past a hundred yards. That wasn’t what made Lee stop and think. Yes, Ben McCulloch had fired a shot at the American flag. But neither he nor his men had yet made any true effort to hurt the U.S. soldiers in the Alamo compound. Wouldn’t opening up on the militiamen carrying the ram feel too much like murder then?
But what if the bluecoats didn’t open up on the Texans? What if they let them smash down the door and seize the Alamo? Wouldn’t that say the federal government was only playing when it declared the seceding states had no right to its property within their borders?
It was a nasty dilemma. Or it would have been, if the Texans hadn’t solved it for Lee. Somewhere near the Alamo, a bugle brayed: either that or McCulloch’s men had found some reason to torture a poor, defenseless donkey. No, it was a bugle, and a signal. Pistols and longarms banged all around the perimeter. Sudden plumes of gray smoke marked the shooters. And a bullet smacked the bricks warding the window behind which Lee stood. Six inches lower and it would have torn into him.
A cry from the wall near the rebuilt Alamo said at least one U.S. soldier was hit. Lee nodded to himself. However little he might like it, now his course was perfectly clear. “We have been attacked,” he said. “We shall defend ourselves by all the means at our command.”
His men had all the formidable discipline the U.S. Army instilled in—beat into—its regulars. Not a single soldier returned fire till Lee gave the order. Once he did, though . . .
Disciplined or not, no one would have claimed the Texans weren’t brave. Shouting “Hurrah!”, the men carrying the battering ram charged across the plaza toward the Alamo’s barricaded entrance. Unlike their comrades in the militia, they didn’t even have firearms with which to defend themselves against the fire from the U.S. Army’s stronghold in Texas.
And they paid a cruel price for their courage. Lee thought the regulars could have kept them from getting any good out of their ram even with smoothbores. Against the new rifle muskets, the battering ram got barely halfway across the plaza before most of the bearers fell. Few of the Texans whose blood puddled in the dirt would ever rise again, either, not till the Last Trump sounded.
When the ram finally fell, the last few men who’d held it pelted back toward cover. Only one made it. The regulars coldly shot the rest in the back. Lee deplored that, but not enough to say anything about it. For one thing, he knew the hard cases who served under him would ignore an order demanding that they show mercy. Issuing an order bound to be disobeyed would only weaken his own authority. For another, war and mercy seldom met. Had those Texans reached safety, they would have snatched up muskets or pistols and tried to kill the U.S. soldiers here. Better not to give them the chance.
The ram lay in the plaza, a symbol of the militiamen’s failure. To order his men forward like that, Ben McCulloch must have imagined the regulars would fire a few shots for honor’s sake and then put out a white flag. If nothing else, he would be disabused of that notion now.
Perhaps thinking along with Lee, Major Thomas asked, “What do you suppose they’ll try next, sir?”
“Something less wasteful of their manpower, one would hope,” Lee replied. “They have more men than we do, and they can replace their losses where we cannot, but their numbers are not unlimited.”
“Getting ordered to stick your hand in the meat grinder isn’t exactly grand for morale, either,” Thomas said.
“Indeed not,” Lee agreed. A couple of the Texans down in the plaza weren’t dead yet. Dead men didn’t make noises like those. Lee, of course, had heard such cries before, more often than he hoped to remember. Some of the inexperienced militiamen would have trouble hardening themselves against them. “Our opponents will need time to realize this is no game, and the pieces taken off the board will not be returned to their starting places for the next match.”
“Nope. They’re gone for good, all right,” Thomas said.
Little by little, the firing eased off. A militiaman showed himself with a large white flag. When no one potted him, he shouted, “Will you let us pick up our wounded?”
“You may do so,” Lee shouted back, and then, to his own men, “Do not fire at them!”
Stretcher-bearers ran forward. The wounded Texans screamed louder as their rescuers moved them. Maybe the doctors could do something for them. Lee hoped so.
In the lull, blue-coated U.S. soldiers smoked cigars or boiled coffee or gnawed on salt pork. No doubt the militiamen were doing the same kinds of things, out there where the regulars couldn’t spy them and draw a bead on them. Quite a few men in the Alamo compound also seized the chance to use the latrine trenches. Lee was sure the Texans out beyond the wall were easing themselves when and as they could, too. Nothing loosened bowels and bladder like a bullet cracking past. Reminding a man he was as mortal as a shoat was the sharpest terror in the world.
After a little time went by, Major Thomas remarked, “Still their move.”
“Yes. They tried the easiest and most obvious way to storm our position first,” Lee answered. “The next most obvious, it seems to me, would be a general attack from all sides at once, hoping to overwhelm us by sheer numbers.”
“Mmm . . .” The younger man mulled that. “Makes sense, all right. Might even work, too.”
“True. It might,” Lee said. “But storming a fortress is a more expensive proposition than defending one. How big a butcher’s bill is McCulloch prepared to pay?” Here with Major Thomas, he didn’t bother giving the Texans’ commander the rank the ruffian claimed.
Nothing much happened for the next couple of hours. Lee heard occasional shouts from outside the Alamo. The militiamen were arguing among themselves about what they ought to do. Lee nodded to himself. Amateurs were prone to such problems. He might consult with his junior officers before giving orders, but there would be no back talk once he did.
It was getting on toward noon before the Texans’ atrocious bugler winded his horn again. A U.S. sergeant shouted to his men: “Watch yourselves, you sorry bastards! They’re up to something!”
George Thomas chuckled wryly. “Couldn’t have put that better myself.”
“Nor I,” Lee said. Officers told enlisted men what to do. Sergeants made them sorry if they didn’t do it right this second. Sergeants mocked officers as softies. Officers, commonly full of genteel scorn, looked down their noses at sergeants. No army could have held together for more than twenty minutes without both.
The Texans started banging away again, all around the Alamo. “Here they come!” somebody inside the fortress yelled. A New Englander, Lee guessed by his accent—in any case, surely not a Texan.
He peered out again through the slit in the window. The Texans were coming, all right, swarms of them. Each swarm included a scaling ladder. If they could get over the walls and inside the compound, they might be able to serve the U.S. soldiers as General Santa Anna’s men had served the Texans defending the Alamo twenty-five years before. Maybe the Texans now would be less inclined to massacre than the Mexicans had been then. But it was war, as Lee had recently reminded himself. Only a fool counted on mercy.
Best to make sure McCulloch’s militiamen didn’t get in, then. Lee needed to issue no orders on that score. The regulars, not a few of them veterans of the Mexican War like him, could see it as plainly as he did. Like the men with the battering ram, the Texans carrying the ladders and the ones who would climb them had to show themselves. When they did, the regulars knocked them over.
There was very little malice in it, and very little fuss. The regulars had a job of work to do, and they did it as well and as neatly as they could. The bullets cracking by them were simply a hazard of their trade. As blacksmiths were liable to get burned and farriers were liable to get kicked by the horses they shod, so soldiers were liable to get shot. Anyone who didn’t care for that possibility needed a different career.
The rifle muskets’ long effective range paid off. The Texans didn’t pull back from even the warmest fire, which did them no good at all. It only added to the number of men the soldiers in blue killed or wounded. One ladder did go up against the wall, not far from the Alamo itself. Whooping Texans climbed it as fast as they could.
That proved not to be fast enough. Ignoring the militiamen’s fire, a U.S. Army second lieutenant emptied first one Colt revolver and then another into the poor devils on the ladder. He shot twelve times in a minute or less, at a range where he hardly needed to aim. By the time he finished, the ladder was bare of climbers. He stepped back. A corporal tipped it over before any more militiamen could nerve themselves to mount it.
“Bravely done,” Lee said.
“It was,” Major Thomas agreed. “A pity the Army doesn’t have some kind of decoration for men who show courage above and beyond the call of duty.”
“You’re right,” Lee said in surprise. The notion had never occurred to him. He wondered why not. Plenty of European armies pinned medals on their soldiers till the poor men could hardly walk. Such incentives had always seemed alien in the sternly republican United States, but perhaps there was such a thing as too pure an adherence to political principle.
Thomas scraped a lucifer against the sole of his boot and lit a twisted stogie. “Here’s hoping we have the chance to give our bright idea to the big cheeses back in Washington. If the Texans gain a lodgement, everything turns . . . what do you call it? Academic, that’s the word I’m after.”
“I hope they would not slaughter us, even after a victory,” Lee said, unhappily aware the garrison, alone against the biggest state in (or, more to the point, at the moment out of) the Union, could not hold out indefinitely. Following Major Thomas’ train of thought, though, he went on, “The powers that be would surely feel less inclined to listen to us if we gave in before exhausting the resources at our disposal.”
“We’ve given McCulloch a proper bloody nose this time around, by God,” Thomas said. “Sounds like his boys are pulling back.”
Lee cocked his head, listening. “So it does. God has been kind to us today.” As the firing eased, the cries of the wounded became more apparent. Lee amended his words: “To most of us, I should say.”
Half an hour later, Ben McCulloch rode up to the Alamo with a flag of truce. A bloodstained bandage was carelessly wrapped around the militia officer’s forehead. He’d likely been in the thick of the fighting, then. Lee thought better of him for that. As McCulloch had before, he shouted, “Colonel Lee!”
“I am at your service, Colonel McCulloch,” Lee replied.
“Lord knows you’ve fought well enough to satisfy your honor now,” McCulloch said. “We’ll let you march away flying your own flag. We’ll feed you till you get over the border. Best bargain you’ll get, Colonel Lee. You know you can’t win in the long run.”
Since that same thought had crossed Lee’s own mind only minutes earlier, he considered the offer more seriously than he would have otherwise. Not without regret, he decided his answer had to stay the same. “I must decline, sir,” he said. “I am not defending my honor. I am defending my government, as I swore to do with my soldier’s oath.”
“Your government’s writ runs here no more,” McCulloch insisted.
“I mean no disrespect to you when I tell you you are mistaken.”
McCulloch glared toward the Alamo. “I mean no disrespect when I tell you that, if you don’t give up, the only way you’ll come out of there is feet first.”
“No one unaware of that chance should ever take the oath to serve his country,” Lee replied placidly.
The militia colonel started to say more. Then, giving it up as a bad job, he spat on the hard earth of the plaza instead. He jerked his horse’s head around in a way that would have made Lee or any other cavalry officer speak sharply to him and rode off.
In the wake of his fury, Lee expected another all-out Texan attack. But McCulloch showed more in the way of shrewdness than Lee credited him with—or perhaps simply realized he couldn’t make his men rush forward again so soon after such a painful repulse. The Texans sniped at U.S. soldiers from cover, but showed themselves as little as they could. Bluecoats fired back as they saw the chance. With their rifle muskets, they had more hope of hitting what they aimed at.
As the sun sank, Lee said, “We will sleep in shifts. I want the walls manned at all times. A night attack strikes me as the insurrectionists’ best chance to gain a foothold within our perimeter.”
“Sounds sensible to me,” George Thomas agreed. “Wonder how long McCulloch’ll need to figure out the same thing.”
“It seems obvious enough to make West Point training scarcely necessary,” Lee said.
“For you, that kind of training wouldn’t be needful, sir,” Thomas replied. “For a Texas backwoodsman? Well, who knows?”
Night fell. Some of the wounded men inside the Alamo continued to moan and groan. Off in the distance, so did some of the wounded Texans. The melancholy chorus kept Lee awake longer than he would have liked—but not much longer. Combat was wearing work, especially for a man past fifty.
He’d left orders to be awakened on the instant if anything the least bit unusual happened. But nothing did. He slept like a drugged man—and so he was, drugged with weariness—till just before sunrise.
He found Major Thomas drinking coffee and nibbling on hardtack. “All quiet?” Lee asked.
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. “Should perk up now that it’s getting light out.” He paused to sip from the tin cup, then resumed: “You know, sir, I expect we’re heroes now, heroes all over the North. ‘The new heroes of the Alamo!’—can’t you just see the headlines in the papers?”
“I care nothing for the newspapers,” Lee said with distaste.
“I know, sir. But the papers’ll care about you,” Thomas predicted, which struck Lee as much too likely to be accurate. The younger man continued, “And in the South, the two of us’ll be the foulest traitors since Judas Iscariot.”
Lee clicked his tongue between his teeth. “I am loyal to my state. But Virginia yet remains in the United States, and the Texans have attacked us with no legal justification of any sort. ‘I want it, so it’s mine!’ is reasoning for children and thieves, not states.”
“If I felt any different, sir, I’d be over there with McCulloch, not in here with you,” Major Thomas said.
“Believe me, Major, I am glad of your company.” Lee briefly set a hand on Thomas’ shoulder. For a man who held so much inside himself, it was an uncommon show of feeling. He was never sorry for it, though.
The next few days were quiet. The Texans kept sniping at the U.S. soldiers, but mounted no great assaults. The bluecoats shot back. One of them picked off a militiaman at upwards of six hundred yards. His friends cheered and carried him through the walled courtyard on their shoulders, as if he’d won a prizefight.
Texas’ voters proved themselves in accord with the secession convention, ratifying the state’s withdrawal from the Union. The militiamen shouted the news to the besieged U.S. soldiers. Under flag of truce, they brought up papers so the bluecoats could see they weren’t making up the news.
“It does not matter,” Lee said. “They have no right to federal property without negotiating its transfer with duly constituted authority, and less than no right to seize it by force.” No doubt the Texans were seizing small forts and outposts up and down the long frontier. No doubt some local U.S. commanders would sympathize with secession and make the seizure easy. Lee did feel a certain sympathy for secession, but none whatever for illegality.
He made sure the men garrisoning the Alamo stayed alert through the night. Sooner or later, Ben McCulloch was bound to realize the cloak of darkness gave him the best hope of breaking into the fortress . . . wasn’t he?
McCulloch was. He set the attack for two nights after the Texas plebiscite. It proved foredoomed. A Texan who favored the Union sneaked through the militiamen’s line after darkness fell and warned the U.S. garrison. The bluecoats let down a rope when he softly called. The local was spry enough to climb it. The soldiers took him to Lee, who had been about to go to bed.
Lee didn’t need long to decide the man—his name was Andrew Crouch—was telling the truth. “They’ll come tonight for sure,” Crouch said. By the way he talked, he’d been born in the Midwest, and come to Texas to better his fortune. He sounded contemptuous as he continued, “They can’t keep a secret for hell, Colonel, and that’s a fact. The way they’re carrying on, I’m surprised you didn’t hear ’em in here.”
“They make a good deal of noise a good deal of the time,” Lee observed, not without scorn of his own. “They are not the best-disciplined troops I have ever encountered.”
“I believe that, by God,” Crouch said. “If you give me a musket, I’ll help you shoot the buggers.”
“I will give you a musket and a uniform and swear you into the Army for a term of one month. That way, if things go against us” —as Lee expected they would, though he did not say so— “they cannot treat you as a bushwhacker taken in arms against them.”
“And hang me, you mean?” Crouch asked. Lee nodded. So did the other man. “Fair enough, sir, and I thank you kindly for the thought.”
The attack came around ten o’clock: well before the moon rose to spoil the darkness. The Texans were noisy there, too. The bluecoats on the walls blazed away at the chattering, clattering bands of militiamen. Wild screams gave them fresh targets at which to aim. “Firing by earsight,” one soldier said, which put it better than anything Lee could have come up with for himself.
However badly disciplined the Texans were, they had courage aplenty. They came on despite the raking the bluecoats gave them. Ladders thumped against the walls of the Alamo compound. Carpenters inside had made forked sticks to help the U.S. soldiers push them over with less risk to themselves. All the same, in one place McCulloch’s men got up onto the wall and started running down from it.
Sword in hand, Lee rushed there to do what he could. But his men soon controlled the irruption. More of them carried six-shooters than did their foes. And a long rifle musket tipped by a long bayonet made a fearsome close-quarters weapon the Texans couldn’t hope to match. Some of them fled back over the wall, jumping down outside when they found their ladder was gone. Some surrendered. Most of the men who’d made it into the Alamo compound fell. Blood’s iron reek and the fouler latrine stench of pierced bowels filled the air.
“You bastards weren’t supposed to know we was comin’,’” a prisoner complained to Lee as a U.S. surgeon sutured and bound his gashed arm. He paused to hiss at the pain.
“No doubt Colonel McCulloch is sure he can sneak an elephant into church without letting anyone notice, too,” Lee said.
“Huh?” The captured Texan stared at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Never you mind,” Lee said.
A little later, out of the prisoners’ hearing, George Thomas said, “I think Private Crouch deserves to be Corporal Crouch.”
Lee smiled. “Perhaps the quickest promotion in the history of the Army, but I agree. Unless I am much mistaken, the Texans won’t try that again any time soon.”
“Good!” Thomas said. “The next time, it might work.”
Lee was glad to prove a good prophet. The Texans did not attempt another night attack. Such assaults were chancy things, for those making them and for those resisting alike. Some foolish accident might hand a fortress over to the assailants, or, equally, might leave the best-laid attacking scheme overturned in a ditch, wheels spinning uselessly.
March 4 came and went. Ben McCulloch rode forward under flag of truce to call curses down on the head of “that great, ugly abolitionist baboon” now occupying the White House and to call on the bluecoats to abandon “his satanic cause.” To the surprise of no one save perhaps McCulloch, the call inspired no desertions.
“I do not love Abraham Lincoln. I never have. I doubt I ever shall,” Lee told Major Thomas. “But to hear him reviled by the likes of that . . . that individual surely makes me like him better.”
“I know what you mean, sir,” Thomas replied. “When somebody you can’t stand cusses out somebody you’re on the fence about, it sure makes you think there must be something to the second fellow after all.”
Lee nodded. “It does indeed, Major. It does indeed.”
The siege wore on. Texas officially joined the Confederate States. The Stars and Bars rose alongside the Lone Star flag, opposing the tattered Stars and Stripes still defiantly floating over the Alamo. Every so often, a bluecoat or a militiaman got shot. His screams reminded friend and foe that this was war: a filthy business if ever there was one.
And then, five days into Abraham Lincoln’s term, something new was added to the mix. The Texans unlimbered a battery of brass twelve-pounders. “Uh-oh,” George Thomas said, staring down the muzzles of the cannon. “Somebody must’ve had a rush of brains to the head. Where did they steal all those Napoleons?”
“From a U.S. fort, unless I am much mistaken. They could hardly manufacture their own.” Lee did his best to hide his dismay. Big guns had been knocking down fortress walls since the Middle Ages. In fact, the ability of big guns to knock down fortress walls was one of the things that had ended the Middle Ages.
Napoleons weren’t very big guns. The twelve-pound iron balls they threw were only a bit more than four and a half inches through the middle. Then again, the Alamo wasn’t much of a fortress, either. Its walls were high, but not especially thick. They weren’t faced with earth, either, to lessen the shock of a cannonball’s impact. Major Babbitt had never dreamt the compound he rebuilt would need to stand a second siege.
Major Thomas reached his verdict in a hurry: “We’re in trouble, sir. A lot of trouble, as a matter of fact.”
“We have been in a lot of trouble since we chose to defend this fort, and with it the honor of the United States.” Lee hoped he sounded calmer than he felt. “All we can do now is await developments.”
They didn’t have to wait long. One by one, the Napoleons opened fire. The Texans serving the guns were obviously trying it for the first time. One cannonball flew clean over the compound and crashed into an adobe building on the far side. Another plowed a brief furrow in the ground before it skipped along and banged into the wall.
But the militiamen got the hang of things. They had plenty of roundshot and plenty of powder. Before long, they were hitting the wall on the fly with almost every shot. And that was all they needed to do. When they hit near the top, flying stone chips became as deadly as musket balls. Even when they didn’t, every cannonball spread cracks and fissures through the stonework. Every sharp smack of impact spread dread through the garrison.
“It’s going to fall down.” Thomas put the dread into words.
“Yes,” Lee said. “I know.”
“What do we do then, sir?”
“Let us wait until an effectual breach is created before we consider that,” Lee replied.
A little past noon, a stretch of wall about ten feet wide sadly slumped into a pile of rubble. The Texans surrounding the Alamo whooped. The artillerists capered and waved their hats. Amateurs or not, they’d done what Ben McCulloch needed them to do. Anyone could see they were able to widen the breach at need.
Major Thomas looked a question at Lee. He didn’t ask it aloud, for which Lee was duly grateful. Lee said, “Have some men fasten a piece of white cloth—three feet by three will do—to a staff, if you would be so kind.”
“You’re surrendering? We’re surrendering?”
“Yes,” Lee said, though the word tasted like ashes in his mouth. “With the wall shattered, how can we hope to resist? I came here to make a point, not to kill myself and the whole garrison with me. That would follow upon further defense, plainly.”
He waved the flag himself. The firing took a little while to die away. Then Colonel McCulloch rode up to treat with him. “You’ve had enough?” the Texan said.
“We have,” Lee answered.
And he discovered, to his relief, that McCulloch also seemed uninterested in going to extremes now: “Will you undertake to march away under safe-conduct and not to fight against Texas or the Confederate States until you are properly exchanged?”
“We will,” Lee said at once—those were almost the terms the Texan had offered at the start of things. “Is that the sum of your demands?”
“Damn straight it is,” McCulloch said. “We want you bastards the hell out of Texas. This is our state, not the abolitionists’. You can even carry your personal weapons, for all I care. Cost us enough men and enough time to get you to quit.”
Lee’s sigh might have come from a beaten man. “Very well, Colonel McCulloch. Please write up two copies of the surrender terms: I will want one to show to my superiors on returning to territory that recognizes the authority of the United States. After I sign them, we shall depart your state.”
“Bet your boots you will,” McCulloch said. “I’ll send ’em to you directly.”
Directly stretched past half an hour, which suited Lee well enough. He drew up his men, lowered the flag under which they’d fought, and made certain other arrangements. The terms, when they came, were exactly what Colonel McCulloch had announced. Some clerk with a fine hand had written them; McCulloch’s scrawled signature made each copy official. Lee appended his own signature in duplicate, then led his men out of the Alamo compound.
Ben McCulloch even doffed his hat as the U.S. soldiers emerged. Lee gravely returned the courtesy. He handed the Texan one copy of the surrender accord. “Obliged, Colonel Lee,” McCulloch said.
One of his men—an officer, by the fellow’s flannel armband—suddenly pointed to the Alamo, from which smoke had begun to rise. “Somethin’s burnin’ in there!” the militiaman burst out.
McCulloch stared, then swore. “What in damnation are you playing at, Lee?” he roared—no fine manners now.
“Destroying the supplies stored there,” Lee answered calmly. “They are U.S. government property, as I have said again and again. “They would be of use against us now that secession has become insurrection, and so. . . .” A brisk pop-pop-pop! punctuated his sentence. He nodded. “Ah, the cartridges have started to cook off.”
“You filthy, rotten, conniving—!” Words failed McCulloch, but not for long: “I ought to hang you higher than Haman!”
“Why, Colonel? The terms we both signed do not forbid me from acting as I did. I would have surrendered the supplies intact had you required it of me; with our wall breached, I was in no position to refuse you anything. But since you did not, I served my country as best I could.”
Despite being within his rights, he wondered if McCulloch would order his men to take their revenge on the bluecoats. The U.S. soldiers had their personal weapons, yes, but they were dreadfully outnumbered. They wouldn’t, they couldn’t, last long.
Maybe Colonel McCulloch would have, but some of the militiamen started to laugh at how he’d got outfoxed. McCulloch went red, then deadly pale. “Take your soldiers and take yourself away from here,” he snarled when he could speak again. “If we ever meet again, I will shoot you on sight.”
Lee politely raised his hat once more. “Well, Colonel, you are welcome to try.”
Washington had always been Lee’s home town, as much as a man with the peripatetic life of an Army officer could have one. His family estate, Arlington, lay right across the Potomac from the nation’s capital.
At the moment, Arlington lay in another country: the Confederate States of America. Now that Lee was out of the Alamo and back in the USA, he’d caught up on what had happened while Ben McCulloch’s Texans besieged his small command.
As he and George Thomas had foretold, James Buchanan did nothing but wring his hands and make deploring noises in his last few miserable days in the White House. Whatever one thought of Abraham Lincoln, the new President was made of sterner stuff than that. In his inaugural address, he called for 100,000 volunteers to preserve the Union. Men from the North and West, the sections that had elected him, stormed to the colors.
But men from the slaveholding states stormed the other way. Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia promptly left the USA for the CSA. Kentucky and Missouri trembled, the forces of secession and union almost perfectly balanced within their borders. And U.S. Army troops held Maryland down by force, lest she bolt and take with her Washington’s only railway link to the rest of the United States.
Virginia was the state that mattered to Lee. Unlike Major Thomas, he’d always thought of himself more as a Virginian than an American. He had trouble imagining fighting against his state. Yet the same attack in Texas that had led to Virginia’s secession had left him a national hero in what remained of the United States.
He’d been paraded through the streets of Washington after the train brought him into town. How the people cheered! Children waved the Stars and Stripes, the flag he’d defended. Indeed, the very flag he’d defended was paraded through the streets with him. Every tatter, every bullet hole, showed what the enemies of the United States had done.
And every cheer Lee heard made him more uncomfortable and more miserable. Now, the day after the parade, he’d been invited to the White House. Soldiers guarding the Presidential mansion against Confederate sympathizers (of which Washington had more than a few) came to stiff attention and saluted as Lee’s carriage pulled up to the entrance. And, as Lee got down from it, President Lincoln came out of the White House to greet him in person.
Lee was a tall man: close to six feet. Lincoln had four or five inches on him, and seemed taller still because he was very thin and because he wore a black stovepipe hat. Now Lee saluted him, murmuring, “Your Excellency.”
Lincoln held out his hand. Lee took it. “I am very pleased to meet you in person, Colonel,” the President said. He wasn’t merely abbreviating Lee’s rank; some of the first news Lee had got on leaving the Alamo was that he’d been promoted for his stout defense of the place. Lincoln gestured. “Won’t you step inside?”
“At your service, sir.” Lee covertly studied the new President. Lincoln seemed neither buffoon nor knuckle-dragging great ape, as the South often portrayed him. He was odd-looking, but that was scarcely his fault.
Once they were inside, a Negro servant brought lemonade, then disappeared. The cool drink went well; the morning was sticky, and gave promise of heat. Lincoln came straight to the point: “General Scott tells me you have declined command of the U.S. Army.”
“Yes, sir. It is a great honor, but I had to do as I did,” Lee said. “I will not lift my sword against my own state.”
“Yet you fought for the USA against men now on the same side as Virginia,” Lincoln said in musing tones.
“I did,” Lee agreed. “It puts me in an embarrassing position now, I admit. But Virginia yet remained in the Union then.”
“Is that not a quibble?” the President said. “The principle for which you risked your life remains as much in force now as it did then. I aim to preserve the Union. So did you, when you refused that Texan’s arrogant demands.”
“I was not fighting Virginians then,” Lee said miserably. “And . . .” Eyeing Abraham Lincoln, Lee let his voice trail off.
“And I wasn’t President yet?” Lincoln suggested. However odd he looked, his wits worked fine. Lee nodded, embarrassed anew. Lincoln chuckled, but then got down to business again: “I am President now, and I will preserve the Union or die trying. You made that same choice, did you not?”
“Yes, sir.” From many men, Lee would have taken or die trying as so much bombast. He believed it from Lincoln, which surprised him.
“So you fought to preserve the Union, but you do not care to fight Virginians,” the President said. Lee nodded once more. Lincoln steepled his fingers. His hands were enormous. “How would this be?” he asked. “Suppose I send you to the Mississippi Valley, to command U.S. forces in those parts? This war is a continent wide. You could serve your country, and serve it well, without ever harming a hair on the head of a man from your home state.”
“Directly,” Lee said.
“Directly, yes,” Lincoln allowed. “But that caveat has been in place since the shooting started, as you must know.”
Lee temporized: “I may not fight at all for the time being, as I have not yet been properly exchanged.”
“Oh, yes, you have.” Lincoln’s smile made him ugly in a different way. “The western part of Virginia, as you may have heard, loves secession no more than the Tidewater loves union. In the skirmishing there, a bright young fellow named McClellan bagged a couple of Confederate militia colonels. We sent one of them back with a pretty ribbon around him and out compliments, so you are free to do this if you will.”
Like Lee, McClellan came out of the Corps of Engineers. He’d been a new-minted second lieutenant during the Mexican War, and won several brevet promotions for bravery. Instead of staying in the Army, he’d gone into railroading and made a pile of cash. Now, evidently, he was back, and doing well.
All of which was by the way. “My state and I would still stand on opposing sides in this quarrel,” Lee said.
“True,” Lincoln said. Lee admired him for that; most political men would have talked around the problem instead of meeting it head-on. The President continued, “But you’ve already fought for the Union once. Would you feel easy fighting against it after what happened in Texas? And you would hardly be the only Virginian to stay loyal to the USA, as you must know.”
“Well, yes,” Lee said; George Thomas had made his views unmistakably clear. Lee spread his hands in misery. “I feel torn in two.”
“The U.S. Army did not open fire at the Alamo, thanks to you. Nowhere has the U.S. Army opened fire. The insurrectionists have, again and again. If that does not tell you something, perhaps it should.”
“I had not looked at it that way, not so plainly,” Lee said. He let out a sad, slow sigh. “Very well, your Excellency. I shall go to the West. But if I find my conscience cannot bear it, I reserve the right to retire at any time and plant corn.”
“Agreed,” Lincoln said at once. “Since your lands lie unpleasantly close to what has become the border, I will even give you a farm and a mule and seed corn to put in the ground, to show how glad I am you have chosen our side.” He held out his hand once more. After a long, long pause, Lee took it.
While he was in the West, he reflected, he might meet Ben McCulloch once more. Yes, indeed. He just might.
Copyright © 2011 by Harry Turtledove
Art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar