Secessionists jump the gun at Alamo arsenal

As the sun rose over San Antonio on Feb. 18, 1861, scores of secessionists surrounded the United States arsenal that was housed in the most famous structure in all of Texas.

The commander of the Department of Texas was ready and willing to oblige his friends, but the Texans were in too much of an all-fired hurry to waste time asking for what they could simply take.  A veteran of the Mexican War as well as a southern soul mate, Gen. David E. Twiggs desired only that the transfer be orderly and dignified.

The previous December the 71 year old soldier had, in fact, foreseen the inevitable breakup of the Union.  The week before South Carolina took its leave, Twiggs requested written instructions from his superior in the likelihood Texas followed the example of the Palmetto State.

Gen. Winfield Scott complained in his brief reply that he could not get a straight answer out of the president or the war department.  He wished Twiggs luck and advised him to use his best judgment.

But the secretary of war interpreted the sincere appeal for guidance as a symptom of subversive sympathies.  He instantly called for replacing Twiggs with a die-hard that would resist any attempted take-over regardless of the consequences.

Fortunately events moved far too fast for that rash order to be carried out.  Enough blood would be shed in the war to come without needlessly sacrificing more lives in a useless dress rehearsal in Texas.

On paper Twiggs appeared to have sufficient forces to keep the Confederates at bay.  A tenth of the entire U.S. Army, almost three thousand troops, was stationed in Texas.  But only 160 were based in San Antonio, site of the federal arsenal, while the rest were scattered from the Red River to the Rio Grande.

Even though the secessionists asked him to vacate the premises in early February shortly after the adoption of the ordinance of withdrawal, Twiggs presumed no action would be taken before Texans voted in the statewide referendum scheduled for Feb. 23.  He did not understand that the election was merely a rubber-stamp formality.

Revered Ranger Ben McCulloch issued a clandestine call to arms, and hundreds answered by hurriedly converging on San Antonio.  In the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 18, several hundred volunteers silently encircled the Lone Star shrine converted into a munitions dump.

Each and every one prayed that the small garrison inside those hallowed walls would give up without a fight.  No clear-headed Texan wanted to trade places with Santa Anna and fire upon the Alamo.

At sunrise a spokesman approached the arsenal under a flag of truce.  He exchanged pleasantries with the young officer in charge before politely pointing out the silhouetted sharpshooters who had him squarely in their sights.  The frightened lieutenant surrendered on the spot.

At his headquarters on the outskirts of San Antonio, Twiggs enjoyed a leisurely breakfast blissfully unaware of the dangerous drama unfolding in town.  Strategically placed Confederates had intercepted the messenger sent to bring him the bad tidings.

Following a rigid routine shaped by 50 years of military service, Twiggs slowly dressed.  Finally passing his own strict inspection, the elderly general summoned his carriage.

Rounding a bend in the road, Twiggs nearly ran over two shaggy pedestrians.  Before he could reprimand the strangers for their bad manners, they produced shotguns and announced he was under arrest.

Twiggs was escorted under guard to the Grand Plaza, where the militiamen had gathered after the successful seizure of the arsenal.  The crowd parted to reveal the old Ranger, who greeted the general with a perfunctory nod.

“Ben McCulloch!” shouted Twiggs on the verge of losing his composure.  “You have treated me most shamefully, ruining my reputation as a military man, and I am now too old to reestablish it!”

Taken aback by the harsh but undeniably accurate accusation, McCulloch carefully chose his words.  “I am serving my state, the State of Texas, sir.”

Tears streamed down his face as Twiggs moaned, “But you, sir, without papers, without notice have assembled a mob and forced me to terms.”  Suddenly the aged general broke down under the strain of the public humiliation and wept uncontrollably.

At that awkward and painful moment, the embarrassed Texans felt more like bullies than conquering heroes.  In the eerie silence that fell over the throng, a single thought raced through their troubled minds.

What kind of war had they gotten themselves into?

Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at barteehaile@gmail.com or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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