Monday, May 20, 2024

TRAVIS LETTER PLAQUE TO BE PLACED ON COURTHOUSE LAWN

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“It is the job of this generation of Texans to teach our young people about how Texas got to where we are today. About the sacrifices of our forefathers in blood, treasures, and in the case of the Alamo, their lives.

Texas Senator Bob Hall

On Saturday, April 20, the City of Granbury and Hood County will receive a Texas-size gift all because of Sloan McNutt, a seventh grader from University Park who had a simple, but big idea.

This coming San Jacinto weekend, Hood County will be one of 254 counties throughout Texas to receive a 203-pound bronze plaque of the famous Travis Letter written from the besieged Alamo Feb. 24,1836, by its 26-year-old co-commander, William Barret Travis. The event takes place at 1 p.m. on the south side of the Hood County Courthouse facing Pearl Street.

The idea for the plaque was born 15 months ago by 13-year-old McNutt, who was studying Texas History when she visited the Alamo with her family in January 2023. There, while standing at the base of the Campo Santo grass area in front of the iconic Alamo church, she saw the impressive plaque and read Travis’ 220-word “Victory or Death” letter.

That’s when everything changed and her father, Lee William “Bill” McNutt, clearly recalls the moment. “She looked up and asked me ‘why aren’t these plaques with the famous letter all over Texas?’ She said reading the letter on the 2-foot by 3-foot bronze plaque had more impact than seeing it on a page in a book.” The Travis Letter Society was immediately brought to life while standing on Sacred Ground.

Its official launch took place on Veterans Day 2023 with a straight-forward mission statement: “To educate current and future Texans about their forefathers' armed struggle for freedom and liberty through the placement of a large bronze plaque containing Col. William Barrett Travis' Alamo "Victory or Death" letter, in all 254 Texas Courthouses.”

Other prominent Texans soon joined the McNutt family in the spirited venture to reach so many counties. This includes Hood County Judge Ron Massingill who is the Alamo Letter Chair for his county. Massingill was nominated for this honored position by Texas State Sen. Brian Birdwell.

Many Texans have known this famous letter since their childhood. Others who are new to the Lone Star State certainly have heard of it, while many are still learning of its legendary standing in the annals of historical documents throughout the world. It is, indeed, the key artifact that defines Texas. Here are the words written 188 years ago that still haunt us today:

Commandancy of the The Alamo

Bejar, Feby. 24th. 1836

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World-

Fellow Citizens & compatriots-

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna - I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man - The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken - I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls - I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch - The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country - Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis.

Lt. Col. comdt.

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

THE TRAVIS BACKSTORY – THE MAN BEHIND THE WORDS

Sometimes it’s hard to believe William Barret Travis was only 26 years old when he wrote the famous letter that is compared to some of the most courageous and eloquent documents in history. Many warriors who have fought to defend the Stars and Stripes have echoed his words and phrases in the face of certain death. Even his underscored words of “Victory or Death” have a timeless message in serving something greater than yourself.

What makes the story of the Travis Letter so compelling, however, is the dire situation that engulfed him leading up to and during the siege and battle of the Alamo. His first three words that begin the letter – “I am besieged” – are perhaps the underlining theme of his young life. Yes, he was besieged and surrounded by a growing enemy force which was 10 times larger than the small garrison he commanded inside the meager walls of the Alamo. But Travis was besieged by something more: his young and restless ego, and his obsession to obtain the highest stature in society too quickly and recklessly. These were the obstacles that plagued his early life until the revolutionary events in Texas changed him.

Born Aug. 9,1809 to Mark and Jemima Travis in their home in Red Bank, South Carolina, William Barret was the first of 10 children to enter the Travis residence over two decades. Within 10 years, the family migrated to Claiborne, Alabama where William thrived in education and began the practice of taking on more and more commitments of jobs while apprenticing to become an attorney. This was far more enticing than working behind a plow.

He was exposed to other successful young men who had acquired land, material and social standing. The image of a successful southern gentleman is what Travis wanted more than anything else by the time he was only 19. Before he turned 20, he was a schoolteacher, a newspaper publisher, and then an attorney at law. However, debts piled up faster than receivables, and that was only the beginning of the nightmare. He was married to his teenage love and student, Rosanna Cato, with whom he had a child — a boy named Charles Edward.

Within a year or so, his world collapsed around him. He was no longer the promising young professional and the threat of going to jail for unpaid debts became real. Spread so thin, there was no time to be a real father, publisher or attorney. He wanted everything so quickly and had nothing to show for it except debts, public ridicule and a pregnant wife expecting their second child.

Like so many who succumbed to this low ebb of life, he had heard stories about Texas, and the promise it held for a new beginning. Soon, Travis left Alabama for Texas alone, promising to make good on his past and to be with his wife again. A long road awaited him within, even greater than the physical journey to Texas. Indeed, he was “besieged.”

TEXAS – A SANCTUARY IN REVOLT

In May 1831, Travis arrived in Texas, which was then the northernmost state of the Mexican Republic. Some lessons had already been learned by the time William established himself as an attorney in Austin’s Colony at San Felipe, and later at Anahuac. He focused on less and accomplished more. He also became a landowner and helped start a militia to oppose tyrannical Mexican rule. His steady pace of becoming one of the Texians earned him positive and lasting friendships, just as Texas was already separating itself from the political connections in Mexico City.

Then came the Anahuac Disturbances that fomented Travis’ character and transformation that would carry him until his death three short years later at the Alamo. The first disturbance in 1832 was triggered by a dispute around the ownership of escaped slaves the Mexican brigadier general Juan David Bradburn (a soldier of fortune from Virginia) was keeping safe in his compound. He also suspected the militia Travis was part of was a direct threat. After several confrontations with Bradburn, Travis was arrested, thrown in prison for 50 days and threatened with possible execution. He was finally released when a large Texian militia arrived and forced Bradburn and his soldiers to escape with their lives.

Three years later, another disturbance took place in Anahuac that cemented the young attorney’s reputation as a rebel and a leader. Travis commandeered a gunboat from Harrisburg, sailed to the fort and demanded the surrender of another tyrannical Mexican officer who was holding two Texians for contesting tax laws. He quickly achieved the surrender of the larger Mexican force and freed the Texian prisoners.

Some historians believe it was this event in Anahuac, and not Gonzales, that was the true beginning of the Texas Revolution. By now, Travis was both a respected Texian and a marked man by Mexico. Texians now fondly called him “Buck” Travis.

ALAMO: COMPLETING THE TRANSFORMATION

After the second Anahuac disturbance, events in Texas moved rapidly into a full-blown rebellion. A series of small battles at Gonzales, Mission Concepcion and Bexar all resulted in Texian victories despite three-to-one odds with inferior Mexican troops. Travis was now commissioned as a lieutenant colonel of a legion of cavalry and chief recruiting officer by Provisional Gov. Henry Smith. His next assignment: raise a large company of cavalry and ride to the Alamo and reinforce the small garrison under the command of Col. James Neil.

After failing to reach the goal of the number of men he wanted, Travis’ younger ego began to resurface, feeling he deserved something more than his small rabble of troopers. He begged Smith to reconsider.

“I must beg that your excellency will recall the order for me to go on to Bexar in command of so few men. I am unwilling to risk my reputation (which is ever dear to a soldier) by going off into the enemie’s [sic] country with such little means, so few men, & them so badly equipped.”

Unlike the Travis from Alabama, Buck Travis quickly regained himself and saw the bigger picture of how to serve Texas. He arrived at San Antonio de Bexar Feb. 3, reporting immediately to Col. Neil. There he was shocked by the terrible condition of the garrison. It underscored the chaotic situation that Texians put upon themselves with too many quarreling leaders, very little money, dwindling supplies and deteriorating morale. To make matters worse, Gen. Santa Anna was leading a large professional army quickly into Texas to finally destroy all Texian resistance, and no one knew how close he was.

Travis faced another storm: the famous frontier brawler Col. James Bowie who commanded the volunteers, which was most of the garrison. As Neil departed Bexar due to family issues, Travis and Bowie struggled to coexist for days primarily due to Bowie’s drunkenness, and this almost destroyed the little garrison. Buck Travis took the high road and departed to the outskirts of Bexar with his men until Bowie (who was 13 years older than Travis) rode out to apologize for his ridiculous behavior. The two were on good terms when Santa Anna’s forces suddenly arrived in the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1836.

Lt. Col. William B. Travis took control of the retreat from Bexar into the Alamo on the other side of the San Antonio River. The old Spanish mission had been gradually fortified into a fortress with about 21 pieces of artillery. Many men he could depend on were there including Juan Seguin, Albert Martin and the celebrated Tennessean, David Crockett. As the Mexicans methodically lay siege on the Alamo, it was Travis who organized the defenses and sent out couriers to get help. By firing the cannon shot as an answer to surrender, he sensed the critical timing of the moment for his men and all of Texas.

Feb. 24, the second day of the siege, Bowie collapsed with a severe illness, leaving Travis in complete command of the Alamo. The man who wrote the famous letter hours later had been transformed from what he was in Alabama to this leader of men in Texas. He had become a new brand of statesman, one who thought about “those millions yet to come.”

Captain Albert Martin was the courier who raced out of the Alamo with the famous “Victory or Death” letter and returned one week later with the only documented reinforcements to aid the Alamo. Knowing that time was running out, Travis sent a letter to a friend with instructions about caring for his little boy. Legend states he drew a line in the sand with his sword, explaining that death was certain and asking those who chose to die with him to cross the line.

In the pre-dawn hours of March 6, 1836, the Mexican columns surged toward the Alamo walls. As the deafening roar of battle escalated, William Barret Travis raced to the most vulnerable section of the Alamo’s north wall and screamed to his men to not surrender and to give the enemy hell. Within minutes he was shot in the head, probably one of the first Texians to die in battle. He and all the slain Alamo defenders were placed on funeral pyres and cremated.

As we remember young Travis and his inspiring letter about honor and duty to one’s country, it is also a calling to our younger generations to think about how they wish to serve something greater than themselves. On Saturday, April 20, citizens can join Judge Massingill, the David Crockett Chapter of the Sons of the Republic of Texas and Sloan McNutt to discover the letter, the man who created it, and its timeless message for the ages.