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South Carolina's Heroes of the Alamo – William Barret Travis & James Butler Bonham

SC SC Newsletter SCIWAY News: January 2009 South Carolina's Heroes of the Alamo

This article was contributed by guest author Mike Sigalas, mastermind behind Moon South Carolina, an excellent guide to the Palmetto State. The photographs were taken by SCIWAY on a "road trip" to San Antonio, Texas – site of the historic 1836 Battle of the Alamo. (Actually, we were in San Antonio for a conference and stopped by to see the Alamo, where seven brave South Carolinians perished – including two of its most celebrated heroes.)

South Carolina's Heroes of the Alamo

At one time a popular bumper sticker in the Saluda area read, "Texas Starts Here." Saluda County was, after all, birthplace and childhood home of two of the Alamo's greatest heroes, William Barret Travis and James Butler Bonham.

Travis was co-commander (along with famed frontiersman James Bowie) of the makeshift fortress when the Mexican army led by General Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio. A lawyer by trade, Travis was a fiery, handsome redhead with a restless spirit. Before coming to Texas in 1831, he had already tried Alabama, where both he and his cousin, James Bonham, practiced law.

Statue of Bonham Alamo Church Statue of Travis

Travis was a complicated sort. When he moved to Texas, he had professed to convert to Catholicism (a requirement of Mexican citizenship) and declared himself single, though he had left behind a son and pregnant wife in Alabama. Legend has it that Travis, convinced of his wife's infidelity, killed the man he suspected to be the father of her unborn child. His wife claimed desertion and was granted a divorce in early 1835. Meanwhile, Travis kept written documentation of his extramarital conquests1 and made plans to marry someone else.2

And yet William Travis was considered a fair man, and well disciplined. Along with Bowie, he argued that the Alamo was the only thing keeping Santa Anna from invading the vulnerable settlements of East Texas. On February 24, 1836, Travis addressed the following letter, To the People of Texas and 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, & every thing 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.

His letter has been called "the most famous document in Texas history"3 and "one of the masterpieces of American patriotism."4 After news of the Alamo's fall became known, Travis' stirring words were reprinted by newspapers and pamphleteers around the world.

Gonzales Memorial Plaque William Travis Letter Alamo Church

Though not a leader at the Alamo, James Bonham is reckoned a heroic figure for having at least once (and perhaps twice5) escaped through Mexican lines to seek help – returning to again pierce the lines and rejoin his doomed comrades within the garrison. Bonham pleaded for aid from Colonel James Fannin6 in nearby Goliad – but was rebuffed. Three days later, all but two of Alamo's defenders were dead.7

Bonham was related to the important Butler family of what is today Saluda County, and his brother, Milledge Luke Bonham, grew up to be governor. According to recent research, James Bonham was Travis' second cousin, and the two spent their early boyhoods attending Red Bank Baptist Church together. Though he was expelled after leading a student protest his senior year at South Carolina College, (now the University of South Carolina), Bonham went on to practice law in Pendleton. There, in one notable incident, he caned an opposing attorney for insulting his female client, and was then arrested after "threatening to tweak the nose"8 of the judge who attempted to intervene. By 1835, Bonham had set up shop in the Old Southwest,9 opening a law practice in Montgomery, Alabama, where two of his brothers lived. Before the year was out, however, both of Bonham's brothers had died, and he decided to join Travis in Texas.

Five other South Carolinians perished at the Alamo,10 but the roles of Travis and Bonham are legendary. On March 5, the day before the Mexicans' final siege, Travis is said to have drawn a line in the sand with his sword, telling the men inside the fortress that whoever was ready to fight to the death should step across and join him on the other side. All but one man did. (Over 150 years later, another emigrant to Texas – President George H.W. Bush – would allude to this bold gesture when he spoke of "drawing a line in the sand" during the Gulf War.)

San Fernando Cathedral Grounds of the Alamo The Alamo Cenotaph

Today, numerous place-names throughout Texas honor William B. Travis, including Travis County, home of the state capital of Austin, and nearby Lake Travis. But the colonel's legacy reaches further still. Though he lived in Texas for just over four years, the name of this native South Carolinian has become synonymous with the American West in general and Texas in particular. Countless Texan boys are given the rugged first name of "Travis" each year, and Western films regularly use the name "Travis" for their protagonists. (In Executive Decision, Steven Seagal took no chances: his character was named Colonel Austin Travis.) Actors from Lawrence Harvey to Alec Baldwin have portrayed Travis on both big and small screens; in 1991, the bioflick Travis traced his entire life, from South Carolina onward.

Though James Butler Bonham hasn't exactly become a household name, head north of Fort Worth, Texas not far south of the Red River and the Oklahoma border, and you find yourself in the mid-sized city of Bonham, named in honor of the Saluda County native. Home to legendary US Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Bonham ironically serves as the seat of Fannin County, named for the man who declined to save the Alamo.11 In the John Wayne film, The Alamo, the Duke reserved the choice role of Bonham for his own son, Patrick.

In South Carolina today, you'll find a monument to Travis and Bonham on the lawn in front of the Saluda County Courthouse. The Red Bank Baptist Church, attended by the Travis and Bonham families, still stands today. Bonham's birthplace, now called Bonham House, also stands. To get there, take US 178 east 3.5 miles to SC Secondary Road 328. Take 328 north 0.7 miles to SC 329, and follow this road east for 0.2 mile until you see the old house on the left side of the road. Continue a bit further along SC Secondary Road 329 and you'll reach the Smith-Bonham Cemetery on Richland Creek. James Bonham is not there, of course – his body was burned by Santa Anna's men after the battle, along with those of Travis and all but one of the other Alamo defenders.12

You can also find a fine Alamo display at the Saluda County History Museum, including a painstakingly accurate 1/64th scale model of the garrison. Out on SC 121, you'll see a Travis monument erected jointly by Saluda County and the ever-grateful people of Texas.

  1. Lone Star Internet
  2. Texas State Historical Association
  3. Michael Green, Texas State Library Archives Division
  4. Mary Deborah Petite, Historian and Author of 1836 Facts About the Alamo
  5. William N. Bonham, James Butler Bonham: Messenger of Defeat (Halifax: 1990). No one is sure exactly how many times Bonham escaped from the Alamo to smuggle pleas for Travis. Historians know he went once, and suspect he may have gone twice. In any case, he knew no help would arrive to save them, yet still he returned to die alongside his friends. The defenders of the Alamo were outnumbered at least 10 to one, and it is well-documented that they foresaw their fate.
  6. Interestingly, Fannin also had a connection to our state. Though he was born and reared in Georgia, he was the son of Dr. Isham Fannin, who was born in the Orangeburg District of South Carolina. (Special thanks to Charles W. Smith of Charleston for contributing this information.)
  7. It is unclear how many men died at the Alamo. Most estimates range between 182 and 184, and eyewitness reports list figures as high as 257. Library records in San Antonio name 189 men. The only two men not killed were Travis' slave Joe and Brigido Guerrero, a Tajano who claimed he had been forced into battle by the Texians. (Some sources list Guerrero among the dead as well, lending the matter further ambiguity.) Joe probably was not from South Carolina, since Travis left the state at age 11.
  8. USGenWeb Archives Special Projects, Alamo Defenders, 1836.
  9. Gale Encyclopedia of US Economic History
  10. In addition to Bonham and Travis, the five South Carolina natives who died at the Alamo were: Lemuel Crawford, George Neggan, Edward Nelson, George Nelson, and Cleveland Kinloch Simmons.
  11. Fannin refused Bonham's personal request for help but, after considerable delay, did eventually enlist troops to make the 90-mile trek to San Antonio. Their wagons broke down after only one mile, however, and the troops turned around and went home.
  12. 34-year-old cannoner Gregorio Esparza's body was spared because his brother served in Santa Anna's army.

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