By Liz Carpenter
It has long been said: "Thermopylae has its messenger, the Alamo had none."
The message of the Alamo has been told by many. But the letter from my great-great-great-grandmother -- Frances Menefee Sutherland -- is a classic, for it stretches from March 6 to April 21 -- from the fall of the Alamo to the Battle of San Jacinto, which won Texas its independence from Mexico. It offers a woman's insight into the drama of a Texasfamily during those 47 historic days. I visited the set of the forthcoming movie The Alamo recently. It consumes some 50 rolling acres of a ranch near Austin and is so authentic it is easy to picture downtown San Antonio of 1836, when the major landmarks were San Fernando Cathedral and the Alamo.
At age 82, I made the tour on my electric cart, bumping through the replica of a place where a 17-year-old boy, William DePriest Sutherland, died. In the letter of Frances Menefee Sutherland to her sister Sallie back in Tennessee, she describes what it meant to learn that your son is killed and then to scoop up your family as you lead them to the Texas army with Gen. Sam Houston. The general's strategy was to retreat from river to river to the safety of U.S. troops in Louisiana. Just being a sixth-generation Texan as I hear of these events would make the blood surge but seeing it "firsthand" in the realistic movie setting provided more emotion. I have heard the hand-me-down stories since childhood, but Frances Menefee Sutherland's letter is the classic telling.
We read it each June when the Sutherland reunion takes place at the Canyon of the Eagles and brings forth more than 200 descendants of Frances and George Sutherland. We re-read that letter with reverence. It was written June 5, 1836, as the bedraggled family returned to their home, Spring Hill Plantation near Edna, from what has now become known as the Runaway Scrape. The letter, now a part of the Texas State Archives and the the Center for American History at the University of Texas, may be the only woman's story covering four months of her agony as the Texas Revolution produced the independence of Texas from Mexico. The lines from that letter raced through my thoughts as I rode my scooter through the movie set. On the surrounding hillsides are the small white tents where Santa Anna's army awaited their attack, leaving the young Col. William Barret Travis and his men dead. Now, 157 years after the real thing, the words of that letter speak to me more poignantly than ever. It is a prayer for peace that echoes from the Alamo to Iraq.
Here is the text of that letter:
June 5, 1836
I received your kind letter of some time in March, but never had it been my power to answer it 'til now, and now what I must say, (O, God support me.) Yes, sister, I must say to you, I have lost my William. O, yes he is gone, my poor boy is gone, gone from me. The sixth day of March in the morning, he was slain in the Alamo in San Antonio . Then his poor body committed to the flames. Oh, Sally, can you sympathize with and pray for me that I may have grace to help in this great time of trouble. He was there a volunteer, when the Mexican army came there. At the approach of thousands of enemies they had to retreat in the Alamo where they were quickly surrounded by the enemy. Poor fellows. The Mexicans kept nearly continual firing on them for 13 days. Then scaled the walls and killed every man in the fort but two black men.
Dear Sister, I think the situation a sufficient excuse for not answering your letter sooner. Since I received your letter I had been away from home with a distracted min (sic) and had got back to our house where we found nothing in the world worth speaking of -- not one mouthful of anything to eat, but a little we brought home with us. God only knows how we will make out. I will try to compose my mind while I give you a short history of a few months back: The American army was on our frontier. We thought prudent to stay at home and did so until the General thought proper to retreat. We, being on the frontier, were compelled to go (I speck (sic) for all). We went to the Colorado , 40 miles, but after some time, the general thought proper to retreat farther and of course we had to go, too. We proceeded to the Brazos River. There stopped a few days, but dread and fear caused another start; there Mr. Sutherland quit us and joined the army. William Heard was in, also, with a good many more of our citizens, however, we went on for several miles and again stopped, hoping we would not have to go farther, but someone over there that week brought in the early news the Mexican army was crossing the Brazos not more than 40 miles behind us. Again we started and traveled two days then heard the army was 20 miles behind. (I wish you could know how the people did as they kept going about trying to get somewhere, but no person knew where they were trying to get to.)
Several weeks passed on without any certain account from the army. All this time you could hardly guess my feelings. My poor William gone, Sutherland in the army, me with my three little daughters and my poor Thomas wandering about, not knowing what to do or where to go. You will guess my feelings were dreadful, but ever the Lord supported me, and was on our side for I think I may boldly say the Lord fought our battles. Only to think how many thousands of musket and cannon balls were flying there over our army and so few touched. I think seven was all that died of their wounds. Some say our army fought double their number and who dares say that the Lord was not on our side. Mr. Sutherland's horse was killed under him, but the Lord preserved his life and brought him back to his family. He found us at the mouth of the Sabine from thence we all returned home. I pray that God will still continue our friend and bless us with peace again. I will now say that our relations are only in tolerable health, tho' none very sick. Poor Mother went the rounds not very well all the time. I was afraid she would not hold out to get back again, but she is much better. She stopped at Brother William's, and I expect she will stay there all summer. Sister Martha lives there. We are still trying to raise something to eat, but I fear we will miss it. Brother Thomas' house was burnt with stable and corn crib. Mr. Sutherland's warehouse was burnt, also his houses on the Bay. But if we can have peace and can have preaching, I won't care for the loss of what property is gone.
(Frances Menefee Sutherland)
Liz Carpenter, a sixth-generation Texan, is a journalist, author and former press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson. Published in the Houston Chronicle, March 21, 2003.