Visitors to the Alamo will get a rare glimpse next year of the "Victory or Death" letter penned 177 years ago by the head of the outnumbered Texas forces while under bombardment by Mexican government troops.
The State Library and Archives Commission voted Wednesday to allow the fragile, fading letter written by Col. William Barret Travis to be displayed at the Alamo for the anniversary of the two-week battle that ended on March 6, 1836. The commission originally decided against the loan but later reconsidered.
State archivists had recommended against transporting the letter to San Antonio and putting it on display. Light has already bleached the original letter, making it difficult to read and the paper extremely fragile. The letter is kept in a dark vault in Austin.
But Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson told the commission Wednesday he thought displaying the letter for the first time at the Alamo would attract tremendous interest in Texas history.
"There is a balance between preservation and public access," he said. "In my view, in every Texans' lifetime there should be one opportunity to see this in person."
The commission chairman, Michael Waters, pointed out that the letter was placed on display at the state library in Austin on the anniversaries of the siege in 2010 and 2011. The main topic of Wednesday's hearing centered on providing security for the letter, not whether the travel or the exposure would harm it.
Patterson said he'd received a commitment from the director of the Department of Public Safety to provide all necessary measure to protect the letter. He described how state troops would transport the letter in an armed convoy, likely with air support, to and from the Alamo.
Only retired state archivist David Gracy voiced opposition to loaning out the letter. In the 1960s, Gracy tried but failed to convince then-Gov. Price Daniels not to display the letter under a bright light around the clock, and Gracy believes most of the damage to the letter happened during this period.
"It is vitally important to protect this letter, as it is to protect all of the archives for not just this moment, no matter how important it is for us, but for the entire future," he said. "You have a professional staff of the highest quality who knows what needs to be done to protect this letter."
Travis was a South Carolina-born Alabama lawyer and militiaman who fled to Texas when it was still part of Mexico. He resumed his law practice in Texas and became an ardent advocate of revolution against Mexico. He gathered reinforcements for a militia detachment occupying the Alamo, a former mission church in Bexar, the future San Antonio.
Under attack from a much larger Mexican force under the command of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Travis wrote the letter on Feb. 24, 1836. In it, he stated that his men had been under Mexican bombardment for 24 hours, and that Santa Anna had given the Texans the ultimatum to surrender or "be put to the sword."
"I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & and our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never retreat or surrender," Travis wrote.
He concludes: "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."
A courier managed to sneak the letter out, and it was published in leaflets and newspapers throughout the U.S.
The volunteers came, but not in time. Santa Anna's forces stormed the Alamo on March 6 and overwhelmed and killed its defenders. The volunteers joined the troops under Sam Houston's command and defeated Santa Anna at the April 22 Battle of San Jacinto near present-day Houston, securing Texas independence until its annexation by the United States in 1845.
According to the state library website, the letter was returned to the Travis family shortly thereafter. In 1893, his great-grandson sold it for $85 to the Texas state government. It was placed in the state library upon its creation in 1909.