A brass bugle (“el corneta”) was among a collection of artifacts and items given to Southwester Seminary by a generous longstanding donor. The donor stated (without supporting evidence) that the bugle was reputed to have been with the Mexican army at the battle of the Alamo in 1836.
The inscription on the bugle reads (in Spanish) “Equipos Militare Principal” loosely translated Principal Military Equipment and includes an address in Mexico City which still exists.
Col. Jose’ de la Pena, from his diary and journal which he transcribed into a published book (“With Santa Anna in Texas – A Personal Narrative of the Revolution”) affirms that there was a bugle used to signal the start of the assault on the Alamo. Neither the Seminary nor this author contend that the present story of the bugle is accurate: we have no provenance but the appearance of the bugle with the inscription fit the narrative. The reader may draw their own speculation.
This vignette is a fictional relating introduced in “first person bugle’ as if the bugle is telling its own story in this much-abbreviated recounting of the battles subsequent to Mexican general/dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s incursions in Texas as the Texians (sic) struggled for independence from Mexico.
As one writer describing his horse tradin’ and wild cow tales, when asked if all those tales were true responded “Well if they ain’t they oughtta be.”
Though the bugle’s supposed commentary is fictional the expansion of the story to tell about the battles for Texas independence is consistent with historic sources.
Spanish Colonization of Texas
Though the Spanish laid claim to the area of what is now Northern Mexico and present-day Texas as early as 1519, they did not attempt to colonize the land until after the French settlement at Fort St Louis failed in 1689.
Rene’-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle sailed from France with the intent of finding the mouth of the Mississippi River. With inaccurate maps and faulty navigation he missed the mighty Mississippi by some 400 miles and ended up shipwrecked on the Texas gulf coast in 1685.
The 180 survivors built huts largely of poles and thatch along with a ‘headquarters’ house constructed with the timbers of the wrecked ship. The settlement, the first European settlement on the Gulf Coast between Pensacola and Tampico, eventually became called Fort St. Louis, but it was no fort at all and was eventually destroyed by Indians.
Upon becoming aware of the French settlement Spain got serious about developing colonies and missions in the area we know as Texas. Spain had built missions in El Paso and San Angelo in 1680.
In the Spanish Colonial era they founded San Antonio de Bexar in 1718 along with six Catholic missions along the San Antonio River. Mission San Antonio de Valera came to be known as the Alamo.
Along with colonization, and in order to main Spanish rule, more troops were sent to Texas. San Antonio was the seat of military and governmental authority. The Spanish Governor’s Palace – the residence and office of the Commandant from 1722 to 1835 – still stands today as the last visible trace of 18th century colonial Presidio San Antonio de Bexar complex.
When Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the area we now call Texas was a part of the Mexican state of Coahuila. As early as 1803 Americans began settling in Mexico; after the Mexican Revolution in 1824, the Mexican government seated in Mexico City D.F. (“District Federale” as in our D. C. “District of Columbia”) sought more settlers and allowed American impresarios (the best known is Stephen F. Austin) to bring settlers to homestead in Texas.
The early motive was to buffer against foreign intervention and against the Indians raiding out of what is now south central and southwest U.S. (Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and New Mexico). Liberal land grants were offered to anyone who would become citizens, accept the Catholic faith and settle there.
As the number of homesteaders quickly increased, rancor between them and the government in faraway Mexico City also increased. The Americanos wanted to live as they had in the US and chafed under the restrictive demands of the Mexican dictator, Santa Anna.
In 1835 Santa Anna ordered his Mexican Army of Operations to march to Texas to reassert control, thus began what became the battle for Texas independence. Texas formally adopted and announced her Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. The battle story opens with the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836.
The Bugle’s Story
Loudly – stridently! – I called to my troops and they responded in kind with great fierce shouts and war cries. CHARGE!! I cried, and two thousand troops swarmed around, over and into a mission building with only two hundred defenders – Texians* and Americanos, described as rebels by General Santa Anna.
Our first wave stumbled; many were victims of ‘friendly fire’ from the closely packed ranks following. With ladders we tried to scale the walls, but many were pushed over by the defenders and fell away.
Our first wave being repulsed, I sounded again the rallying cry to charge. Again, we faltered! A third time I gave a mighty call for the last of our reserve forces! At last, our general found a weak spot in the north wall and the final carnage began.
In that final assault the trooper whose breath gave me power fell under the guns of the Texians. I fell to the ground and was lost under the pounding feet of the troops. In the melee I was overlooked until after the battle. My life was spared when another trooper picked me up in the aftermath and assumed the role of company bugler.
*” Texians” or “Texicans” were common spellings at that time, of whom we now spell “Texans.”
The Bugle’s Presence
Lt Colonel Jose Enrique De La Pena was an officer in Santa Anna’s army in that fateful time of the 1830s and kept a diary of the siege and assault of the Alamo. Pena’s diary was translated for the first time in 1975 by Carmen Perry and published in book form (1) by Texas A&M University Press.
In Col. De la Pena’s diary he records: (on the morning of March 6, 1836, as Santa Anna prepared to end the siege with a full assault) . . . “a bugle call to attention was the agreed signal, and we soon heard that terrible bugle call of death, which stirred our hearts, altered our expressions, and aroused us all suddenly from our painful meditations. Worn out by fatigue and lack of sleep, I had just closed my eyes to nap when my ears were pierced by this fatal note. A trumpeter of the sappers (Jose Maria Gonzalez) was the one who inspired us to scorn life and to welcome death.” (1)
Bugles and buglers were an integral part of the Mexican forces. In addition to simply sounding signals the trumpet blasts were intended to stir the fervor of their own troops and attempt to discourage the enemy.
Besides the foregoing story of the fall of the Alamo in March 1836, Ehrenberg (2) notes “the bugles pealed in motley confusion” at the Texians’ storming of Bexar (the Mexican name for San Antonio) and taking of the Alamo in December 1835.
Again Ehrenberg records at the battle at Coleto Creek March 19-20, 1836 “the countless bugles of the Mexicans . . .” and also “the scattered bugle calls of the Mexicans, encouraging the men to battle.”
 Quoted from de la Pena: “With Santa Anna in Texas – A Personal Narrative of the Revolution,” page 47.
The Rest of the Story
The bugle continues to speak: As ‘company bugle’ my first battle was at Gonzales October 2, 1835. With Col. Domingo de Ugartechea a squad was sent to retrieve the cannon which had been loaned to the Texians to defend against Indians.
The pesky Texians refused to give it back – they even taunted my troops with a flag showing a disrespectful slogan: “Come and take it.” They won.
Then on October 9 the Texians attacked our garrison at Presidio La Bahia at Goliad, forcing the Mexican army to withdraw; this provided the opportunity for the Texians to “fort up” at Goliad.
From October 1835 to April 1836 a number of skirmishes and battles occurred between Mexican army forces and a somewhat ragtag Texian “army” made up of volunteers including new arrivals from the US: the siege of Bexar; the so-called “grass fight;” the Runaway Scrape; the battle at Agua Dulce; at Refugio; at Coleto Creek; and the siege and fall of the Alamo.
Colonel James Fannin had been ordered by General Sam Houston to evacuate the fort at Goliad as Houston knew that following the defeat at the Alamo Santa Anna would take his Mexican troops to Goliad next, and Fannin’s forces were not sufficient to risk annihilation by another battle like that at the Alamo.
Regrettably Fannin delayed the abandonment of Goliad, and he and his Texians were caught in the open and captured by overpowering numbers of the Mexican army; over 400 Texians and Americanos were massacred by order of Santa Anna.
After so proudly having been the clarion call of spectacular battles, unfortunately for me I was there to suffer the shame of the murder of the Texian prisoners.
Our final battle was on the coastal plains at San Jacinto. Lulled into overconfidence by his earlier, easy victories, knowing that the ragtag Texian troops were backed up against the bayou, General Santa Anna went to his tent for a siesta and allowed his troops to rest and grow careless. Alas! No one was on watch, no one alerted my bugler to give me breath and sound an alert!
Santa Anna and the troops awakened to the clamor of desperate shouts: “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” The battle was over in just 18 minutes. Santa Anna was captured, and standing before the victorious Sam Houston, was forced to recognize that Texas had won her independence.
The Republic of Texas was born!
After the battle at San Jacinto our troops, the survivors, straggled back to Mexico. Other than the officers, most were peasants and returned to their villages. Some were kept in the Army and went into barracks, stationed in various around the mostly barren countryside.
Where there is a dictator there is always the need for “peacekeeping” forces. I was fortunate – my bugler was favored by his commanding officer and was allowed to keep me.
We had little responsibility, but many days we signaled the troops for assembly for roll-call, to witness the punishment of a miscreant, or other whims of the commandant; or occasionally a call to arms to pursue some bandit gang.
After many lesser battles, I laid in my bugler’s footlocker awaiting our next order to sound the clarion call to attack. For decades, between battles, my bugler’s son, and then his grandson, would slip outdoors with me and play “army.”
Eventually, as battle plans changed and wars were fought differently, I was thought to be obsolete and was cast aside to never again lead the charge or march at the head of the parades!
I was put aside, then forgotten, until I became a relic, then a souvenir, and ended my army career. The lady who gifted this instrument to the Seminary, a member of a prominent ranching and oil family in Fort Worth acquired me and I ended up here, out of breath but an historic relic!
This incredible story is certainly interesting – and captures the picture of what life was like during these times. Texas has a very rich history, though many of those who set foot in the state are unaware of the story behind its independence.
For more information and for a chronological look at the battles that took place during this period, you can see our article A Chronology of the Battles for Texas Independence.
 de la Pena, Jose’ Enrique: With Santa Anna in Texas; A Personal Narrative of the Revolution. Translated by Carmen Perry 1975, TAMU Press.