Graeme Wood

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Project Runaway

Alamo deserter lives on to become Texas’ most infamous coward

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In August 1990, when President George H. W. Bush wanted to send a message to Saddam Hussein, he used the toughest language he knew: that of his adoptive home state of Texas. Bush warned Saddam that “a line has been drawn in the sand,” and that the U.S.-led coalition would remove him from Kuwait by force if necessary. Saddam was not a man of rhetorical subtlety in any language, but he could be forgiven for wondering what “line in the sand” his adversary was talking about. If the dictator did not know his Texas history, the imagery would have perplexed him — and if he did know his Texas history, it might have perplexed him even more. Was he supposed to cross it, or not?

The original line in the sand was scratched into the earth with the saber of Col. William Barret Travis, commander of Texas forces at the Alamo. Those of his soldiers who crossed it were signifying their commitment to fight to the death. Moses Rose, the only man who refused to cross it, is known as the greatest coward in Texas history — but also, by some, as a canny survivor who understood that the better part of valor is discretion.

The Texas Revolution started in 1835. Mexico had adopted a badly flawed immigration policy that allowed Americans to settle in Texas en masse. Eventually, the settlers promoted open insurrection. By March 1836, the Mexican army had encircled one of the most troublesome cells of American seditionists at a Catholic mission known as the Alamo, named for the nearby cottonwood trees (in Spanish, “alamos”). The Mexican army, under Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, demanded unconditional surrender.

Travis, 26 years old and a notorious hothead, answered Santa Anna’s offer with a cannon shot. Even his own men thought his response was a bit hasty, though when they parlayed with the Mexicans and realized Santa Anna wouldn’t let them surrender with dignity, they agreed with Travis’s position and fired a second cannon shot for confirmation. The Mexicans waved an ominous red flag and their army’s buglers practiced “El Degüello,” the battle-song signifying that all would be put to the sword.

On the afternoon of March 3, Travis lined up his men and admitted to them that the enemy “could almost eat us for breakfast.” Reinforcements were few and distant, and death a certainty. He then drew the line in the sand, stating that any man ready to stay and fight should step across it. “Should any man prefer to attempt an escape through the Mexican ranks,” he said, “and be killed before he reaches a hundred yards, he is at liberty to do so.”

Moses Rose, then 51, was the only man in the garrison of 200 who didn’t step forward. At 51, he had seen much more of life and death than his youthful commander had. Sources suggest he was a French Jew and veteran of Napoleon’s catastrophic 1812 invasion of Russia. He had therefore watched men blown to bits and frozen to death at least once before, and perhaps decided that experience was one worth avoiding. Others at the Alamo, of course, had lived tough lives — James Bowie, a treasonous naturalized Mexican now best known for disemboweling his enemies with a knife as long as his forearm, had convinced Rose to join him at the Alamo and now urged him to stay. But Rose alone decided there was no point dying for a crumbling building amid a cottonwood grove.

According to the original source of the story, Rose’s family friend William Zuber, Rose told the others that he thought he might make it to safety since he spoke Mexican Spanish. Under cover of darkness, he scaled the wall, jumped into a puddle of blood from Mexican soldiers who had been slain attacking the Alamo in earlier waves, and ran through the empty streets of San Antonio, evading cavalry patrols along the way. The bloodstains may have concealed his identity when spotted. He later had to crawl much of the way through patches of yucca and prickly pear, driving thorns deep into his flesh. Many of the Anglo-Texans had fled their homes in the Mexican advance, so he hid out in their abandoned dwellings and raided their pantries for sustenance. He finally arrived at the home of Zuber’s parents, whom he knew from peacetime, and was bedridden for weeks afterward as his wounds healed. He then returned to Nacogdoches, near the Louisiana border, where he had settled on arrival from France.

Doubters have scoffed at Rose’s story, pointing out that his name didn’t appear on any lists of Alamo fighters. But one of the stronger pieces of evidence for the story’s truth is the senselessness of lying about it. What profit could there be in becoming the “coward of the Alamo”? Rose admitted his retreat in Nacogdoches court records less than two years later after the fall of the Alamo. Some accounts say he became a pariah and failed in business because of his shame, and that patriotic thugs occasionally took swings at him in local saloons. He died in 1851 in Louisiana.

But the man lives on as a byword for cowardice in the Lone Star State.  It’s sometimes said that Texas’s revolution produced two famous yellow Roses — the seductress of the song (who supposedly bedded Santa Anna, distracting him during the battle that won the war), and the no-good-yellow Moses Rose, whose cowardice led him to save his own hide when everyone else was mustering the courage to lose theirs.

Whether Saddam Hussein consulted his Texan-to-Arabic dictionary and came to fully appreciate Bush the Elder’s words is not a matter of historical record. But if Saddam did come to know the story of the original line in the sand, he might have enjoyed the irony that Bush was invoking the stand-and-fight courage of his Texan forebears, only to advise Saddam that their example was a bad one. Instead, Bush seemed to be urging Saddam to embrace one of Texas’s greatest shames, and to follow the example of a cowardly French Jew. The message had the virtue of folksiness, but not of clarity.

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