“Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none.” The comparison of the events of the Alamo (1836) to the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) occurred as early as 1836. This particular quotation is said to have been given in a speech by General Edward Burleson in 1841 or 1842, ghost-written by Thomas Jefferson Green. It was soon afterward included with three other quotations on the first Alamo monument. A debate about the origin of the phrase occurred in Texas newspapers in 1887 (below).
In an 1896 article (also below), it was said that “almost every school boy” knew this quotation.
The quotation implies that no one survived the Alamo battle to tell the Texans’ story, but at least three people (non-combatants) did survive.
Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations. 1989.
AUTHOR: Thomas Jefferson Green (1801–63)
QUOTATION: Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat—the Alamo had none.
ATTRIBUTION: Attributed to THOMAS JEFFERSON GREEN.
Green is said to have included the sentence in a speech he helped Edward Burleson prepare. While Burleson has often been credited with originating the sentence as well as using it, he lacked the classical education necessary to have made the allusion. The sentence became popular after it was engraved on the first monument to the Alamo, which is located in Austin, Texas. The 10-foot-high statue, made of stones from the Alamo, was destroyed by fire when the Capitol at Austin burned. Another monument subsequently erected on the Capitol grounds also included the sentence.—J. Frank Dobie, “The Alamo’s Immortalization of Words,” Southwest Review, summer 1942, pp. 406–10.
Wikipedia: Alamo Mission in San Antonio
The Alamo (San Antonio de Valero Mission) is a former mission and fortress compound, now a museum, in San Antonio, Texas. The compound, which originally comprised a sanctuary and surrounding buildings, was built by the Spanish Empire in the 18th century for the education of local Native Americans after their conversion to Christianity. After its abandonment as a mission, it was used as a fortress in the 19th century and was the scene of several military actions, including most notably the 1836 Battle of the Alamo, one of the pivotal battles between the forces of the Republic of Texas and Mexico during the Texas Revolution.
Although the military significance of the battle has been debated by scholars, the bravery of the Texan forces and their sacrifice inspired the battle cry “Remember the Alamo” used in the subsequent battles of the Texas Revolution. Since that time the structures that remain have traditionally been regarded with reverence by Texans as illustrated by the words of Edward Burleson in 1842:
Citizens, the feelings inspired by events within these consecrated walls, of so recent date fills my bosom with emotions. This sacred spot, and those crumbling remains, the desecrated temple of Texian liberty will teach a lesson which freeman can never forget. And, while we mourn the unhappy fate of Travis, Crockett, Bowie, and their brave compatriots let it be the boast of Texians that though Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, the Alamo had none.
Handbook of Texas Online
BURLESON, EDWARD (1798-1851). Edward Burleson, soldier and statesman, son of Capt. James and Elizabeth (Shipman) Burleson, was born at Buncombe County, North Carolina, on December 15, 1798. He served as a private in the War of 1812 in his father’s company, part of Perkin’s Regiment, Alabama. He married Sarah Griffin Owen on April 25, 1816, in Madison County, Missouri Territory; they had nine children. On October 20, 1817, Burleson was appointed a captain of militia in Howard County, Missouri; he was commissioned colonel on June 13, 1821, in Saline County, and was colonel of militia from 1823 to 1830 in Hardeman County, Tennessee.
He arrived in Texas on May 1, 1830, and applied for land in March 1831; title was issued on April 4, 1831. On August 11, 1832, at San Felipe de Austin, he was a member of the ayuntamiento governing the counties of Austin, Bexar, Goliad, and Guadalupe. On December 7, 1832, he was elected lieutenant colonel of the militia of Austin Municipality. In 1833 he was elected a delegate to the Second Convention in Mina. From 1830 to 1842 he defended settlers in numerous engagements with hostile Indians. On May 17, 1835, in Bastrop he was elected to the committee of safety and was therefore unable to attend the Consultation of 1835, although he had been elected a delegate. On October 10, 1835, in Gonzales he was elected lieutenant colonel of the infantry in Gen. Stephen F. Austin’s army. On November 24, 1835, Burleson became general of the volunteer army and replaced Austin. On November 26, 1835, he fought in the Grass Fight during the siege of Bexar. His father was active in this battle, which was won by the Texans.
On December 1, 1835, Burleson was commissioned commander in chief of the volunteer army by the provisional government.qv On December 6 he entered Bexar and, with Benjamin R. Milam, wrote a report to the provisional government. On December 14, 1835, he reported on the success at Bexar to the provisional governor, Henry Smith.qv The volunteer army disbanded on December 20, 1835, and Burleson raised a company and rode to Gonzales in February 1836. By March 10, in Gonzales, he was officially elected colonel of the infantry, First Regiment. On April 21, 1836, at the battle of San Jacinto, he commanded the First Regiment, which was placed opposite Mexican breastworks and was the first to charge them. Burleson accepted the sword and surrender of Gen. Juan N. Almonte.
In 1841 he was elected vice president of the republic. In the spring of 1842, when the Mexican army under Rafael Vásquez invaded Texas, Burleson met with volunteers at San Antonio, where they elected him to command. Houston sent Alexander Somervell to take over, and Burleson handed the command to him. Burleson then made his famous speech before the Alamo: “though Thermopolae had her messenger of defeat, the Alamo had none.”
Wikipedia: Battle of Thermopylae
In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC, an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian Empire at the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persians for three days in one of history’s most famous last stands. A small force led by King Leonidas of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I of Persia (Xerxes the Great) could pass. After three days of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks by revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines. Dismissing the rest of the army, King Leonidas stayed behind with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespian volunteers. The Persians succeeded in taking the pass but sustained heavy losses, extremely disproportionate to those of the Greeks. The fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a decisive naval battle that would come to determine the outcome of the war.
· There were no survivors.
“Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none.” This famous quote conveys the notion that none survived the Battle of the Alamo. It is true that nearly all of the Texans under arms inside the fort were killed in the March 6, 1836, attack. However, nearly twenty women and children, who experienced the twelve days of siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. The survivors also included Joe, the slave of William B. Travis. The best known Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.
 John H. Jenkins, “Notes And Documents: The Thermopylae Quotation,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly (October 1990), 299-304. Attributed to Edward Burleson, historians believe the quote was supplied to him for a speech as he had little formal education and would have most likely been unaware of this ancient battle.
Making of America
Title: Bernard Lile; an historical romance, embracing the periods of the Texas revolution, and the Mexican war. By the Hon. Jeremiah Clemens.
Author: Clemens, Jeremiah, 1814-1865.
Publication Info: Philadelphia,: J. B. Lippincott & co., 1856.
Over that spot, some day, a monument will rise to meet the skies, with the proud inscription, “Thermopylae had one messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none!”
9 November 1859, Charleston (SC) Mercury, pg 4:
AUSTIN, TEXAS.—THE HEROS OF THE ALAMO.—In the vestibule of the State House, is a monument erected to the memory of the heros at the Alamo. As you enter, the name of Crockett stands out in bold relief; upon either side, the names of Bonham, Travis and Bowie, and under these those of their companions who so dearly sold their lives on that memorable occasion.
Upon the monument are the following inscriptions:
“To the God of the fearless and free is dedicated this altar, made from the ruins of Alamo, March 6, 1836, A. D.”
“Blood of heros hath stained me. Let the stones of the Alamo speak, that their immolation be not forgotten.”
“Be they enrolled with Leonidas in the host of the mighty dead.”
“Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none.”—Natchez Courier.
Making of America
Title: All the western states and territories, from the Alleghanies to the Pacific, and from the Lakes to the Gulf, containing their history from the earliest times ..:
Author: Barber, John Warner, 1798-1885.
Publication Info: Cincinnati, O.,: Howe’s subscription book concern, 1867.
The monument erected to the memory of the heroes of the Alamo at the capital, is ten feet high, and is constructed of stones taken from the ruins of the Alamo. The following are the inscriptions:
North front—To the GOD of the fearless and free is dedicated this ALTAR, made from the ruins of the ALAMO. March 6, 1836, A.D.—CROCKETT. West front—Blood of Heroes hath stained me. Let the stones of the ALAMO speak that their immolation be not forgotten, March 6, 1836, A.D.—BONHAM. South front—Be they enrolled with Leonidas in the host of the MIGHTY DEAD. March 6, 1836, A.D.—TRAVIS. East front—THERMOPYLAE had her messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none. March 6, 1836, A.D.—BOWIE.
25 May 1887, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 4, col. 4:
282 FRANKLIN AVENUE, BROOKLYN, N. Y., May 17.—To Jas. B. Shaw, Esq., Galveston, Tex.—My Dear Sir: Your letter of the 11th was duly received, with a newspaper clip inclosed. The postscript of the cutting I have no doubt is correct as to the origin of one of the inscriptions on the Alamo monument, viz.: “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, the Alamo none.” Some years before the monument was made, as I always understood, those words were used by General Burleson in a speech, prepared for him by General THomas J. Green. In 1841, when I suggested the general idea of such a monument to Mr. Nagle, the artist who made it, I furnished him with three of the inscriptions he placed on it. THe other, and the best of all, was no doubt borrowed by the artist from some printed copy of the speech referred to. I think General Green is entitled to the credit of originating the inscription I have quoted. I am, sir, very respectfully yours,
REUBEN M. POTTER
P. S.—My general health is still goof, but I feel as much of the weakness of age as a man of 85 1/4 years may expect, but I am free from its aches and pains. Yours as ever,
R. M. P.
6 June 1887, Dallas Weekly Herald, pg. 7:
Thermopylae and the Alamo—
the Question Settled.
DALLAS, June 6, 1887.
EDITOR HERALD: You were kind enough, on the ___ of May, to publish my article, somewhat in reply to others and somewhat giving other facts, but no positive conclusion, as to the authorship of “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat—but the Alamo had none!” I clearly showed that Gen. Burleson did not use it on the 8th of March, 1836, as claimed by the Rev. R. C. Burleson; and that it was not original with Representative Winfield, who quoted it in 1852 in the debate on the Babe of the Alamo bill, because it had been carved on the Alamo monument three of four years earlier. I now believe it was so carved 7 or 8 years earlier.
I sent my communication to the Hon. Guy M. Bryan, of Galveston, (who had been given as authority for the 8th of March story,) and also to the noble and venerable Capt. Reuben M. Potter, Brooklyn, New York, and solicited an expression from each.
Major Bryan, whose warm attachment to Gen. Burleson is well known and who pronounced the eulogy over his remains by selection of both houses of the legislature, says: “I agree with you that Gen. Burleson did not use the language at Gonzales at the time [March 8, ‘36] attributed to him by the old soldier. I regret that I cannot be precise as to time and place. I have always believed that Gen. Thos. J. Green revised or prepared his address. I recollect at the time hearing the incident spoken of and the General’s blundering at the word Thermopylae, which fastened the circumstance on my mind.” [Major Bryan was a youth of only sixteen when the occurrence took place, as shown by Capt. Potter.]
Here is what the venerable post-patriot says:
BROOKLYN, N. Y., May 31, 1887.
MY DEAR SIR:
Your favor of the 26th inst. is received and, in answer to your inquiries, I have to say that I did not originate that best of the inscriptions on the Alamo Monument—“Thermopylaw had her messenger of defeat—but the Alamo had none.” I furnished the other three inscriptions. As I understood in early days, when the case was well remembered, those words were taken by the artist from a speech written by Gen. Thomas J. Green for Gen. Burleson and delivered by the latter at San Antonio in 1837. Gen. Green, I have no doubt, is entitled to the credit of originating the sentiment. Gen. Burleson, though a grand old soldier, knew more about the wars of modern Texas than ancient Greece, and he was said to have mispronounced the name of the heroic locality. The artist doubtless took the words from a copy of that speech.
I claim, however, the credit of originating the general idea of the monument. I visited San Antonio in 1841, and found there an artist, Mr. Nangle, engaged in making small momentos, such as vases and pipes, from the stones of the Alamo. I suggested to him the plan of advertising his skill by making a small monument of a size suitable for a center table and offering it as a present to the president of Texas, to remain as a permanent decoration of the executive mansion.
The form I suggested was that of a Roman altar, with emblems for five sides of the frieze, namely, a head pierced by two falchions, and a skull between two palm leaves, the former representing self immolation, and the latter victory in death. The inscriptions I suggested were three of those eventually put on the monument. For the other side, I proposed the names of Travis, Bowie, Crockett and Bonham.
The artist improved on my plan by placing those names on the frieze and inscribing on the fourth side the heroic motto under discussion. He enlarged my suggestion also by crowning the pedestal with something like an obelisk, and making of the whole a monument of considerable size. I left San Antonio befoar (sic) the artist commenced his work and never saw the monument till ten years later, in New Orleans.
My health continues good, considering that I am in my eighty-sixth year.
Most truly yours,
REUBEN M. POTTER.
This version of the origin of the eloquent sentence is, beyond any reasonable doubt, true. Then who was Gen. Thomas J. Green? A North Carolina volunteer to Texas in 1836, who commanded the army for a short time in ‘36; a member of the first Texas congress, a Mier prisoner in ‘42-3, who wrote a history of that expedition and was in the congress in ‘43. About 1845 he married in Rhode Island, returned to North Carolina and died there. He was a man of education and fluency. His son, Wharton Green, has been a member of congress from North Carolina several years—said to be an honorable and talented man.
JOHN HENRY BROWN.
P. S.—The three inscriptions furnished by Capt. Potter were:
1. To the God of the fearless and free is dedicated this ALTAR, made fro mthe ruins of the Alamo.
2. Blood of heroes hath stained me! Let the stones of the Alamo speak, that their immolation be not forgotten.
3. Be they enrolled with Leonidas in the host of the mighty dead.
J. H. B.
16 June 1887, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 4, col. 6:
To the News.
SEGUIN, Tex., June 13.—I see in the last NEWS a communication from Judge Ballinger about the disputed authorship of “Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none:” and I suppose from the judge’s letter there has been quite a discussion going on as to the authorship. I think that I can settle the question for you. In the summer of 1842, after Vasques had retreated from San Antonio, there was a considerable force of Texians—some two or three hundred—had collected there for the purpose of pursuing the Mexicans, but they had got such a start before we could get ready that pursuit was given up, and before disbanding General Burleson (Old Ed.) had the troops notified that he would make a speech, and ordered them on the Alamo plaza. We were formed in a hollow square directly in front of the old Alamo building. We were all mounted, and the general took his place in the center on his horse, hat in hand, with several officers around him, and proceeded to give the spirited speech in which he used the sentence: “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none.” In using the sentence he pointed to the broken down walls of the Alamo, and when through the boys gave him a long and hearty Texas yell, such as only Texians could give. We were then disbanded, and went to our homes. These are the facts in the case. I was there and heard the speech and recollect it well.
W. G. KING
22 June 1887, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 4, col. 6:
To the News.
It has been said, or should have been said if it has not been, that “there is nothing certain but uncertainty.” as to the authorship of the famous saying that “Thermopylaw had her messenger of defeat, the Alamo had none,” I beg leave to put in the claim of one to the saying whose name so far had not been called in connection with the matter. The Hon. E. H. Wingfield used it in the Texas legislature when advocating the claim of the “child of the Alamo” for relief, the only survivor at that time of that famous defense. It can be found in Field’s Scrap-book, page 185, alongside of the speeches of Hon. Guy Bryan and James Milsom on the same subject. Mr. Fields does not use the illustration as a quotation. His words are: “It has been said that Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat. But the Alamo has none.” We all know that it had been said that Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, but had it before been said in that connection that “the Alamo had none?” That is the question.
7 September 1896, Galveston (TX) Daily News, pg. 6, col. 7:
A party of enterprising gentlemen here in our city will reproduce “The Fall of the Alamo,” comments on which are entirely unnecessary to every Texan, and in fact, there are but few people in the United States who have not read of that desperate struggle for the liberty of Texas, and in every country where the English language is spoken the assertion that “Thermopylae had her one messenger of defeat, but the Alamo none,” has been said and spoken by almost every school boy.
Southwestern Historical Quarterly, volume VI, no. 4 (1903)
THE ALAMO MONUMENT .
C. W. RAINES.
“The government of the State of Texas has never secured or preserved but one memento of the Alamo. A small but finely executed monument was made from the stones of the fortress in 1841 by an artist named Nangle, and after lying long neglected it was purchased by the State. It now stands in the hall of the capitol at Austin; but neither at the Alamo itself, nor at the forgotten grave of its defenders, does any legend or device, like the stones of Thermopylae, remind the stranger of those who died for their country’s rights.”
In the conflagration of the capitol on November 9, 1881, perished wholly or in part the State library and many valuable documents and relics. A fragment only of the Alamo monument was saved from the ruins. Fortunately, however, that fragment has on its sides, unobscured and perfectly legible, all the heroic inscriptions. It is now kept with the historical relics in the State library.
In December, 1898, in Austin, Col, Guy M. Bryan told me on the authority of Gen. Hugh McLeod that Gen. Thomas Jefferson Green was the author of the inscription beginning “Thermopylae.” `General McLeod informed me’ said Col. Bryan, `that the authorship of the inscription was freely discussed at a banquet in Galveston during the Republic and that it was positively stated without contradiction that General Green dictated the sentiment to Nangle.’—C. W. Raines.
Southwestern Historical Quarterly (1905?)
An editorial in the Telegraph and Register, published at San Felipe de Austin (Vol. I, No. 24), Thursday, March 24, 1836,...
The editorial begins: “Respecting the fall of the Alamo: That event, so lamentable, and yet so glorious to Texas, is of such deep interest and excites so much our feelings that we shall never cease to celebrate it, and regret that we are not acquainted with the names of all those who fell in that fort, that we might publish them, and thus consecrate to future ages the memory of our heroes who perished at the Thermopylae of Texas.”
6 March 1955, San Antonio Express and News, “Alamo Almanac” by Keith Elliott, pg. 1-G:
The very completeness of the tragedy of March 6, 1836, has inspired one of the most striking epigrams ever uttered, “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, the Alamo had none.”
The phrase, “Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat, the Alamo had none,” was coined by Edward Burleson in a race for governor. He lost…Actually, the Alamo DID have a messenger of Defeat—Mrs. Almaron D. Dickinson who, with her two slaves and a baby, was set free after the battle.