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Mission San Antonio de Valero was established in its present location by members of the Franciscan Order in 1724. It served the San Antonio area native population until 1793, when religious activities were discontinued and the surrounding lands were distributed to the Indians.In the early 19th century, part of the old mission complex was used as the headquarters of a Spanish cavalry unit. During this time, the Spanish word alamo, meaning "cottonwood," was introduced by soldiers garrisoned there to honor their home at Alamo de Parras in the Mexican province of Coahuila.The larger region of Tejas (Texas) was the scene of mounting tensions during the late 1820s and early 1830s, as increasing numbers of United States citizens flooded across the border into the prime cotton lands west of the Sabine River. Mexico, independent from Spain since 1821, resisted the growing foreign presence, but a full-scale rebellion erupted in the fall of 1835, at the town of Gonzales.In December, Benjamin Milam led a combined force of Tejanos, Spanish-speaking native residents of Tejas, and Texans, English-speaking residents, against a Mexican military unit in San Antonio. In the end, the Mexican commander, General Marín Perfecto de Cós, was forced to surrender and Milam’s soldiers occupied the former mission site at the Alamo.Over the next two months, the occupying forces worked to strengthen the Alamo's defenses, but were surprised on February 23, 1836 to see the 2,000-man army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna looming on the horizon. At this time, only 155 soldiers manned the garrison.Commander William Barrett Travis decided to hold out until reinforcements could be brought in. Several scouts managed to slip though the Mexican siege line to carry word of the Alamo defenders' plight to other Texas communities. By March 1, only 32 volunteers had been sent by the neighboring community of Gonzales.Santa Anna’s forces had immediately encircled the Alamo and begun to reduce its walls by artillery fire. At sunrise on March 6, Mexican soldiers began an assault on the structure's walls.Initially the Texans resisted successfully, but the overwhelming Mexican army eventually managed to get some of its soldiers over the walls and into the fort. The battle turned into a rout when the Mexicans captured the Alamo’s sole cannon and turned its fire on the defenders.The last-ditch Texan strongholds — a church and barracks — were destroyed and hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Included among the dead were Travis and such notables as James Bowie and Davy Crockett.This event, which nearly coincided with the Goliad Massacre, helped to galvanize the Texas Independence movement. Six weeks later — under the cry of “Remember the Alamo” — Texan forces won a stunning and decisive victory at San Jacinto.
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Deconstruct the myth shrouding the Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution
NARRATOR: The battle of the Alamo was a famous fight in the Texas revolution—the struggle for Texas independence from Mexico. The story of the battle has become an enduring piece of American folklore. But how much of the legend is fact, and how much is myth?
A popular telling of the battle holds that in early 1836 a small group of brave Texans defended the mission-fort known as the Alamo against thousands of Mexican soldiers, knowing it meant certain death. These men included famed frontiersman Davy Crockett and inventor of the Bowie knife, James Bowie, who was confined to bed but still managed to kill a few enemy soldiers. Every Texan man fought to his last breath, until only the women and children remained.
Many points of this story hold true. The Texans were vastly outnumbered: estimates have their numbers at roughly 200 men, while the Mexican army had anywhere from 1,800 to 6,000 soldiers. The Texan fighters did recognize that they were likely to die defending the Alamo. On the second day of the siege, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis addressed a letter to “the People of Texas & All Americans in the World,” in which he wrote that he would never surrender or retreat. He and his men would face victory or death. But these men were not looking to be martyrs. The letter was also a request for help, as Travis implored other Texans to come to their aid.
Additionally, not every defender died fighting, though most of them did. Eyewitness accounts suggest that some Texans did try to surrender once defeat was imminent, but the Mexican commander, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, refused to take prisoners, and these men were executed immediately. One defender of Mexican descent was able to persuade the Mexican army that he was a prisoner of the Texans, not one of their fighters, so the soldiers spared his life. Several black slaves also survived the battle, at least one of whom, a man named Joe, had fought in the Alamo’s defense.
The image of Bowie fighting from his sickbed may also be pure legend. Some witnesses, including a woman who claimed to be his nurse, stated that he had been too ill to even raise his gun by that point.
No matter where the line between truth and legend lies, it is certain that the battle of the Alamo and the sacrifice of its defenders inspired Texans as a symbol of heroic resistance. Two months later, at San Jacinto, General Sam Houston led a Texan army against Mexican forces that outnumbered them nearly 2 to 1. The Texan fighters shouted, “Remember the Alamo!” as they fought their way to victory, earning independence for Texas.
Articles Featuring Battle Of The Alamo From History Net Magazines
February 23, 1836, began the siege of the Alamo, a 13-day moment in history that turned a ruined Spanish mission in the heart of downtown San Antonio, Texas, into a shrine known and revered the world over. But what is it that makes this one battle so different from any other battle fought in the name of freedom? The people involved? Yes, that’s part of it. The issues at hand? Yes, that’s another part. Or can it be that the mysteries, myths and legends surrounding it are still tantalizing minds even today? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of these things have made the battle stand apart and have caused it to be so well remembered throughout the nation 160 years later. Yet, as historian Walter Lord said in 1960, ‘It is…a rash man indeed who claims he has the final answer to everything that happened at the Alamo.
History records three revolutions that led to the Battle of the Alamo. The first, the Spanish revolt against French occupation of Spain, occurred in 1808. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, and it took six years for Spanish resistance forces to oust the French emperor and restore Ferdinand VII to the throne. The fires of the Spanish revolt crossed the ocean, and in Mexico Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bells of his small church in Dolores at midnight on September 15, 1810, to herald the beginning of the second revolution. This Mexican revolt against Spanish occupation traveled quickly across Mexico and into the northern frontier of the Mexican territory of Texas. San Antonio de Béxar, the capital of Texas, became a center of revolutionary activity and a haven for resistance fighters. One revolutionary, Captain Jose Menchaca, was captured by Spanish troops, shot and beheaded. His head was then stuck on a pole in front of the Alamo. Instead of setting an example for the other insurgents, however, Menchaca’s execution only added fuel to the revolt.
After an 11-year struggle, Mexico gained its freedom in 1821. Within that same year, Agustin de Iturbide, a Spanish general turned rebel and a hero of the revolution, became emperor of the new nation. But his regime was too extravagant for some tastes, and in no time a revolt led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna brought about Iturbide’s downfall and established a Mexican republic.
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Under Iturbide, American colonists had been allowed to settle in Texas. About the only condition to owning land was that all immigrant landowners had to be Catholic, an easy enough problem to overcome for non-Catholics. William Travis, for instance, became Catholic to purchase land, but remained a staunch Methodist until the day he died at the Alamo.
Unfortunately, the fledgling Republic of Mexico was born bankrupt and ill-prepared for self-government. In fact, during its first 15 years of independence, it had 13 presidents. All of them struggled for power, shifting between the liberal-leaning Federalists and the dictatorial Centralists. The first president was a Federalist, General Guadalupe Victoria, a hero of the revolution who had changed his name from Miguel Felix Hernandez to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, for his victory. It was he who established the liberal Constitution of 1824 that so infuriated Santa Anna and that would lead to the Battle of the Alamo 12 years later.
It was also during this tumultuous struggle for control of Mexico’s presidency that the northern territory of Texas was mostly neglected. When Mexico redefined its territories in 1824, Texas was the only separate territory to lose its independence. It was joined to Coahuila and the capital was moved from San Antonio de Béxar to Saltillo. Armed citizens gathered in protest. In September 1835, they petitioned for statehood separate from Coahuila. They wrote out their needs and their complaints in The Declaration of Causes. This document was designed to convince the Federalists that the Texans desired only to preserve the 1824 Constitution, which guaranteed the rights of everyone living on Mexican soil. But by this time, Santa Anna was in power, having seized control in 1833, and he advocated the removal of all foreigners. His answer was to send his crack troops, commanded by his brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cós, to San Antonio to disarm the Texans.
October 1835 found San Antonio de Béxar under military rule, with 1,200 Mexican troops under General Cós’ command. When Cós ordered the small community of Gonzales, about 50 miles east of San Antonio, to return a cannon loaned to the town for defense against Indian attack–rightfully fearing that the citizens might use the cannon against his own troops–the Gonzales residents refused. Come and take it! they taunted, setting off a charge of old chains and scrap iron, shot from the mouth of the tiny cannon mounted on ox-cart wheels. Although the only casualty was one Mexican soldier, Gonzales became enshrined in history as the Lexington of Texas. The Texas Revolution was on.
On December 5, 200 Texan volunteers commanded by Ben Milam attacked Cós’ troops in San Antonio de Béxar, which was about 400 yards from the Alamo compound. The fighting in Béxar raged with a house-to-house assault unlike anything the Mexican army had ever before experienced. Cós finally flew the white flag of surrender from the Alamo on December 9. More than 200 of his men lay dead, and as many more were wounded. He signed papers of capitulation, giving the Texans all public property, money, arms and ammunition in San Antonio, and by Christmas Day, the Mexican army was back across the Rio Grande. To the Texans, who lost about 20 men, including Ben Milam, the victory seemed cheap and easy.
The siege of Béxar and Cós’ surrender brought immediate retaliation from Santa Anna. He whipped together a force of 8,000 men, many of them foreign adventurers from Europe and America. One of his deadliest snipers was an Illinois man named Johnson! Santa Anna, the self-styled Napoleon of the West, marched at the head of the massive army he was determined to stamp out all opposition and teach the Texans a lesson. The word went out to his generals: In this war, you understand, there are no prisoners.
Although it was midwinter, Santa Anna pushed his army mercilessly toward Texas. The frigid, wind-battered deserts of northern Mexico took their toll. Men and animals died by the hundreds and were left on the trail, and the brigades strung out for uncounted miles. When the big siege guns bogged down in one of the many quagmires, Santa Anna pushed on without them. Nothing would stop him. Meanwhile, after the defeated Mexican force under General Cós had left San Antonio, Colonel James C. Neill had assumed command of the Alamo garrison, which consisted of about 80 poorly equipped men in several small companies, including the volunteers. The rest of the soldiers had returned home to their families and farm chores. In this command were an artillery company under Captain William R. Carey known as the Invincibles, two small infantry companies known as the New Orleans Greys under Captain William Blazeby, and the Béxar Guards under Captain Robert White.
On January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, the commander of the revolutionary troops, sent Colonel Jim Bowie and 25 men to San Antonio with orders to destroy the Alamo fortifications and retire eastward with the artillery. But Bowie and Neill agreed that it would be impossible to remove the 24 captured cannons without oxen, mules or horses. And they deemed it foolhardy to abandon that much firepower–by far the most concentrated at any location during the Texas Revolution. Bowie also had a keen eye for logistics, terrain, and avenues of assault. Knowing that General Houston needed time to raise a sizable army to repel Santa Anna, Bowie set about reinforcing the Alamo after Neill was forced to leave because of sickness in his family.
Colonel William Travis arrived in San Antonio on February 2 with a small cavalry company, bringing the total number of Alamo defenders to about 130. Although spies told him that Santa Anna had crossed the Rio Grande, Travis did not expect the dictator before early spring. He sent letter after letter, pleading for supplies and more men. He and Bowie also competed for command of the garrison before it was decided that Bowie would command the volunteers and Travis the regular army. On February 9, David Crockett and the 14 other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers (only three were actually from Tennessee) rode into San Antonio. Alarmed by the Mexican army on the outskirts of town, Travis vigorously renewed his pleas for help. His February 24 letter, To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World….I shall never surrender or retreat….Victory or Death! is considered one of the most heart-wrenching pleas ever written. Travis sent the message out with Captain Albert Martin.
The day before, February 23, Santa Anna had reclaimed San Antonio. To the triumphant music of a military band, he took possession of the town, set up headquarters on the main plaza, and began the siege. He had his standard-bearers climb to the top of the bell tower of San Fernando Church and unfurl the scarlet flag of no quarter. Inside the Alamo, Travis and the Texans fired their message to Santa Anna with a blast from their 18-pounder. They had their music, too, with Davy Crockett’s fiddle and John McGregor’s bagpipes. In fact, Davy’s fiddle-playing and outlandish storytelling kept up the spirits of the besieged defenders.
Santa Anna ordered his men to pound the fortifications with cannon and rifle fire for 12 days and nights. His idea was to wear out the defenders inside, giving them no chance for rest or sleep. He reasoned that a weary army would be an easy one to defeat. But the noise worked on his own army, too. Unable to hear clearly through the din, they allowed courier after courier to escape from the Alamo. On March 2, racing through the enemy’s lines, the last group to reinforce the Alamo arrived. These men were the relief force from Gonzales, the only town to answer Travis’ pleas to send help. The total number of Alamo defenders now stood at between 180 and 190.
At 4 o’clock on the morning of March 6, 1836, Santa Anna advanced his men to within 200 yards of the Alamo’s walls. Just as dawn was breaking, the Mexican bloodcurdling bugle call of the Deguello echoed the meaning of the scarlet flag above San Fernando: no quarter. It was Captain Juan Seguin’s Tejanos, the native-born Mexicans fighting in the Texan army, who interpreted the chilling music for the other defenders.
Santa Anna’s first charge was repulsed, as was the second, by the deadly fire of Travis’ artillery. At the third charge, one Mexican column attacked near a breach in the north wall, another in the area of the chapel, and a third, the Toluca Battalion, commenced to scale the walls. All suffered severely. Out of 800 men in the Toluca Battalion, only 130 were left alive. Fighting was hand to hand with knives, pistols, clubbed rifles, lances, pikes, knees and fists. The dead lay everywhere. Blood spilled in the convent, the barracks, the entrance to the church, and finally in the rubble-strewn church interior itself. Ninety minutes after it began, it was over.
All the Texans died. Santa Anna’s loss was 1,544 men. More than 500 Mexicans lay wounded, their groans mingling with the haunting strains of the distant bugle calls. Santa Anna airily dismissed the Alamo conquest as a small affair, but one of his officers commented, Another such victory will ruin us.
As many of the Mexican dead as possible were given the rites of the church and buried, but there were so many that there was not sufficient room in the cemetery. Santa Anna ordered all the bodies of the Texans to be contemptuously stacked like cord wood in three heaps, mixed with fuel, wood and dry branches from the neighboring forest, and set on fire–except one. Jose Gregorio Esparza was given a Christian burial because his brother Francisco was a member of General Cós’ presidio guards.
Six weeks after the Alamo, while the Mexican wounded still languished in San Antonio, Santa Anna met his Waterloo at San Jacinto. The men who died inside the walls of the Alamo had bought with their lives the time needed for General Sam Houston to weld a force that won Texas its independence. The great sacrifice would not be forgotten by history, nor would the Alamo’s many legends and stories, most of which can never be proved or disproved because all the defenders died.
One of the most enduring questions is whether Travis really did draw a line in the earth, the grand canyon of Texas, and ask all to step over who were willing to die for the cause. It is probably based on fact. Travis anticipated a battle to the death. Since he was also one for fairness, it’s logical to believe that he would give the men an opportunity to leave the ill-fated garrison. It is a fact that one man did leave. Louis Rose was from France, and he had already served in one bloody war as a noncommissioned officer in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Before the final assault on the Alamo he left, sustaining many leg wounds from cactuses and thorns during his escape that plagued him the remainder of his life. Asked why he chose not to stay with the rest, he replied, By God, I wasn’t ready to die. It is Rose’s tale of the line in the dust that has become legend.
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Two of Santa Anna’s earliest opponents were Erasmo Seguin and his son Juan, of San Antonio. In fact, it was Juan who became one of the staunchest fighters for Texas freedom, forming his own band of Tejanos to stand alongside his Anglo counterparts. Juan Seguin was on a courier mission for Travis when the Alamo fell, but he vowed to one day honor the Alamo dead in a church ceremony, a ceremony that had been denied by Santa Anna. Legend claims that Seguin collected the ashes and placed them in a casket covered with black. Inside the lid, he had the names of Travis, Bowie and Crockett engraved. He then buried the casket. Where? No one knows. Shortly before his death, when he was in his 80s, Juan Seguin stated that he had buried the casket outside the sanctuary railing, near the steps in the old San Fernando Church. In 1936, repair work on the altar railing of the cathedral led to the unearthing of a box containing charred bones, rusty nails, shreds of uniforms and buttons, particles of coal, and crushed skulls. From that discovery arose a controversy that continues to this day. Are they the bones of the Alamo defenders? Many believe yes, but since the defenders did not wear uniforms, many others think not.
Questions also still remain about the death of David Crockett, who, without doubt, was the most famous defender of the siege. Shortly after the capture of Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, rumors began to circulate that 49-year-old Crockett had not died alongside his men in the final moments of the Alamo. Conflicting testimony claimed that Crockett and a handful of others–including Lieutenant James Butler Bonham, who rode back into the Alamo on March 3 knowing full well that it was a death trap–survived the siege, only to be destroyed on the orders of an enraged Santa Anna a few minutes later. True…or not? No one may ever really know. But most people prefer to believe that Crockett died a heroic death inside the Alamo.
Davy Crockett was a national folk hero long before the events of the Alamo. Born August 17, 1786, in an East Tennessee wilderness cabin in what is now Greene County, he struck out on his own at the tender age of 12 to help drive a herd of cattle to Virginia. By 1813, he was serving as one of General Andrew Jackson’s scouts in the Creek War. He apparently did not enjoy fighting Indians and returned home as soon as his 90-day enlistment was up. In 1821, he was elected to the Tennessee Legislature for the first time, representing a district of 11 western counties in the state. He later served two terms in the United States Congress.
Crockett was always one for adventure. When defeated at the polls for a third term in Congress in 1835, he turned in typical Crockett fashion to the cause of Texan freedom as a way to completely cut off one phase of his life and begin another. Before leaving for Texas, however, he gave his constituents one last speech. He concluded …by telling them that I was done with politics for the present, and that they might all go to hell, and I would go to Texas. After arriving in San Antonio in early February 1836, Crockett and the other Tennessee Mounted Volunteers eventually retreated into the Alamo.
The old fortress spread over three acres as it surrounded a rough rectangle of bare ground, about the size of a gigantic city block, called the plaza. On the south side of this plaza and detached from the church by a distance of some 10 feet was a long one-story building called the low barracks. Adobe huts spread along the west side, which was protected by a 12-foot-high stone wall. A similar wall ran across the north side. A two-story building called the long barracks/convent/hospital covered the east side, along with the church, which sat in the southeast corner, facing west.
Crockett and his men defended a low wooden palisade erected to breach the gap between the church and the low barracks of the south wall. The position of the low barracks was in front of, and perpendicular to, the right side of the church–an area that is now covered in flagstone. This palisade consisted of two rows of pointed wooden stakes with rocks and earth between the rows. All combatants considered the position to be the most vulnerable and hardest to defend area of the fortress. But Crockett and the other Tennesseans were expert marksmen, the best the small Texan army had. They most likely held their position until death.
As news of Crockett’s death swept across America, some stories portrayed him as standing in the thickest of the fighting, using his trusty flintlock rifle Old Betsy like a club, until being cut down by Mexican bayonets and bullets. Well…maybe that’s the way it really happened. Then again…maybe not.
Minutes after the fighting ceased, Santa Anna instructed Alcalde Francisco Ruiz to identify the bodies of the dead Texans, especially those of the leaders. According to the alcalde, Toward the west and in a small fort opposite the city, we found the body of Colonel Crockett…and we may infer that he either commanded that point or was stationed there as a sharpshooter. The only logical explanation is that the small courtyard bounded by the palisade on the south, the church on the east and the hospital on the north, where Crockett and the Tennesseans were stationed, was considered a small fort all its own.
But one month later, the imprisoned General Cós told Dr. George Patrick that Davy Crockett had survived the battle. According to Cós, Crockett had locked himself in one of the rooms of the barracks. When the Mexican soldiers discovered him, Crockett explained that he was on a visit and had accidentally got caught in the Alamo after it was too late to escape. Cós further said that Crockett wanted him to intercede with Santa Anna, asking for mercy, which Cós agreed to do–only Santa Anna had ordered no quarter and was incensed at such a request. The Mexican leader refused to spare Crockett’s life.
In 1878, writer Josephus Conn Guild offered a similar version in which Crockett and five others survived the siege. When overrun by the Mexican soldiers, the Alamo survivors surrendered to General Manuel Castrillón under promise of his protection, …but being taken before Santa Anna, they were by his orders instantly put to death. Colonel Crockett fell with a dozen swords sheathed in his breast. Actually, much of the same story had appeared as far back as 1836, when the diary of Lt. Col. José Enrique de la Peña was published in Mexico City. When the diary was finally published in English in the 1970s, it stirred up those Americans who felt the heroic Crockett never would have surrendered.
Another account, from Mexican Sergeant Felix Nunez, related details of the death of a Texan on the palisade: He was a tall American of rather dark complexion and had a long buckskin coat and a round cap without any bill, made of fox skin with the long tail hanging down his back. This man apparently had a charmed life. Of the many soldiers who took deliberate aim at him and fired, not one ever hit him. On the contrary, he never missed a shot. He may not have been describing Davy Crockett, but who else dressed in that fashion?
Susanna Dickinson (sometimes spelled Dickerson), one of the noncombatant survivors of the battle, stated in her memoirs that she saw Crockett and a handful of others lying mangled and mutilated between the church and the two-story barrack building, and even remembered seeing his peculiar cap laying by his side, as she was led from the scene by a Mexican officer. Perhaps she had seen Crockett after his execution, which supposedly occurred near the front of the church. But some people just won’t buy a capture-execution scenario. And perhaps Reuben Marmaduke Potter had it right all along when he wrote, David Crockett never surrendered to bear or tiger, Indian or Mexican.
There is also a controversial story about the Alamo’s secondmost legendary figure. That story, which has never been proved one way or the other, says that Bowie was the last to die in the fighting at the Alamo.
Jim Bowie, whose exploits made his name familiar in almost every American home during his lifetime, was born about 1796 (in either Tennessee, Kentucky, or Georgia–sources vary). When Jim was in his teens, the family settled at Bayou Boeuf, Rapides Parish, La., where he later operated a sugar plantation with his brother Rezin. It was his involvement with the pirate Jean Lafitte in the slave trade, though, that earned him a measure of notoriety. In September 1827, he killed a man with his huge knife during a brawl on a Mississippi sandbar just above Natchez. It was the Vidalia sandbar fight that firmly established him as a legendary fighter throughout the South.
Bowie left for Texas in 1828 to settle in San Antonio de Béxar, where his land dealings made him modestly wealthy almost overnight. Bowie also became a Mexican citizen and married into the Mexican aristocracy, which, more than anything else, gained him the friendship, confidence and support of the Mexican population. By 1831, he was fluent in Spanish.
Since he had been a colonel in a Texas Ranger company in 1830, he carried this title and authority when he answered the call for Texan volunteers. The 40-year-old frontiersman and Indian fighter was described as a normally calm, mild man until his temper was aroused. Absolutely fearless, he gave orders to the volunteers at the Alamo while 26-year-old Colonel Travis, a disciplinarian, took charge of the regulars and cavalry. The difference in their personalities, coupled with the difference in their ages, resulted in the two men sharing a somewhat antagonistic competition for command of the entire garrison. On one point they did agree: The Alamo was the most important stronghold of Texas.
Sometime around February 21, 1836, Bowie decided to help construct a lookout post or gun garrison along one of the walls. Although there are conflicting opinions on what actually happened, most accounts think that he lost his balance on the scaffold and fell 8 feet to the ground, breaking either his hip or his leg. This incident has also been called hogwash by other historians, who claim that Bowie never suffered any accident while at the Alamo. Whether or not he also suffered from tuberculosis, diphtheria, or the dreaded typhoid pneumonia is also a matter of conjecture. In any event, Bowie’s incapacitation left Travis with full authority from that point onward.
Bowie took to his sick bed in the low barracks on or about the second day of the siege, and there’s little doubt that he would have succumbed to his illness in a matter of days had not the Mexican soldiers dispatched him when they did.
On the final day of the 13-day siege, legend claims that it was Crockett who stole into Bowie’s room and gave the sick man two pistols to be used for defense. Most accounts agree that Bowie was found dead on his cot, but since his nurse, Madame Candelaria, never told the exact same story twice about the sequence of events, who really knows what happened that day? Bowie probably participated in the battle, dying in the fall of the Alamo with the other defenders. But was he the last to fall? Everyone agrees that the last position to fall was the church, and Bowie wasn’t even close to the church. As the Mexican soldiers stormed over the walls of the compound, the defenders raced to the long barracks, where there was no exit, and to the church. None of them ferried a sick man on a cot.
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Still, the Mexican soldiers could have taken pity on Bowie when they saw him more dead than alive, prostrate on his cot in his room in the low barracks. In fact, an odd report claims that as the funeral pyres blazed high and soldiers heaped dead Texans on the pile, some soldiers carried out a man on a cot, a man the captain of the detail identified as no other than the infamous Bowie. Although the man was still alive, Santa Anna ordered him thrown into the fire along with the rest. Would Santa Anna be so cruel? Yes, especially if the man were a Mexican citizen fighting in the Texan army.
Although the fact remains that no one knows why some 188 men chose to die on the plains of Texas in a ruined Spanish mission that required at least 1,200 men to adequately defend all its acreage, their sacrifice brought Texas independence, which paved the way for expansion to the Pacific and added more than a million square miles to the American nation at that time. And because of their sacrifice, the Alamo is now a shrine respected and revered throughout the world. Remember the Alamo became the battle cry that broke Santa Anna’s back.
This article was written by Lee Paul and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of Wild West. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!
Slavery and the Myth of the Alamo
James W. Russell, University Professor of Sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University, is the author most recently of Escape from Texas: A Novel of Slavery and the Texas War of Independence. More information is available at http://escapefromtexas.com.
Two and a half million people visit the Alamo each year where, according to its website, “men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom,” making it “hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.”
There can be no doubt that the symbolism of the Alamo is at the center of the creation myth of Texas: that the state was forged out of a heroic struggle for freedom against a cruel Mexican dictator, Santa Ana. It represents to the Southwest what the Statue of Liberty represents to the Northeast: a satisfying confirmation of what we are supposedly about as a people.
But if Northeasterners can be excused for embracing a somewhat fuzzy notion of abstract liberty, the symbolism of the Alamo has always been built upon historical myth.
As the defenders of the Alamo were about to sacrifice their lives, other Texans were making clear the goals of the sacrifice at a constitutional convention for the new republic they hoped to create. In Section 9 of the General Provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, it is stated how the new republic would resolve their greatest problem under Mexican rule: “All persons of color who were slaves for life previous to their emigration to Texas, and who are now held in bondage, shall remain in the like state of servitude . Congress shall pass no laws to prohibit emigrants from bringing their slaves into the republic with them, and holding them by the same tenure by which such slaves were held in the United States nor shall congress have power to emancipate slaves.”
Mexico had in fact abolished slavery in 1829, causing panic among the Texas slaveholders, overwhelmingly immigrants from the south of the United States. They in turn sent Stephen Austin to Mexico City to complain. Austin was able to wrest from the Mexican authorities an exemption for the department -- Texas was technically a department of the state of Coahuila y Tejas -- that would allow the vile institution to continue. But it was an exemption reluctantly given, mainly because the authorities wanted to avoid rebellion in Texas when they already had problems in Yucatán and Guatemala. All of the leaders of Mexico, in itself only an independent country since 1821, were personally opposed to slavery, in part because of the influence of emissaries from the freed slave republic of Haiti. The exemption was, in their minds, a temporary measure and Texas slaveholders knew that.
The legality of slavery had thus been at best tenuous and uncertain at a time when demand for cotton -- the main slave-produced export -- was accelerating on the international market. A central goal of independence would be to remove that uncertainty.
The Mexican armies that entered the department to put down the rebellion had explicit orders to free any slaves that they encountered, and so they did. The only person spared in the retaking of the Alamo was Joe, the personal slave of William Travis.
Once the rebels succeeded in breaking Texas away from Mexico and establishing an independent republic, slavery took off as an institution. Between 1836 and 1840, the slave population doubled it doubled again by 1845 and it doubled still again by 1850 after annexation by the United States. On the eve of the Civil War, which Texas would enter as a part of the Confederacy, there were 182,566 slaves, nearly one-third of the state’s population.
As more slaves came into the Republic of Texas, more escaped to Mexico. Matamoros in the 1840s had a large and flourishing colony of ex-slaves from Texas and the United States. Though exact numbers do not exist, as many slaves may have escaped to Mexico as escaped through the more famous underground railway to Canada. The Mexican government, for its part, encouraged the slave runaways, often with offers of land as well as freedom.
The defenders of the Alamo, as brave as they may have been, were martyrs to the cause of the freedom of slaveholders, with the Texas War of Independence having been the first of their nineteenth-century revolts, with the American Civil War the second.
The Alamo, and its overlooked history of slavery, could be declared a world heritage monument
To some, the Alamo, the San Antonio fort where Texans died while fighting off the Mexican army, is a symbol of liberty and Texas pride. To others, it’s a monument to slave-holders and racism. “Remember the Alamo,” the famous saying goes—but how you remember is just as important.
A United Nations committee is expected to announce this weekend whether the Alamo will receive UNESCO World Heritage status , putting it in the same league as Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, and the Statue of Liberty. The decision could also enflame a decades-long debate over what the Texas fort symbolizes. At a time when Confederate flags have sparked controversy around the U.S. , some wonder why a fort defended by whites fighting Mexicans for the right to own slaves deserves international recognition.
The Battle of the Alamo was part of the Texas Revolution, in which American settlers in the Mexican state of Texas fought for secession from the increasingly centralized and autocratic Mexican government. In early 1836, a small group of Texas volunteers at the Alamo held off the Mexican army for 13 days before being defeated (and executed). The battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” became a symbol of victory in future battles, when the Texans defeated the Mexican army. Texas became an independent republic, and nine years later, it was annexed as an American state.
In the early 20th century, the Alamo was seen as a symbol of Texas pride and Americans fighting for freedom. The story, and the heroism of frontiersman Davy Crockett, was mythologized in movies and taught to schoolchildren.
The reality is a lot more complicated, says James Crisp, a historian at North Carolina State University who’s written a book about the myths and the reality of the Alamo. “Even though the Texans were fighting against a certain kind of tyranny, they were also fighting for an independent republic where slavery was legal,” Crisp told Fusion.
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.
Controversy surrounds the ‘cradle of Texas liberty’
Texans take Alamo lore and legends seriously. My childhood best friend, whose great-great-great-great grandfather died at the Alamo, would playground brag that her family was braver than mine. When I visited the Texas State Capitol Building in Austin as a teenage government geek, I was fascinated by the outsize 1905 painting, “Dawn at the Alamo,” depicting Travis and Crockett heroically fending off menacing Mexican soldiers.
“It has become like a religion for some people,” says Indigenous multimedia journalist Robert Pluma, a descendent of an Alamo Defender. “You find conflicting narratives, and you need to preserve them while examining the fissures.”
It’s no surprise that the Alamo Plan’s proposed changes have ignited ongoing debates, political posturing, and even armed protests. Historians seek a more nuanced story about why the Texians were fighting (yes, for freedom, but they also sought the right to keep their slaves, then illegal in the rest of Mexico). Indigenous Americans want recognition for the mission era and their ancestors buried onsite.
And traditionalists, many descendants of the Defenders, vehemently oppose moving the Cenotaph. “It’s our headstone, since we don’t have a cemetery to go to,” says Lee Spencer White, founder of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association. “We want the graves of the heroes to stand out in front of the fort they defended.”
Pluma and other Indigenous and Latino residents see things differently. He’s currently working on a photo, video, and oral-history project documenting the nearly forgotten Indigenous history of San Antonio’s missions (including San José, where his ancestors lived). The Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation, a consortium of local Indigenous groups, has filed lawsuits asking for the Alamo to recognize its on-site cemeteries and for the right to worship inside the chapel.
“The Alamo is a symbol of greatness to some people to others it’s a symbol of Anglo dominance that is a dark side of our history,” says Scott Huddleston, a veteran reporter covering the Alamo for the San Antonio Express-News. “This plan seeks to address those issues like slavery and the Mexican perspective.”
Still, many people want the old good guys-versus-bad guys story: no doubts or additional facts needed.
Texas Pushes to Obscure the State’s History of Slavery and Racism
Texas is awash in bills aimed at fending off critical examinations of the state’s past.
Every morning, schoolchildren in Texas recite an oath to their state that includes the words, “I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God.”
Now, a flurry of proposed measures that could soon become law would promote even greater loyalty to Texas in the state’s classrooms and public spaces, as Republican lawmakers try to reframe Texas history lessons and play down references to slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination that are part of the state’s founding.
The proposals in Texas, a state that influences school curriculums around the country through its huge textbook market, amount to some of the most aggressive efforts to control the teaching of American history. And they come as nearly a dozen other Republican-led states seek to ban or limit how the role of slavery and pervasive effects of racism can be taught.
Idaho was the first state to sign into law a measure that would withhold funding from schools that teach such lessons. And lawmakers in Louisiana, New Hampshire and Tennessee have introduced bills that would ban teaching about the enduring legacies of slavery and segregationist laws, or that any state or the country is inherently racist or sexist.
“The idea that history is a project that’s decided in the political arena is a recipe for disaster,” said Raul Ramos, a historian at the University of Houston who specializes in the American West.
Some of the positioning is politics as usual in Texas, where activists have long organized to imbue textbooks with conservative leanings. An especially active Republican-controlled legislative session has advanced hard-line measures from a host of new voting restrictions to a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
But the Texas history measures have alarmed educators, historians and activists who said they largely ignore the role of slavery and campaigns of anti-Mexican violence and would fail to educate a generation of students growing up in a state undergoing huge demographic shifts.
One measure that recently passed the Texas House, largely along party lines, would limit teacher-led discussions of current events prohibit course credit for political activism or lobbying, which could include students who volunteer for civil rights groups and ban teaching of The 1619 Project, an initiative by The New York Times that says it aims to reframe U.S. history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative.
The bill would also limit how teachers in Texas classrooms can discuss the ways in which racism influenced the legal system in the state, long a segregationist bastion, and the rest of the country. Another bill that sailed through the Texas House would create a committee to “promote patriotic education” about the state’s secession from Mexico in 1836, largely by men who were fighting to expand slavery. And a third bill would block exhibits at San Antonio’s Alamo complex from explaining that major figures in the Texas Revolution were slave owners.
Mr. Ramos questioned how the Texas Revolution, a six-month rebellion that concluded in the spring of 1836, could be associated with patriotism and freedom when the state’s new Constitution explicitly legalized slavery seven years after Mexico had abolished it.
“How do you have freedom when you have slavery?” Mr. Ramos asked. “Eighteen thirty-six values would have enslaved African-Americans in perpetuity.”
The quarreling over the proposed legislation is testing the limits of Texas exceptionalism, with some questioning whether a broad sense of pride among residents should mean glossing over some of the state’s most painful chapters.
Remember The Alamo! The Truths And Myths Surrounding The Battle
The battle has been immortalized as a turning point in American history and for involving a number of men who have since become legends in their own right, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. But like many events of great historical significance, a number of myths about the battle have somehow become oft-repeated “facts”.
The commonly-accepted version of facts and events of the Battle of the Alamo is that a handful of brave (and heavily outnumbered) English-speaking Anglo-Saxon American rebels (called Texians) defended Fort Alamo near San Antonio.
They were supposedly fighting for their right to freedom and independence from the tyrannical oppression of the Mexican government (Texas was then a part of Mexico, which had itself recently achieved independence from Spain).
The Fall of the Alamo (1903) by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, depicts Davy Crockett wielding his rifle as a club against Mexican troops who have breached the walls of the mission.
The leader of the defense, Colonel Travis, apparently drew a line in the sand and asked for those willing to give their lives defending the fort to step forward. All but one man crossed, despite knowing that death was an inevitability.
After a thirteen-day siege and a climactic two hour battle, all 189 fort defenders died in battle. Davy Crockett died with his trusty rifle, “Old Betsy” in his hands, with dozens of dead Mexicans troops at his feet.
Many of the aforementioned “facts” about the battle contain grains of truth, but much of them are clear embellishments. First and foremost is the falsehood that the defenders of the Alamo were righteous revolutionaries oppressed by the tyrannical Mexican regime.
The Fall of the Alamo, painted by Theodore Gentilz in 1844, depicts the Alamo complex from the south. The Low Barracks, the chapel, and the wooden palisade connecting them are in the foreground.
The fact is that American colonists who had settled in Texas at that time did so by entering into an agreement with the Mexican government. In turn, the Mexican government provided them with land on the condition that they convert to Catholicism and become Mexican citizens.
While many Texians did eventually fight for an independent state, an initial major cause for the fighting was simply for judicial reforms.
Another myth about the battle is the line drawn in the sand. Truth be told, there is no historical evidence for Colonel Travis ever having said or done this. Meanwhile, the first account that reported the famous line in the sand was published decades after the battle.
William B. Travis became sole Texian commander at the Alamo on February 24.
Further, there were more than 189 people defending the fort, not all of which were American settlers. The defenders numbered well over 200 and included a number of native Mexicans, Europeans, and two African-Americans.
Unlike the popularly-recounted version of the battle, many of the defenders were originally unaware that they faced an inevitable death. They instead believed that reinforcements were on the way and that they could successfully defend the fort. However, as the siege wore on they began to realize that hope was likely lost. It is a testament to their bravery that they fought on anyway.
Additionally, the defense was largely based on a poor strategic decision made by Colonel William Travis. Crockett had largely been in favor of conducting a guerrilla campaign against the Mexican forces, by using their long rifles and frontiersman skills to their advantage, which would likely have been successful.
A knife purportedly used by Davy Crockett during the Battle of the Alamo.Photo: Brian Reading CC BY-SA 3.0
Sam Houston, commander of the Texian army, understood that the area around San Antonio was far from their base and too difficult to defend with the numbers they had. Houston recommended a retreat and destruction of the fort prior to the arrival of the Mexican army.
But Travis, bolstered by overconfident men–among them Bowie, who firmly believed the fort was defensible against an army–ignored these recommendations and chose to remain there with General Santa Anna’s forces advancing on them. Had he listened to Houston’s recommendations, he could have abandoned the fort without it appearing like an act of cowardice.
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led Mexican troops into Texas in 1836.
What is no doubt true about the Alamo is that the defenders fought bravely and fiercely, with almost all of them fighting to the absolute bitter end.
After besieging the fort for thirteen days, the two-thousand strong Mexican army commenced their attack at around 5 am on March 6, 1836.
The first waves of attackers were repelled with cannons and musket fire which exacted a heavy toll. Yet there was only so much the heavily-outnumbered defenders could do.
Actor Ray Myers, portraying Davy Crockett in the 1914 movie The Siege and Fall of the Alamo, which is classified as being a lost film.
Colonel Travis was killed early in the fighting. A short while later, the first wave of attackers managed to breach the walls and Mexican troops got inside the fort. They began a desperate hand-to-hand fight and the defenders were beaten back into the chapel where they made a valiant last stand.
Bowie was likely killed in his bed as he had been laying low due to a debilitating illness and was likely already at death’s door. Davy Crockett, despite what the myths of the battle say, may have survived and been one of the six captured defenders who were later executed.
This is a scene from the movie The Martyrs of the Alamo or the Birth of Texas, released in 1915. The movie was supervised by D.W. Griffith. This still was reprinted in Frank Thompson’s 2005 The Alamo, p 110.
Despite the myths surrounding the battle that state that either nobody in the Alamo survived or that only one person survived, there were actually 17 to 20 survivors, mostly women, children, or slaves.
Moreover, the number of Mexican dead and wounded has generally been inflated, with modern historians estimating there might have been 150 to 200 Mexican dead as opposed to the oft-claimed 600 dead, plus a further 400 wounded during the thirteen day siege.
Susanna Dickinson survived the Battle of the Alamo. Santa Anna sent her to spread word of the Texian defeat to the Texas colonists.
Finally, the building used as the fort at the Alamo is not the same as the one standing there today. The fort was reduced to a ruin in April 1836 by Mexican troops and it was only rebuilt in the 1890s as a monument to those who had fallen there.
Just 46 days later, those same Mexican troops under General Santa Anna were crushed by the Texian army commanded by Sam Houston at San Jacinto, during which the Texian troops attacked with the cry, “Remember the Alamo!”