Forgetting the Alamo
by Jeff Wagg
Thanks to movies and advertisements, The Alamo has become a permanent part of the American story. But how accurate is that story, and is it a story worth remembering? In this episode, I'll examine some of the many assumptions about the place and event known as "The Alamo" and try to add a bit of context to the legend that endures.
First, the short, basic version of the story from the official website of the Alamo:
On February 23, 1836, the arrival of General Antonio López de Santa Anna's army outside San Antonio nearly caught them by surprise. Undaunted, the Texians and Tejanos prepared to defend the Alamo together. The defenders held out for 13 days against Santa Anna's army.
As with all shortened versions of stories, this one leaves out some important facts. Let's examine a few to see if we can get a better picture of what happened that day.
The Alamo is a distinctive building with an arched facade.
Let's get this one out the way quickly. "The Alamo" refers to a fortress about four acres in size. The building that is commonly associated with the words "the Alamo" was an unfinished chapel built on the site of Mission San Antonio de Valero, a Spanish Catholic mission tasked with converting the native population. Some of that native population, the Payaya, provided the manual labor for building the mission.
After about 75 years, the mission was secularized and no longer had any religious significance. The well-known chapel building remained unfinished and without a roof.
In 1803, a Spanish force converted the area into a temporary, walled fortress, with the chapel in one corner. They built a ramp inside the structure to mount canon on the walls. The unit came from Alamo de Parras, which gave the complex its current name. Alamo, in Spanish, means "cottonwood."
The distinctive "hump" that is the signature architecture of the Alamo was added by US troops stationed there in the 1850s. During the siege and battle of the Alamo, the facade of the chapel was a ruin, with a mostly flat or jagged top. Most people today would not recognize it, which is why nearly all movies and posters show the chapel as it looked after its reconstruction.
The US Army added a wooden roof over the structure, and there is mid-19th century graffiti from these troops all over the walls, inside and out. After a brief time as a Confederate stronghold, the chapel became a warehouse for a mercantile institution in what is now called "the low barrack," also within the Alamo walls. Visitors often chipped away portions of the columns and filigree, giving the structure a battle-worn look that's actually the result of vandalism more than battle.
The state bought the property from the Catholic Church in the 1890s, at which point the Daughters of the Republic of Texas donated large sums money to turn the site into a shrine. Though they've been embroiled in controversy and lost control of the gift shop (which used to be a museum), the Daughters still have a contract to administer the site today, with oversight from the State of Texas.
If you visit the Alamo expecting a museum or a national park in the desert, you might be surprised to learn that it is actually a monument in the middle of a bustling city. Though there are a few exhibits scattered about, the Alamo is a shrine. It's official name is the "Shrine of Texas Liberty," and it's considered a holy place. A private armed force known as the Alamo Rangers will enforce policies such as no hats, and no photography. Reverence is expected, once you run the gauntlet of gift shop photographers holding up the line at the front door.
The Men Defending the Alamo Were Defending Their Home, Texas
While the Tejanos were defending their homes against what they saw as a despotic ruler, most of the men at the Alamo were illegal aliens. Some, like Jim Bowie, had moved to Mexico and become Mexican citizens, but a large percentage of the defenders had only arrived in Texas just a few weeks earlier. As Texas was part of Mexico, they were in all ways illegal aliens.
As the United States expanded west, land got more expensive. The Austin family under agreement with Spain and then Mexico, offered land in sparsely-populated Texas for 1/10th of what it was selling for in the US, and under better terms. Payment could be extended over years. The Mexican constitution of 1824 granted rights to these newcomers, and they prospered.
As Santa Anna came to power, and suspended the constitution of 1824, the Texians and their Tejano neighbors revolted. It was generally believed that Texas was going to be its own country, and down-on-their luck men from the U.S. swarmed south for what they saw as a new chance at life. All they had to do was defeat the Mexican army.
It is not accurate to say that the men at the Alamo were defending Texas. They were defending what they hoped Texas would be, against the wishes of the ruling government.
Santa Anna Was a Ruthless Dictator
Santa Anna was a power-hungry opportunist. When Mexico successfully fought for their freedom from Spain, Santa Anna rose through the ranks. He would switch his politics to whatever side he thought could help him. At first, he was very friendly to the people of Texas, as they supported Mexico in the revolution against Spain. But over the course of a few years, he turned from friend to foe. All the rights and privileges that had been granted to them by Spain and then Mexico were gradually whittled away, until finally, the constitution was suspended.
All Mexicans and American immigrants who wished to remain in Mexico were required to be Catholic and slavery was severely restricted. More on that later. Also, the amount of land an immigrant could hold was drastically reduced. By 1835, militias were being organized to defend the rights granted by the old constitution. Santa Anna declared recalcitrant immigrants as "pirates," and sent a letter to Andrew Jackson asking him to exert whatever influence he had over these people, and to proclaim that no quarter would be given. In short, Santa Anna was saying that he would mercilessly kill all non-conforming immigrants in Texas. Jackson did not share the contents of this letter widely.
So yes, Santa Anna was a ruthless dictator. The Texians were promised something, and it was taken away from them. But it's important to remember that the vast majority of Americans and Europeans flooding into Texas were doing so after Santa Anna had suspended the constitution. They were illegal aliens, and as they came with arms, they could also be considered an invading force.
If there's one person who can be called "legendary," it's David Crockett, who never went by the name "Davey" so far as historians can tell. There's also no reliable record of him wearing a coonskin cap. Witnesses saying that he did told their stories decades after actual events. Coonskin caps weren't unheard of among frontier types, but the image of Crockett wearing one were probably from the stage shows depicting his antics in hyperbolic style.
Crockett was a Tennessee Congressman, who moved to Texas after losing re-election. He arrived there just three months before the battle, hoping to find a new start for his political career and a new home for his family. Yes, Crockett and his Tennessee followers were also illegal aliens.
As soon as he arrived, he joined the militia and was sent to the Alamo under the command of Jim Bowie and William Travis, co-commanders of the fort.
And then things get murky. At the Alamo shrine today, a plaque to the left of the chapel door marks the spot where Crocket supposedly fell during the battle. But that narrative has been replaced by the idea that he and a few others somehow survived the event, only to be executed later.
The best evidence for this is the supposed journal of José Enrique de le Peña, an officer in Santa Anna's army. In it, he claims to have seen Crockett executed by order of Santa Anna. But the "journal" wasn't published until 1955, a time when "Davey Crockett Fever" was at its height due to the Disney series. What's more, there are reports of Travis and Bowie surviving as well, and these are certainly false, as there is contemporary, corroborative evidence of their deaths during the battle.
The truth is, we don't know where Crockett died. We only know that he died during, or immediately after the battle. As for his swinging his rifle after running out of ammunition, or running to blow up the ammunition stores though mortally wounded, those are pure Hollywood fiction. Also in doubt is the idea that he killed him a 'bar when he was only three.
Hollywood depicts Jim Bowie has a heroic frontier knife fighter who died defending the Alamo. He was even the star character of a 50's TV show. It's true that the Bowie family made wide-bladed knives, but there is no single "Bowie Knife" and the large knife that's come to be known by that name probably wasn't used by Jim Bowie at all.
Jim Bowie was a likable criminal. Though most people said he was friendly and charismatic, he was also guilty of fraud in several land speculation deals. His reason for emigrating to Texas was simple: he was running from the law. He converted to Catholicism and married a local politician's daughter. They had two children, and in 1833, while Bowie was away, his new Mexican family died from cholera.
He was a seasoned fighter, and assigned to the garrison at the Alamo. He was supposed to be under the command of William Travis, but his men, mostly volunteers, wouldn't follow young Travis, so they agreed to co-command. Bowie also brought his slave Jim with him to the Alamo. Bowie was also a smuggler, and what he smuggled was slaves.
In movies, Bowie is depicted as either fighting wounded on the battlements, or fighting bravely from his sick bed. The latter is closer to the truth: during the siege and battle, Bowie was deathly ill with either tuberculosis or pneumonia. It's questionable that he was even conscious during the final battle. Contemporary reports have him "hiding under a blanket" but it's quite possible that he was simply too sick to move.
Colonel Travis Drew a Line In the Sand
Colonel William B. Travis was a young South Carolina lawyer. Saddled with debt, and under threat of arrest, he'd heard that Texas was a land of opportunity for lawyers, and he hoped to head there to escape prosecution and earn enough to pay his debts.
Travis arrived in Texas in 1831 at the age of 21, and having been there five years before the battle made him one of the few men at the Alamo who had any experience living in Texas. After setting up shop as a lawyer, he became embroiled in the fomenting revolution and joined the militia as a lieutenant colonel of the calvary. He was sent to the Alamo, which he considered beneath someone of his rank.
After Bowie fell sick, Travis was in charge. As Santa Anna rolled into town, Travis wrote a series of famous letters pleading for help from other Texians and Americans still in the United States as well. A few dozen men did answer the call, but most did not, with the nascent government of Texas worrying itself with creating a new government. Houston and others encouraged Travis to abandon the Alamo as unimportant, but he refused.
Legend has it that when Travis knew no help would be coming, he drew a line in the sand and asked every man who would fight with him to cross it. All but one, Moses Rose, did. This legend is in the official materials and video from the Alamo, though it's carefully worded as "Legend has it…"
In fact, there's little evidence that this event took place, and there's even less evidence that anyone named Moses Rose was at the Alamo. The Alamo was filled with largely volunteers, and as such not everyone knew each other and there wasn't the record keeping one would find in an organized army. The story of Travis drawing a line didn't appear until decades after the event. That didn't stop the placing of a brass line directly in front of the Alamo chapel to commemorate the likely non-event.
Travis was one of the first killed during the battle. His slaves fought by his side right up until the moment he was killed, and then went into hiding, their service done. There have been attempts by Hollywood to depict the Alamo's slaves as loyal beyond their enslavement, but in reality they knew they were slaves, and they knew this wasn't their fight.
The Alamo Defenders Killed Many More Soldiers Than They Lost
If there's one thing that's true about the Alamo, it's that you can find lots of different, conflicting facts. While most historians put the number of Mexican casualties at around 600, and the Texan casualties at around 200, some lower the Mexican figure to 78 dead, and raise the number of dead Texans to 250. Those who wish to immortalize the defenders of course want to imagine them fighting fiercly, taking down 10 for every man they lost. But there's a lot to consider here.
The siege didn't last a day, but instead took place over two weeks. During the day, Mexican artillery blasted the fort, while defenders took cover. At night, they were forced to reinforce their battered perimeter. With dwindling supplies and very little sleep, the men of the Alamo were likely exhausted.
We also don''t know how many men were inside the Alamo. There were at least 182, with 187 being officially commemorated. Some put the figure as high as 260. Santa Anna had 1,800 troops, though many times his entire army of 6,000 is reported as being there.
When the actual battle started, it was short, and took place at dawn while most of the defenders were sleeping. Some say the battle lasted only 30 minutes, others stretch that to 90 minutes or two hours. The Mexicans charged the walls before the sun came up, and it makes sense that they'd lose a lot of men. The defenders were shooting cannons and long guns from behind barriers at men standing in a line out in the open. Santa Anna fully expected to lose one third of his force. So yes, the Alamo defenders did cause more casualties than they received, but this is not surprising in any way.
The Alamo Was All About Slavery
It's become popular to suggest that the Alamo was a battle for slavery. Slavery was part of the reason Texas wanted to secede from Mexico. There's barely a mention of slavery at the Alamo today, but many of those who went to Texas in the 1830s were pro-slavery, and intended to uphold the institution.
At all times until the end of the American Civil War, Texas was strongly in favor of slavery. One need only read the Constitution of the Republic of Texas to see how important slavery was. Not only was slavery legal, it became illegal to free slaves. And those freed slaves who already lived there had virtually all their rights revoked. If they were ever found guilty of a crime, they were slaves once again. What's more, the few Indians living in Texas were also denied citizenship. There is much irony in people claiming to fight on behalf of lost rights subsequently removing the rights of others.
But to say The Alamo and and the Texas Revolution were all about slavery is to go too far. It was more about land speculation, and starting a new life in a fresh country. Texas has a very bad history when it comes to race, but slavery is just a part of the Texas birth story.
We Should Remember The Alamo
The Alamo is literally larger than life, and while it was an important event, the reasons why we should remember it aren't obvious. While it's presented to us as a pivotal moment in American history, it's more accurately described as one major event in the war for Texas independence. The Battle of San Jacinto and the massacre of Goliad are perhaps more important, but they receive far less attention.
I propose that the Alamo became the official shrine of all that is Texas simply because there was a building there that people could affix their pride to. But while we shouldn't completely forget the Alamo, perhaps we should try to remember the Alamo as it truly was: the last hold out for a ragtag band of speculators who distracted Santa Anna and motivated the rest of the Texian Army to defeat Santa Anna. These were heroic men who died fighting, but they were no more heroic than the Mexican volunteers and conscripts that charged the walls to defeat them. If the Alamo is a shrine to bravery, those dead Mexican soldiers should also be mentioned, yet the idea of a simple plaque dedicated to their memory brings howls of protests from Texans, some of whom claim that the losers don't get plaques. I wonder how these folks would explain the large Confederate monument on the state house grounds in Austin.
So yes, Remember the Alamo… and remember that the largest part of history is "story," and that story is most often written by people who have only one perspective in mind.
Oh, and in case you're wondering... I did check the basement at the Alamo. There was nothing there but an old bicycle.
By Jeff Wagg
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