The siege at the Alamo is steeped in legend – the tales of Bowie and Crockett will always endure – but what did happen on that fateful day?
THE DEFENSE OF THE ALAMO IS ONE OF THE classic battles of the story of American freedom, its legend embellished, embroidered, and devoured by generations of schoolchildren. But there are many ways to “remember” an event: For historians, the task is accomplished by uncovering the details of the occurrence, while to those who cherish the myth; it is remembrance that gains more importance. The challenge is to honor the myth and the facts at the same time.
The story of the Alamo begins in the 1820s, when Mexico, faced with lands populated by unruly Indians, opened her northern territories to American pioneers, a potentially stabilizing force. Though abiding by Mexico’s laws was a condition of settlement, once Americans flocked to the territories they soon rankled under Mexico’s levying of taxes, trails without juries, and abolition of slavery.
In 1835, the settlers finally rebelled against the Mexican government, and Mexico’s dictator, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, quickly moved troops into the region, determined to quell the insurgency by any means necessary.
After conducting a string of battles against the insurgents, Santa Anna focused on a group of Texans who since December had occupied a mission-fortress in San Antonio – the Alamo. Sam Houston, the commander of Texa’s army, had ordered the fort abandoned; but the men, under the leadership of James Bowie and William Travis, had decided to defend it.
Santa Anna determined that the area was essential to his conquest of the region. By January of the next year, he arrived at the fort with a sizable army. Santa Anna’s official siege began on February 23, 1836, with 2,400 well-trained men, though the troops also included boys aged 13 to 14 from a nearby military academy. At first, only 145 settlers guarded the Alamo; that umber was increased to 187 when reinforcements arrived eight days later. A week and a half later, on March 3, Travis told his men that the future looked grim, and offered those who wished to leave the fort and try to slip through enemy lines the chance. Only one man, Louis Rose, took Travis up on his offer- and he was the only man to survive. Legend has it that Travis drew a line in the sand and asked that everyone willing to die with him step across it. But the anecdote comes from an account of the siege some 40 years after it occurred, by a man who heard it from his parents, who in turn had heard it from Louis Rose. Though Travis has been lauded for his decision to stay, his refusal to retreat might have been a tactical one; the American’s inferior cavalry doomed them in open space, and Travis probably considered them to be safer behind the walls of the fort.
But even Travis knew there was little hope. There is an unverified legend of a woman messenger sent to Santa Anna by Travis, stating that the Americans would surrender if they were guaranteed that their lives would be spread. If the story is true, Santa Anna rebuked the offer, because on the night of March 5 the historic attack began.
Initially the Americans were able to turn back the Mexicans but, exhausted by the siege, they were unable to hold out. While the next morning brought another failed assault, the third assault by the Mexicans proved successful. By nine o’clock that night the fighting was over; some 200 Mexicans were dead and another 400 wounded. It is impossible, however, to arrive at accurate casualty figures, since Santa Anna gave faulty reports to mask the damage done to his force; some historians have put the number as high as 1,600.
Santa Anna did not leave a single American prisoner alive, though recent evidence suggests that several Texans, including David (Davy) Crockett and others, survived the initial attack and were executed afterwards. The bodies of all the men were stripped, thrown into a pile, and then burned. One local Indian who had been staying at the fort convinced the Mexicans he was a prisoner and was spared, as were the women, children, and Travis’s black slave.
Though military historians now consider the decisions of the Texans to defend the fort somewhat foolhardy, the personalities of those involved – Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and William Travis – were so over sized that their deaths necessarily became legendary.
The valor of their final days provided the ammunition, six weeks later, for troops led by Sam Houston – who would become president of the Republic of Texas – to overwhelm a Mexican force at San Jacinto, securing Texas’s independence and its most enduring legend.