There were many significant moments during the Texas Revolution that have stoked patriotic sentiment in the United States. One must only read a summary of the Battle of the Alamo to know that this was an extremely important event in history.
The tale most often told is one of heroes and legends that boldly sacrificed their lives for the greater good of Texan independence. The heroes were legendary figures whose names have stood the test of time for their defiance against the evil Mexican dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
Though they gallantly perished in a feat reminiscent of the ancient Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae, their sacrifice was not in vain. Just months later the Texans would win their independence after defeating Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Texan General Sam Houston reportedly motivated his troops at San Jacinto with the words “Remember the Alamo!” With that, the Battle of the Alamo became an instant legend and synonymous with Texan freedom.
Unfortunately, this prevailing narrative of the Alamo presents a very narrow and limited view of the historical event. In many regards it also introduces a completely fabricated version of events that omits critical testimony.
Upon further analysis of historical accounts, many of the lofty tales centering around the Battle of the Alamo have murky origins far removed from the actual battle. The Alamo itself was not celebrated as a historic landmark until nearly a century after the battle.
As is the case in many fabricated tales, the real summary of events at the Battle of the Alamo is not nearly as exciting or entertaining. While the men who fought at the battle are very real, just who they were and why they were there is rarely examined in depth.
Background of the Texas Revolution
The Battle of the Alamo never would have been fought had it not been for the Texas Revolution (see Timeline and dates of the Texas Revolution). Beginning in 1835, Mexico’s northeastern state of Tejas (Texas) sought to break away from the centralist government of Mexico.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the state of Texas only populated some 3,500 people – an tiny number for the territory. In order to provide a buffer state to protect against the burgeoning United States, as well as aid against Native American raids, Mexico encouraged Anglo-American settlers to immigrate to the state.
This immigration policy worked all too well, and by 1835 Anglo-Americans outnumbered the Mexican-born citizens nearly 30,000 to 7,800.1 The rapid influx of settlers into this distant state alarmed Mexican officials.
One of the many reasons Mexico abolished slavery and the slave trade in 1829 was to help stem the tide. This move angered Texans greatly as their large plantations required large amounts of forced labor to be productive.
Regardless, in the short term Texans were able to find ways to get around the anti-slavery laws and lax enforcement of the policy by Mexican officials allowed it to unofficially carry on. By 1835, Mexico sent warnings that stricter enforcement against slavery would be forthcoming.2
Texans feared for their livelihoods and prepared to fight to preserve the institution in their lands.
A second major issue Texans had by 1835 was the emergence of a centralist regime in Mexico. The centralist regime headed by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna sought to abolish the 1824 Mexican Constitution that established a federalist state modeled from the US Constitution.
By early 1835, Santa Anna did just that, sending federalist supporters into a frenzy around Mexico. The residents of Texas were split between supporting the centralist regime and restoring a federalist Texan government.
Importantly, neither ethnicity nor national origin prominently factored into citizens choosing sides.3 There were many Anglo-Americans that supported Santa Anna, just as there were Mexican-born citizens that supported a federalist government.
The combination of these two major issues among several other minor ones led to open rebellion in Texas. When Santa Anna brought the Mexican army to attempt to quash this internal uprising, the Battle of the Alamo ensued.
The Alamo Battle Summary
The following contains a summary of the preparations before and the actual Battle of the Alamo.
Preparations for Battle
At the onset of hostilities in October 1835, the Texan rebels scored initial victories against small garrisons of Mexican army regulars in the state. As the Mexicans withdrew, Santa Anna prepared to return with a larger Mexican force to crush the rebellion.
There were two major roads entering the state of Tejas from Mexico that Santa Anna could take. Critical forts at San Antonio de Bexar (the Alamo) and at Goliad (Pesidio La Bahia) intercepted these roads and provided the first line of defense.
In January 1836, the Alamo was in a destitute condition, and needed extensive repairs. Texan General Sam Houston considered abandoning the fort, though Commander James Neill and Colonel James Bowie vowed to prepare the defenses and protect the fort from the centralist army.
The Alamo defenders needed further reinforcements if the Alamo defenders were to have any chance. Thus, Houston sent Lt. Colonel William Travis and his cavalry contingent to defend the fort, over Travis’ threat to resign this commission. Former Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett also joined the defense with a group of American volunteers seeking fame and personal reward.
When a family emergency forced Commander Neill forced to return home, command shifted to Travis and Bowie.
By the time Santa Anna’s army—numbering roughly 1,800—arrived in San Antonio de Bexar on February 23, the Texan defense consisted of roughly 185 men. Further reinforcements arrived in the following days to increase this number to between 200-257.
It is important to note that few defenders of the Alamo were truly “Texan.” It is noted that only thirteen defenders were native born Texans while forty-three were born in Europe, two were black, and the remainder (142-199) were from various American states.1
The Siege of the Alamo
On the first day of the siege, Santa Anna demanded unconditional surrender and that should hostilities continue, the rebels would receive no quarter. Unless a Texan relief force arrived, the Alamo defenders were doomed.
Early in the siege, James Bowie fell gravely ill with what is thought to have been typhoid pneumonia. Travis took full command and during this time penned his infamous “Victory or Death” letter addressed to the people of Texas and the United States.
Growing impatient with the siege, Santa Anna stunned his officers on March 5 by declaring an assault on the Alamo the following day. By this point in the siege, the Alamo walls were crumbling from artillery fire and the Texan defenders were running low on supplies.
As no relief column had appeared, the defenders soon would be forced to surrender as starvation set in. Santa Anna saw no personal glory in a victory by such means and readied the attack.
The attack began at 5:30am on March 6th. After just over an hour, nearly all the Texan defenders lay dead. Seven Texans surrendered, though Santa Anna ordered them all summarily executed.
The Mexicans spared several women and children that took refuge in the Alamo and allowed them safe passage. Santa Anna gave each a blanket and two silver pesos and ordered them the Mexican forces to treat them hospitably.
While the Texan defenders were annihilated, the Mexican army suffered extremely high casualties. The Mexicans suffered an estimated 600 killed and wounded, the poorly trained conscripts making up the bulk.
Accounts of the events at the Alamo soon spread far and wide. Mexican newspapers published Santa Anna’s highly embellished personal account of the battle between March 21-31 and sought to glorify his victory over the rebels.4
The Battle of the Alamo Fact vs Fiction
The version of events at the Battle of the Alamo that has been passed down through the generations in the United States is often closer to fiction than fact.
“Line in the Sand Speech”
One event often presented as fact is the story of William Travis’ legendary speech prior to the final assault. Travis allegedly drew a line in the sand and declared that all men willing to stand and die with him for the Texan cause should cross the line and join him. Only one man declined, and departed the Alamo in shame.
This story is presented as indisputable fact, though there is virtually no evidence that it actually occurred.5
The account first appeared in 1873, nearly four decades after the battle. The author of the account claims that one day the lone deserter in the story appeared at his doorstep to recount the tale. Later, the author admitted that he deliberately fabricated major parts of the story.
While Travis almost certainly gave some kind of speech to the defenders, there is scant evidence of such theatrics of drawing a line in the sand.
Heroic Alamo Deaths
Another dubious claim presented as fact is the heroic manner of the Texan deaths at the Alamo. The stories go on to present the Texan heroes Crockett, Travis, and Bowie fighting to the death surrounded by dozens of Mexican soldiers.
The reality is far from it. Travis was likely one of the first Texan defenders to die, as the Mexicans shot him on the wall firing at the invaders. According to Mexican accounts, Travis died by suicide to avoid Mexican capture.
As noted earlier, Bowie was gravely ill and bedridden during the siege and battle. Texan and Mexican accounts report that Bowie was too weak to even lift his head off the pillow and attackers quickly killed him as he lay in bed.
The legendary backwoodsman Davy Crockett’s death is perhaps the most disputed of them all. Several Mexican eyewitness accounts report that Crockett was one of the seven Texans to surrender and unceremoniously executed.5
Texan eyewitness accounts dispute these accounts, and historians are unsure of just exactly how he died. Regardless, it is not certain and cannot be presented as fact that Crockett even died fighting.
Bought Time for the Texan Army
Lastly, the general narrative is that the Texans at the Alamo died a heroic death that stalled the Mexicans and gave General Sam Houston more time to recruit volunteers. These additional recruits gave the Texan army the edge to defeat Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto just months later.
In reality, the opposite occurred. The Texan defeat at the Alamo incited mass fear of the incoming Mexican army and led to the “Runaway Scrape” where Texans fled for the Louisiana border.
While just after the Battle of the Alamo Houston’s forces numbered 1,400, by the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21 his forces had dwindled to just 784 as mass desertion ensued as men rushed home to be with their fleeing families.5
Clearly, many of the narratives that have been presented as fact at the Battle of the Alamo have proven to be merely fiction.
Why was the Battle of the Alamo Important?
The Battle of the Alamo would prove to be an extremely important event in the history of Texas and the United States as it helped motivate Texans to eventual victory in the Texan Revolution.
Even though the claims that the massacred defenders bought time for the Texan army don’t hold up, leaders played up the sacrifice to boost morale. At the subsequent important 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, Houston riled up his remaining troops with cries of, “Remember the Alamo!”
The Mexican losses at the Alamo were also substantial. The reduced manpower from the high casualty rate certainly played a factor in Santa Anna’s later defeat.
In the decades following the Battle of the Alamo, the defenders lay mostly forgotten, as the Alamo itself remained in a decrepit state. The US army briefly used the Alamo as a staging post in the Mexican American War, but otherwise it lay dormant.
With the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the United States gained a massive amount of Mexican territory.
It was not until the period of 1880-1920 that the Alamo emerged as a national symbol. Leaders used this symbol as the state transitioned to large-scale commercial farming as part of the new capitalistic economy at the expense of smaller scale “Mexican” agricultural and cattle-ranching practices.3
In order to help smooth this transition, politicians used the Alamo as a uniting symbol to codify a new social order. Mexican-Americans and Anglo-Americans were seen as summarily different: Anglos as the defenders of Texas’ values, and Mexicans as the invaders seeking to destroy them.
To “Remember the Alamo” would be a constant reminder to remember the “Texan (Anglo) heroes” and “Mexican tyrants,” while serving to justify “keeping the Mexicans in line.”1
In summary, the Battle of the Alamo has proceeded to have major impacts on American society in the centuries following. Its historical significance cannot be understated despite the general fictitious renderings.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Flores, Richard R. “Memory-Place, Meaning, and the Alamo.” American Literary History, vol. 10, no. 3, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 428–45, http://www.jstor.org/stable/490104.
2) Lack, Paul D. “Slavery and the Texas Revolution.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2, Texas State Historical Association, 1985, pp. 181–202, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30239908.
3) Pérez, Vincent. “Remembering the Alamo, Post-9/11.” American Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, pp. 771–79, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30042009.
4) Costeloe, Michael P. “The Mexican Press of 1836 and the Battle of the Alamo.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 91, no. 4, Texas State Historical Association, 1988, pp. 533–43, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30240054.
5) McWilliams, Perry. “The Alamo Story: From Fact to Fable.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, vol. 15, no. 3, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 221–33, https://doi.org/10.2307/3813977.