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  • James Houser

March 6, 1836 - Battle of the Alamo

Updated: Jun 2, 2021

March 6, 1836. In the early morning hours, several columns of men leave their camps under covers of darkness and converge on a small complex of buildings in a dusty frontier town. The defenders, less than 300, are caught napping when the enemy units begin their assault. Santa Anna watches as his Mexican troops begin the final assault on the Alamo.

The bulk of the Alamo's defenders were illegal immigrants. Since the 1820s, Mexico had invited American settlers to settle the northern border province of Texas, though with strict limits on their numbers. Texas was already occupied by Hispanics - the Tejanos - but the population was tiny and they were under constant threat from the fearsome Comanches to the north. The Mexican government figured that inviting in Americans - now called "Texians" - to plus up the population would also create a convenient buffer against Comanche incursions.

One thing Mexicans were less enthused about was that the new Texian settlers brought their slaves. Slavery had been outlawed in the Mexican Constitution, but in the 1820s Mexico's government was a loose federal system based on the United States which favored a decentralized government in the hands of the state governments. Thus, they were willing to turn a blind eye to the slavery, and even to the general influx of unauthorized immigration from America, until they outlawed this practice in the early 1830s. This angered the Texians, but caused the Tejanos some relief because they were already outnumbered by the newcomers. Nevertheless, American settlers continued to pour across the border to settle into Texas, and soon most of its inhabitants were "illegals."

In 1835, however, an Army revolt overthrew the old Federalist liberal system and implemented a new Centralist constitution. This faction, led by young war hero Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, centralized governing power in Mexico City and stripped most of the rights away from the independent states. The Centralists were allies of the old, traditional order: the Army, the Church, and the Elites. Santa Anna was their champion. Revolts immediately broke out across Mexico, from California in the far north to the Yucatan in the south.

Portrait of Santa Anna, by Carlos Paris

In October 1835, the people of Texas - Texian and Tejano alike - also rose up against Santa Anna's government. They expelled the small Mexican garrisons in the area and formed a small army. Santa Anna had been marching around Mexico with an army stamping out rebellions; in May 1835 he defeated a strong rebel militia in Zacatecas before mercilessly sacking the city. His sights were soon set on Texas.

Local Texian soldiers looked for a place to make a forward stand. There were no fortresses and few reinforced buildings in Texas, and they knew Santa Anna would bring artillery. They settled on the religious mission complex known as the Alamo. It had been built to withstand attacks from Indian tribes, not a well-equipped army, but it was what they had. Situated in the small town then known as Bexar (more properly San Antonio de Bexar), it was a 3-acre compound with several buildings surrounded by a masonry wall.

The small garrison of the Alamo was nowhere near large enough to defend the complex. The original commander, volunteer Jim Bowie, was sent to the Alamo on January 19 with orders to destroy the Alamo rather than let the Mexicans occupy it. When he decided to make his stand there, reinforcements from the rebel government and volunteers trickled in. Among the arrivals was Colonel William Travis, an officer in the new Texas Army, and a small group of Tennessee riflemen under former Congressman and famous pioneer Davy Crockett.

Leftmost green arrow is Santa Anna's march to the Alamo

It was a shock when Santa Anna appeared suddenly 25 miles from Bexar with an army of 6,000 soldiers. No one had expected his winter march, and the Texians were completely unprepared. Dividing his army to snuff out the rebellion, Santa Anna himself made for Bexar with 1,500 of his men. He had had a law passed in the Mexican Congress that labeled the rebels "pirates" - thus denying them the ability to surrender. No quarter would be given.

On February 23, Santa Anna's troops surrounded the Alamo. Travis and Bowie, in joint command, prepared for a siege. Over the next two weeks, Santa Anna's troops skirmished with the Alamo's defenders as his artillery slowly inched forward. The weather was bitterly cold for Texas, dropping to nearly 39 degrees, for which neither army was prepared. Both sides sent reinforcements; Santa Anna's numbers swelled to 3,100 men, while only handfuls of Texans and Americans made it through to the Alamo. By March 4, the Alamo's defenders numbered about 240. Santa Anna was patient.

On March 4, Santa Anna decided to assault the Alamo. Waiting for his final artillery pieces to be placed, he refused to negotiate a surrender, deciding there would be little glory in a bloodless victory. It was clear that the Mexican forces would assault soon, and on March 5 Travis informed the Alamo's defenders that anyone who wanted to leave could; they could expect no mercy and there was no hope of success. Only one person is alleged to have fled.

On the morning of March 6, 1836, more than 2,000 Mexicans approached the Alamo in four columns. The Mexican artillery bombardment that had been going on since February 23 unexpectedly ceased on the night of the 5th, and the exhausted Texians had almost all fallen asleep in the first quiet since the siege had begun. This was almost a fatal error, because the columns killed the sentries and were at the walls before the Texians were ready. They quickly recovered, though, and repulsed the first attack. The Battle of the Alamo was finally on.

"The Storming of the Alamo" by Mark Lemon

Texian cannon mounted on the walls blasted away at the oncoming Mexicans, tearing holes in their ranks, and the inexperienced soldiers fired blindly, causing multiple friendly fire incidents. Nevertheless, one attack after another whittled down the defenders. Travis was one of the first to die, shot while firing his shotgun over the walls at the Mexican attackers. The Mexicans would attack, fall back, and reorganize; finally, Santa Anna sent in reserves that managed to scale the north wall. When Texians on the south wall turned their fire to the north to drive away this attack, the Mexicans overran the south as well.

With the walls overrun, the Texians fell back into the compound, swarming into the barracks and the chapel. Davy Crockett and his riflemen were cut off in the open; Crockett and his boys ran out of ammunition and ended up using their rifles as clubs until overwhelmed. The Mexicans directed their attention at the lone star of Texas flying above the compound; four Mexican soldiers died taking the flagpole to tear down the flag and raise Mexico's. Finally, the Mexicans broke into the fortified barracks rooms and chapel. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued as every Texian and Tejano resister was killed, including the sick Jim Bowie, who was bayoneted in bed while fighting back with his pistols and the knife that bears his name.

Davy Crockett's last stand at the Alamo

The aftermath of the Alamo was a bloody massacre. Mexican soldiers took few prisoners, bayoneting any bodies that moved; Santa Anna had the seven Texians who did manage to surrender executed anyway. Several slaves belonging to Alamo inhabitants did survive, some of whom came into Santa Anna's service. The bodies of the Alamo's defenders were burned, with the exception of the Tejano Gregorio Esparza - his brother Francisco, one of Santa Anna's officers, recovered his body and buried it properly. This incident demonstrates that, despite its appearance to Americans, the Mexicans considered the Battle at the Alamo to be an affair of civil insurrection rather than a fight for independence.

Even as the Siege of the Alamo had been taking place, on March 2, the Texas Convention declared independence, forming the Republic of Texas. Most of the Hispanic Tejanos opposed this move; they had signed up to overthrow the Centralist tyranny, not form a new country that would be dominated by white English-speaking Texians. Nevertheless, the die was cast, and the experience of the Alamo became a rallying cry. Far from cowing the Texians as Santa Anna expected, recruits to fight his government came out in droves. As Santa Anna moved deeper into Texas, the new Texian Commander-in-Chief Sam Houston awaited him. At San Jacinto on April 21, the Mexicans would be overthrown, with "Remember the Alamo!" as the Texian battle cry.

There is next to no doubt that American opinions of the Alamo have been formed by popular media, most notably the 1950s Disney miniseries "Davy Crockett", largely mythological, and John Wayne's 1960 "The Alamo", which took typical Hollywood liberties with the facts. Multiple country songs have reinforced the mythical depiction of the brave last stand at the Alamo. Some of the most egregious errors in all these depictions are

A.) the total lack of mention of slavery, or the presence of slaves,

B.) the idea that the Texan rebellion was an isolated incident and not part of a broader Mexico-wide resistance to Santa Anna's Centralist government,

C.) the lack of representation for the Tejanos - the Hispanic Spanish-speaking defenders of the Alamo,

and finally

D.) ignorance of the very real courage and spirit shown by the Mexican attackers, instead depicting them as mindless hordes.

Personally, I think that a modern interpretation of the Alamo is long overdue. Maybe the subject matter could be a group of brave illegal immigrants and their multiethnic coalition resisting a militaristic government centered around a corrupt and incompetent leader closely allied with the rich elite and religious conservatives.

Or you could make it about a bunch of brave American patriots exercising their right to bear arms against a government trampling on individual liberties, centralizing federal power, and in the hands of the big-city political elites that barely disguise their hatred for the rural fringes of the nation.

On second thought...maybe we should give it a few years before making this a movie again.

Book Recommendation: For a decently balanced history of the Alamo from a Texan history expert, see Stephen L. Hardin, Texian Iliad, (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994).

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