Americans “remember the Alamo”–but usually for the wrong reasons.
Some historians believe the battle should have never been fought. The Alamo was not Thermopylae–a narrow mountain pass blocking the Persian march into ancient Greece. Santa Anna could have simply bypassed it.
Painting of the Mexicans’ final assault on the Alamo
In fact, several of Santa Anna’s generals urged the Mexican dictator to do just that–leave a small guard to hold down the fort’s defenders and wipe out the undefended, widely-separated Texas settlements.
But pride held Santa Anna fast to the Alamo. His brother-in-law, General Perfecto de Cos, had been forced to surrender the old mission to revolting Texans in December, 1835. Santa Anna meant to redeem the fort–and his family honor–by force.
In almost every movie made about the Alamo, its two co-commanders, James Bowie and William Barret Travis, are portrayed as on the verge of all-out war–with each other.
In John Wayn’e heavily fictionalized 1960 film, The Alamo, Bowie and Travis agree to fight a duel as soon as they’ve whipped the Mexicans besieging them.
In fact, the frictions between the two lasted only a short while. Just before the siege, some of Bowie’s volunteers–a far larger group than the regular soldiers commanded by Travis–got drunk. Travis ordered them jailed–and Bowie ordered his men to release them. Bowie then went on a roaring drunk.
The next day, a sober Bowie apologized to Travis and agreed they should share command. This proved a wise decision, for just as the siege started, Bowie was felled by worsening illness–typhoid-pneumonia or tuberculosis.
In Wayne’s film, Bowie repeatedly leaves the Alamo to ambush unsuspecting Mexicans. In reality, he stayed bed-ridden and lay close to death throughout the 13-day siege.
Most people believe the Texans intended to make a suicidal stand. Not true. From the first day of the siege–February 23–almost to the last–March 6, 1836–messengers rode out of the Alamo seeking help.
The defenders believed that if they could cram enough men into the three-acre former mission, they could hold Santa Anna at bay.
It’s widely believed that no reinforcements reached the Alamo. Not so.
On March 1, thirty-two men from Gonzalez–the only ones to answer Travis’ call–sneaked through the Mexican lines to enter the Alamo.
Meanwhile, the largest Texan force lay at Fort Defiance in Goliad, 85 miles away. This consisted of 500 men commanded by James Walker Fannin, a West Point dropout.
Fannin was better-suited for the role of Hamlet than military commander. Upon receiving a plea of help from Travis, he set out in a half-hearted attempt to reach the mission. But when a supply wagon broke down, he returned to Fort Defiance and sat out the rest of the siege.
After the Alamo fell, Fannin dithered in Fort Defiance until it was too late. Fleeing before the advancing Mexicans, his army was encircled on the open prairie and forced to surrender. On March 27, 1836, Fannin’s entire force was massacred.
After it became obvious that the Alamo would not be sufficiently reinforced, the Texans still refused to evacuate. “I’ll die before I run” might have been their official motto.
The Alamo garrison was fully prepared to confront the Mexican army. False.
When the Mexicans suddenly arrived in San Antonio on the morning of February 23, 1836, they caught the Texans completely by surprise. The previous night, they had been celebrating the birthday of George Washington.
The Texans rushed headlong into the Alamo, hauling all the supplies they could hastily scrounge.
Santa Anna sent a courier under a flag of truce to the Alamo, demanding unconditional surrender. In effect, the Texans were being given the choice of later execution.
Travis replied with a shot from the fort’s biggest cannon, the 18-pounder.
Santa Anna ordered the hoisting of a blood-red flag and the opening of an artillery salvo. The siege of the Alamo was on.
Many Americans believe that San Houston, who was elected general of the non-existent army of Texas, desperately tried to relieve the siege. Not so.
At Washington-on-the-Brazos, 150 miles east of San Antonio, the Texans convened a convention to form a new government. When news reached the delegates that Travis desperately needed reinforcements, many of them wanted to rush to his defense.
But Houston and others declared they must first declare Texas’ independence. On March 2, 1836, they did just that. Houston spent a good deal of the time drunk.
Did Travis draw a line?
Easily the most famous Alamo story is that of “the line in the sand.” On the night of March 5–just prior to the final assault–there was a lull in the near-constant Mexican bombardment.
Travis assembled his men and gave them a choice: They could surrender and hope that Santa Anna would be merciful. They could try to escape. Or they could stay and fight.
With his sword, Travis drew a line in the dirt and invited those who would stay to cross over to him. The entire garrison did–except for two men.
One of these was bed-ridden James Bowie. He asked that his his sick-bed be carried over to Travis.
The other was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars–Louis Rose.