The Battle of the Alamo:
The Battle of the Alamo was fought on March 6, 1836 between rebellious Texans and the Mexican army. The Alamo was a fortified old mission in the center of the town of San Antonio de Béxar: it was defended by about 200 rebellious Texans, chief among them Lt. Colonel William Travis, famed frontiersman Jim Bowie and former Congressman Davy Crockett. They were opposed by a massive Mexican army led by President/General Antonio López de Santa Anna
. After a two-week siege, Mexican forces attacked at dawn on March 6: the Alamo was overrun in less than two hours.
The Struggle for Texas Independence:
Texas was originally part of the Spanish Empire in northern Mexico, but the region had been inching towards Independence for some time. English-speaking settlers from the USA had been arriving in Texas since 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain
. Some of these immigrants were part of approved settlement plans, like the one managed by Stephen F. Austin. Others were essentially squatters who had come to claim unoccupied lands. Cultural, political and economic differences separated these settlers from the rest of Mexico and by the early 1830's there was much support for independence (or statehood in the USA) in Texas.
Texans take the Alamo:
The first shots of the revolution
were fired on October 2, 1835, in the town of Gonzales. In December, rebellious Texans attacked and captured San Antonio. Many of the Texan leaders, including General Sam Houston
, felt that San Antonio was not worth defending: it was too far from the rebels' power base in eastern Texas. Houston ordered Jim Bowie
, a former resident of San Antonio, to destroy the Alamo and retreat with the remaining men. Bowie decided to remain and fortify the Alamo instead: he felt that with their accurate rifles and a handful of cannons, a small number of Texans could hold the city indefinitely against great odds.
Arrival of William Travis and conflict with Bowie:
Lt. Colonel William Travis
arrived in February with about 40 men. He was outranked by James Neill and at first his arrival caused no great stir. But Neill left on family business and the 26 year old Travis was suddenly in charge of the Texans at the Alamo. Travis' problem was this: about half of the 200 or so men there were volunteers and took orders from no one: they could come and go as they wished. These men basically only answered to Bowie, their unofficial leader. Bowie didn't care for Travis and often contradicted his orders: the situation became quite tense.
Arrival of Crockett:
On February 8, legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett
arrived at the Alamo with a handful of Tennessee volunteers armed with deadly long rifles. The presence of Crockett, a former Congressman who had become very famous as a hunter, scout and teller of tall tales, was a great boost to morale. Crockett, a skilled politician, was even able to defuse the tension between Travis and Bowie. He refused a commission, saying that he would be honored to serve as a private. He had even brought his fiddle and played for the defenders.
Arrival of Santa Anna and the Siege of the Alamo:
On February 23, Mexican General Santa Anna arrived at the head of a massive army. He laid siege to San Antonio: the defenders retreated to the relative safety of the Alamo. Santa Anna did not secure all the exits from the city: the defenders could have crept away in the night had they wished: instead they remained. Santa Anna ordered a red flag flown: it meant that no quarter would be given.
Calls for help and reinforcements:
Travis busied himself sending out requests for help. Most of his missives were directed to James Fannin, 90 miles away in Goliad with about 300 men. Fannin did set out, but turned back after logistical problems (and perhaps the conviction that the men in the Alamo were doomed). Travis also begged for help from Sam Houston and the political delegates at Washington-on-the-Brazos, but no help was coming. On March first, 32 brave men from the town of Gonzales showed up and made their way through the enemy lines to reinforce the Alamo. On the third, James Butler Bonham, one of the volunteers, valiantly returned to the Alamo through enemy lines after bearing a message to Fannin: he would die with his comrades three days later.
A line in the sand?:
According to legend, on the night of the fifth of March, Travis took his sword and drew a line in the sand. He then challenged anyone who would stay and fight to the death to cross the line. Everyone crossed except for a man named Moses Rose, who instead fled the Alamo that night. Jim Bowie, who by then was in bed with a debilitating illness, asked to be carried over the line. Did “the line in the sand” really happen? No one knows. The first account of this courageous story was printed much later, and it’s impossible to prove one way or another. Whether there was a line in the sand or not, the defenders knew that they would likely die if they remained.
The Battle of the Alamo:
At dawn on March 6, 1836 the Mexicans attacked: Santa Anna may have attacked that day because he was afraid the defenders would surrender and he wanted to make an example of them. The Texans’ rifles and cannons were devastating as the Mexican soldiers made their way to the walls of the heavily fortified Alamo. In the end, however, there were just too many Mexican soldiers and the Alamo fell in about 90 minutes. Only a handful of prisoners were taken: Crockett may have been among them. They were executed as well, although women and children who were in the compound were spared.
Legacy of the Battle of the Alamo:
The Battle of the Alamo was a costly win for Santa Anna: he lost about 600 soldiers that day, to some 200 rebellious Texans. Many of his own officers were appalled that he did not wait on some cannons that were being brought to the battlefield: a few days' bombardment would have greatly softened up the Texan defenses.
Worse than the loss of men, however, was the martyrdom of those inside. When word got out of the heroic, hopeless defense mounted by 200 outnumbered and poorly-armed men, new recruits flocked to the cause, swelling the ranks of the Texan army. In less than two months, General Sam Houston would crush the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto, destroying a large part of the Mexican army and capturing Santa Anna himself. As they ran into battle, those Texans shouted "Remember the Alamo" as a war cry.
Both sides made a statement at the Battle of the Alamo. The rebellious Texans proved that they were committed to the cause of independence and willing to die for it. The Mexicans proved that they were ready to accept the challenge and would not offer quarter or take prisoners when it came to those who took up arms against Mexico.
One interesting historical note is worth mentioning. Although the Texas Revolution is generally assumed to have been stirred up by Anglo immigrants who moved into Texas in the 1820's and 1830's, this is not entirely the case. There were many native Mexican Texans, known as Tejanos, who supported independence. There were about a dozen or so Tejanos (no one is certain exactly how many) at the Alamo: they fought bravely and died with their comrades.
Today, the Battle of the Alamo has achieved legendary status, particularly in Texas. The defenders are remembered as great heroes. Crockett, Bowie, Travis and Bonham all have many things named after them, including cities, counties, parks, schools and more. Even men like Bowie, who in life was a con man, brawler and slave trader, were redeemed by their heroic death at the Alamo.
Several movies have been made about the Battle of the Alamo: the two most ambitious were John Wayne's 1960 The Alamo and the 2004 film of the same name starring Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett. Neither film is great: the first was plagued by historical inaccuracies and the second just isn't very good. Still, either one will give a rough idea of what the defense of the Alamo was like.
The Alamo itself is still standing in downtown San Antonio: it's a famous historical site and tourist attraction.
Brands, H.W. Lone Star Nation: the Epic Story of the Battle for Texas Independence. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.
Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.