From the inflated heroics of Davy Crockett to the historic last stand of a small garrison against an entire army, here's why we remember the Battle of the Alamo nearly two centuries later.
“Remember the Alamo!” the battle cry goes. But why, exactly, should we remember the Alamo? The cry was born as a proclamation of strength, but what makes a simple building such a powerful and historic place?
Originally a Spanish mission site, the Alamo, near what is present-day San Antonio, Texas, was repurposed as a military garrison in the early 1830s. It was first occupied by Spanish and then Mexican soldiers. Its importance as a military settlement and proximity to San Antonio drew the attention of Texian forces during the Texas Revolution. But, of course, battles have been fought across the US, so what makes the Alamo — and the Battle of the Alamo, fought as part of that revolution — different?
The History Of The Alamo
In the centuries before the battle, the Alamo had served as a Catholic mission, working to convert local Native Americans to Catholicism. Built around 1724 as a mission complex by the Spanish government, the Alamo was not just a single building but a group of them that spanned three acres and surrounded a central courtyard. In the complex was a seminary for the priests, a chapel, barracks for missionaries and their families and a textile workshop.
After several years, following the Christianization of the local tribes, the mission was abandoned. Run-ins with local, less than welcoming tribes combined with a harsh government had drained the mission of its wealth and resources. Though most locals were uninterested in the adobe buildings, the once-ornate Alamo complex served as a tourism site for visitors for several decades.
Despite its previously peaceful nature, in the early 19th century during the Mexican War of Independence, the Alamo served as a political prison, and later as San Antonio’s first hospital.
After Mexico gained independence in 1821, the Alamo complex shifted from Spanish control to Mexican control. Mexican General Martín Perfecto de Cos initially held down the fort until 1825 when he surrendered to Texians (residents of Mexican-controlled Texas) who had been invading San Antonio.
When General Cos left, the artillery and weapons that he’d planned on fortifying the Alamo with were left behind. The Alamo’s position in the lay of the land, along with its already-existing fortifications, made it a prime location when the battle commenced. Colonel James C. Neill stepped up and assumed command of the 100 men who had been left behind.
Together, they formed the army that would oppose the Mexican Army in a siege that would last 13 days.
The Battle Of The Alamo
Soon after Colonel Neill took over command, he realized that there weren’t enough reinforcements to keep control of the Alamo. Panicked, he wrote to the Texian government and requested more men to help him defend the compound.
Colonel James Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis arrived in early February with reinforcements, including frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett. While the extra men were welcomed immediately and put to good use, it is estimated that there were only between 180 to 260 men holding the garrison at any point during the war.
Sam Houston, the commander of the Texian army, believed that it was too risky for the men to remain at the fort due to the insufficient number of reinforcements, and wanted them to abandon the post. Colonel Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel Travis, however, were committed to defending the fort and refused to leave.
On February 23, 1836, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, determined to retake the post, led a siege on the fort at the Alamo, commanding an army of between 1,800 and 6,000 Mexican soldiers. Vastly outnumbered and facing certain defeat, the Texian forces stationed at the Alamo, co-commanded by Bowie and Travis, chose to stay and defend the fort rather than face an unconditional surrender. The Texians held the fort against the Mexican army for thirteen days.
Tavis kept up a steady stream of defensive fire from inside the walls of the Alamo and was able to successfully block Santa Anna’s first two charges at the fort. On March 6, 1836, however, the Alamo finally fell.
In the early morning, after two unsuccessful attempts to breach the Texian’s defenses, Mexican forces finally broke through the outer walls of the fort. As Mexican forces scaled the walls, the Texians were forced to retreat further into the fort’s interior for fear of being attacked from above.
However, even in the face of such overpowering odds, the Texian forces continued to fight at close range, using rifles, pistols, knives, and even their own fists. Despite their small number, they managed to do significant damage to the Mexican army, killing what most Alamo historians believe to be around 600 of their men. However, even with their best attempts, the battle was over ninety minutes after the Mexican forces made inside the walls.
Among the dead were the leaders of the battle, Colonel Bowie and Lt. Colonel Travis. Their bodies were reportedly piled in a field along with their soldiers and burned. The ash from the makeshift funeral pyre would remain untouched for almost a year before being entombed in a coffin in the San Fernando Cathedral.
Also among the dead was Davy Crockett, though the legitimacy of this claim has been debated. Several of the Mexican soldiers claimed that Crockett had died in battle and that his body was burned alongside Travis and Bowie’s. A former slave claimed he’d surrendered and been executed. Neither claim has been officially confirmed, though Crockett’s knife was found near the pyre’s ashes.
The mystery continued even further when an English-language translation of Mexican General Enrique de la Peña’s memoirs of the battle was published, claiming that Crockett had survived. Again, the legitimacy of the claims has not been verified but lends itself to the ever-mysterious theories regarding the life of Davy Crockett.
Whether Crockett’s ashes truly lie within, a stone coffin still stands in the San Fernando Cathedral today, holding the ashes of Bowie and Travis, and countless others who lost their lives to the Battle of the Alamo.
After The Battle
According to some accounts, there were between five and seven Texian survivors, who surrendered and were immediately executed. The Mexican soldiers took no prisoners, and between 180 and 250 of the Texian forces were slaughtered at the Alamo, with one of the few exceptions being Susannah Dickinson, her infant daughter Angelina, a freed slave, and a servant. General Santa Anna allowed them to escape to Sam Houston’s camp with a letter of warning, telling Houston that if Texas continued to fight, a similar fate would fall on the remaining members of the Texian army.
But the letter did little to hinder the Texian army’s fighting spirit. Although the Alamo finally fell to the Mexicans, the battle became a powerful symbol of resistance for the Texian forces and inspired many more men to join the fight for independence. Inspired by the courageous struggle at the Alamo, Texians went on to rally around the cry of “Remember the Alamo.”
In addition to delivering the letter to Houston’s camp, those freed Texians were also ordered to spread the word of the Mexican victory to the lands beyond the battlefield.
However, the news didn’t have the reaction the Mexican army had hoped for. As the men traveled through Texas and the neighboring lands telling the tale of the Alamo, rather than spark only fear they sparked a new revolution; partly out of panic, and partly out of pride, men rushed to join the Texian army despite their recent defeat.
On April 21, 1836, the newly-reinforced Texian forces, led by General Sam Houston, charged against General Santa Anna’s forces at San Jacinto. The battle was swift and decisive, by all accounts lasting just 18 minutes before the Mexican army was defeated. Santa Anna was taken as a prisoner of war. Three weeks after the pivotal battle, a peace treaty was officially signed, effectively ending the war and granting Texas its independence from Mexico.
The Battle Of The Alamo In Popular Culture
Though it was an integral part of the history of US-Mexico relations, as well as Texan history, it’s likely that the Battle of the Alamo has remained in people’s minds due to its depiction in film and national mythology as a whole.
Hollywood has reenacted the Battle of the Alamo at least a dozen times, all from different perspectives and with varying levels of historical accuracy.
Among the most famous is John Wayne’s 1960 epic The Alamo. For the most part, the movie follows the battle as it happened, getting dates, key players, and timing mostly correct. However, the film does exaggerate the scale of the three attacks the Mexican army waged on the Alamo, as well as the duties and accomplishments of certain individuals. The film, for example, portrays the role of Davy Crockett as massively larger than it was – though, likely because Wayne himself played the infamous frontiersman.
Despite the accuracy of the timeline and characters, several historians have denounced the film, including historians James Frank Dobie and Lon Tinkle, who requested their credits as “historical advisors” be removed from the film.
Even after Wayne’s epic, Hollywood was far from done remembering the Alamo. A 2004 remake by Disney attempted to grasp the scale of the battle once again (this time with one-liners such as “You can go to hell. I’m going to Texas.”) though ultimately fell short of expectations.
In the end, it seems that the Battle of the Alamo might just be too big for the big screen, too iconic a piece of American history. The victory that the Texian army ultimately found over the Mexican invaders was monumental and marked the beginning of Texas’ independence from Mexico and journey toward statehood. Perhaps the rest of the world should take a cue from the Texian battle cry, and “remember the Alamo” for the change it inspired, instead of the films.