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Remember the Alamo! A sacred site for Texans—and all Americans

A sacred site for Texans—and all Americans

November 04, 2013

By James Berry

Texas treasure: The Alamo, a symbol of Texas history, welcomes more than 2.5 million visitors each year. Photo by Richard Nowitz, San Antonio CVB
San Antonio—On March 6, 1836, an army led by Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna overran the defenders of a small mission fortress in south-central Texas, ending a 13-day siege in a bloody confrontation that lasted about an hour.

More than 177 years later, what remains of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo, is sacred ground for Texans and a symbol of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds for millions more.

Each year, about 2.5 million people visit the site in the heart of San Antonio where an estimated 189 settlers and adventurers from Texas, the United States and Europe perished.

The Alamo today is the state's leading tourist attraction, though labeling it that seems to diminish its import. It is a place where a battle was lost but a war was won, where men died so that others might carry on. It is a site that brings to mind other places in history—Thermopolae in 480 B.C., Bunker Hill in 1775—battles lost in prelude to ultimate victory.

Texas historian and author Stephen L. Hardin, Ph.D., notes that the original Alamo compound included a main plaza covering almost three acres, with a defensive perimeter just under a quarter mile long.

What remains today are the familiar limestone mission church (what most people think of as the Alamo) and one floor of what was a two-story structure known as the Long Barracks, now a museum and library.

Thanks to Hollywood and the literally hundreds of books written on the battle, the story of the Alamo is known to most Americans. Still, many details of what took place there remain in dispute to this day. For example, the Alamo's own website states matter-of-factly that 189 defenders died. Other estimates range from 182 to 257. Most historians place Mexican casualties at 400 to 600, though other estimates run much higher.

In 1835, the year before the battle, the Mexican Constitution of 1824 was rescinded and replaced with a new constitution that effectively established a dictatorship under Gen. Santa Anna.

Texas at the time was a province of Mexico. The new, increasingly centralist government did not sit well with settlers in the province—many of them transplanted Mexicans or “Tejanos”—who responded by driving the Mexican army out of the region in what became known as the Texas Revolution.

Determined to quell a rebellion he blamed mainly on outside influences, Gen. Santa Anna gathered an army of about 6,000 men and began a slow march north, crossing the Rio Grande in mid-February 1836.

Meanwhile, small bands of defenders began to gather at the Alamo, drawn to the place for varying reasons. The frontiersman and soldier James Bowie, for example, was sent to the Alamo under orders from Gen. Sam Houston. Bowie's mission was to collect the artillery there and then destroy the place. Instead, Col. Bowie decided to stay on as co-commander of the fortress with Lt. Col. William B. Travis.

Travis, a lawyer by profession, had come to Texas from South Carolina after a failed marriage. As friction developed between Mexico and Texas, Travis joined the army and was ordered to the Alamo in January 1836. He arrived with about 30 men.

It is reported that a few days before the final assault, Travis famously scratched a line in the sand with the tip of his sword and invited all those willing to stay and fight (and presumably die) to step across the line. The story goes that all crossed the line but one man, a former French soldier named Moses Rose who had fought under Napoleon in Russia.

Best known among the defenders, of course, was David Crockett, the fabled frontiersman and politician, who hated being called “Davy.” By 1835, Crockett had served three terms in Congress as a representative from Tennessee. Losing his bid for a fourth term, the disappointed Crockett declared to his constituents, “You may go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

On the 13th day of a siege marked by repeated small skirmishes, Gen. Santa Anna on March 6 ordered about 1,800 of his troops to storm the fortress. This full-scale attack commenced at about 5:30 a.m. The initial fighting is said to have lasted just over 20 minutes, though it took about an hour before the Mexican army was fully in control of the Alamo. By 6:30 a.m., it was over.

Lt. Col. Travis was likely one of the first (possibly the first) of the defenders to die. He was 26 years old.

James Bowie, famous then and now for his oversized knife, was ill with pneumonia when the battle began and probably died defending himself on a cot. He would have turned 40 in April.

The fate of David Crockett is still debated. Some say he died fighting to the last and was found surrounded by the corpses of Mexican soldiers. But Dr. Hardin, the Texas historian, says he and most other historians today believe Crockett was among five to seven defenders who surrendered and were later executed on orders from Gen. Santa Anna. The former congressman was 49 years old.

Other dead included about nine Tejanos among the Texans. Survivors, mostly women and children, numbered about 14.

As news spread of the Alamo's fall, hordes of angry Texans swelled the ranks of Gen. Houston's army, which retreated for several weeks into East Texas. Then on April 21, the Texas army attacked Gen. Santa Anna's camp near what is now the city of La Porte, Texas.

In what became known as the Battle of San Jacinto, Texas soldiers famously cried out “Remember the Alamo!” as the armies clashed in a rout that lasted just 18 minutes. The Mexican troops were vanquished, and Gen. Santa Anna was taken prisoner.

In an interview with Gen. Houston the following day, the Mexican leader reportedly urged Houston to be “generous” toward Mexico's defeated army. “You should have remembered that at the Alamo,” Houston replied.

For about the next decade, Texas was an independent republic, its own country. It was admitted to the union as the 28th state in December 1845.

So why, after all these years, do we still “Remember the Alamo!”?

In war, notes Dr. Hardin, “all give some, and some give all. But at the Alamo, all gave all. It's something Texans can and should be proud of.”