Wallace: I see a whole army of my countrymen, here in defiance of tyranny. You’ve come to fight as free men. And free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Will you fight?
Veteran: Fight? Against THAT? No! We will run, and we will live.
Wallace: Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live . . . at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our FREEDOM!
—Mel Gibson as William Wallace and Peter Mullan as the Veteran in Braveheart
Today is the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo in 1836 (depicted above in Henry Arthur McArdle's 1905 painting Dawn at the Alamo, which hangs in the State Capitol building in Austin).
While most of you are familiar with the iconic ruin of the small main church structure, you may not know that the Alamo was actually a compound originally named Mision San Antonio de Valero. It was constructed by Spanish missionaries in the early 1700s outside the town of San Antonio de Bexar (modern-day San Antonio, the second-largest city in Texas, with the mission ruins actually sitting in the urban sprawl next to downtown today). By the early 1800s the mission had ceased its original religious function, and served as a garrison for a series of Spanish and, following a successful revolution against the Spanish crown, Mexican armed forces.
As I’ve reported previously, in the mid 1830s General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna assumed dictatorial control over Mexico. Increasing centralization of power and excessive taxation led to escalating tension between Mexico City and the largely Anglo settler population (“Texians”) in the state of Coahuila y Tejas (most of which would later form the northern, eastern, and coastal portions of the modern State of Texas). In 1835 Santa Anna revoked the Constitution and began revoking state governments (sound familiar?), and by the Fall of 1835, Texas was in open armed revolt.
In December 1835, a group of volunteers led by Colonel Benjamin Milam drove Mexican forces out of San Antonio, and occupied the Alamo mission complex. They supplemented the defensive positions the Mexican Army had left behind, and over the next weeks a handful of reinforcements—including troops led by Colonel James Bowie, cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel William Travis, and Tennessee volunteers led by Davy Crockett—arrived to bolster the small complement of men already there. The total number of defenders is a matter of some debate, but likely there were fewer than 200 (the Alamo’s official website, by my count, lists 188 names of men known to have died in defense of the Alamo).
Meanwhile, Santa Anna was marching north with an army of some 6,000 men to quell the rebellion. One column pinned down a detachment under Colonel James Fannin at Goliad (later captured and executed with over 300 of his men) to the southeast near the coast. Santa Anna himself led another group of 2400 men inland to the northwest towards San Antonio. Although Bowie was originally sent to the Alamo with instructions to remove the cannon and destroy the mission complex, he became convinced that the town was of strategic value, because without it “there is no stronghold from which to repel [Santa Anna] in his march towards the Sabine [the river dividing modern-day Texas from Louisiana, then the northeastern border between Mexico and the U.S.].” Consequently, he pledged to defend the garrison to the last man. For political reasons, Bowie would share command with Travis.
Santa Anna arrived in San Antonio on February 23, 1836, and began establishing cannon positions around the mission complex. The Mexican demand for an unconditional surrender was answered with a cannon shot, prompting them to raise the red flag of “no quarter.” For the next 13 days, Mexican artillery pounded the garrison, while cavalry and infantry effectively surrounded it, cutting off the prospect of reinforcement or resupply. Meanwhile, Mexican strength in San Antonio was bolstered to over 3,000.
Popular legend has long held that on the evening before the final siege, Travis assembled the men and drew a line in the sand with his saber and invited all those willing to stand with him to the end to cross that line, with all but one choosing to do so. While Travis may have held a conference with the men to discuss their situation and afford the opportunity for those who wanted to try to escape to do so, the line in the sand story is most likely fiction. Nevertheless, it is a powerful example of what my political science professor Dr. Gilbert Cuthbertson ("Doc C," or just "Doc" to those of us close to him) used to call “Myth Power Value”; the tale itself has more utility than the truth, and thus it becomes the truth even if we know better. I will accept it.
The night of March 5, the Mexican bombardment ended. In the pre-dawn hours of March 6, approximately 1,300 troops assaulted the compound on three sides, eventually overrunning the exterior defenses and driving the Texians inside. From there it was only a matter of time, as the muskets of the day were single-shot weapons, and once reduced to hand-to-hand combat, the defenders were quickly overwhelmed. The battle was over by daylight. Legend holds that other than women, children, and one slave, there were no survivors. This may or may not be accurate; what is certain is that for all intents and purposes, all of the Alamo defenders left on March 6—including Bowie, Travis, and Crockett—were killed. Their dead bodies were repeatedly shot and bayoneted, then burned.
The ultimate strategic importance of the defenders’ stand at the Alamo is debatable. Contrary to popular lore, its defense was not necessary to buy time for Sam Houston to muster and organize a regular army, or if it was, that isn’t how he used that time. And history has proven Bowie’s conviction that it was necessary to maintain possession of the garrison to prevent Santa Anna from marching across Texas to Louisiana to have been incorrect. Sam Houston’s army routed the Mexicans on April 21 at the Battle of San Jacinto, capturing Santa Anna and forcing his surrender, thus winning Texas’ independence.
Nevertheless, the defense of the Alamo remains a testament to courage and conviction in the face of tyranny. Despite overwhelming odds, a small band of freedom-loving men held out against a ruthless dictator and a huge army, and ultimately gave their lives to defend that most basic human right of self-determination.
We would do well to remember it.