“Remember the Alamo!” is one of those phrases from American history that most Americans know, but don’t understand (right up there with Washington crossing the Delaware and “one if by land, two if by sea“). As is the case whenever history is lost, myth has grown up around the Alamo, not really regarding what happened there but why it happened.
Most Americans do know that a group of Americans—including Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett—holed up in the Alamo, a fortified mission in today’s San Antonio, Texas, and fought to the death, outnumbered, against the Mexican forces of General Antonio López de Santa Anna. This happened in February 1836. The mix of roughly 200 Americans and Mexicans (fighting against their own country) held out through several charges by Santa Anna’s much larger army but were eventually killed. The Alama became a rallying point for Americans fighting for Texas independence and American liberty.
As we point out in our post The U.S. declares war on Mexico, the real story is not as grand as the myth:
“American citizens who moved to Mexico to settle its northern state of Coahuila y Tejas decided, after a short residence, to create an independent state there called Texas. The Mexican government responded in 1829 by levying a property tax, putting high taxes on American imports, and prohibiting slavery. Because Americans in Coahuila y Tejas outnumbered native Mexicans, and because internal political strife in Mexico made it difficult to fully command the northern states, they were able to ignore those laws, particularly the one against slaveholding. But when General Antonio López de Santa Anna became dictator of Mexico in 1834, he was determined to bring Coahuila y Tejas firmly back under Mexican control, and when the Texans declared their independence in 1836, Santa Anna traveled north to squash them.”
It was in part their determination to enslave black Americans that drove the Texans in their fight for independence. If Mexico had not begun to phase out slavery in 1824 (the last enslaved people were freed there in 1829), the Americans in northern Mexico would likely have continued to live as citizens of the Mexican state for much longer, until their numbers were much greater and a break much easier to make and to defend. But when the president of Mexico, Anastasio Bustamente, ordered that abolition be enforced in northern Mexico—Texas—the Americans living there orders began to think seriously of breaking away from Mexico and forming their own nation.
It shouldn’t have been hard to do. Mexico’s government was weak and its ability to enforce the law in its very far-flung northern territories (California as well as Texas) was limited. The Americans should have been able to break away and force Mexico to terms when it realized it could not put down the distant revolution in a small district that seemed to have no essential value to the nation.
But Mexico decided to take a hard line, and in April 1830 it forbid any further American emigration to its territory. Mexico didn’t want the number of Americans in Texas rising and rising, and hoped to subdue those already in rebellion. This strategy failed in 1832 when Americans fought a small battle, the Battle of Velasco, against Mexican forces. In that year and the next, Texans formed a Convention that asked the Mexican government for reforms, which were rejected by Mexico. The 1833 Convention drafted a constitution for Texas which was also rejected. The war officially began on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales. The Texans were victorious in the next few battles, including the Siege of Bexar in December, which led to the American capture of San Antonio.
Now comes the battle of the Alamo, a fortified mission in San Antonio which the Americans occupied, first under the command of Ben Milam, then William Travis. On February 23, 1836, Santa Anna arrived to recover San Antonio. Santa Anna was particularly adamant that Mexico fight off any foreign claims to its territory, and was willing to spend money and lives to do that when both were dear. The Americans held out againt Santa Anna’s superior numbers from February 23 to March 6, when another Mexican charge finally breached the fortified walls of the Alamo. The Americans inside fought hand-to-hand until all were dead. San Antonio was recovered by Mexico.
Unbeknownst to the men at the Alamo, on March 2 the Convention of 1836 adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence. Members of the Convention had been receiving updates on the siege, and when word reached the Convention of the loss of the Alamo and the stand made by Americans there, the Declaration and the war were given greater impetus, and Remember the Alamo! became a rallying cry of the Texans. On April 21, Texans led by Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Santa Anna withdrew, and Texans celebrated their independence (a little too early, as Mexico never formally ceded the territory, and when it was accepted into the U.S. as a state in 1845, the Mexican War was the result).
There are many legends about exactly what happened inside the mission. The most famous story is that Travis drew a line in the dirt and asked every man willing to fight to the end to cross it, and all but one did (that man was allowed to leave). Movies have portrayed all the men as paragons of liberty and integrity, fighting extremely venal, bloodthirsty (and rather foppish) Mexicans who want to establish a police state. Santa Anna is particularly portrayed as a cross between an effete pretender and a cruel dictator. It’s ironic at best, since it was Mexico that wanted to abolish slavery in the territory, and Mexico that was fighting to keep its land against strangers who had been allowed to settle there and suddenly announced that the land was theirs. But we in the U.S. tend to get the idea that it was Mexico trying to take American land away from its rightful owners.
No one can deny the bravery of the men who fought at the Alamo. But the cause for which they fought was not true liberty. Like the United States it would soon join, Texas fought for the ideal of liberty but not the full reality, as it kept black people enslaved. It would take the Civil War to end slavery in Texas, and fulfill its original mandate of liberty. The Alamo was also a battle in a war to seize a section of northern Mexico without just provocation. The Alamo is important to remember clearly, objectively, and with an eye to understanding what really happened there.