The phrase "Remember the Alamo" conjures up images of outnumbered Texans defending a small fort against the Mexican army. Names like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Santa Anna and Sam Houston transformed the Battle of the Alamo from an otherwise forgettable skirmish into a lasting remnant of American mythology.
Yet how much do we really know about the Battle of the Alamo? As is so often the case, the facts have been obscured by folklore and legend. Below, we dive into some little-known facts about the famous battle, which should make it easier for us all to truly remember the Alamo.
1. The Battle of the Alamo Wasn’t Actually About Texas’s Independence
The history books teach otherwise, but in truth, the famous battle was only tangentially related to Texan independence from Mexico.
Mexico's independence from Spain was sealed in 1821 with the Treaty of Córdoba. At that point, Texas–or Tejas, as it was known to its residents–was still a part of Mexico, not the United States. The new country sought to federalize into a series of states, much like their neighbor to the north had done after revolting from the British. However, in 1832, General Antonio López de Santa Anna became Mexico’s president, and immediately sought to centralize power. Santa Anna’s government enforced strict immigration laws and import duties, which enraged many Tejanos, who had grown accustomed to the laissez-faire attitude of Mexico’s former federalist government.
Another issue amongst colonists was slavery, which had been legal in Texas up to that time, but was being repealed under the new Mexican regime. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, but had granted Texas a special exemption until 1830. Upon abolishment there, many Texans converted their slaves into indentured servants with life terms, as a means of circumventing the new law. But Mexico wasn’t having it: In 1832, the government passed a law barring indentured servitude contracts from lasting longer than 10 years.
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It was these issues that sparked the bloody revolt in San Antonio, which culminated in the Battle of the Alamo. Texas settlers wanted to live under a federalist government, with greater personal liberties–although ironically, as part of those liberties, they wished to enslave others. Hence, they revolted against the Santa Anna government and took over the town of San Antonio, where the Alamo fort was situated.
This revolt took place several days before Texas’s formal declaration of independence from Mexico. The fortifiers of the Alamo likely never knew that Texas had seceded, given that the fort was quickly besieged by the Mexican army and limited communication with the outside world was available.
2. The Alamo’s Defenders Weren’t as United as You’ve Been Led to Believe
As we were all taught in history class, the defenders of the Alamo united together to stave off the advancing Mexican army, and fought shoulder-to-shoulder to the very last man, woman and child. And our history teachers were right… well, sort of.
In truth there was tension, squabbling, ethnic diversity and even infighting amongst the Alamo’s defenders. The clash of personalities began almost instantly. After Texan rebels took over San Antonio, General Sam Houston regarded the city as indefensible, so he ordered the Alamo fort razed and all munitions and supplies returned to East Texas where the rebels were based. The man he appointed for the job was Jim Bowie. Bowie was an iconic frontiersman, smuggler and soldier. He had made a name for himself in the infamous ‘Sandbar Fight’ of 1827, where he fended off several opponents despite being shot three times and stabbed with a sword. He even killed one of his adversaries with a massive knife–which heretofore became known as a ‘Bowie Knife.’
Although Bowie’s orders were to demolish the Alamo, upon arrival he chose to disobey those orders (not his first act of disobedience, though it would be is last). Bowie instead decided to defend the fort and pitched up with his men. They joined the fort’s commander, Lt. Col. William Travis, an unpopular soldier who was only placed in charge after the fort’s original commander left due to a family emergency.
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Bowie and Travis butted heads immediately. Half of the men stationed at The Alamo favored Bowie thanks to his larger-than-life personality and legendary status as a hero of the rebellion, while the other half followed orders from their commanding officer – that being Lt. Col. Travis. To make matters even more complex, the defenders were made up of a host of ethnic backgrounds, such as native Texans, Americans who came to support the rebellion, Mexican nationals who defected to Texas, Europeans, and even some Jews and African Americans.
Tensions between Bowie and Travis reached a boiling point, when two arrivals changed everything: first and foremost was the arrival of the Mexican army. There’s nothing like a common enemy of 1,500 men strong to make the nearly 200 rebels settle their respective differences. The other game-changer was the arrival of the famous frontiersman and ex-congressman, Davy Crockett. Crockett. Crockett was a gifted orator and politician (and wasn’t too shabby with a rifle either). He was able to skillfully assuage the hostilities between Bowie and Travis, and unite the pair in defense of the fort against the Mexican army.
And speaking of Davy Crockett…
3. Davy Crockett was Killed During the Battle of the Alamo ... Or Was He?
Legend has it that Crockett was killed while defending the Alamo. The mayor of San Antonio, who had met Crockett prior to the battle, declared that he spotted the former congressman’s body while touring the ruins of the Alamo. However, in contrast to this story, José Enrique de la Peña, one of Santa Anna’s commanding officers, claims to have taken Crockett prisoner and later had him executed. While it is true that several defenders were taken prisoner by the Mexican army, there is no evidence that Crockett was among those captured.
Yet there is also no evidence of Crockett falling at the Alamo.
In truth, both the mayor of San Antonio and Officer de la Peña had reason to lie about Crockett's fate. Davy Crockett was already an American legend, and had he died bravely defending the fort, it would inspire thousands of Texans and Americans to take up arms against the Mexican army. His death did in fact serve as a rallying point, leading to Mexico’s eventual defeat at the Battle of San Jacinta, which heralded the official independence of the Republic of Texas.
Had Crockett been captured and killed, it would have proven a humiliating end for one of American history’s most prominent frontiersmen and politicians. And Mexico was in the process of stamping out a rebellion, so a hefty dose of humiliation was in order.
All told, nobody knows what happened to Davy Crockett. It is likely that he was killed either at The Battle of the Alamo itself, or shortly thereafter by Mexican military, given the fact that no known records of him exist after the battle. That said, it’s always possible he slipped away during the fighting, and spent the rest of his days living as a cattle rancher or cowboy in relative obscurity.
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4. That Famous ‘Line in the Sand’ Probably Never Happened.
One famous tale from The Battle of the Alamo claims that just prior to the battle, Lt. Col. Travis took out his sword and drew a line in the sand, boldly asking that all who were willing to fight to the death to cross. Everyone in attendance crossed the line, even Jim Bowie, who by this point was suffering from a debilitating illness. Not to be deterred, Bowie was carried across the line by another soldier.
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There’s just one problem with this heartwarming tale of courage: It seems that it did not actually happen. The first mention of this incident didn’t come until 1888, when Anna Pennybacker wrote A New History for Texas Schools. Pennybacker reported the story in her book, with a footnote about its provenance. You may expect that footnote to have led to a primary source. Instead, it read "Some unknown author has written the following imaginary speech of Travis."
Of course, people tend to read stories more than footnotes, so the legend lives on. Imaginary or not, we have to admit that the story of Travis’s ‘line in the sand’ fits well into the broader mythology behind The Battle of the Alamo.
5. ‘Remember the Alamo!’ Was First Uttered at The Battle of San Jacinto
There is a large dose of irony to the fact that the most remembered thing about the Alamo is "Remember the Alamo".
That chant was actually a battle-cry, first uttered by General Sam Houston’s men as they faced the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto. This was the climactic battle of the Texas revolution and led to Texas’ eventual secession from Mexico and its founding as an independent republic.
"Remember the Alamo!" must have been one heck of a battle-cry, because the Battle of San Jacinto lasted only 18 minutes. The Texas rebels routed their Mexican counterparts, and even captured Mexican president, General Santa Anna. He was held prisoner for three weeks until he signed a peace treaty which dictated that the Mexican army leave the region.
Sam Houston became a national hero, and the rallying cry of "Remember the Alamo!" lives on to this day.
Of course, the Battle of the Alamo was a major defeat for Texas, while The Battle of San Jacinto was a rousing victory. But ‘Remember The Battle of San Jacinto!’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it…
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons