Friday, February 24, 2017

The Battle of the Alamo

The Alamo, 1854
Spanish settlers built the Mission San Antonio de Valero, named for St. Anthony of Padua, on the banks of the San Antonio River around 1718. They also established the nearby military garrison of San Antonio de Béxar, which soon became the center of a settlement known as San Fernando de Béxar (later renamed San Antonio). The Mission San Antonio de Valero housed missionaries and their Native American converts for some 70 years until 1793, when Spanish authorities secularized the five missions located in San Antonio and distributed their lands among local residents.

Beginning in the early 1800s, Spanish military troops were stationed in the abandoned chapel of the former mission. Because it stood in a grove of cottonwood trees, the soldiers called their new fort “El Alamo” after the Spanish word for cottonwood and in honor of Alamo de Parras, their hometown in Mexico. Military troops - first Spanish, then rebel and later Mexican - occupied the Alamo during and after Mexico’s successful war for independence from Spain in the early 1820s. In the summer of 1821, Stephen Austin arrived in San Antonio along with some 300 U.S. families that the Spanish government had allowed to settle in Texas. The migration of U.S. citizens to Texas increased over the next decades, sparking a revolutionary movement that would erupt into armed conflict by the mid-1830s.

In December 1835, in the early stages of Texas’ war for independence from Mexico, a group of Texan (or Texian) volunteers led by George Collinsworth and Benjamin Milam overwhelmed the Mexican garrison at the Alamo and captured the fort, seizing control of San Antonio. By mid-February 1836, Colonel James Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis had taken command of Texan forces in San Antonio. Though Sam Houston, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Texan forces, argued that San Antonio should be abandoned due to insufficient troop numbers, the Alamo’s defenders led by Bowie and Travis dug in nonetheless, prepared to defend the fort to the last. These defenders, who despite later reinforcements never numbered more than 200, included included Davy Crockett, the famous frontiersman and former congressman from Tennessee, who had arrived in early February.

Davy Crockett

Jim Bowie

William Travis

Sam Houston

On February 23, a Mexican force comprising somewhere between 1,800 and 6,000 men (according to various estimates) and commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna began a siege of the fort. The Texans held out for 13 days, but on the morning of March 6 Mexican forces broke through a breach in the outer wall of the courtyard and overpowered them. Santa Anna ordered his men to take no prisoners, and only a small handful of the Texans were spared. One of these was Susannah Dickinson, the wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson (who was killed) and her infant daughter Angelina. Santa Anna sent them to Houston’s camp in Gonzalez with a warning that a similar fate awaited the rest of the Texans if they continued their revolt. The Mexican forces also suffered heavy casualties in the Battle of the Alamo, losing between 600 and 1,600 men.




Etchings of the Battle of the Alamo

From March to May, Mexican forces once again occupied the Alamo. For the Texans, the Battle of the Alamo became a symbol of heroic resistance and a rallying cry in their struggle for independence.  
On April 21, 1836, Sam Houston and some 800 Texans defeated Santa Anna’s Mexican force of 1,500 men at San Jacinto (near the site of present-day Houston), shouting “Remember the Alamo!” as they attacked. The victory ensured the success of Texan independence: Santa Anna, who had been taken prisoner, came to terms with Houston to end the war. In May, Mexican troops in San Antonio were ordered to withdraw, and to demolish the Alamo’s fortifications as they went.

In 1845, the United States annexed Texas. For many years afterward, the U.S. Army quartered troops and stored supplies at the Alamo. In 1883, the state of Texas purchased the Alamo, later acquiring property rights to all the surrounding grounds. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a women’s organization including descendants of the earliest Texan residents, has managed the Alamo since 1905. Today, more than 2.5 million people a year visit the 4.2-acre site, which includes some original structures dating back to the mission period.

The Alamo Memorial
The Ashes of the Defenders of the Alamo


Ten years after Texas won its independence and shortly after it was annexed by the United States, U.S. soldiers revived the "Remember the Alamo!" battle cry while fighting against Mexican forces in the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

The Alamo today

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The Alamo Story from the Mexican Point of View

Telling the story of what really happened at the Alamo flusters Mexicans. While they resent the version told in the United States, they are embarrassed by the dark side of their own account.
Mexicans won the battle, defending their own territory from rebels, but they cannot very well honor President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who led the attack on the Alamo because he is one of most reviled characters in Mexico's long history of despots and exploiters.

Santa Anna was president 11 times between 1833 and 1854, and, as a fifth-grade history textbook here tells it, "He participated in all the tragic occurrences of that era, including the independence of Texas."
General Santa Anna

Although the 400-plus-year history of Mexico since the Spanish conquest undergoes periodic revision, some parts never change. Though Santa Anna is despised, Mexicans generally view the Alamo and the later intervention of the United States in the Texas quarrel as the story of a greedy northern neighbor that took advantage of a recently independent Mexico while it was at its weakest.

But the battle of the Alamo is rarely mentioned by name in any schoolbooks. Daniel Escorza, a high school history teacher here, said the Alamo was such a mixed lesson that most teachers glossed over it in a few lines. All that can be said, he added, is that while the battle was one of the few times Mexicans beat the gringos, "Most people see Santa Anna as a traitor, a villain who lost Texas."

In a fifth-grade school text that was withdrawn from publication because of its treatment of the civil unrest in Mexico in the mid-1960's, this is how the Alamo is portrayed: "In spite of the fact that the Mexican army was poorly paid, suffered from hunger and didn't have the supplies needed for the struggle, it triumphed in the battle of the Alamo, even though in 1836 it was defeated in San Jacinto, where Santa Anna was captured and was obligated to sign the Treaty of Velasco, which recognized the independence of Texas."

The National Museum of Intervention in Mexico City


The National Museum of the Interventions in Mexico City has a room devoted to North American invasions. In the small section on the Alamo are two wooden rifles, a Mexican flag and a caption that tells how Mexicans feel about the Alamo legend: "The Mexican triumph that cost the lives of all the defenders of the site has been used to highlight the supposed cruelty of Mexicans with the phrase 'Remember the Alamo.' "

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