I still remember the first time I visited the Alamo shrine in San Antonio. Despite being in my early twenties, I remember having the feeling of a child seeing something magical for the first time. Upon reflection, it’s easy for me to know why I felt that way. My knowledge of what “really happened” there was incomplete and contained some misinformation. Various popular writings, as well as films like the 1960 film THE ALAMO with John Wayne, and to a lesser degree, THE LAST COMMAND from 1955, starring Sterling Hayden and Arthur Hunnicutt as James Bowie and Davy Crockett, respectively encapsulated my knowledge. Now, historical reality crushed some of what I had believed as a youngster. I knew the year of the famous battle and the “13 days of glory”, but I had yet to study the history of the place. As it turns out, it was a sacred place, or something of the sort anyway.
In 1716, the Spanish government established numerous Roman Catholic missions in Texas to bring that religion to the native tribes in the region. The Alamo Mission, originally called “San Antonio de Valero” after a Spanish Viceroy, was established on the current site in 1724, with the chapel’s foundation not constructed until 1744. It operated as a Franciscan Mission until being abandoned sometime around 1793. Once used as a prison and hospital, the Mexican government gained control of the compound, which they converted to a military complex and occupied until December of 1835 when “Texian” rebels overtook the installation during the Texas Revolution.
James Bowie and William Barrett Travis, among others, occupied the mission when it became a military encampment for Texas militia. They considered it a Fort and chose to disregard General Sam Houston’s recommendation to move the artillery and destroy the Alamo, despite the knowledge that the Mexican army marched toward them to crush the revolt. It’s in February of 1836 that history and legend collide.
The “Battle of the Alamo” as it has become known, commenced on February 23, 1836, with the arrival of the Mexican army a short distance from the Alamo in San Antonio. The number of soldiers under the command of Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna is unknown. Still, they outnumbered the two hundred or so defenders at the Alamo by a large margin. In addition to the initial Mexican troops, more Mexican soldiers continued to arrive during the thirteen-day siege, resulting in an estimated force of two thousand or more. The siege ended with a final battle in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, when the Mexican troops overwhelmed the Alamo defenders.
The facts are rooted in history and are well-documented. The details of the story remain just out of focus. Folks, and historians alike, still discuss, argue, debate, declare, correct and overall, guess at as years pass by. Because no eyewitness accounts survived, particularly from the day of the final battle, speculation and conjecture remain to this day. Several men did survive the final battle on March 6, 1936, but none of their stories remain.
So, what really happened? Did Travis answer Santa Anna’s demand for surrender with a cannon shot? Was Bowie killed laying in his cot, too ill to fight? Did Travis draw a line in the sand and ask his defenders to cross the line and fight to the death? And what about David Crockett’s demise. Was he killed in battle or executed after he surrendered? These are the real questions that still gnaw at the hides of those who seek truth over myth and fact over legend.
Now, full disclaimer here: I love legend, and am not a big fan of folks attempting to destroy our collective beliefs of historical events. Therefore, I will not be making any such attempt. I will say that it seems logical with Bowie’s documented illness that he was unable to face a hand-to-hand battle with his fellow defenders. There also appears to be enough credible information regarding Travis’s cannon shot response to the surrender demand. Probably exaggerated is the famous line drawn in the sand since first accounts of that didn’t surface until decades after the battle.
One of the survivors, Suzanna Dickinson, wife of Captain Almaron Dickinson, did confirm that Travis allowed the men to “break ranks” and escape before the final battle. This eyewitness account seems to fall more in line with what a military commander would have done.
Then there is the debate over what fate came upon one Davy Crockett. I didn’t know of an ending other than Crockett falling in hand-to-hand battle on the final day until I visited the Alamo. That’s when I learned of an account that Crockett and a few other defenders might have surrendered only for Santa Anna to execute them quickly. I’m somewhat surprised that historians can’t seem to agree on what version of Crockett’s demise is more accurate. I’ll just go on record as saying that I can’t believe Crockett would have voluntarily joined the Texian defenders, remained for thirteen days of fierce battle only to surrender willingly. He would have known Santa Anna would execute him. Therefore I firmly believe that Davy Crockett died in battle, probably taking quite a few Mexican soldiers with him. Great intrigue exists over this momentous event in Texas, and American history since many of the stories within the siege of the Alamo remain unknown to this day.