Patriotism is a subject rarely discussed in
March. It is usually reserved for Fourth of
July celebrations and Veterans Day parades.
But for some, March 6th is a day to pause and
reflect, for it is the anniversary of one of
the most glorified battles ever waged by
The battle of the Alamo conjures up images of
Davy Crockett's coonskin cap and Jim Bowie's
famous Bowie knife. Everyone is familiar
with the famous rallying cry, "Remember
the Alamo!" But how many people honestly
know what the battle was about? Who fought
it? Or even who won?
The story of the Alamo is one that has been
passed down through the years, embellished by
generation after generation, until history
and legend have become nearly
indistinguishable. At times, it takes on the
flavor of a tall tale, but in reality we know
that things are not always as they seem.
Heroes are not always so heroic...selfless
sacrifice is not always so selfless. But
more often than not, the truth is infinitely
more fascinating than the myth.
In 1836, the Alamo was the setting for the
first major military conflict in the battle
for Texas independence. It was a revolution,
not unlike the American Revolution just sixty
years before. Mexicans and Americans alike
had settled the Texas territory with the
security of a Mexican constitution and the
promise of land to call their own. But
everything changed with the rise of Antonio
Lopez de Santa Anna as President of Mexico.
He quickly transformed the Presidency into a
dictatorship, abolished the constitution of
1824, and reneged on the land deals offered
by the former Mexican government. And just
as quickly, the Texans began to show their
There are many misconceptions about the
Alamo, the first of which is the belief that
the Alamo itself was a fortress. It was not.
It was a church, a mission long-abandoned by
the Spanish before the earlier Mexican
revolution against Spain. Another popular
belief was that Texas soldiers were sent to
defend this post at San Antonio. The truth
is, they were sent to evacuate and dismantle
it so that the Mexican forces could not use
it as a base of operations inside the
boundaries of Texas.
But perhaps the saddest misconception of all
is the idea that the legendary figures Davy
Crockett and Jim Bowie were the major players
in the battle of the Alamo. Perhaps it is
because the two had already made a name for
themselves before they entered the Alamo
walls which earned them that status. But the
fact is, the two played a relatively small
role in comparison to that of a much more
Davy Crockett was a legend even in his own
time. A Tennessee mountaineer, Crockett was
probably most famous as an Indian fighter.
Although relatively uneducated, his
folklorish popularity had even earned him a
seat in the United States Senate. But when
he lost his bid for re-election, the aging
mountaineer went in search of a cause to
fight for, perhaps to reclaim some of the
glory of his youth. "You can all go to
hell," Crockett said after the loss. "I'm
going to Texas." He and sixteen of his
"Tennessee Boys" volunteered their services
to defend the post at San Antonio. Although
an important historical figure, Crockett
asked for no more (and in fact, would accept
no more) than the rank of First Private at
the Alamo. He was there to fight for the
liberation of Texas. Nothing more.
Colonel Jim Bowie was also a legendary figure
of the time, popularly considered to be the
most dangerous man alive. And although he
was in command of the Alamo at the beginning
of the siege, he (like Crockett) was an aging
legend. An injury two days into the siege,
compounded by an illness that had plagued him
for weeks, forced him to concede his command
to the young William Barret Travis. He spent
the last eleven days of the thirteen-day
siege on his death bed.
It was William Travis, the 26-year-old
cavalry Colonel from South Carolina, who
stood to face an army with a meager 187
volunteers. Except for a handful of men who
had arrived with Travis and Bowie, the
majority of the Alamo defenders were not
professional soldiers. They were San Antonio
citizens, both Mexican and American, farmers
who stayed to defend the land they had worked
so hard to call their own.
It was Travis, with these 187 men, who
performed nothing less than a miracle.
Knowing that the Independence Convention was
underway and that Texas needed time to raise
an army, Travis had to hold Santa Anna off as
long as possible. Santa Anna could have
ignored this handful of revolutionaries
altogether, marched right past them and
caught the Texans off guard before they could
organize themselves. Instead, he played
right into Travis' hands, devoting four
thousand soldiers and thirteen days to the
defeat of the Texans inside the Alamo.
And it is Travis' letters, above all else,
that give us our only first-hand glimpse
inside the fortress during those thirteen
days. Through him, we see the hope, the
futility, and the blind determination of a
group of men who stood and died for something
they believed in.
Many of the letters were requests for aid
that never came. On the second day of the
siege, Travis wrote what would become the
most famous of the Alamo letters:
"To the people of Texas and all Americans
in the world --
Fellow Citizens and Compatriots
I am besieged by a thousand or more of the
Mexicans under Santa Anna - I have sustained
a continual bombardment & cannonade for 24
hours & have not lost a man - The enemy has
demanded a surrender at discretion,
otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the
sword, if this fort is taken - I have
answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our
flag still waves proudly from the walls -
I shall never surrender or retreat.
Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty,
of patriotism & everything dear to the
American Character, to come to our aid, with
all dispatch -- The enemy is receiving
reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase
to three or four thousand in four or five
days. If this call is neglected, I am
determined to sustain myself as long as
possible & die like a soldier who never
forgets what is due his own honor & that of
his country -
Victory or Death.
William Barret Travis"
As the days dragged on and the enemy forces
grew, Travis knew that the end was near. By
the tenth day of the siege, although angry
that his calls for assistance had gone
unheeded, his pride in his men and
determination for their cause had not
faltered. In a letter addressed to the
Independence Convention, he wrote:
"...I feel confident that the determined
valour and desperate courage heretofore
envinced by my men will not fail them in the
last struggle. And although they may be
sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic
enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so
dear, that it will be worse for him than a
By the twelfth day, Travis knew that time was
running out. That Saturday evening, as the
sun began to set, he stood before the tired
group of Texans who had gathered in the
courtyard of the Alamo chapel.
William Barret Travis drew his sword from his
sheath, drew a line in the sand with its tip,
and offered his men a final choice. He
offered them the chance to escape the
fortress before it was too late, with the
promise that they would go with his blessing.
A single Frenchman took him up on the offer,
and Travis was true to his word. With a
handshake, Travis bid him safe passage
through the enemy lines.
Then he turned back to the rest of his men.
"Those of you prepared to give their lives in
freedom's cause, come over to me."
Every last man but for one crossed the line that day,
including the ailing Jim Bowie who asked that
his cot be carried across. Every last man
would lie dead somewhere in the compound by
the dawn of the next day, but that night they
took their rightful place as some of the most
courageous freedom fighters in the course of
Travis had been right. Texas had declared
its independence and Sam Houston had begun to
raise an army by the time the Alamo finally
fell. The 187 defenders had not lived to see
it, but they had insured Santa Anna's defeat
later at San Jacinto by giving Texas what it
needed most -- time.
He had also been right about the "last
struggle" of his men. In the pre-dawn hours
of Sunday, March 6th, the Mexican army began
scaling the high stone walls of the Alamo.
Colonel Travis himself was one of the first
to physically engage the enemy. And Travis
himself was one of the first to die.