Let me just say - I love when you peeps give me topics to dive into!
The Battle of the Alamo; likely one of the most iconic events in United States History. Filled with stories of patriotic duty, heroism and fighting against tyranny.
Most people know about the thirteen day siege, however there is much more than meets the eye. Grab your cup of coffee and sit back as I chat about The Alamo.
Thanks again to longtime listener Mike for the suggestion!
Burrough, Bryan, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford. Forget the Alamo. New York: Penguin Press, 2021.
Burrough, Bryan and Jason Stanford. “We’ve Been Telling the Alamo Story Wrong for Nearly 200 years. Now it’s Time to Correct the Record.” Time. Updated June 21, 2021. Accessed November 15, 2021.
Donovan, James. The Blood of Heroes. New York: Back Bay Books, 2012.
Wallenfeldt, J.. "Texas Revolution." Encyclopedia Britannica, August 10, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Texas-Revolution.
Paulsen, Barbara. “Say It Aint So, Davy.” Texas Monthly. November, 1986. Accessed November 15, 2021.
The Treaties of Velasco. Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Updated December 5, 2017. (LINK)
Pruitt, Sarah. Who Survived the Alamo? History. A&E Networks. Updated September 1, 2018. (LINK)
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“I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Ana - I have sustained a continual bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken. I have answered the demand with cannon shot and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat.” William Barret Travis, February 24, 1836.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
William Barret Travis, the gentleman quoted at the beginning of this week’s episode is perhaps most famous for one thing: his command of the lost fort at the Battle of the Alamo. A precursor to the United States war with Mexico which led to the eventual annexation of the state of Texas, the Alamo has remained a flashpoint in United States history. A story so grand and so patriotic, it has taken on near mythological proportions. Much of what is shared about the Alamo is wrapped up in fanciful storytelling and hyperbole.
For years the battle at the Alamo was seen as the ultimate fight for independence and freedom. The men who fought and died at the Alamo liked to refer to themselves as the sons of 1776, feeling their fight for land in the texas territory was akin to the colonists' fight against British rule some sixty years prior. They even infamously shouted remember the alamo in their retaliatory battle that would end in their victory over Mexico shortly after the Alamo fell. But as I will dive into this week, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
This week I am covering the Battle of the Alamo, thanks to one of my long time listeners Mike. He sent me a message and asked that I dive into the battle and I have to say - I learned so much.
So what was the alamo? What happened? And how did it become so iconic in U.S. History?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. With the victory came the chance for Mexico to have a sense of self-determination and create their own government, not to mention wrestle control of the vast landmass Spain had previously laid claim to. Mexico decided to abolish the Monarchy and establish a representative government much like the United States, with Catholicism sanctioned as the official religion.
In achieving independence, Mexico now controlled over 3 million miles of territory. If you’ve ever seen a map of Mexico from the 1820’s, then you know the country dwarfed the United States when it came to size. Landholdings extended far and wide, including a significant lot of territory to the north. One such area, Coahuila y Tejas, was carved out as a separate Mexican state with the passing of the 1824 Constitution. Given how remote and far away it was from the capital Mexico City, the territory to the north was left primarily to its own devices and those who moved there enjoyed a pretty autonomous living situation.
It is important to remember that Mexico allowed American colonists to enter the northern territory as this becomes an important part of the story later on. At the time, the allowance of American migrants was seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement. Populating the area helped protect the territory from attacks by the local Comanche who were known for their raids and it provided Americans looking to expand west an opportunity to grab land at a steep discount.
But why would Americans want to venture into unknown territory, territory that was not under U.S jurisdiction and therefore outside of U.S law and protection, aside from the vastly discounted price? Well, as it turns out, Texas land proved to be some of the most fertile available to cultivate cotton. By the early 1800’s cotton was quickly on its way to becoming one of the largest exports of the United States. Therefore, everyone wanted in on the cotton game.
Obviously, having access to land aided in one's ability to make money from the crop, but one of the other key pieces to becoming a successful cotton farmer involved owning black bodies to harvest the plant. However, Mexico was wholly against the practice, and passed laws prohibiting slavery within its borders in 1829. This gave potential immigrants reason to pause; many Americans looking to enter the new Texas area wanted to ensure the institution of slavery would be honored. This also made already settled Americans nervous about the potential loss of property. If Mexico decided to enforce their anti-slavery laws, it could mean the loss of the value of the human beings they claimed ownership over. This uncertainty about the institution, some argue, was the real push for the Texas Revolution which would lead to the battle at the Alamo.
In addition to the availability of land at a great discount, Americans enjoyed the autonomy that came with a Mexican government disinterested in exerting its laws over the area. And though Mexico had outlawed slavery within the country, they made several goodwill gestures to American settlers in an effort to get them to stay and populate the area. For example, Mexican Emperor Iturbide approved a compromise; the Americans could emigrate to Texas with their slaves, but the trade involving slaves would be outlawed.
However it was Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, elected as Mexican president in 1833, who changed the game, so to speak. Prior to his election, the Mexican government was set up as a representative federal republic. Once in office, Santa Ana repealed the Constitution of 1824 which set up the representative republic and, hoping to centralize and strengthen the national government, replaced it with a unitary republic. He also focused on enforcing immigration laws and collecting taxes, something that had been lacking in the previous governments. These new measures, and the notion that they may actually be enforced, angered the Americans who had settled in Texas. While Mexico was perfectly within its rights to pass legislation and collect taxes, this was not well received with colonists to the north. Though Santa Ana initially tried to placate the American settlers, he quickly grew tired of their push for more and decided to exert control over the territory of Texas and quickly passed laws prohibiting American immigration.
The Texas Revolution, also known as the Texas War of Independence, really took off in the fall of 1835 at the Battle of Gonzalez. At the heart of the matter was the use of a cannon, previously borrowed from the Mexican government who now wanted it back. The American colonists, fearing raids and attacks by the Comanche, refused. After a brief skirmish, the Mexican army retreated, giving the Americans confidence not only in their cause, but also in the belief that they could successfully resist the Mexican government.
One of the key figures in the Texas Revolution was Sam Houston, who made a prior appearance on the podcast during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend episode. Houston, who moved into Texas in late 1832, was close with then president Andrew Jackson. Some hypothesize Houston’s sole purpose for moving into the territory was to foment rebellion, thereby creating a reason for the United States to annex Texas.
Without question, America had been hungry for Texas territory. In 1825, then president John Quincy Adams sent the first U.S. ministry to Mexico offering one million dollars to the Mexican government for the rights to Texas. They were denied. This did not deter the United States, who tried again under Andrew Jackson’s administration, who offered five million dollars for the rights to Texas. Again, they were denied.
So while it makes sense to be suspicious of Houston’s emigration timeline, there is no smoking gun that proves Houston acted on behalf of the United States government to create conflict. Houston appeared to be interested in making money from land grants. He, along with fellow settler Stephen Austin, pushed for Mexico to recognize the Texas territory as an independent state and as far as I could tell from my research, did not ask for a sale of the Texas territory to the United States. In meeting with the Mexican government, Austin asked for a few things: an extension on the exemption of taxes originally given to the colonists a few years earlier, a lift on the immigration ban and of course, independent statehood for Texas.
As an independent state, Texas could set their own laws and rules and could therefore allow, say oh I don’t know, the institution of slavery? This, along with the potential profits to be made with land sales makes a strong argument for the cause of the Texas Revolution being more about protecting financial interests and not for some noble cause of liberty and freedom from some terrible oppressor.
Ultimately the Texas Revolution, and the Battle of the Alamo, came down to one thing: protecting America’s greatest source of income: slavery. Even the United States understood this to be true, with Congressmen John Quincy Adams declaring quote: “The war now raging in Texas is a Mexican civil war, and a war for the re-establishment of Slavery where it was abolished. It is not a servile war, but a war between Slavery and Emanicipation, and every possible effort has been made to drive us unto this war, on the side of slavery.” end quote.
So now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s dive into the actual “battle” for the Alamo, shall we?
After the battle of Gonzalez where the ragtag Texan militia scared off the Mexican military, the American settlers assumed a counterattack was not a matter of if, but when. Almost immediately, they began fortifying the weakened Alamo, trying to secure the surrounding walls and preparing for what they assumed would be a spring assault on the compound. Several men were on hand, however the most infamous of the group were William Travis, James Bowie and David “Davy” Crockett. Interesting and random tidbit I found while doing research, the Bowie Knife gets its name from the man who would die at the battle of the Alamo.
The Alamo, a former mission established by the Spanish government in the 18th century, was not built to be a military fort. The walls were low, for one. There was little protection for any cannon or gun guards on duty and the former mission was primarily open space. In essence, it was one of the worst military targets to try to defend. However, the Alamo had one thing of key importance - location. The makeshift fort was located on a main road leading into Texas and was considered strategically important to keeping the supply lines open. If for no other reason, the Alamo had to be protected to safeguard access to supplies.
Santa Ana was angered at the perceived cowardice shown by his military troops and embarrassed by their retreat against an untrained militia. He was committed to overtake the Alamo at any cost necessary and was determined to show no mercy to the rebels, men whom he now considered pirates, and who disrespected the Mexican government and its laws.
The thirteen siege is what gets the headlines. For thirteen days, the legends go, brave American men and women, dedicated to the idea of freedom from tyranny, stood their ground against insurmountable odds and managed to fend off the oversized Mexican force for nearly two weeks. Unfortunately, the truth is not as exciting.
As I mentioned earlier, after the Battle of Gonzalez, many in the area knew Santa Ana would retaliate. William Travis, a lieutenant colonel who would later be put in full command of the Alamo, had been receiving warnings for months that Santa Ana’s men were on their way and had only one goal in mind: overtaking the Alamo and destroying anyone who dared get in his way.
Since the Alamo was such a vulnerable target, one would think the prudent move would have been to vacate the area and try to build an army before facing Santa Ana’s formidable forces. While Travis and the other commander, James Bowie, consistently sent requests for money and men to fortify the Alamo, they were often ignored or given meager provisions and support. With this history and the understanding they were facing a force of thousands to their hundred, it is amazing that they chose to stay and fight when they had plenty of time to leave.
Arriving early on February 23, 1836 Santa Anna quickly set up a perimeter of the Alamo with his force of anywhere between fifteen hundred and six thousand men. For defense, the Alamo held eighteen cannon, but had limited ammunition and only about 150 men ready to fight. As this was siege warfare, where one side surrounds the other, rules of the day provided the invading force give the targets a chance to surrender. Unable to get on the same page, Bowie and Travis each issued their own representatives to negotiate a resolution. However, Santa Anna was not in a negotiating mood. He wanted the men to surrender at discretion, meaning no guaranteed protection of life for anyone who surrendered.
Quote: “The Mexican army cannot come to terms with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no other recourse left, if they wish to save their lives, that to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government from whom alone they may expect clemency after some considerations are taken up.” end quote.
Without the guarantee of safety, Travis and Bowie responded with a single cannon shot. The siege was officially on. Over the next several days, the Mexican army inched closer to the fort, firing cannon in attempts to weaken the fort. The walls which were made of adobe and only about three feet thick, could only withstand so much before they would crumble and provide an access point for the invading forces. But while the Mexican army outnumbered the men at the Alamo ten to one, their artillery was a bit deficient. Santa Anna lacked heavy siege guns and only had left over artillery from when the Spanish occupied the territory. That, combined with weak ammunition, meant that the army had to get close to the walls in order to exact the type of damage needed to gain access to the fort.
So each night, Santa Anna commanded his men to move closer and closer to the walls of the Alamo. Sensing the gravity of the situation, Travis issued requests for reinforcements. He knew of a force of four hundred near Goliad and hoped his plea would be answered. Unfortunately, those pleas went unanswered. They were on their own; and with limited supplies.
As the men of the Alamo inched closer to certain death, members of the Texas ``legislature” including Sam Houston, were meeting trying to determine the appropriate course of action. The United States seemed disinterested in providing assistance, which meant raising money and drafting men on their own. While in session, the men decided to declare independence from Mexico, issuing their declaration on March 2nd, 1836. The battle of the Alamo was just days away.
During the early morning hours of March 6th, Santa Anna’s troops prepared their attack. After several days of moving closer, they had finally made sufficient progress and were now prepared to bombard the fort and scale the walls, having built makeshift ladders to gain access and put an end to the rebellion. Wanting to surprise the men guarding the Alamo, Santa Anna ceased fire earlier than usual the night before and told his forces to approach as quietly as possible, hoping to catch the guards asleep at their post.
The battle, as it was, lasted ninety minutes. While the almost two hundred men fired cannon and guns in an effort to repel the invasion, they were simply overpowered. Though several of the ladders broke, the Mexican army was able to gain access to the fort through the weakened north wall and engaged in hand to hand combat with the Texan and Tejano men standing guard. William Travis was one of the first to die, suffering a gunshot wound to the head as he fired his own weapon from atop the fort walls. But in time, almost every man would die, including James Bowie and Davy Crockett.
When all was said and done, the Mexican army lost roughly 600 men. The Alamo was now in their control, with only fifteen American survivors, mostly women and children. There is some evidence to suggest there were rebels who surrendered, including the lionized Davy Crockett. However, Santa Anna was not in a forgiving mood and ordered they be executed. Their bodies, and those of all the other rebels who perished during the battle, were burned. Stacked in alternating layers of wood and human flesh, the forces burned the bodies to ashes, their charred flesh permeating the air.
Accounts of the fall of the Alamo were published on March 24th, almost three weeks later. As the story of the fall of the Alamo spread, patriotic pride swelled and men and money rushed in to aid the cause of Texas independence. Sam Houston, who had been busy helping the legislature declare its independence from Mexico, was now prepared to fight. He knew he needed something to rally his men and provide the much needed morale boost if they were to ever get what they wanted.
If things had stopped with the Alamo, it is uncertain whether Texas would have been successful in gaining their independence from Mexico. However, just weeks after surrounding the prized fort, Santa Anna made a decision that I think aided in the public relations groundswell Texas independence supporters were cultivating to portray Santa Anna as an evil dictator.
On March 20, American rebels engaged with the army at the Battle of Coleto Creek. The rebels, led by James Walker Fannin, were unable to overtake the Mexican forces and surrendered under the promise they would be treated as prisoners of war. However, Santa Anna was determined to send a message and so a week later on March 27, three hundred and ninety American rebels were executed.
Santa Anna, believing the war all but over, began focusing on securing the area. However, Houston and his men were itching for payback and on April 21st, launched a surprise attack against Santa Anna and his troops. Reportedly using the rallying cry Remember the Alamo, the Texan rebels overtook the elite Mexican army. The battle was short - under twenty minutes - and resulted in the capture of Santa Anna.
This proved the turning point for the Texans, who successfully negotiated Mexican troop withdrawal and secured two agreements from Santa Anna, one of which provided tacit recognition of Texas as an independent republic. However, Mexico refused to recognize the agreement since Santa Anna signed the agreements while in custody and therefore was unable to negotiate on behalf of his government. So while the Republic of Texas would exist for about ten years before the U.S brought it into the union, it was considered a province in rebellion by the Mexican government.
So how did the Alamo become such a point of pride and fond memory for the United States? Well, I think it comes down to good marketing and storytelling by those who were on hand during the siege. William Travis wrote a number of letters pleading for assistance throughout the siege and knew his letters would become public. As such, he wrote poetically of the struggle for freedom and the bravery he and his men would show in the face of insurmountable odds. I mean, who doesn’t love a story about people fighting for what they believe in?
Thanks again to Mike for suggesting The Alamo. This was a fascinating period to dive into and I learned so much in the process. If you, dear listeners, ever want me to cover a topic, please let me know. I have had some of the best experiences doing this pod while working on listener requests, so keep them coming. You can make a request via the socials either through Instagram at Civics and Coffee, Twitter at Civics Pod or through the website at www dot civics and coffee dot com. The website has all sorts of goodies including source material, links to other work I’ve published and ways you can support the show.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.