Alamo: A Story Richer in Legends than History

Alamo: A Story Richer in Legends than History

A group of fighters bravely battled to the end in the pursuit of freedom and sovereignty, epitomized by the word: Alamo. But was it true glory? The legend has taken over history, and the cinema has seized the legend, telling the epic tale of a fort that wasn’t a fort, and Americans whose quest for liberty had several flaws. On the night of March 6, 1836, the Mexican army under General Antonio López de Santa Ana overcame the resistance of the militia. American patriots? Partially. The old mission was barricaded by Texas separatists, various adventurers, even Mexican landowners, and ardent slavers, all rebels against the central authority represented by the general-president. To better understand, we need to look back.

Land offered at a nominal price

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain after ten years of war. Following a brief imperial intermission with Agustin de Iturbide, the United States of Mexico was established, reaching as far as Canada. A severe economic crisis that left the young United States of America’s farmers impoverished prompted the Mexican government, in agreement with Washington, to offer land at a nominal price to those willing to move to the federal state of Copahuila and Tejas. In return, the colonists had to adopt Mexican citizenship, change or adapt their Anglo-Saxon surnames to Hispanic ones, and convert to Catholicism. By the time of the Battle of the Alamo in 1834, there were already 30,000 immigrants, nearly four times the number of native Tejanos.

Tensions between communities worsened in 1833 when General Santa Ana took power and initiated radical public career reforms, favoring merit over caste, opened the army to mestizos, secularized the State, and curtailed local autonomies. Some federal states did not receive his crackdown well, and the abolition of slavery in 1835 negatively impacted the agricultural economy, especially the Anglo-Saxon settlers of Texas. They were also hesitant to follow Mexico City’s directives on meat and cereal production, preferring to focus on the more lucrative cotton, which was tended to by slaves.

The first incidents occurred in 1835. The order to disarm the militias and expel illegal immigrants was ignored, the presence of regular soldiers was disliked, and arrests of the leaders of what seemed like a revolt, instigated by the revocation of the federal Constitution of 1824, were met with resistance. When the Mexican soldiers asked for the return of a cannon the Texans had taken, they responded with a flag bearing a star, a cannon, and the words “Come on take it.” This October skirmish escalated into a war for independence.

A provisional government was quickly established with Henry Smith as an independentist governor and Samuel Houston as the military leader of an improvised regular Texas army composed of volunteers, many of whom came from the United States in the hope of receiving land in exchange for their service. The militia was initially undisciplined and unreliable, but they were galvanized by early successes due to surprise and guerrilla tactics. Santa Ana decided to lead an expeditionary force against the rebel province at the start of 1836, arriving in Bejar on February 21 to attack the Texans who had barricaded themselves at the Alamo.

The Alamo was not a fort but a mission, established by the Franciscans in 1724, and built by the Indians. This dilapidated, roofless structure, surrounded by 400 meters of walls, was good enough to repel the Indians but not a regular army. The defenders, around 200 in number, were led by Colonel William Barrett Travis. Among the defenders were notable names like the famous hunter and explorer Davy Crockett, a former member of the United States Congress, and Colonel James Bowie, known for his particular knife and decisive character.

A heroic story becomes a legend

The battle began on the evening of February 23, with the Mexicans displaying a red flag to signal to the besieged that they would receive no mercy. Only unconditional surrender could prevent a massacre, but the Texans refused, hoping to receive aid that never came. After eleven days of artillery clashes and skirmishes, a general attack was launched by Santa Ana on the night of March 5, culminating in hand-to-hand combat that decided the outcome.

The battle was not fought during the day, unlike what was depicted in John Wayne’s 1960 blockbuster. Almost no one was spared, and several militiamen were shot after surrendering. The Mexicans reported 400 to 600 casualties, a figure greatly inflated by American propaganda. The Frenchman Louis Rose, a decorated former officer of the Napoleonic Légion d’honneur, was certainly saved. The deaths of the main protagonists have been the subject of many legendary heroic versions that were not supported by history. Many conflicting versions have emerged about almost everything, including the actual number of defenders.

It is not even known if there were flags flying over the ruins of the mission. The music of the deguello, inextricably linked to the Alamo epic, has no historical parallels. “Remember the Alamo!” became the rallying cry for the Texans during the attack at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Led by Houston, they achieved a decisive victory over Santa Ana, forcing him to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence in exchange for his release. The lone star of independent Texas was lit, following the model of the United States, and consecrated by the first presidential elections won by Houston, who also lent his name to the capital, as happened with Washington.

However, Mexico was not resigned to the loss of a rich region. The new state was fragile and lacked political and administrative structures, which led to a referendum proposing annexation to the USA. Despite conflicting opinions, Texas was annexed on July 4, 1845, ratified on October 13, and became the twenty-eighth state of the union on December 29. The myth of the Alamo was celebrated in 1936 with the creation of a grandiose cenotaph. Since 1911, cinema has been busy celebrating and cultivating the legend, consolidating errors and inventions.

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