15 Facts About the Battle of the Alamo

The "line in the sand" may have been a myth

The Alamo

Greverod/Wikimedia Commons

When events become legendary, facts tend to get forgotten. Such is the case with the fabled Battle of the Alamo.

Fast Facts: The Battle of the Alamo

  • Short Description: The Alamo was the site of a battle that took place during Texas's bid for independence from Mexico: All defenders were killed, but within six weeks the opposition leader, Santa Anna, was captured.
  • Key Players/Participants: Santa Anna (president of Mexico), William Travis, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie
  • Event Date: March 6, 1836
  • Location: San Antonio, Texas
  • Independence: Although the independence of a Texas republic was declared two days before the battle, the defenders did not hear of it, and it was not achieved until 1848, under the Treaty of Hidalgo Guadalupe. 
  • Ethnic Makeup: Travis's forces at the Alamo comprised several different ethnicities: Texian (people born in Texas), Tejano (Mexican Americans), Europeans, African Americans, and recent newcomers from the United States.

The basic story of the Alamo is that rebellious Texans had captured the city of San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio, Texas) in a battle in December 1835 and afterward had fortified the Alamo, a fortress-like former mission in the center of town. Mexican general Santa Anna appeared in short order at the head of a massive army and laid siege to the Alamo. He attacked on March 6, 1836, overrunning the approximately 200 defenders in less than two hours. None of the defenders survived. Many myths and legends have grown about the Battle of the Alamo, but the facts often give a different account.

01
of 16

The Alamo Battle Was Not About Texan Independence

Painting of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Public Domain/WikiCommons

Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and at the time, Texas (or rather Tejas) was part of Mexico. In 1824, Mexico's leaders wrote a federalist constitution, not much different from that of the United States, and thousands of people from the U.S. moved into the region. The new colonists brought slavery with them, and in 1829, the Mexican government outlawed slavery, specifically to discourage that influx, since slavery was not an issue in Mexico. By 1835, there were 30,000 Anglo-Americans (called Texians) in Texas, and only 7,800 Texas-Mexicans (Tejanos). 

In 1832, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna took control of the Mexican government, and he annulled the constitution and set up centralist control. Some Texians and Tejanos wanted the federalist constitution back, some wanted centralist control to be based in Mexico: That was the main basis for the turmoil in Texas, not independence.  

02
of 16

The Texans Weren't Supposed to Defend the Alamo

Sam Houston
Sam Houston, circa 1848-1850. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

San Antonio was captured by rebellious Texans in December 1835. General Sam Houston felt that holding San Antonio was impossible and unnecessary, as most of the settlements of the rebellious Texans were far to the east.

Houston sent Jim Bowie to San Antonio: his orders were to destroy the Alamo and return with all of the men and artillery stationed there. Once he saw the fort's defenses, Bowie decided to ignore Houston's orders, having become convinced of the need to defend the city.

03
of 16

The Defenders Experienced Internal Tension

Jim Bowie Statue

QuesterMark/WikiCommons

The official commander of the Alamo was James Neill. He left on family matters, however, leaving in charge Lt. Col. William Travis (a ne'er-do-well and slave owner who had no military reputation before the Alamo). The problem was that about half of the men there were not enlisted soldiers, but volunteers who technically could come, go, and do as they pleased. These men only listened to Jim Bowie, who disliked Travis and often refused to follow his orders.

This tense situation was resolved by three events: the advance of a common enemy (the Mexican army), the arrival of the charismatic and famous Davy Crockett (who proved very skilled at defusing the tension between Travis and Bowie), and Bowie's illness just before the battle.

04
of 16

They Could Have Escaped Had They Wished

Santa Anna’s army arrived in San Antonio in late February 1836. Seeing the massive Mexican army on their doorstep, the Texan defenders hastily retreated to the well-fortified Alamo. During the first couple of days, however, Santa Anna made no attempt to seal the exits from the Alamo and the town: the defenders could very easily have slipped away in the night if they had so desired.

But they remained, trusting their defenses and their skill with their lethal long rifles. In the end, it would not be enough.

05
of 16

The Defenders Died Believing Reinforcements Were on the Way

Lieutenant Travis sent repeated requests to Col. James Fannin in Goliad (about 90 miles to the east) for reinforcements, and he had no reason to suspect that Fannin would not come. Every day during the siege, the defenders of the Alamo looked for Fannin and his men, but they never arrived. Fannin had decided that the logistics of reaching the Alamo in time were impossible, and in any event, his 300 or so men would not make a difference against the Mexican army and its 2,000 soldiers.

06
of 16

There Were Many Mexicans Among the Defenders

The Alamo Cenotaph in San Antonio, Texas, USA
he Alamo Cenotaph, also known as the Spirit of Sacrifice, is a monument in San Antonio, Texas, United States, commemorating the Battle of the Alamo, which was fought at the adjacent Alamo Mission.

 Creative Credit/Getty Images

It’s a common misconception that the Texans who rose up against Mexico were all settlers from the U.S. who decided on independence. There were many native Texans—Mexican nationals referred to as Tejanos—who joined the movement and fought every bit as bravely as their Anglo companions. Both sides included prominent Mexican citizens. 

Among the 187 men in Travis's forces who died were 13 native-born Texans, 11 of Mexican descent. There were 41 Europeans, two African Americans, and the rest were Americans from states in the United States. Santa Anna's forces included a mix of former Spanish citizens, Spanish-Mexican criollos and mestizos, and several indigenous young men sent from the interior of Mexico.

07
of 16

They Weren't Fighting for Independence

Many of the defenders of the Alamo believed in independence for Texas, but their leaders had not declared independence from Mexico yet. It was on March 2, 1836, that delegates meeting in Washington-on-the-Brazos formally declared independence from Mexico. Meanwhile, the Alamo had been under siege for days, and it fell early on March 6, with the defenders never knowing that independence had been formally declared a few days before.

Although Texas declared itself an independent republic in 1836, the Mexican state did not recognize Texas until the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.

08
of 16

No One Knows What Happened to Davy Crockett

Engraved portrait of frontier hero Davy Crockett
Davy Crockett. Fotosearch/Getty Images

Davy Crockett, a famous frontiersman and former U.S. congressman, was the highest-profile defender to fall at the Alamo. Crockett's fate is unclear. According to Jose Enrique de la Pefia, one of Santa Anna's officers, a handful of prisoners, including Crockett, were taken after the battle and put to death.

The mayor of San Antonio, however, claimed to have seen Crockett dead among the other defenders, and he had met Crockett before the battle. Whether he fell in battle or was captured and executed, Crockett fought bravely and did not survive the Battle of the Alamo.

09
of 16

Travis Drew a Line in the Dirt. . .Maybe

Marble coffin entombing the remains of William Travis, David Crockett and James Bowie from the Alamo
The remains of William Travis, David Crockett and James Bowie are entombed in a marble coffin at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas.

Robert Alexander/Getty Images 

According to legend, fort commander William Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword and asked all of the defenders who were willing to fight to the death to cross it: only one man refused. Legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie, suffering from a debilitating illness, asked to be carried over the line. This famous story shows the dedication of the Texans to fight for their freedom. The only problem? It probably didn’t happen.

The first time the story appeared in print was in 1888, in Anna Pennybackers' "New History for Texas Schools." Pennybacker included a later often-quoted speech by Travis, with a footnote reporting that "Some unknown author has written the following imaginary speech of Travis." Pennybacker describes the line-drawing episode and puts in another footnote: "The student may wonder if none escaped from the Alamo, how we know the above to be true. The story runs, that this one man, Rose by name, who refused to step over the line, did make his escape that night. He reported the events..." Historians are doubtful.

10
of 16

Not Everyone Died at the Alamo

Not everyone in the fort was killed. Most of the survivors were women, children, servants, and slaves. Among them was Susanna W. Dickinson, widow of Capt. Almeron Dickinson and her infant daughter, Angelina: Dickinson later reported the fall of the post to Sam Houston in Gonzales.

11
of 16

Who Won the Battle of the Alamo? Santa Anna

Mexican dictator and general Antonio López de Santa Anna won the Battle of the Alamo, taking back the city of San Antonio and putting the Texans on notice that the war would be one without quarter.

Still, many of his officers believed he had paid too high a price. Some 600 Mexican soldiers died in the battle, compared to roughly 200 rebellious Texans. Furthermore, the brave defense of the Alamo caused many more rebels to join the Texan army. And in the end, Santa Anna lost the war, going down in defeat within six weeks.

12
of 16

Some Rebels Snuck into the Alamo

Some men reportedly deserted the Alamo and ran off in the days before the battle. As the Texans were facing the whole Mexican army, desertions are not surprising. Rather, what is surprising is that some men snuck into the Alamo in the days before the fatal attack. On March 1, 32 brave men from the town of Gonzales made their way through enemy lines to reinforce the defenders at the Alamo. Two days later, on March 3, James Butler Bonham, who had been sent out by Travis with a call for reinforcements, crept back into the Alamo, his message delivered. Bonham and the men from Gonzales all died during the battle.

13
of 16

The Source of "Remember the Alamo!"

Four men in military processional
A color guard carries flags from each state that lost people in the battle of the Alamo March 6, 2001 during the Annual Memorial Service at the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.

 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After the Alamo battle, the soldiers under Sam Houston's command were the only obstacle between Santa Anna's attempt to reincorporate Texas into Mexico. Houston was indecisive, lacking a clear plan to meet the Mexican army, but by either chance or design, he met Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, overtaking his forces and capturing him as he retreated south. Houston's men were the first to shout. "Remember the Alamo!"

14
of 16

The Alamo Was Not Preserved in Place

In early April 1836, Santa Anna had the structural elements of the Alamo burned, and the site was left in ruins for the next several decades, as Texas became first a republic, then a state. It was rebuilt by Maj. E. B. Babbitt in 1854, but then the Civil War interrupted.

Not until the late 1890s did two women, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll, collaborate to preserve the Alamo. They and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas started a movement to rebuild the monument to its 1836 configuration.

15
of 16

The 350-Year Old Alamo Was a Fort for Only a Decade

The small (63 feet wide and 33 feet tall) adobe structure known as the Alamo was started in 1727 as a stone and mortar church for the Spanish Catholic Mission San Antonio de Valero. The church was still not completed when it was transferred to civil authorities in 1792. It was finished when Spanish troops arrived in 1805 but it was used as a hospital. About this time it was renamed the Alamo ("cottonwood" in Spanish), after the Spanish military company that occupied it.

During the Mexican War of Independence, it briefly (1818) housed Mexican forces under the command of Jose Bernardo Maximiliano Gutierrez and William Agustus Magee. In 1825, it finally became the permanent quarters for a garrison of men, under the direction of Anastacio Bustamante, the captain general of the Provincias Internas. 

At the time of the Battle of the Alamo, however, the structure had become dilapidated. Martin Perfecto de Cos at Bexar arrived in late 1835 and put the Alamo into "fort fashion" by building a dirt ramp up to the top rear of the church wall and covering it with planks. He installed an 18-pounder cannon and mounted a half-dozen other cannons. and the Mexican army defended it in the battle of December 1835, when it was further damaged.

16
of 16

Sources