10 Facts About the Battle of the Alamo

The "Line in the Sand" May Have Been 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. Rebellious Texans had captured the city of San Antonio de Béxar in December of 1835 and 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: here are some facts.

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The Texans Weren't Supposed to Be There

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.

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There Was Much Tension Among the Defenders

The official commander of the Alamo was James Neill. He left on family matters, however, leaving Lt. Colonel William Travis in charge. 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 solved 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.

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

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They Died Believing Reinforcements Were on the Way

Lieutenant Colonel Travis sent repeated requests to Colonel James Fannin in Goliad (about 90 miles away) 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, who never came. 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.

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There Were Many Mexicans Among the Defenders

It’s a common misconception that the Texans who rose up against Mexico were all settlers from the USA 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. It is estimated that of the nearly 200 defenders who died at the Alamo, about a dozen were Tejanos dedicated to the cause of independence or at least restoration of the 1824 constitution.

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They Didn’t Know Exactly What They Were Fighting For

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.

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No One Knows What Happened to Davy Crockett

Engraved portrait of frontier hero Davy Crockett
Fotosearch/Getty Images

Davy Crockett, a famous frontiersman and former US Congressman, was the highest-profile defender to fall at the Alamo. Crockett's fate is unclear. According to some questionable eyewitness accounts, 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.

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Travis Drew a Line in the Dirt…Maybe

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 some 40 years after the battle, and has never been corroborated. Still, whether a line was drawn in the sand or not, the defenders knew when they refused to surrender that they would likely all die in battle.

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It Was a Costly Victory for Mexico

General Antonio Lopez
General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Mexican dictator/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.

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Some Rebels Snuck into the Alamo

There are some reports of men deserting the Alamo and running off in the days before the battle. As the Texans were faced with the whole Mexican army, this is not surprising. What is surprising is that some men snuck into the Alamo in the days before the fatal attack. On March first, 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 third, 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 of the Alamo.