I take part in a weekly online trivia quiz contest that was organized by skeptics during the lockdown but has proven so popular that it will continue even after the lockdowns end. The format involves five sets of ten questions, each set covering a particular category. Recently one set of questions was on the topic of the battle of Alamo, a site in what is now Texas. As the legend goes, a plucky group of less than 200 people then known as Texians heroically resisted thousands of Mexican troops for nearly two weeks before they were finally overrun. “Remember the Alamo!” has since become a rousing battle cry for Americans going into battle.
Since I did not grow up in the US and did not study the arcana of American history, you would expect me to be of no help whatsoever to my team in this round. But it turned out that I knew many of the answers and that is because country and western singer Marty Robbins was hugely popular in Sri Lanka and one of his songs called The Ballad of the Alamo released in 1960 was played frequently on the one English language radio station, so often that I ended up knowing the lyrics by heart by a form of osmosis. I was surprised how I could recall almost all the words. You can listen to the song.
Unfortunately the song promotes myths glorifying Americans and demonizing Mexicans. Not surprisingly, faux-tough guy and jingoist John Wayne seized the chance to perpetuate the myth making by directing the 1960 film The Alamo with him playing a heroic Davy Crocket laying waste to dirty Mexicans.
This article looks into the myths and facts
As usually told, the Battle of the Alamo falls into an archetypical heroic narrative of scrappy rebels rising up against a better-equipped-but-villainous force. Legend holds that the Texian fighters died to buy time for General Sam Houston and the new Texas Army before their eventual victory at San Jacinto. Never mind that this isn’t true. Plus, the mission wasn’t on their land, some of the fighters were slave owners, and Mexico itself was struggling to create a new country.
Still, almost as soon as the cannons stopped smoking, Texans began spit-polishing the history with contested-but-rousing tales: Crockett went out rifle blazing (some Mexican accounts claim he was captured and executed). All the fighters crossed a line Travis drew on the ground indicating they were willing to die for the cause (most historians say that’s a fable). The Alamo’s iconic, bell-shaped façade served as a backdrop for the battle (actually the U.S. Army installed it over a decade later when the chapel became a storeroom).
Texas even mandates that schoolchildren be taught about the Alamo Defenders in heroic language. Earlier this year, a Republican state representative introduced legislation to block the Alamo from mentioning slavery as one of the causes of the Texas Revolution.
This article also corrects many of the myths.
So much of what we “know” about the battle is provably wrong. William Travis never drew any line in the sand; this was a tale concocted by an amateur historian in the late 1800s. There is no evidence Davy Crockett went down fighting, as John Wayne famously did in his 1960 movie The Alamo, a font of misinformation; there is ample testimony from Mexican soldiers that Crockett surrendered and was executed. The battle, in fact, should never have been fought. Travis ignored multiple warnings of Santa Anna’s approach and was simply trapped in the Alamo when the Mexican army arrived. He wrote some dramatic letters during the ensuing siege, it’s true, but how anyone could attest to the defenders’ “bravery” is beyond us. The men at the Alamo fought and died because they had no choice. Even the notion they “fought to the last man” turns out to be untrue. Mexican accounts make clear that, as the battle was being lost, as many as half the “Texian” defenders fled the mission and were run down and killed by Mexican lancers.
Nor is it at all clear that the Alamo’s defenders “bought time” for Sam Houston to raise the army that eventually defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto the following month. Santa Anna had told Mexico City he expected to take San Antonio by March 2; he ended up doing so on March 6. In the end, the siege at the Alamo ended up costing him all of four days. Meaning the Alamo’s defenders, far from being the valiant defenders who delayed Santa Anna, pretty much died for nothing.
Never let the facts stand in the way of a myth that glorifies one’s own tribe at the expense of other tribes.