Forgetting the Alamo

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.


  1. johnson catman says

    You can expect the Texas Legislature to now make that article illegal and all loyal Texans to disavow such lies since it was compiled from the testimony of MEXICANS.

  2. DrVanNostrand says

    That’s funny. I knew a lot of the rest, but framing the battle as an important delaying tactic was still being taught in the upper level history course I took at UT Austin in the early 2000s. I used to mock the Texas revolution for having two important battles. I guess I was wrong. There was only one.

  3. mastmaker says

    The bigger picture is even more scathing. Lot of Anglo-Saxons went and settled in Texas for the express purpose of then rising rabble and demanding secession. Entire episode of Texas secession and annexation smacks of trickery, not bravery and glory.

  4. consciousness razor says

    I, for one, will never forget the Alamo. I was there as a teenager, and I still remember vividly how it was one of the most boring tourist traps that ever consumed a few hours of my life.

    San Antonio itself was … fine. 3/10 stars

  5. springa73 says

    mastmaker @#3

    Even within the USA, the independence of Texas and its subsequent annexation to the USA and the war with Mexico that followed were seen as a plot to extend the reach of slavery by many abolitionists and other antislavery people.

  6. says

    mastmaker @3

    Ever since I learned the history of Texas and how white immigrants took it over, I’ve suspected that a lot of Texan antipathy towards Mexican immigrants, in addition to plain old racism, is the memory of this and worrying Mexico is going to take the state back using the same method.

  7. birgerjohansson says

    The war was a war between two slave nations about who would get to use the land stolen from indians to make slave-operated plantations.
    Bowie was a business partner of a guy who smuggled slaves on ships to the coast, and kept the slaves in cave-like “barraccoons” while waiting for transporting them onward from the coast. If the smugglers were scared away they left the slaves to die of thirst and starvation in the darkness.

  8. antaresrichard says

    Your summation reminds me of a line from another film starring John Wayne. “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”


  9. anotherstewart says

    Mexico abolished slavery in 1829; the Alamo was fought in 1836.
    I am convinced that defence of slavery was one of the motivations for the Texan rebellion, but it may not have been the only one. The rebellion included both anglophones and hispanics; it strikes me that the same motivations that led to rebellions in other parts of northern Mexico in the same time frame were operating. is likely biased, but does give an indication of Tejano involvement.

  10. Rob Grigjanis says

    antaresrichard @11: That’s from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A similar sentiment is expressed at the end of Fort Apache, also directed by John Ford, and also starring Wayne.

    Ford was telling us that the history of the US, as taught in the US, is a lie*. Wayne, in the films he directed (see also The Green Berets), was presenting the lies as truth.

    *One gets the feeling Ford may have approved of the lie, but at least he exposes the idea.

  11. garnetstar says

    Just another massacre, utterly typical of wars, partly brought on by the usual mistakes of the side that got massacred. In no way any different from any other “battle” in the entire history of humans.

    In that kind of war, there really isn’t much of anything new under the sun.

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