The Storming Of The Alamo


Few battles in our history have had more reverberations than the siege and assault of the Alamo, and yet no battle of consequence has been so skimpily reported.

In this action fewer than 200 men, most of them Americans, were besieged by 3,000 Mexican troops in a fortress built on the ruins of a Spanish mission at San Antonio, in Texas, then a part of Mexico, from February 23 to March 6, 1836, when the walls were stormed and the defenders slaughtered to the last man.

None of the Mexican officers who witnessed the shambles cared to give a full account. The only plausible version of the final assault was written by the Mexican second-in-command, General Vicente Filisola, but he did not arrive until three days after the last shot had been fired.

The evidence about what happened at the Alamo is scattered. There is no bristling array of fact to inhibit the armchair theorist’s romping fancy, and consequently writers—even scholars—have felt free to draw their picture of the action any way they pleased.

But recent writings give proof that a well-defined picture or stereotype has now emerged from the chaos of conflicting tales. According to this standard view, the Alamo was an indefensible ruin held, in defiance of superior orders, by a band of frontiersmen who were valiant but far from wise.

And yet, according to the evidence, the Alamo was “a strong place,” and the defenders were in good part professional men; they disobeyed no orders, and their sacrifice was not without effect.

Let’s look at the scattered evidence. Who were the men in the Alamo, and what were they doing there?

Few of the 150 “effective” men who went into the Alamo on February 23 at the approach of the Mexican army were Texans: most had been in the country less than a year. They had come singly or in small groups—a few had even walked—from the southwestern United States. But most of them were natives of the Atlantic seaboard. Some thirty-six were from the British Isles, including fourteen from Ireland. Two were Germans; one was a Dane.

But their officers, whose leadership they respected—or they would have chosen new ones—were well-known figures among the American colonists in Texas. Each had taken an active part, early or late, in the revolt. The men in the Alamo, therefore, were in sympathy with the Texas revolution, and had come to join it.

The revolution itself was not a conflict between “races” or peoples, nor between systems of government. Nor was it a conspiracy to steal Texas away from Mexico. To find the beginning—but not the meaning—of it, we must go back to the failure of Spain to take firm hold on Texas.

Even before the British fleet, Napoleon, and civil war had ripped the web of Spain’s empire, there were not enough Spaniards in the Americas to hold down half a hemisphere. The wonder is that they were able to occupy Texas at all, considering the stark mountain ranges and grim deserts they had to cross coming northward from the opulent valleys of Mexico. Spain’s hold on Texas was shaken in 1800, when Napoleon maneuvered a weak Spanish king out of Louisiana. When he sold his immense prize to the United States three years later, it was obvious that the Americans, as soon as they were settled in Louisiana itself, would begin to spill over into Texas, for it is attached by geography to the Mississippi Valley, with no natural barriers between.

Spain’s policy for more than a century had been to keep Texas empty, a vast cushion of space to protect the rich mines of Mexico. An economical policy, it suited the king and worked fairly well for a time. Texas remained a vacuum.

But within the vacuum an unforeseen menace grew like a stormhead. The Comanche Indians, with 5,000 warriors, perhaps the most expert horsemen the world has known, roamed at will, lords of the prairie. In the whole reach of the province, counting the friendly Indians (who died off fast, inside and outside the missions, from the white man’s diseases), there were scarcely 3,000 people who could be called subjects of Spain. Texas was at the mercy of the Comanche.

Forced to choose between the marauding Indians and the American frontiersmen who had begun trickling into Texas, the Spanish authorities chose the Americans. And in 1821 the commanding general of the frontier provinces, acting in the name of the king, granted to Moses Austin, a Connecticut Yankee turned Spanish subject, permission for an American colony.

In that same portentous year of 1821, Moses Austin died, leaving his Texas concession to his son, and Mexico declared its independence from Spain. Young Stephen F. Austin, in order to get clear title to his grant, had to petition each shaky new government as it arose, until the Mexican Republic, established in 1823 by men who admired the institutions of the United States, gave him full authority to settle American colonists in Texas.