Skip to main content

Struggle for the Alamo

December 2019

The untrained soldiers who fought at the Alamo believed freedom and the struggle for a better life were worth dying for.

The Alamo at San Antonio
The Alamo at San Antonio. Photo courtesy of the  Alamo Trust, Inc.

The two hundred men John Smith left behind him in the fort may not have been well trained or organized, but they were a determined bunch. Beneath the dirt and grime and stubble and rags was a group who had been tested and not found wanting. Many of them had been among the first to answer the call, to join Stephen Austin’s Army of the People.

Read the full dramatic story in "Storming of the Alamo," by Charles Ramsdell, Jr.

These militiamen had hurried to Gonzales at the first request for help and endured much for the cause. They had marched to Bexar and remained there, in cold and rain and wretched conditions, for many weeks. They had stormed the town in the predawn hours of December 5 with Milam and Johnson and Grant, running through the dark cornfields and streets to gain a tenuous foothold on the well-fortified town held by the Mexican army, a much larger, better organized, and better equipped force, battling house by house and room by room for five grueling days. 

Many Americans after their Revolution, responded to appeals for help from freedom fighters around the world, including from the Republic of Texas.

Some of the colonists had left then, when Martín Perfecto de Cós had surrendered and marched his eleven hundred soldiers out of Texas — gone home to their families and farms. The war was over; they could return to their lives, at least until spring.

Most of the volunteers from the United States, such as the New Orleans Greys, were young men with no homes to return to. They had left their homes for Texas in response to the call for aid and arrived weeks later to assist their Texian cousins in the ousting of a despot — much as their fathers and grandfathers sixty years before them had rebelled against George III. They saw this cause as similar, the parallels too strong to ignore: a tyrannical dictator running roughshod over the rights of his subjects and violating the covenant accepted by the immigrants and residents alike, whether Anglo or Tejano. Taxation without proper representation, and a complete lack of a representative political system upon the dissolution of the state congresses ... the abrogation of the most basic of civil rights, including the absence of trial by jury and the writ of habeas corpus ... military occupation that threatened to increase dramatically ... the insistence that the colonists deliver up their arms — such burdens these sons of 1776 found intolerable.

So these men had come to Texas to fight for liberty, and also to gain the land that would make them truly free men, earning their living independent of any other and providing a better life for themselves and their families. And they thought these things worth dying for. 

The American Revolution had been the first great uprising of modern times, its principles so just and honorable, its conduct so sound and admirable, that a wave of revolution inspired by the American colonists had swept across Europe and the civilized world. It was a movement still finding entire nations of converts in countries such as Greece and Poland. 

Americans were beseeched for assistance to these causes, and they had responded. Now their own brothers and sons and cousins and friends and neighbors, their own blood, were fighting for the same cause right next door. And all across the country, from New England to the newest state, Missouri, rallies were held to raise money and soldiers for Texas and its liberty, and thousands of men had answered the call. 

Land ownership was central to the American concept of liberty, in part because the right to vote often depended on owning land.

Little more than five decades after Americans had secured their freedom, the word “liberty” remained far more than an abstract term, a right taken for granted. Liberty or death, as Patrick Henry put it, represented the American stand on the subject, and in 1836 the cost of freedom paid for with human lives was still vivid in the mind of every citizen and the memory of many. The word represented one of the basic rights every man was entitled to by birth. And the rebels believed passionately, just as Thomas Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence, that legitimate political authority rested on the consent of the governed, who retained the right to withdraw their consent and change their government if it threatened those inalienable rights it was formed to protect. As Texians saw it, that was exactly what Santa Anna was in the process of doing. 

Linked to this new concept of liberty, this idea of truly free men, and essential to its core, was landownership. Its importance went beyond the desire for riches, or large-scale exploitation of resources in the pursuit of progress. Suffrage, the right to vote and elect representatives, that most essential component of a republic, was even in the United States initially confined to property owners; land meant power. While that requirement had gradually been eliminated in all but a few states, the mindset remained. Too, it was a time, a world, an existence, based on an agrarian way of life — eight of ten men worked the land. To own land in 1836 was viewed by all as an essential condition of liberty. A man without land was nobody. 

Eight of the Alamo’s defenders were Tejanos who had bravely decided to join the colonists in their rebellion-they, too, were outraged by Santa Anna’s actions. But like the great majority of Americans at the time, the rest were of Anglo­Saxon stock. Most of the men in the fort were Scots-Irish whose Scottish ancestors had fought for their freedom from the British at Stirling and Bannockburn, and then fought the Irish at the same time they were marrying and breeding with their women. A dozen or so were Englishmen whose forefathers had defeated the French at Agincourt and Crecy, and beheaded their own king for aspiring to tyranny. And for those who were American-born, 1776 was no such distant memory; there were veterans of that struggle still living. At least fifty of the defenders proudly claimed fathers or grandfathers who had participated in the Revolutionary War. No, whatever else happened, these men would back down from no one. 

There were other factors involved. Most of the men, established settlers and fresh volunteers alike, hailed from the contiguous southern states, and many of them considered slavery an accepted part of the order of things. The defense of slavery was at best an underlying cause, not a prime factor, in the Americans’ desire to aid their countrymen in gaining their liberty. For that is how they considered their Texian cousins — as Americans, still. 

But few of the Texian colonists actually owned slaves, and those who did were able to reconcile their adherence to that institution with their belief in the basic rights of man, just as their revolutionary forefathers had. Many colonists considered Mexico’s antislavery law hypocritical, given the country’s system of peonage, which was used primarily to man the huge haciendas in the south of Mexico. Its victims, who numbered in the tens of thousands, endured many of the same conditions as slaves did: hopeless indebtedness, corporal punishment, and severe penalties for escape; they were even sold as commodities.

Almost all the men from the southern states claimed Scotland and Ireland as their hereditary birthplaces, many of them only one or two generations removed from the old countries. Journeying west — for freedom, for land — was in their blood. And they were fighters. Fighting for these things, and other, sometimes lesser things, too — family, honor, justice, or even sport — was also in their blood. Truth to tell, some of the men had walked or ridden hundreds of miles just for a good fight. 

Most of them were not trained soldiers. Save for the New Orleans Greys, they wore no uniforms, and their arms were their own, a mixture of muskets, rifles, shotguns, pistols, tomahawks, and blades. In almost every respect they did not meet the definition of an army. But in a letter to Sam Houston, Green Jameson had summed up their most important quality: “They have all been tried, and have confidence in themselves.”

That confidence would soon be tested.
 

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate