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Today is the 177th anniversary of the fall of the Alamo – a battle which epitomizes much that is good about America. In honor of that, here are some little known facts about the battle along with a few pictures from our visits there.
Sunday, March 6, 1836. 5:00 AM. The storming of the Alamo by the 5,000 man army of Santa Anna begins. After waiting since February 23 for reinforcements that never arrived, the 185 defenders have to fight alone. They have less than 90 minutes to live. Many Mexican soldiers have less than that. The Texans exact a fearsome toll on their attackers – estimates range from a few hundred to over a thousand. We’ll never know.
“For God and Texas” by Richard Luce
Davy Crockett and his Tennesseans at the Alamo. The artist has captured an accurate snapshot of the early part of the battle. It’s still dark. Unlike the movies, the chapel is in the correct place. Crockett’s men are shown behind a low, makeshift palisade which was the weakest part of perimeter. Smoke fills the air. Men are frantically loading weapons. You can almost feel the chaos and intensity.
● The structure dates back to 1724 when it was called Misión San Antonio de Valero. It housed Christian missionaries and their converts. The source of the name Alamo has two theories. Some say it comes from the Spanish word for cottonwood tree – El Alamo. Others say it was named by Spanish troops who garrisoned the post in earlier days. They were from a town called Alamo.
● The crown that figures prominently across the front of the chapel wasn’t there during the battle. It was constructed in 1847.
● It was bitter cold that morning and much of the fighting was in darkness. It was all over by 6:30 AM.
● The defenders were taken by surprise. Santa Anna had shelled the Alamo non-stop for days. It stopped at 10:00 PM the night before and the defenders collapsed into an exhausted sleep. They had little if any time to ready for the actual assault. They rushed to their positions in the dark and the fight was on.
The front of the chapel from across the plaza where the perimeter would have been. This peaceful scene was the middle of the battle area. Fighting swirled in every direction from here. The chapel was in the defenders’ left rear. Davy Crockett and his men would have been on the right side of the photo where the trees now stand.
● Contrary to most movie and artist accounts, the chapel wasn’t at the front of the action. It was actually in the defenders’ left rear of the post, making up the southeast corner of the perimeter. Troops and cannon fought from the roof. A large perimeter, some of it makeshift, was manned by the defenders. This perimeter extended across present day Alamo Plaza and the stores beyond. Since there weren’t enough defenders to man the whole perimeter, they fought from strongpoints along the wall.
● The attack came from every direction, although the main effort was directed at the north wall. Defenders fought back two assault waves but were overwhelmed by the third. Once the perimeter was breached, the courtyard became a caldron. They did a fighting retreat across the courtyard into the chapel and barracks for their last stand.
● The defenders used artillery with deadly effectiveness. They loaded their cannons with nails, door hinges, horse shoes and anything else they could find, turning the cannon into giant shotguns that ripped huge gaps in the attacking ranks. However, they got pushed off their guns so fast, they didn’t spike them. The attackers turned the guns around and used them to blast away inside the compound.
The courtyard as it looks today. The chapel is behind you. By 6:00 AM, there was ferocious fighting here, much of it hand-to-hand with swords, bayonets, tomahawks and knives. The defenders fortified and barricaded every room inside the compound and exacted a fearsome price from the attackers, who had to fight for every square inch. Notice the office building in the top right of the picture.
● The defenders fortified and barricaded almost every square inch of the buildings with the exception of the chapel. Fighting positions were dug in the floors of the rooms. Obstacles were placed in doorways and windows. Holes were chopped between rooms to allow movement inside. With the walls breached, room to room fighting commenced. At first, the attackers paid dearly in the dark, close quarters fighting. It didn’t take long for the captured cannons to be brought to bear. Santa Anna’s soldiers wheeled them down to the rooms and blasted away at point blank range before entering and clearing.
● Davy Crockett and his Tennessee volunteers defended the weakest point of the perimeter – a low wooden palisade just in front and to the left of the chapel on the south wall. They felled trees with the branches towards the enemy as an obstacle to the attackers. They were the last ones to be pushed off the perimeter.
● The fate of the Alamo’s most famous defender is a mystery. Some reports have Crockett killed on the north wall, indicating he had moved there to reinforce the crumbling defenses against the main attack. Other reports from Mexican soldiers say he survived and was executed afterwards.
● Colonel Travis died early in the battle. He was shot in the head while leaning over the north wall to fire his shotgun down on the attackers.
● Jim Bowie was bedridden from illness and killed where he lay.
● The women and children hid in the center of the chapel and survived. Santa Anna spared them.
● Other mysteries surround the Alamo. Did any defenders escape or survive? Some say they did. Witnesses after the battle report seeing several defenders being brought before Santa Anna and summarily executed. One of them may have been Davy Crockett.
● The bodies of the defenders were burned in a mass funeral pyre. A year later, ashes from that pyre were gathered and interred at the San Fernando Chapel in San Antonio. These ashes represent the symbolic remains of Crockett, Bowie and Travis. They remain there still.
The Alamo is highlight of a visit to San Antonio. There are both guided and self-guided tours available. The structures you see are the original ones that have survived. Many have not. A modern urban environment surrounds the Alamo and encroaches into the actual battle area. Remember that when you are standing in the plaza in front of the Alamo, you are in the middle of where the fighting took place. This is hallowed ground, much like Gettysburg. If you go, no pictures inside the chapel. It is also customary for men to remove their hats in respect.
Six weeks later and 200 miles east, on April 21, 1836, Santa Anna’s army was decisively defeated at the Battle of San Jacinto, which lasted 18 minutes. Fought in the bayous of what is now the Houston Ship Channel, they were slaughtered by the hundreds. Another 1,000 were captured, including Santa Anna himself. Sam Houston’s force had nine killed.
The monument at the San Jacinto Battlefield near La Porte, TX. At 567 feet, it is the tallest memorial column in the world – 12 feet higher than the Washington Monument.
The price of freedom for Santa Anna was to leave Texas and give up all attempts to put down the rebellion. The delay at the Alamo had cost him dearly and gave Sam Houston the time he needed to get ready. Texas won its independence in no small part to the sacrifice at the Alamo.
Remember the Alamo … Boris and Natasha