Read Exodus From the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth Online
Authors: Phillip Thomas Tucker
Tags: #State & Local, #Texas - History - to 1846, #Mexico, #Modern, #General, #United States, #Other, #19th Century, #Alamo (San Antonio; Tex.) - Siege; 1836, #Alamo (San Antonio; Tex.), #Military, #Latin America, #Southwest (AZ; NM; OK; TX), #History
Almost everything Americans have been taught, or think they know, about the Alamo is not only wrong, it is nearly the antithesis of what really occurred on the early morning of March 6, 1836. The battle that was fought has been embellished over many decades through story, song, and cinema, resulting in a mythical Alamo and an enduring romantic legend based upon a simplistic morality of play of good versus evil. This myth is founded on the notion of a heroic “last stand,” which allegedly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of attackers as every defender of the garrison fought at his post, dying to the last man in a deliberate act of self-sacrifice. New documents, especially Mexican and Tejano, and careful historical research definitively prove that the real truth is far more complex, and that this traditional heart of the Alamo story is largely false, based on fantasy rather than historical fact.
The cornerstone of the Alamo myth has been so powerful that it has never been seriously investigated. Moreover, no historian has ever asked a relatively simple, elementary question: If all of the defenders were killed, then how do we really know what happened at the Alamo? Even more importantly, was there actually a heroic last stand? And how can we know what in fact happened, since the fighting inside the Alamo took place in predawn darkness? This unusual twin handicap—the lack of garrison survivors and a struggle that occurred in blackness—has made it unusually difficult to ascertain tactical developments and the course of the fighting, leaving historians and writers guessing at the details.
A fresh, unbiased perspective on the Alamo is especially long overdue, given that current stereotypes and myths about the battle were created by writers and journalists long before professional historians explored the subject. Serious investigation requires us to cut through multiple layers of romantic fantasy and literally start from scratch. Almost everything that we know about the Alamo has been based on third-hand, inaccurate, and biased accounts from highly questionable sources; moreover, these tell the story from primarily one side—the side that possessed a vested interest in laying the foundation for the mythical last stand. Most importantly, it is necessary to understand and reconstruct the struggle realistically, in its setting of predawn darkness, yet previous books on the subject have portrayed the contest as a setpiece battle fought in broad daylight.
Nor was the Alamo an epic clash of strategic importance, as it is so commonly portrayed. One undeniable truth about the events came directly from Mexico’s top military commander. The commander-inchief of the Army of Operations, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, baldly, almost nonchalantly, described the struggle to possess the Alamo as “but a small affair.” American historians have nevertheless ignored such views because they contradict the romantic lore surrounding the Alamo, and especially call into question the fabled last stand.
One of the great iconic, though widely misunderstood, stories of American history, the Alamo has been distinguished by a seemingly endless number of enduring mysteries. Few concrete facts, including even the exact number of Alamo defenders, can be verified with a degree of certainty. The Alamo myth is firmly entrenched as a piece of national folklore, while ironically, the true story of what actually occurred lies hidden in newly found or previously overlooked accounts by forgotten Mexican soldiers and officers. Other better known accounts by Santa Anna’s men, including those that magnified the resistance and the defenders’ heroism to reflect favorably upon themselves and to portray events as a battle rather than a massacre, have proven less reliable.
In truth, the Alamo was a surprisingly brief clash of arms. Only later did admiring generations of Americans invent the myth of a great heroic battle in order to obscure a host of ugly, embarrassing realities. These included the fact that consecutive commanders of the Alamo needlessly lost the tiny garrison instead of withdrawing earlier to fight another day. The ensuing disaster was reinvented as a noble self-sacrifice in the cause to save Texas, ignoring the obvious fact that those leaders foolishly chose to fight and die at a place of no strategic importance and for no gain.
Rather than mounting a climactic last stand with a well-organized, tenacious defense, a totally unprepared Alamo garrison was caught in its sleep by a well-conceived night attack that took the men completely by surprise. The garrison consisted of citizen-soldiers with little of the military training or experience of their well-honed Mexican opponents, whose attack left them so stunned that they never recovered from the shock. This initial tactical success ensured that hundreds of veteran Mexican troops had already reached the Alamo’s walls
garrison members were aroused from their sleeping quarters, negating any chance of an organized, effective, or sustained defense.
More of a rout and a slaughter than a battle in the traditional sense, the struggle for the Alamo lasted only about twenty minutes, making it one of the shortest armed clashes in American military history for an iconic battle. Winning one of his easiest victories, Santa Anna’s success was ensured when his troops swiftly breached the walls. This tactical success directly contradicts the portrayal of the event as an epic conventional battle, as envisioned by generations of historians and writers, Hollywood filmmakers, painters and artists. Common depictions show the entire garrison aligned in their assigned defensive positions along the walls, manning their blazing artillery, offering organized resistance, and inflicting terrible damage on the attackers under daylight conditions. However, new evidence from the most reliable sources shows that even the heroic last stand immediately in front of the Alamo church and its famous facade is a romantic embellishment. Instead, a large percentage—perhaps the majority—of the garrison fled in multiple attempts to escape the slaughter, trying to quit the compound before the battle inside had ended. No unified, solid defense took place along the walls that dark, early morning. In fact, the defense of the perimeter was so relatively weak that some of the hardest fighting very likely occurred outside the garrison walls, resulting in the deaths of more defenders outside than inside the Alamo.
Given that the Alamo was a fortified position possessing a formidable arsenal of around twenty artillery pieces, the Alamo’s defense was surprisingly weak, if not feeble. Had there been a tenacious last stand, Mexican casualties would have been far greater. They were, in fact, less than three hundred—and a very high percentage, perhaps even a majority, of these resulted from fratricide, or what we now call “friendly fire.” Contrary to legend, the greatest advantage for Santa Anna’s attackers was not their numbers, which American and Texas historians have endlessly inflated, just as they have inflated Mexican casualties, but the stealthy, surprise attack that worked exceedingly well under the cover of the late winter night.
The truth of this “skirmish,” as one Mexican participant called it, not only differs from the myth, it directly contradicts it. Fought in a remote location more than a hundred miles from the United States border, the struggle at the Alamo was both unnecessary and pointless in overall strategic terms. The Mexican Army had only to bypass the Alamo to reach the east Texas settlements, or march north up the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to outflank the frontier outpost at San Antonio. Alternatively, Santa Anna could have conducted a lengthier siege to reap a victory over the tiny garrison, making an assault entirely unnecessary.
Why were Mexican casualties in a frontal assault on a fortified position so relatively low? Why have generations of historians failed to recognize or acknowledge the truth about the Alamo, refusing to face obvious facts? Why have so many reliable Mexican primary accounts, which coincide with official Mexican Army reports, been overlooked and ignored for so long? Investigation of such key questions not only requires us to strip away the long-accepted romantic mythology of the Alamo, but to re-examine the deeply ingrained racial and cultural stereotypes on which it has been founded.
First and foremost, Texas and American historians, writers, and journalists have conveniently overlooked the best Mexican sources contemporary to the battle. These are more reliable, accurate, and authentic than the controversial Jose Enrique de la Pena diary-turned-memoir, which contains post-1836 Alamo-related material—including the story of David Crockett’s execution—from a host of other published sources, including Mexican and United States newspapers. In addition to being romantic and melodramatic, de la Pena’s work is largely a post-war political document whose notorious anti-Santa Anna sentiments make some of its descriptions and conclusions highly suspect. These include an exaggeration of both casualties and resistance, in order to demonstrate Santa Anna’s folly in launching an assault.
Problems with the de la Pena memoir, which essentially appeared out of nowhere in Mexico City in 1955, exemplify the need to carefully re-evaluate primary documents to separate fact from fiction by comparing them with more reliable accounts. Unfortunately, many Anglo and Mexican accounts have been equally biased and self-serving. Comparative readings are especially necessary for Anglo accounts, but they are also essential for other questionable Mexican sources in addition to de la Pena. My own attempt to separate fact from fiction has sometimes meant that I have accepted parts of accounts that previous historians have dismissed, while I have sometimes discounted elements of others that were formerly considered as definitive.
For the most part, American and Texas nationalist historians have casually dismissed the truth of the Alamo because the legend has always shored up a sense of Anglo-Celtic superiority over a mixed-race people of Catholic faith. The romantic mythology of the heroic last stand has long provided a comforting sense of cultural, racial, and national selfsatisfaction for many Americans. Over time, the sacrifice of the Alamo garrison has popularly come to represent the inevitable price of national expansion, progress, and the spread of civilization. Generations of Americans have thus viewed the garrison’s slaughter as not only a necessary, but also an understandable sacrifice for a greater good.
In an ironic twist of historical memory, latecoming interlopers, primarily from the United States, of the Mexican province of Texas were transformed into the righteous defenders of a white bastion of AngloCeltic civilization, while Mexican troops, who were defending their republic’s home soil in a struggle that was but one chapter of a larger Mexican civil war, were tarnished as godless invaders and barbarians. This mythical Alamo justified a sense of moral supremacy and righteous entitlement to Texas at the expense of the Indian, Tejano, and Mexican people. The mythical last stand, in which a relatively small band of white heroes defy the mixed-race horde, demonstrated the moral, racial, and cultural superiority over Latino brown people needed to justify and rationalize one of the greatest land-grabs in American history.
The military incompetence and glaring failures at every level of the Texas political and military leadership that doomed the Alamo garrison to unnecessary slaughter have been largely dismissed. Instead, “history” has given us a hallowed trio of Alamo leaders—David Crockett, William Barret Travis, and James Bowie—transformed into immortal figures. Meanwhile, mythmakers have turned a relatively minor military action and first-rate fiasco, stemming from folly and a long list of mistakes, into a great
victory which supposedly bought the time for General Sam Houston to rally Texas and defeat Santa Anna at San Jacinto, thereby winning Texas independence.
The myth of a tenacious last stand against overwhelming odds has hidden the truth of a mass exodus of defenders from the Alamo, obscuring the facts to create larger-than-life heroes in a “glorious cause.” However, xenophobic feeling ran extremely high on both sides of the old Spanish mission’s walls: the Texas Revolution was very much a religious war, pitting Catholicism against Protestantism. It was also very much a racial war, pitting Anglo-Celts against a mixed-race people of color. For those in the Alamo, too, the struggle was as much about the right to retain and purchase slaves as the right to an independent republic, because Mexico had long before abolished slavery. This belief in white “superiority” caused the defenders to underestimate the combat prowess and motivations of Mexican leaders of all ranks, as well as the high quality of the common Mexican
; in parallel, the overconfidence of the Alamo leadership fueled a host of fatal delusions, including a gross overestimation of the garrison’s combat capabilities and the Alamo’s defensive strength.
Handicapped by military inexperience and a lack of training and discipline, the Anglo-Celts, especially the leadership in San Antonio, failed to win the Tejano population—the garrison’s principal source of manpower—over to their side because of prevailing cultural prejudice and racial arrogance. And yet the defenders are still commonly portrayed as fighting from enlightened, egalitarian principles alone, in a confrontation between democracy and dictatorship, or good versus evil. For historical, military, and cultural reasons, it is high time to re-examine this crucial chapter in Texan and American history in an effort to discern the facts and expose the prejudices and stereotypes behind the persistent myth of the Alamo’s last stand.
The author is indebted to many people who made invaluable contributions to this work, and I thank them all for kind assistance. Most of all, I would like to thank the good people at Casemate Publishing, including Tara Lichterman and especially Steven Smith, who contributed so much.
Dr. Phillip Thomas Tucker