EVENTS in American History: The Alamo

Sep 6, 2016 by

The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

Interviews with Professor Donald Elder

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, one of the most significant events in American history was The Alamo. Many movies and television shows have described this battle.  Can you tell us about what was going on in the U.S. at that time, and then what led up to the actual fighting?

In 1810, a small group of insurgents had started a rebellion in Mexico against Spanish rule. After 11 years of fighting, the revolutionaries achieved their goal of independence in 1821. Upon taking power, the Mexican government learned that the outgoing Spanish regime had given an American named Moses Austin permission to settle 300 families in Coahuila y Tejas (modern-day Texas). Although wary of this, the Mexican government eventually decided to honor the land grants.

Moses Austin had died in 1821, and the task of relocating settlers to Texas fell on the shoulders of his son. In 1825, Stephen F. Austin helped 300 families move there, and between 1825 and 1829 he succeeded in gaining permission for approximately 900 more families to relocate in Texas. Fearing that these settlers might eventually favor annexation by the United States (a process that had cost Spain Florida and parts of present-day Alabama and Mississippi), Mexico banned further immigration in 1830. This measure did not deter people from moving there, however.

Indeed, by 1835, approximately 30,000 Anglos resided there. In that year, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had become the ruler of Mexico in 1832, did away with the constitution that his country had adopted in 1824. This met with widespread opposition in Mexico, and revolts broke out in two provinces.

In Texas, opinions differed on how to respond to Santa Anna’s actions, and as a result the citizens decided to have a meeting to discuss their options. They scheduled this meeting, known as The Consultation, for October of 1835. Before that could take place, however, a fight between a detachment of the Mexican Army and some armed Texans took place at Gonzales. Many residents of Texas took that as their cue to rise up in rebellion. Forming an army under the command of Sam Houston, the Texans then sought to drive all Mexican forces out of Texas.

They succeeded in this task in December of 1835, when they forced the surrender of the Mexican garrison defending Bexar (present-day San Antonio). Most Texans assumed that this victory had given them their independence, and most of the soldiers in their army went home. But Santa Anna proved unwilling to accept the loss of Texas.

Instead, he brought an army northward to take the province back. His march took him to San Antonio, where a small group of Texans had fortified a mission known as the Alamo. Houston had ordered the garrison to abandon that post, but the commander had decided to stay and fight. Santa Anna decided to attack the Alamo rather than bypass it, and this decision resulted in one of the most famous battles in American history.

2. Who was the commander of the American forces, and the Mexican forces?  And about how many men defended the Alamo and how many attacked?

As we have seen, the ruler of Mexico himself commanded the army that fought at the Alamo. By contrast, the Texans had a much more complicated chain of command. Sam Houston had sent one of his officers, Colonel Jim Bowie, to San Antonio to supervise the evacuation of that post, and he arrived there in January of 1836 to carry out Houston’s orders.

Upon his arrival, he consulted with Colonel James Neill, the post commandant. As the two discussed the order, they decided that they felt such a move would prove disastrous for the defense of Texas. They informed Houston of their decision to hold the fort, and assumed joint command of the Alamo.

Houston, having only a small force with him at the time, could only send 30 cavalrymen under the command of Colonel William Travis to reinforce the Alamo. When Travis arrived with his small force, Colonel Neill decided to go recruit volunteers to help defend the Alamo. Before he left, he gave command of the post to Travis, who had more seniority at the rank of colonel than Bowie did. This proved unpopular with the majority of the defenders, who preferred Bowie. They demanded that Bowie lead them, and Bowie assumed the mantle of command.

Bowie eventually offered to command jointly with Travis. Soon, a former congressman from Tennessee named David Crockett arrived with a small force of volunteers. Crockett had served as a colonel in the Tennessee militia, and carried that honorific title with him when he joined the defenders at the Alamo. Although he did not officially gain the distinction of post commandant along with Travis and Bowie, this technically put three individuals of equal rank at the Alamo as the Mexican Army approached.

Estimates vary, but most experts believe that they commanded somewhere between 185 and 260 men. Santa Anna most likely brought 1,800 men with him to San Antonio. This preponderance of force would prove decisive.

3. How long or how many days did the actual fighting occur?

The Mexican Army arrived on the outskirts of San Antonio on February 23, 1836, and began a siege of the Alamo. Skirmishes took place, and both sides bombarded each other with their artillery. In the early morning hours of March 6, Santa Anna began a full-scale assault on the Alamo, an effort that proved successful after a 90-minute battle. This event is therefore often referred to by Texans as “the thirteen days of glory.”

4. How many Americans lost their lives, and do we have any estimate as to how many Mexicans died?

The victorious Mexicans did not compile a definitive account after the battle, so historians have had to piece together casualty figures as best they could. Most believe that the Mexicans killed every defender of the Alamo that day, but spared the noncombatants that they found there. In return, they probably suffered between 400 and 600 casualties, roughly a third of the attacking force. Estimates of their fatalities range from 60 to 200.

5. What would you say were the immediate ramifications and repercussions of the Alamo?

In the short run, the Mexican victory at the Alamo helped Santa Anna by spreading fear among the residents of that region. Hundreds fled north and east to escape the fate of the Alamo’s defenders. In retrospect, however, taking the Alamo cost Santa Anna both time and manpower. While he spent almost two weeks besieging the Alamo, delegates from around Texas had met at Washington-on-the-Brazos and had formed the Republic of Texas.

Had he moved faster, Santa Anna would undoubtedly have forced the delegates to flee before they could accomplish the task of declaring independence. And with the loss of a third of his army at the Alamo, Santa Anna lost the overwhelming superiority in numbers that he would have enjoyed over Sam Houston’s force.

Compounding the problem for Santa Anna was the fact that the courageous stand at the Alamo had inspired other residents of Texas to volunteer to fight for the new republic. Thus reinforced, Houston proved able to launch a surprise attack on Santa Anna at San Jacinto a month later. Decisively defeating the Mexicans, Houston then forced Santa Anna to sign a treaty granting Texas its independence. Nine years later, the United States would annex Texas, thus adding a state that has been crucial in the rise of our country to the stature it has today.

6. I have visited the Alamo in San Antonio and always come away amazed- It seems such a small building, and yet this small building had a tremendous impact on America and American lives. Your thoughts?

The course of American history has changed in a number of different ways. Sometimes, as with the attack on Pearl Harbor, things change quickly and on an epic scale. With Civil Rights, the action of Rosa Parks began a slow process of incremental steps that are still making a difference today. The Alamo represents a middle ground in this saga. The number of Americans was small, but those individuals through their heroic defense of the Alamo played a crucial role in adding another state to the Union!

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