Kent Conwell: March 6, 1836
Eight score and sixteen years ago, our fathers brought forth in this state a new republic, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and are not subject to the dictates of despots.
Though it is a poor pedestrian paraphrasing of Lincoln’s historic and unforgettable Gettysburg Address, it addresses the fact that on March 6 one hundred and seventy-six years ago, a diverse band of 189 determined patriots died in an effort to free Texas from the iron grip of the dictator, Santa Anna.
Now, everyone knows of William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett, but what about the others? Just how diverse was this ragtag army?
General scholarship erroneously suggests the defenders were professional soldiers and Anglos resentful of Santa Anna.
Not so according to Richard Lindley III of the University of Texas. In fact, most of the men at the Alamo were farmers in their twenties. Not all were Anglos. Some were from the Hispanic population of San Antonio and Laredo. Many were from other states. In addition to Crockett’s Tennesseans, some came from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.
I’d often wondered just why a New Yorker or Pennsylvanian would journey so far to take part in something that did not affect him, but Lindley explained that perhaps the revolution in Texas evoked feelings much like that of the War for Independence had only fifty years earlier in the east.
The largest group of defenders, not counting those from Texas, hailed from Louisiana. Then came Crockett’s Tennesseans and their next-door neighbors from Kentucky.
Of the ninety-five Texans at the Alamo, forty came from Gonzales, thirty-two of whom boldly rode through the Mexican lines under cover of darkness after the siege had begun.
Eleven of the defenders came from San Antonio, among them James Bowie, who had become a Mexican citizen a few years earlier upon marrying the daughter of the vice=governor of the province. Nacogdoches and Brazoria Counties were each represented by ten patriots.
According to Dr. Lindley, the Alamo defenders were not mercenaries, but a legitimate army with assigned ranks made up of men desiring freedom from a dictatorial ruler who had declared martial law and abolished all power of the states of Mexico. The small man commanded such immense power that he single-handedly struck down the democracy of Mexico and replaced it with his dictatorship.
The fuse that would ignite the Alamo had been set almost fifteen years earlier when Moses Austin approached Spanish authorities for a large tract of Texas land to sell to American pioneers.
Only 3,500 native Mexicans had so far settled in Texas, which at the time was northern part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas.
The Spanish government welcomed the idea for two reasons; to provide a buffer against illegal U.S. settlers who were creating problems in East Texas and to help develop the land.
Mexico placed two conditions on land ownership: settlers had to become Mexican citizens, and they had to convert to Roman Catholicism. Americans eager for land had no compunction or conscience in accepting the conditions.
By 1830, 16,000 Americans had settled in Texas, forming a 4-to-1 majority in the northern section of Coahuila y Tejas. As the Anglo population grew, Mexican authorities became concerned over the American presence. Differences in language and culture created problems between the settlers and the native citizens.
Colonists refused to learn Spanish; they maintained their own schools; they conducted most of their trade with the United States. This streak of independence worried the Mexican government, so in an effort to reassert its authority over Texas, the government reiterated its stand against slavery; set up a chain of military posts occupied by convict soldiers; restricted trade with the U.S.; and decreed an end to further American immigration.
Colonists tolerated the domination, much as U.S. colonists had so many decades earlier tolerated Britain’s iron rule. Eventually, it became too oppressive, so in 1835, the settlers adopted a constitution and organized a temporary government, but they voted dramatically against declaring independence.
They hoped to depose Santa Anna peacefully using legal means and restore power to the state governments per the Mexican constitution of 1824. Perhaps, they hoped, even achieving a separate state of Texas.
But time had run out. In the autumn of 1835, Texas riflemen captured Mexico’s military headquarter in San Antonio. The revolution had begun.
Word reached Santa Anna, and soon rumors spread through Texas that the dictator was on the move with 7,000 soldiers, a wildly inflated number.
His army was made up of fresh recruits and Indian troops the latter of whom spoke or understood little Spanish. When Houston learned Santa Anna was headed for San Antonio, he ordered the city abandoned.
One hundred-fifty rebels disobeyed, deciding instead to defend the city from the protection of the Alamo. Travis, Bowie, and Crockett led them.
Santa Anna lay siege on the presidio. One night, thirty-two men from Gonzales slipped through the Mexican lines.
The story goes that on March 5, Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword and announced only those willing to die for Texas independence cross the line. All except one crossed. Bowie, confined to his bunk, insisted on being carried across.
At 5 a.m. next morning, Mexican troops hurled a massive attack at the garrison. By 8 a.m., all defenders lay dead. Rumor says seven defenders surrendered but were immediately executed. Twelve to fifteen women and children survived.
Mexican troops soaked the dead in oil, stacked them like cordwood, and burned them.
The number of Mexican troops slain varies widely from 250 to 1500. The former number is the Mexican count, the last, the Texian count.
Though a defeat, the Alamo gave the Texas army a psychological boost as did the treacherous murders at Goliad on Palm Sunday a few weeks later.
‘Remember the Alamo’ and ‘Remember Goliad’ were battle cries that lifted men from diverse walks of life and various cultures to achieve the shocking defeat of Santa Anna a few weeks later at San Jacinto.