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Why do we remember the Alamo?

"Remember the Alamo!"
Even today, the defenders of the Alamo are remembered with reverence. This photo shows re-enactors at the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Alamo on Mar. 6, 2004.
Even today, the defenders of the Alamo are remembered with reverence. This photo shows re-enactors at the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Alamo on Mar. 6, 2004.
Jill Torrance/Getty Images

The Battle of the Alamo became legendary almost immediately after it ended. The insurgents' fatal refusal to surrender to the Mexican forces served to stimulate other rebels to continue fighting Gen. Santa Ana and his army.

In the month that followed the battle, the now-famous cry of "remember the Alamo!" was used to rally the rebels. At San Jacinto (what is now Houston, Texas) Sam Houston, the commander of a brigade of rebel volunteers, faced the Mexicans. Houston had led his men in a zigzag across Texas for nearly a month with Santa Ana on his tail. He'd lost much of his troops' confidence and the faith that the provisional government had in him. But in retreating again and again, he'd also bought time to train his volunteers.

Houston saw a chance to take Gen. Santa Ana's army. The general had successfully claimed the town after his victory at the Alamo. But Houston sensed that he could turn the tables on the general's army when he learned that they were isolated outside the town. On April 21, 1836, he led 910 men across the plains outside San Jacinto. When they came within sight of the Mexican forces, cannon fire broke out on both sides.

The battle was a short, fierce one. Caught off guard, the Mexicans were overwhelmed by the rebels and their cries of "remember the Alamo!" Many of the retreating Mexicans were chased down and massacred. The battle lasted only 20 minutes but is largely credited with securing Texas' independence.

So why do we remember the Alamo? The rebels at San Jacinto used the memory of the Battle of the Alamo to fuel their ire -- it had taken place just a month before. But even now, the Battle of the Alamo is looked upon with reverence.

Historians point out that the men who fought at the Alamo were common citizens who lived in a culturally and politically chaotic state. For instance, the Tejanos and Anglos often had tense relations because the Mexicans sought to abolish slavery and didn't approve of the white immigrants' practice of subjugating blacks. Both Anglos and Tejanos historically looked down on one another [source: Patrick]. Even while defending the Alamo, William Travis and Jim Bowie had disputes over who was in charge [source: Hardin].

The men at the Alamo didn't set out to become martyrs for their cause. While all but one agreed to sacrifice their lives for the battle, it's debatable whether or not they understood the historical ramifications of their decisions. Author Stephen Hardin also points out that the fighters weren't suicidal, either -- they hoped for victory but were willing to accept death [source: Hardin].

In other words, it's important to remember how complex the battle was and just how many sides were waging war. But while history preserves these details, they are largely abandoned in the public imagination. What appears to remain important after nearly 200 years aren't the details but the deeds. The Alamo defenders remind us "why people fight for an ideal," says Alamo tour guide Rosemary Mitchell. "They cared to fight for what they believe in, no matter the cost."

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