Why do we remember the Alamo?


A nighttime exposure of the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. See more pictures of forts.
St. John/National Geographic/Getty Images

Most o­f us have heard the expression "remember th­e Alamo." It's most often used as a battle cry -- a w­ay to convey strength and honor in three succinct words. But have you ever wondered exactly why we remember the Alamo? Sure, a battle was fought at the fort, but plenty of battles have been fought in the United States. What makes the Alamo so special?

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The Alamo, a stone monument to Anglo westward expansion, was originally built as a Catholic mission for the purpose of converting Mesoamerican Indians living near the growing town of San Antonio. The name "Alamo" came from Spanish cavalry members, who nicknamed the mission after their own village of Alamo de Parras. Alamo means "cottonwood" in Spanish [source: Winders].

In 1836, Texas was in a state of revolutionary flux. War had caused the former Mexican state to break away, and now, Texas was up for grabs. Six different groups were anxious to get their hands on it:

  1. Monarchists wanted Texas (along with the rest of Mexico) subjugated to the Spanish Crown.
  2. Centralists wanted Texas as part of a Mexico ruled by a national government.
  3. Federalists wanted Texas to be part of a Mexican government where administrative power would exist at the state and federal levels [source: Patrick].
  4. The fledgling nation of the United States wanted Texas to join it.
  5. The confederation of Anglos and Tejanos wanted Texas to be an independent republic, as did a rebel confederation led by the legendary Sam Houston.

On this night, the confederation of Anglos and Tejanos (powerful Hispanic landowners) were barricaded inside the Alamo. In the early hours of Mar. 6, 1836, these insurgents were faced with defending their designs for Texas with their lives. Among the group were about 200 men. After nearly two weeks of gaining and losing footholds in the town of San Antonio, the Mexican Army had caught up to them and was at the fort's door.

So even if you've heard the expression "remember the Alamo," have you ever wondered why the battle is memorialized? We'll get to that soon. First, read the next page to find out about what happened at the famous Texas mission.

The Battle of the Alamo

A depiction of the battle within the walls of the Alamo. Combatant Davy Crockett is shown with his rifle raised as a club.
A depiction of the battle within the walls of the Alamo. Combatant Davy Crockett is shown with his rifle raised as a club.

From Feb. 23, 1836, to Mar. 6, 1836, San Antonio, Texas had served as a battleground between the Mexican Army and Texan and Tejano revolutionaries. A group of insurgents had been forced to hole up in the Alamo. The Mexicans were led by the centralist General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, a former president of Mexico famous for his military prowess and for introducing chicle (the main ingredient in chewing gum) to gum maker Thomas Adams [source: Publishers Weekly]. Now he and his 1,800 troops were a short distance away from the Alamo.

The former mission town had been converted into a fort, and the insurgents were trapped inside without reinforcements. Among them were frontiersmenJim Bowie (who was confined to a bed and delirious) and Davy Crockett, a former congressman from Tennessee. There were men from Denmark, Ireland, Scotland and England -- settlers who had come to America and migrated to Texas. And there were also women, children and slaves. Runners had been sent to elicit help from neighboring areas, but the only response came in the form of 32 volunteer rangers from the town of Gonzales. In total, the fighting men inside the Alamo numbered less than 200.

According to legend, the rebel commander of the Alamo, William B. Travis, drew his sword and traced a line in the sand with its tip. He asked every man who was willing to defend the fort to the death to cross it. Only one man didn't cross [source: The Alamo].

When Santa Ana sent an offer for the rebels to surrender peaceably, Travis shot back -- literally.

It was around 5 a.m. on March 6 when the Mexicans stormed the Alamo. The army was forced back at first by cannon fire from the fort, but succeeded in breaking through. The insurgents and army fought a heated battle with rifle and pistol fire and hand-to-hand combat with fists, knives and bayonets. Travis was one of the first to die; he was shot from his position on the roof. The rest soon followed, as the Mexican centralists broke through each barricade and strong-armed their way deeper into the Alamo. Bowie, still infirm, was killed in his bed.

By dawn, the Mexicans had taken the Alamo. Women, children and slaves were taken from the fort. So, too, was a small group of six captured rebels. They were taken to Gen. Santa Ana, who commanded their execution. Every rebel fighter had been killed. Six hundred of the Mexican troops had died in the battle [source: PBS]. A slave, known to history only as John, was the lone noncombatant male who lived to tell the provisional rebel government what had happened at the fort.

Read on the next page how Gen. Santa Ana's army was finally defeated.

"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."

For more information on Texas and other related topics, visit the next page.

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­Sources

  • Hardin, Stephen L. "Alamo, Battle of the." The Handbook of Texas Online. January 8, 2008. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/AA/qea2.html
  • McDonald, Archie P. "Travis, William Bartlett." January 18, 2008. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/TT/ftr3.html
  • Mitchell, Rosemary. Tour guide, the Alamo. Personal interview conducted by Josh Clark. 31 Mar. 2008.
  • "Crockett, David." The Handbook of Texas Online. January 17, 2008. http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/CC/fcr24.html
  • "History." The Alamo.org. http://www.thealamo.org/history.html
  • "Many a cause, many a conflict: The Texas Revolution." Austin Community College. http://www2.austincc.edu/lpatrick/his1693/causes.html
  • "The Alamo." PBS. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/alamo/peopleevents/e_alamo.htm
  • "The Battle of San Jacinto." Texas A&M University. http://www.tamu.edu/ccbn/dewitt/batsanjacinto.htm
  • "Weather." The Alamo.org. http://www.thealamo.org/weather.html