We've Been Telling the Alamo Story Wrong for Nearly 200 Years. Now It's Time to Correct the RecordRoundup
tags: myths, Alamo, public history, Texas history
Bryan Burrough and Jason Stanford are, with Chris Tomlinson, the authors of Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, available now from Penguin Press.
Imagine if the U.S. were to open interior Alaska for colonization and, for whatever reason, thousands of Canadian settlers poured in, establishing their own towns, hockey rinks and Tim Hortons stores. When the U.S. insists they follow American laws and pay American taxes, they refuse. When the government tries to collect taxes, they shoot and kill American soldiers. When law enforcement goes after the killers, the colonists, backed by Canadian financing and mercenaries, take up arms in open revolt.
As an American, how would you feel? Now you can imagine how Mexican President Jose Lopez de Santa Anna would have felt in 1835, because that’s pretty much the story of the revolution that paved the way for Texas to become its own nation and then an American state.
If that’s not the version of history you’re familiar with, you’re not alone. The version most Americans know, the “Heroic Anglo Narrative” that has held sway for nearly 200 years, holds that American colonists revolted against Mexico because they were “oppressed” and fought for their “freedom,” a narrative that has been soundly rebutted by 30-plus years of academic scholarship. But the many myths surrounding Texas’ birth, especially those cloaking the fabled 1836 siege at the Alamo mission in San Antonio, remain cherished in the state. Even as the nation is undergoing a sweeping reassessment of its racial history, and despite decades of academic research that casts the Texas Revolt and the Alamo’s siege in a new light, little of this has permeated the conversation in Texas.
Start with the Alamo. So much of what we “know” about the battle is provably wrong. William Travis never drew any line in the sand; this was a tale concocted by an amateur historian in the late 1800s. There is no evidence Davy Crockett went down fighting, as John Wayne famously did in his 1960 movie The Alamo, a font of misinformation; there is ample testimony from Mexican soldiers that Crockett surrendered and was executed. The battle, in fact, should never have been fought. Travis ignored multiple warnings of Santa Anna’s approach and was simply trapped in the Alamo when the Mexican army arrived. He wrote some dramatic letters during the ensuing siege, it’s true, but how anyone could attest to the defenders’ “bravery” is beyond us. The men at the Alamo fought and died because they had no choice. Even the notion they “fought to the last man” turns out to be untrue. Mexican accounts make clear that, as the battle was being lost, as many as half the “Texian” defenders fled the mission and were run down and killed by Mexican lancers.
Nor is it at all clear that the Alamo’s defenders “bought time” for Sam Houston to raise the army that eventually defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto the following month. Santa Anna had told Mexico City he expected to take San Antonio by March 2; he ended up doing so on March 6. In the end, the siege at the Alamo ended up costing him all of four days. Meaning the Alamo’s defenders, far from being the valiant defenders who delayed Santa Anna, pretty much died for nothing.