How the Alamo Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there.

Candace Gibson: It's a special day, because every now and then we like to take a listener request. And today we have a request from our friend Crystal Ellerdewey. And she included a little phonetic pronunciation of her name. And I hope I got it right, because how embarrassing would that be given my penchant for mispronouncing everything, when she included it. Anyway, Crystal is 23 years old. She loves listening to the podcast and she sent a whole list of things she'd like to know more about. And we chose number two on that list, the Alamo.

Jane McGrath: And the Alamo is mostly known, I guess, for the saying, "Remember the Alamo." Which is hard for some people who don't really know what happened? How can we remember it if we don't know what happened? Candace Gibson: And that's the ironic thing, really. We're supposed to remember the Alamo, and yet most historians will come out and tell you that a lot of the facts surrounding the Alamo story are just lore and legend. And you can't believe everything you hear about the Alamo, so that begs the question, "How do you remember the Alamo?"

Jane McGrath: Yeah and why is it so mysterious? We're going to talk about all of that. First, let's go back to when it was first built. It was back in the early 18th century and it wasn't originally built as a fort. It was actually a Catholic mission, Franciscan mission that was built back then. And they later abandoned it, before the century was out it was kind of empty. And by 1801, Spanish troops started coming in and using it on and off as a fort. We should also mention that when you think of the Alamo, you probably have a memory of a picture of the façade of the church. I actually didn't know much about the Alamo, I've never been there - and there's this whole big town back there. So we should keep that in mind.Candace Gibson: Yeah, so when we tell you later how many men, women, and children were inside you might think, "Wow. Pretty close quarters." But not really, because there was much more! It was a mission, really - think about a mission. And the point of the Alamo was the convert Muslim Americans living in the area to Catholicism. And I think that even people who weren't exactly on board with religious conversion could at least get on board with the organization of farmlands around the mission. So a lot of people were attracted to the area, a lot of people were living there, and then there was a whole hullabaloo with what the heck was going to happen to Texas. Because there were a lot of people who wanted it, so hold tight. We've got a lot of -ists coming at you, beginning with monarchists who wanted Texas and Mexico to answer back to Spain, to be part of the Spanish monarchy. And we've said before in earlier podcasts - talking about Spain losing ground - Spain was losing ground. They didn't have a lot of control over their colonies anymore and Texas and Mexico might've been a last ditch effort to keep the monarchy widespread.

Jane McGrath: And this comes back to how Mexico had gotten its independence in 1821 from Spain. And after that, there was a lot of unrest, which leads to the other -ists that we're going to talk about. For one, a lot of people wanted a centralist government for Mexico after it broke away. But other people wanted a more federalist kind, which is more like what we have in the United States today.

Candace Gibson: Did you guys catch those two -ists? Centralists and federalists! And then, there was the United States. The United States at this point was going strong, but they could use a little bit more land. So they wanted Texas, too. And then we have another group, the people actually living in Texas, the Anglos and Tejanos - instead of the Anglos some people say the Texians. They wanted Texas to be independent. And that's a novel idea, that Texas could've just been its own entity. And it might've worked because rebels like Sam Houston were on board, and he was a really tough guy. So it almost worked out, but it didn't.

Jane McGrath: And we should say that, when we talk about the United States wanting it, a lot of people in Texas like to be called Texians at that time, not just Texans. So I guess we'll use that term. A lot of the Texians wanted to be part of the United States and so they were on the same side as the United States. That's why the U.S. would send in their troops to help the Texians win their independence from Mexico. And at this time, the reason why the Texians were so upset and there was unrest going on was because - we should probably say that a lot of people immigrated from the United States into Texas. So there as a mingle of Hispanics who lived there and Anglos who had moved in. And they had moved in in the 1820s - and once the Anglos and Hispanics were mingling together in there, Mexicans actually banned slavery. And this was a huge deal for especially the Anglos that had moved in and were used to having slaves. They considered it essential to their economy. And not only the banning of slavery, but also Mexico stopped immigration so that their friends and family couldn't move in with them. They put taxes on imports of foreign goods and Santa Anna was a major general at the time. He would take over, and he started moving towards a strong centralized government.

Candace Gibson: And this is where things really imploded. Because we know that the Spanish eventually gave out parts of the land in the missions around the Mes oamerican settlements to the Indians, so they were still on site. And we know that there was some unrest with the Americans coming in. So by December 1835, General Sam Houston was advising everyone around the Alamo to abandon it.

Jane McGrath: And Sam Houston is an interesting character. If we go back and look at his life a little bit and why he was even there in the first place - when he was a teenager, he actually ran away and lived with the Cherokee Indians for a few years. They adopted him, and so he knew their language. And so that's why the president at the time - I believe it was Jackson - sent him over to Texas, because he was great with relations with Indians at the time. And so he was working with them and negotiating with them. And he ended up living there, creating a house in Texas. And he became very involved with the people and the culture there, and was elected commander in chief of the army for the independence from Mexico.

Candace Gibson: Unfortunately, as wise as Sam Houston was, no one listened to him. So there were a lot of tensions brewing inside the Alamo. And there were a lot of big personalities, too. There was Travis and Bowie, and the Texians and the Tejanos didn't exactly get along. And another guy who was there, who had a huge personality, was Davy Crockett. And he had told people that, "You may all go to hell and I'll go to Texas." And so we know he had pretty grandiose notions of what he was going to get accomplished in the Lone Star State. And he was very much impassioned by the Texas struggle for freedom and he wanted to be a part of this. He was just as outdoorsy and bear-huntin' and chasin' as Sam Houston was. He was just wild. So he wanted part in this brawl, too. And after he helped defend the Alamo, the Crockett legend just kept growing and growing. So all these personalities inside, all of these tensions mounting, it only gets worse when they get word that Santa Anna and his troops are advancing. And they know they really don't have a huge shot. They've got less than 200 men inside and their chances are slim against an army of a couple thousand. And so legend says that Travis drew a line in the sand inside the mission and asked every single person in there who was willing to give their lives to defend the Alamo to cross the line. And according to legend, everyone crossed it but one man. And I think that the one man who didn't cross it was actually Travis' slave, Joe. And he was the sole man who lived, who went on to give an account of what happened. Good thing he didn't cross, otherwise we'd have no idea what happened.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting that you know a couple thousand men. I think it's disputed - at least the sources that I found. Some people say Santa Anna had as little as 1800 men. Some people say as much as 6,000 - either way, they definitely had way more men than were in the Alamo. And it's amazing that the people in the Alamo were able to hold them off for so long. It was a good 13 days that the Texians were able to hold the fort. And it started in February 23, 1836 when Santa Anna arrived. And for the next 13 days there was a battle. Travis drew the line in the dirt and people - it just goes to show how people's spirits were up. They were ready to die, of course. They knew they probably would die for this. So by March 6, the Mexicans stormed. And this happened about 5:00 a.m., and sadly it took a little over an hour for the Mexicans to basically come in and slaughter almost everybody who was there.

Candace Gibson: They really did. They spared the women and children, but once they were able to break through the walls of the mission - cannon fire could only hold them off for so long, and they got down to man to man combat - it was all over. And I think that Travis was one of the first to die. And this is where it comes in handy to have knife skills like Bowie and to be tough like Davy Crockett. Because at this point you're using fists, you're using knives, you're using the butts of guns, you're using bayonets. It was just an all-out brawl. But also, again, we have to take these number with a grain of salt. But to know that around 600-1600 Mexicans were killed when there were only about 187 people inside the Alamo, that's really impressive odds. And if you look at the Alamo's website - there's a website for the historic landmark - they said, "People worldwide continue to remember the Alamo as a heroic struggle against impossible odds. A place where men made their ultimate sacrifice for freedom!" And really when you look at it that way, it's like the classic struggle between David and Goliath.

Jane McGrath: I can totally see that. And that brings me to a point I wanted to bring up about Santa Anna, the Mexican general involved here. Because he was seen as, you could say a Goliath - he was seen as incredibly cruel. I remember reading that he told his forces to not take any prisoners - besides the women and children; no fighting men were taken prisoner. Another source says that some were taken prisoner, but they were soon burned. No matter if they were burned alive or dead, Santa Anna did order the heroes at least, from the Alamo, the Texians heroes to be burned in this public statement, scaring the rest of the Texians who were fighting for independence. It was certainly cruel, but it did not quell any spirit that drove to remember the Alamo rallying cry.

Candace Gibson: It really didn't. So when Sam Houston's army got the chance to confront Santa Anna's army, they were really fired up with cries of, "Remember the Alamo." And they overtook Santa Anna and his troops.

Jane McGrath: And this is the decisive battle of San Jacinto. And it's interesting to note that it is true the Alamo did fall, and it was a tragic loss - but it did buy time for Houston to rally his troops and train his troops. They were a ragtag group of volunteers. And he was also able to zigzag around Texas in order to hold off Santa Anna until he was ready to fight. And he was ready, and this was about six weeks after the Alamo. And it makes for a pretty short war, actually, that he was able to pull this off so quickly. And he took about 910 men across the plans of San Jacinto, and they were all rallying, "Remember the Alamo, remember the Alamo." And they won the battled, captured Santa Anna, and made him relent to independence.

Candace Gibson: And it's funny today. You hear the expression remember the Alamo, and it's almost a perfect encapsulation of American spirit, because it shows how tough and independent we can be when we're passionate about the cause of freedom. So today, when you hear people say, "Remember the Alamo," maybe sometimes they're just being cheeky. But I think more often than not, they're not referring to the Franciscan mission back in the early 18th century, but more or less they're referring to the American spirit.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And we should make a note about what happened to Texas immediately after the war. They actually voted to ask to be admitted into the United States pretty quickly. And they weren't. Even though the United States wanted them eventually, there was a lot of problems in terms of the fact that they wanted to be a slave state and this caused problems of what would happen if they were admitted as a slave state. And there was actually fear of entering war with Mexico if they did allow Texas in, because Mexico was like, "If you do this, we're going to cut off ties." And there was this fear. It took another decade for them to be admitted to the Union. And even then, Mexico was still pretty sore about it and they entered into a war with the United States over it.

Candace Gibson: And so that is the story of the Alamo, and a little taste of Texas and Mexican history, too. So for even more about Texas and the Alamo, and leaders like Santa Anna, you can check it out on howstuffworks.com.

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