Forget the Alamo | Bryan Burrough

Summary of: Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth
By: Bryan Burrough


Embark on a journey through time as we debunk the myths and uncover the true stories behind the Battle of the Alamo in ‘Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth’ by Bryan Burrough. Far from the heroic and noble tale that we’ve been taught, the real story reveals how slavery, greed, and opportunism played pivotal roles in the events leading to the battle. Delve into the origins of the conflict, the significance of historical figures like James Bowie, William Travis, and Davy Crockett, and learn about the fascinating interplay between Anglo-Americans, Tejanos, and the Mexican government.

Unraveling the Alamo’s Origins

The Alamo’s story, often portrayed as a heroic Texans’ battle for freedom, has a deeper, more complex history rooted in cotton and slavery. The cotton gin’s invention in 1794 revolutionized production, creating new opportunities for wealth in the American South, reliant on slave labor. This economic boom saw enslaved populations increase exponentially, driving the demand for more land, leading settlers to the cheap land of Texas. At first, under Mexican control and Spanish rule, land ownership was not an issue, as both cultures did not oppose owning slaves. However, this would dramatically change, resulting in the eventual confrontation at the Alamo.

Rather than the simple heroic tale fed to Texan children by law, the true story of the Alamo revolves around the quest for wealth and the continued exploitation of enslaved people. This darker, less-championed tale traces the roots of the conflict to the cotton gin’s invention, and the economic boom it sparked. This newfound prosperity saw the number of enslaved individuals in the US rise from 900,000 in 1800 to around 4 million in 1860.

Driven by economic success and the need for more land to farm cotton, people ventured into Texas. Though the region was under Mexican control, the permeable border and Spanish rule initially allowed for slave ownership, creating a sense of harmony among settlers. However, this deceptive peace soon crumbled.

As the settlers’ aspirations clashed with Mexico’s changing political landscape, the stage was set for a confrontation that would forever etch itself into history as the Battle of the Alamo. In reality, the fight was less about liberty and freedom for all, and more about securing personal wealth and interests.

Looking beyond the sanitized, state-mandated narratives about the Alamo, we discover a more complex and sobering history entrenched in economic ambition and slavery. Only by understanding these deeper roots can we truly appreciate the Alamo’s significance as a nexus for critical events in American and Texan history.

Settlers, Borders, and Independence

In the early 19th century, Spain invited American settlers to Texas, boosting their efforts against Native Americans. US presidents aimed to expand their territories further, and the Mexicans sought assistance to gain independence from Spain. Mexican independence brought changes for Anglo settlers, such as the unexpected abolition of slavery. This principle clashed with the settlers’ cotton farming businesses. However, Stephen F. Austin, a diplomatic leader, negotiated with the new Mexican government, leading to several compromises. The distance between Texas and Mexico City ensured a hands-off government, but the abolishment of slavery created uncertainty among Texians and potential newcomers.

Long before the iconic American image of cowboys and wide-open Texas landscapes, Spain welcomed American settlers into their territory, fighting against common indigenous adversaries. US presidents, such as James Madison and James Monroe, had a keen eye on the region, vying for opportunities to redraw territorial boundaries.

However, Mexico had its own motives for embracing the American settlers. Desperate to free themselves from their Spanish overlords, they sought support to win independence. Nonetheless, the call for assistance attracted smugglers, pirates, and ill-intentioned adventurers to the area.

In 1813, Mexico’s determination to gain independence led to violent conflicts between Anglo and Tejano rebels and the Spanish in Texas. Although the Spanish emerged victorious in the bloody Battle of Medina, Mexico ultimately achieved freedom from Spanish rule in 1821. But the changes brought about by this new nation presented unexpected challenges for the Anglo settlers in Texas.

One of the cornerstones of Mexican independence strove for the abolition of slavery, emphasizing equality among all people. This sentiment, though righteous, spelled disaster for the Anglos’ cotton farming businesses, which heavily relied on slave labor. Concerns arose among the settlers, but help was on the way.

Stephen F. Austin, a revered diplomat and leader later nicknamed the “Father of Texas,” tirelessly sought to bridge the gap between Texians and the Mexican government. Austin journeyed to Mexico City multiple times to negotiate on behalf of the Texians. Ultimately, the Mexican government never legalized slavery. However, they demonstrated a capacity for compromise, mitigating the settlers’ concerns.

Despite the concessions, the physical distance between Texas and Mexico City guaranteed relaxed governance by the new Mexican authorities. This remoteness, however, could not appease the growing fear among Texians that their livelihoods were at risk under the anti-slavery stance of the government. Furthermore, this stance discouraged new settlers who relied on slave labor to work the land, setting the stage for continued tensions in the years to come.

Unmasking Alamo’s Flawed Heroes

Texas was historically seen as a place for fresh starts, attracting both hardworking families and unsavory characters alike. Among the latter category were the infamous swindlers Pierre and Jean Lafitte. Contrary to popular belief, many Alamo rebels were morally ambiguous, with some even profiting from illegal activities such as slave trading. Three celebrated Alamo “heroes” – Jim Bowie, Davy Crocket, and William Travis – had less-than-heroic intentions behind their presence in Texas. Investigating the facts reveals that these figures, along with others, were not necessarily fighting for honorable purposes but were rather seeking refuge from the consequences of their actions.

Texas has long been seen as a land of second chances, a fresh start for those needing a clean slate. This appealed to everyone: honest, hardworking folks and unscrupulous individuals such as swindlers and criminals alike.

The infamous Pierre and Jean Lafitte, for example, operated from Galveston Island off Texas’s coast, where they trafficked stolen goods and engaged in illegal slave trading. In reality, they were just two of many individuals who thrived on the less-than-savory side of Texas’s reputation.

A common misconception about the Anglo rebels at the Alamo paints them as virtuous and morally upstanding, in stark contrast to the supposed savagery of Mexican forces. However, historical records reveal that the Mexican government often compromised on contentious issues like slavery to placate the settlers, allowing them to retain their enslaved laborers.

A closer look at the records also challenges the heroic image of the Alamo’s so-called “holy trinity” of heroes, which includes Bowie, Crocket, and Travis. Each man arrived in Texas carrying their own questionable pasts: Jim Bowie was a notorious brawler, slave trader, and con artist; Davy Crocket’s failed political career hinged on embroidered tales of his frontier exploits; and William Travis, deep in debt and evading arrest, sought refuge in the Texan region.

Far from being defenders of freedom and liberty, these men ended up in Texas due to their troubled pasts and lack of other options. Understanding their true nature sheds a more realistic light on the motivations driving the Alamo rebels and reveals how their mythology has often overshadowed the actual events that took place.

Road to the Alamo

The uneasy relationship between Texas settlers and Mexico in the early 1830s was complicated by increasing tensions, diverging interests and a small group of agitators, known as the War Dogs, that ultimately led to the Battle of the Alamo. The initial success of Texas settlements was hindered by Mexico’s abolitionist stance, making it harder to attract new settlers. Additionally, prominent settler Stephen Austin believed “Texas must be a slave country,” contributing to the heated debates and discontentment.

The period between 1832 and 1835 saw Texas and Mexico inching closer to war. In the initial stage of 1834, relations between Texas settlers and the Mexican government seemed redeemable, despite violence at Fort Velasco. Austin had managed to convince the Mexican government to ease immigration restrictions on Americans entering Mexico. However, Austin’s arrest in January 1834 for an intercepted letter discussing a state constitution for Texas seemingly confirmed suspicions of treason, further straining the relationship.

Amidst the escalating tensions, a small group of about a dozen men, known as the War Dogs, were eager to revolt. This group, which included Jim Bowie and William Travis, was not representative of Texas’s ordinary citizens. Instead, they often stirred up trouble, exacerbating the situation. Their agitation eventually led to an increased Mexican military presence in Texas, which the group used to suggest an imminent invasion.

It is worth noting that Mexican President Santa Anna was initially perceived as a federalist, advocating for a decentralized government and autonomy for individual states. This aligned with the interests of rebellious Texians at the time. However, Santa Anna’s rule became more authoritarian over time, leading to disenchantment among the Texian population. The president regarded the Texians as ungrateful and law-breaking immigrants in need of discipline.

In conclusion, the Texas settlements’ future was clouded by factors such as Mexico’s abolitionist policies and discordant sentiments. The situation spiraled, fueled by misunderstandings and the War Dogs’ inflammatory actions. Santa Anna’s changing political inclinations only intensified already strained relations, laying the groundwork for the fierce Battle of the Alamo the parties would face.

Rising Tensions at The Alamo

In 1835, tensions between Texians and the Mexican government escalated following Santa Anna’s abolition of federalism in favor of a centralized government. A series of events involving William Travis and General Martín Perfecto de Cos eventually led to a standoff between Texian militiamen and Mexican troops at the Alamo, leaving a small, vulnerable group of soldiers in a precarious situation.

The year 1835 marked a turning point in the relationship between Texians and the Mexican government. Santa Anna abolished federalism in favor of a more centralized approach, which angered the Texians who felt that their hope for autonomy had been crushed. Tejanos, already upset by Santa Anna’s authoritarian tactics, joined the Texians in their discontent.

In August 1835, the situation worsened when Mexican Army General Martín Perfecto de Cos was tasked with the arrest of William Travis after Travis’s unprovoked attack on Mexican troops. The Texians, initially shocked by Travis’s actions, changed their sentiments when they heard of General Cos’s arrival, fearing a Mexican invasion. However, General Cos merely sought to arrest Travis and restore order.

Upon arriving in Texas, General Cos found an armed resistance waiting for him. He then ordered the confiscation of Texian arms, including a cannon located in the town of Gonzales. The showdown between 200 Mexican troops and Texas militiamen led to the display of a defiant flag featuring a cannon and the phrase “COME AND TAKE IT,” which has since become an iconic symbol in Texas.

Confused by the Texians’ eagerness to fight, the Mexican military retreated to San Antonio, acquiring reinforcements. However, the Texian militiamen persisted, laying siege to San Antonio from November to December 1835. The Mexican forces retreated once more to the Alamo where General Cos ultimately surrendered, agreeing to leave Texas.

Though the Texian militiamen had achieved another victory, this triumph left a combined force of Texian and Tejano soldiers in an extremely vulnerable state. Many of the soldiers, initially in it for a brief adventure, decided to leave as winter approached. The remaining group found themselves stationed at the Alamo, an old Spanish mission with low walls and exposure on all sides. The Mexican Army had abandoned the Alamo as it was indefensible, but that didn’t mean Santa Anna had given up the fight. The stage was set for a final showdown between Texian soldiers and Santa Anna’s forces.

The Alamo’s Unavoidable Disaster

The Battle of the Alamo, a disastrous military encounter, could have been prevented with better planning and leadership. Inexperienced and unprepared commanders, such as William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett were chosen to defend the Alamo. Although the defenders were warned of the approaching Mexican army led by Santa Anna, pleas for reinforcements went unanswered as many considered the Alamo undefendable. Consequently, the fort was overtaken by Santa Anna’s forces.

Despite popular belief, not everyone’s fate at the Alamo is a mystery, as accounts from Mexican soldiers and sole survivors have surfaced over time. The most crucial point from these accounts is that the tragic outcome may have been avoided with better foresight.

During January and February of 1836, a few men, including Davy Crockett, aged 49, and Jim Bowie, around 40, joined the militia. William B. Travis was chosen as chief recruiting officer of the Alamo, despite being only 26 years old and lacking military experience. Shortly after arriving, Jim Bowie went on a drinking spree and caught a debilitating illness, leaving him bedridden during the battle.

Tejano scouts had been warning Travis and Bowie for weeks that a massive Mexican army was en route to the Alamo from Presidio, a Spanish town along the Rio Grande. Despite Travis’s desperate letters requesting reinforcements, none arrived. It is unclear whether Travis’s faith in impending reinforcements, overconfidence, or stubbornness led to their decision to stay and defend the Alamo.

Though Travis’s pleas for help reached American colonel James Fannin, he and his forces failed to reach the Alamo. He ordered over 300 soldiers, equipped with cannons, to march the 90-mile distance. However, this was a daunting task as few soldiers had proper footwear, wagons were breaking down, and oxen would escape. As a result, the march was abandoned.

Sam Houston, the head of the Texas Army, was dubious of Travis’s desperate letters, and many saw the Alamo as undefendable, rendering it a lost cause. Consequently, the Alamo was besieged by Santa Anna’s forces, leading to a grim outcome for Travis and his men.

In summary, the Battle of the Alamo was an avoidable military disaster that took place due to poor decisions, lack of preparation, and inadequate leadership. Our understanding of the event has deepened over time through accounts from Mexican soldiers and survivors, providing valuable insights into the factors that contributed to this historical tragedy.

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