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Remembering the Alamo

Move over, John Wayne. John Lee Hancock's epic re-creation of the 1836 battle between Mexican forces and Texas insurgents casts the mythic massacre in a more historically accurate light

William B. Travis was Bowie’s opposite. Bookish, regimented and something of a prig, he had begun to build a law practice in the Texas town of Anahuac. He had acquitted himself well in a clash with the Mexicans in that settlement, participated in the taking of the Alamo and accepted a commission there, assuming responsibility for the formerly enlisted men, or regulars. At the final Alamo battle he would confront the first wave of attackers.

Of the three men, Crockett was the most charismatic. “He was probably America’s first celebrity,” says Hardin of the three-term Tennessee congressman and frontier hero, a renowned marksman and tracker who had served under Jackson in the Creek War of 1813-14, a campaign against Alabama’s Indian tribes. “He came into the Alamo, and these hardened men surely stopped and said, ‘My God, there’s a living legend.’ He was the one you’d want to invite over for dinner—sort of a cross between Will Rogers and Daniel Boone.”

Born in 1786, Crockett had played hooky from school and run away from his Tennessee home to escape his father. He began his military-political career in his mid 20s and was elected to his first Congressional term in 1827. Within a few short years he would become the subject of tall-tale biographies. Like politicians of today, he penned a memoir that was meant to launch a presidential campaign—against Andrew Jackson in 1836—but that plan was derailed when he lost his bid for a fourth Congressional term in 1835. It was then that he decided to go to Texas, where he would write to friends that he had reached “the garden spot of the world.”

“Crockett had real wisdom,” says Hardin. “The more you learn about him, the more you like him.” Along with a handful of companions—fellow Tennesseans who also had once served under Jackson—Crockett set out for the Alamo looking for adventure. “It was pure chance that brought him there,” says Davis. Crockett quickly became a favorite among the men.

On March 2, 1836, some 59 insurgents, Houston among them, convened in Washington-on-the-Brazos and issued a manifesto declaring Texas’ independence from Mexico—however unprepared the settlers may have been for the consequences of such an action. “Most people don’t realize how disorganized the Texians were,” says Crisp. “The ambitions and egos of those would be commanders disrupted any orderly command structure. And this whole independence thing was thrust on them way before they were ready.”

In stark contrast to the motley Texians, Santa Anna’s cavalry men wore dark blue “coatees” with white metal buttons and blue campaign overalls with a red, leather-reinforced seam stripe, and helmets festooned with a comb of black horsehair. They were armed with lances, sabers, short-barreled infantry muskets and the Pageant carbine, a British surplus rifle.

But the cavalry’s sartorial grandeur could not disguise the fact that many of Santa Anna’s conscripted soldiers were Indians pulled from their villages for an agonizing march north through the record-setting cold winter of 1836. “Mules and soldiers were freezing to death,” says Hardin. The hapless soldiers wrapped rags around their feet and packed grass and hay inside the rags.

When they were not fighting frostbite and disease, the men endured repeated attacks from Comanches, who raided them for muskets, blankets and food. With no idea who they would be battling and no combat experience, these shabby, half-starved peasants hardly inspired fear.

Once they reached San Antonio on February 23, many of Santa Anna’s officers were baffled as to why the general seemed so eager to attack, rather than waiting on more artillery. “Santa Anna constantly overplays his hand,” says Hardin of a character flaw that even the general himself recognized. “He once said, ‘If I were to be made God, I would wish for more.’ ” Santa Anna ordered the fort bombarded by cannon. Inside, the fewer than 200 Texians grew anxious. Ominously, the general had raised a blood-red flag, signifying that no quarter would be given. Crockett did his best to keep up spirits, playing tunes on his fiddle.

It is doubtful that the music soothed Travis, the garrison’s intense 26-year-old commander. “The John Wayne film made Travis out to be sort of foppish and prissy,” says Hardin, “but he wasn’t that way at all. He didn’t drink, which was rare back then, but he would buy everyone else drinks. He just wanted to avoid failure at all costs.”

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