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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

In the Alamo’s final minutes, the fighting turned to hand-to-hand combat with knives, swords and bayonets. Some Texians tied white cloths to bayonets and thrust them through the broken walls, screaming their wish to surrender in whatever Spanish they could command. Historian Alan Huffines believes as many as 50 defenders, not accounted for in the oft-cited number of 189 killed, fled the Alamo over the low east wall, only to be slaughtered by Mexican lancers positioned outside the fortress. (Stricken by what is now thought to be typhoid pneumonia, delirious and probably near death, Bowie was slain in his bed.)

Finally, using cannons they had captured from the defenders, the Mexicans blasted open the entrance to the chapel and butchered the last defenders, except, many historians believe, for Crockett and perhaps a half dozen of his men, who may have been taken alive. In this scenario, Gen. Manuel Fernandez Castrillón wanted to spare the men. But according to de la Peña’s account, when Santa Anna finally entered the Alamo, he ordered their immediate execution. In the end, says Davis, “We don’t know where or how Crockett died, and we never will.”

Santa Anna ordered the bodies of all the Texians heaped onto grisly pyres, inside and outside the Alamo, and set afire. “The bodies,” wrote de la Peña, “with their blackened and bloody faces disfigured by desperate death, their hair and uniforms burning at once, presented a dreadful and truly hellish sight.”

Although the idea that the Alamo defenders refused even to contemplate surrender is an article of faith for many people, Crisp says “it is just a myth that they pledged to die no matter what. That’s the myth that is pervasive in the Fess Parker and John Wayne versions. But these were brave guys, not stupid [ones].”

In the aftermath of the battle, Texians exaggerated Mexican casualties while Santa Anna underreported them. Historian Thomas Ricks Lindley, author of Alamo Traces, used numerous Mexican sources to conclude that Mexican fatalities were about 145 on March 6, and that 442 Mexicans were wounded during the entire siege. Other research suggests as many as 250 wounded Mexican soldiers eventually died in San Antonio.

As Santa Anna walked among the wounded, many undoubtedly writhing in pain, he is said to have remarked: “These are the chickens. Much blood has been shed, but the battle is over. It was but a small affair.”

Santa anna’s butchery achieved the effect he had sought. Army Capt. John Sharpe described the reaction in the town of Gonzales, which had sent troops to the Alamo, when news of the massacre arrived: “Not a sound was heard, save the wild shrieks of the women, and the heart-rending screams of the fatherless children.” Many Texas families soon pulled up stakes and fled eastward.

Forty-six days after the fall of the Alamo, however, Santa Anna met his match. The general, flush with a second major victory at Goliad, where he slaughtered Fannin and his some 350 men but lost many of his most experienced fighters, marched east with about 700 troops (later reinforced to 1,200) toward present-day Houston. He camped on high ground at San Jacinto.

But Sam Houston and a force of about 900 men had gotten there first. By April 21, Santa Anna’s troops were exhausted and hungry from their march. “They had probably gone two days without sleep,” says Hardin. “Many just collapsed in a heap.”

At about 3:30 p.m., the Texians hurtled through the brush, bellowing, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!,” killing unarmed Mexicans as they screamed, Mi no Alamo! Mi no Goliad! A Mexican drummer boy, pleading for his life, was shot point-blank in the head. “There were atrocities committed every bit as odious as at the Alamo,” says Hardin. Houston’s official report says the San Jacinto battle lasted a mere 18 minutes and claimed 630 Mexican lives, with 730 taken prisoner. The Texians lost nine men. Santa Anna escaped, disguised as a common soldier, but was captured the next day. The Texians had no idea who he was until some Mexican prisoners addressed him as El Presidente. In a remarkable face-to-face encounter, Sam Houston, who intuited that the dictator was more valuable to the fledgling republic alive than dead, negotiated with him for an entire afternoon. Santa Anna saved his skin by agreeing to sign a treaty guaranteeing Texas’ independence from Mexico. He was held in custody—documentation is scanty about the length of his incarceration—and within two years allowed to return to Mexico. Remarkably enough, he would manage to ascend to the presidency three more times.

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