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What was the Mexicans’ version of the Alamo attack?

Dear Cecil:

For years I have seen films and TV shows and have read magazines and books on the subject of the Alamo. And I can only seem to find the Texans' version of the attack. Since there was only one survivor (Ms. Dickinson, wife of the slain captain), how is it that so much detail from her story could work its way into the many other stories surrounding the battle? What do the Mexicans say about it? Did they have heroes equal to the legends of Bowie or Crockett in their ranks? Find that out, bub!

V.A., Washington, D.C.

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Show some respect, pipsqueak, or I’ll squash you like an insect. Let’s straighten out a few facts first. There was not just one Texan survivor at the Alamo, but six: three women, two children, and a black male servant. In addition, sympathizers from the town of San Antonio across the river from the Alamo were sneaking in and out of the fort more or less continuously during the siege preceding the massacre, so there was no lack of Texan witnesses to the whole affair.

Still, the most detailed reports of the battle itself come from Mexican soldiers. It turns out that the stirring stories of heroic deeds so cherished by Texans were arrived at mostly by that creative process we call “making it up,” the basis of much American history.

One of the longest and possibly most objective accounts of the Alamo’s last stand was written by one José Enrique de la Peña, a lieutenant colonel with the forces of the Mexican president-general Santa Anna. He was critical of the leadership on both sides, particularly his own.

For instance, when Mexican forces first arrived at San Antonio on February 23, 1836, the Texans were sleeping it off from a rousing party the night before, and the Alamo (a converted mission) was guarded by only ten men. Rather than move swiftly, though, the Mexican commander dawdled, permitting the Texans to raise the alarm and scramble their forces into position.

As it happened, the defenders were about as disorganized as the Mexicans. They had a clumsy system of dual leadership, with the regular forces commanded by William Travis while the volunteers answered only to Jim Bowie. The Texans had not bothered to store much food or ammunition, and they had nowhere near enough men to defend their fort, a large, irregularly shaped compound whose walls were crumbling in places.

The Mexican troops, for their part, were poorly paid, ill-fed, and haphazardly trained, and had been exhausted by a grueling march over the desert. Even so, morale was reasonably high. The Mexicans with some justice regarded the Texans as murderous barbarians. Indeed, one of the reasons the Texans were so determined to win independence from Mexico in the first place was that the Mexican constitution outlawed slavery, which the Texans favored.

Having lost the advantage of surprise, Santa Anna could have done two things: simply bypass the Alamo altogether, since it was of little strategic value, or wait until his artillery arrived, which would simplify breaching the fort’s defenses. He did neither, opting instead for a rash attack instead on March 6 — according to rumor, says de la Peña, because Santa Anna had heard that Travis and company were on the verge of surrendering, and he didn’t want to win without some battlefield heroics first.

The assault was a nightmare. Advancing on the fort, the Mexicans were ordered to commence firing while still out of range, with the result that they had to reload under the Texans’ guns. Scaling ladders were inadequate, and the Mexican soldiers were forced to scrabble over the walls on the backs of their fellows. Once the Mexicans were inside, the battle degenerated into a melee, with soldiers shooting at their comrades as often as at the enemy.

When it was all over, seven captured defenders, including Davy Crockett, were brought before Santa Anna. He ordered them killed, and they were hacked to death with sabres. American losses are variously given as 182, 188, and 253, while the Mexicans lost more than 300, de la Peña says. All in all, it was not a heroic episode for anyone concerned.

Cecil Adams

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