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Everything I Know About the Alamo I Learned From John Wayne: Busting the Myth of Hollywood’s Alamo

One event in our American history often shrouded by myth and legend, is the 1836 siege of the Alamo Misión San Antonio de Valero, most commonly known as just the Alamo. On February 23rd, the Mexican army under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, had laid siege to the Alamo and the defenders inside. 13 days later the Mexican army overran the defenses, taking the Alamo and killing almost everyone inside.[1] Many of the defenders of the Alamo would go on living in myths and legends, created years after the events, this makes research into what really happened a difficult venture. One of the creators of the Alamo myth is The Alamo, a film directed by and starring John Wayne.[2] Here many of the famous legends and blatant inaccuracies surrounding the Alamo are depicted on the big screen. By looking at scholarly works and historical resources we can debunk these myths about the siege of the Alamo. The particular myths I wish to focus on here are the number of people present at the Alamo and the manner in which James Bowie and David Crockett, two of the most famous of the Alamo defenders, had died.

It’s all in the numbers

150 Texians defending against 7000 battle hardened Mexican soldiers. This scenario sounds like Texas’s own version of Thermopylae. Yet these being the numbers of combatants given by James Bowie in the Alamo. But how many people really fought and died during the siege, and were there really any survivors? In The Alamo besides illustrating the hundreds upon hundreds of casualties for the Mexicans. It also showed that everyone defending the Alamo were completely wiped out, with the exception of 3 civilian survivors. Original counts given by General Santa Anna to the United States put the number of deaths at 60 Mexicans and 500 Texians.[3] Both the film and Santa Anna’s account may be just an over exaggeration, since modern historians estimated Santa Anna assaulted the Alamo with just close to 2,000 Mexican Soldiers while the Texians possessed almost 200 defenders, with also 25 non combatants, during the siege.[1][4] New estimates, along with reports from Santa Anna’s secretary of war Ramon Caro, have also put the Mexican casualties at 600 dead and wounded, this number appears high, but considering the fact Santa Anna commanded a full scale assault, in the taking of a fortified structure, with defenders armed with Kentucky rifles and cannons, it is easy to see the high casualty rate on the Mexican side.[5][6] Research has also agreed that although roughly all of the 200 Texian defenders were killed, there were at least 15 civilian survivors, who were actually shown mercy by Santa Anna and escorted away from the Alamo.[7]

The Death of Heroes

One debate between historians involving the Alamo, concerns the death of 2 of its most prolific defenders, James Bowie and David Crockett. Both men already legends in their own time, their fame only grew more so after the events of the Alamo. According to the film, James Bowie had became bed ridden after suffering a leg injury by a cannonball. While the Mexican army swarmed into the Alamo during the final assault, Bowie heroically defended himself with his pistols, then his famed knife, right before being stabbed to death by multiple bayonets. Davy Crockett also heroically managed to defend himself by using his rifle as a club, then with a cannon torch, before being stabbed by Mexican soldiers, in his final moments he dived into the powder store, exploding part of the Alamo. Historically this portrayal of Crockett’s death could not be further from the truth. Historians agree that James Bowie was bed ridden through the battle, except it was caused by disease, from either tuberculosis or pneumonia rather than injury. But whether he was able defended himself with his pistols, then his famed knife is a matter of debate.[6][7] Mexican eyewitnesses reported that Bowie was to sick to defend himself, so he was executed while still in bed. Even a fellow Texan, who escaped the Alamo before the siege started , agreed that Bowie was sick and “unable to lift his head or be able to defend himself”. This story is corroborated by Bowie’s nurse who said he was too ill to lift his head or even fire a shot, when the siege started.[7] The death of David Crockett can be considered just as non heroic by Hollywood Standards. Even though Crockett’s death is still considered a mystery, eyewitness accounts put the way David Crockett died into two categories. First he was either killed on the walls of the Alamo as the siege started or he was caught by Mexican soldiers and executed. Alamo survivor Susannah Hanning told the Adjutant General of Texas in 1876, that Crockett came during the siege and “was killed before the final assault”.[ 9] And if someone was to accept the Mexican side as an eyewitness account, then we have evidence that David Crockett was captured as a prisoner of war and executed as a criminal. The most famous and controversial source of this account, is the diary of Mexican colonial Jose Enrique de la Peña. In this account Colonel de la Peña describes how they found a group of 6 men hiding in one of the buildings inside the Alamo, soon they brought the prisoners to Santa Anna who immediately ordered them to be executed. Colonel de la Peña would go on to identify one of the prisoners as David Crockett.[1][7][9]. Also a Texas sergeant by the name of George Dolson, a Spanish interpreter, who wrote a letter to his brother in 1836, put in one section of his letter he the story of David Crockett’s death, which he supposedly heard from one of Santa Anna‘s men. In his letter he wrote how Mexican soldiers led by one of Santa Anna’s generals, found 6 men at the back of a building. He then brought the men before Santa Anna, where his translator identified David Crockett as one of the prisoners. Soon Santa Anna ordered that they be executed by firing squad.[10] These sources can be further corroborated by Santa Anna’s secretary of War Ramon Caro, who wrote claims a year later that he had also witnessed the execution of David Crockett, by the hands of Santa Anna’s men at the end of the siege.[7]

The siege of the Alamo was a legendary event, even to the people of the same period. But the myth of the Alamo was only further escalated by the storytellers of Hollywood. Only by accepting these American heroes as just human, we can see the Alamo as an event in our past, with historical context, and not just a story of myths and legends.

Author: Michael Baker

Works Cited

[1] Hardin, Stephen L., and Angus McBride. The Alamo 1836. Osprey Publishing, 2001.

[2] Wayne, John. The Alamo. VHS. MGM (Video), 1960.

[3] New-Hampshire Sentinel. May 12, 1836

[4] Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The Alamo and the War of Texan Independence 1835-36. Osprey Publishing, 1986.

[5] Callcott, Wilfrid Hardy. Santa Anna: The Story of an Enigma Who Once Was Mexico. Archon Books, 1936.

[6] Hardin, Stephen L. “ALAMO, BATTLE OF THE.” http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/AA/qea2.html.

[7] McWilliams, Perry. “The Alamo Story: From Fact to Fable.” Journal of the Folklore Institute 15, no. 3 (December 1978): 221-233.

[8] Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Touchstone, 2007.
[9] Harrigan, Stephen. “Davy Crockett and the Alamo: Thoughts on Truth, Fiction, and Smelling a Rat.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 50, no. 3 (Autumn 2000): 58-65.

[10] Connelly, Thomas Lawrence. “Did David Crockett Surrender at the Alamo? A Contemporary Letter.” The Journal of Southern History 26, no. 3 (August 1960): 368-376.

[11] “Myths and Misconceptions.” http://www.thealamo.org/myths.html.

[12] “Unsolved History- Military: David Crockett : Video : The Military Channel.” http://military.discovery.com/videos/unsolved-history-military-david-crockett.html.

[13] “Unsolved History- Military: Shattering the Myth : Video : The Military Channel.” http://military.discovery.com/videos/unsolved-history-military-shattering-the-myth.html.

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