Saturday, May 23, 2015

What Texas Rising Won't Tell You

The History Channel will shortly air a new series about the birth of Texas and the rise of Sam Houston, which evidently starts with the Alamo.  I haven't seen the series yet, but if the teaser ads are any indication, I am sure there are a few things they will not tell you.  Or perhaps, they may omit will telling you the full story.

The Alamo Battle Was Fought, In Part, Over Slavery 

The Texans were planting coastal cotton, a crop that relatively quickly depletes the soil without the use of fertilizers, whose invention was more than a century in the future.  The easiest way for a planter to get around this problem was just to move westward and acquire more inexpensive land.  Planters needed good soil close to a river or creek to use for transporting the bulky cotton to the coast.  Almost all of the land along the Gulf Coast of Texas was perfect for growing cotton.

This type of farming was not profitable without slavery.  The settlers needed slaves and in their original agreement with Mexico encouraged them to bring in slaves as they migrated into Texas.  They also swore allegiance to the Mexican government and promised to convert to Catholicism.  But, in 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery.

The Texans appealed this, and got a short term exemption.  The slaves were converted over to indentured servants with a 10 year contract that was signed for the slaves while they were still legally slaves.  (Cute lawyering is a Texas tradition.)  When the ten-year exemption was up, the settlers didn't want to give up the roughly 5,000 slaves already in Texas (20% of the new immigrant population) and were trying to get a longer exemption, but Mexico refused.

While the battle at the Alamo was being fought, Stephen Austin was in Mexico trying to get that extension—if he had been successful, there probably would not have been a fight at the Alamo.

Slavery wasn't the only issue between the Anglo settlers and Mexico, but it was only issue that couldn't be compromised or resolved.  In many ways, this was a precursor to the American Civil War.

There were no "Thirteen Days of Glory"

When Santa Ana's army reached San Antonio in February, the defenders were shocked, believing it would take far longer for the Mexican Army to arrive.  (Santa Ana was a better general than is commonly believed.)

As soon as he arrived in Bexar, Santa Ana put a loose guard around the Alamo and waited while the rest of his forces arrived.  This would take two weeks, and while he waited, Santa Ana met and married a beautiful local girl, Melchora Barrera.  (Well, kind of married her—the priest was actually a lieutenant in his army who had faked more than one wedding for the general.  After the honeymoon, his “wife” would learn the truth and end up the mistress of one of his junior officers.  No one ever said that Santa Ana was a nice guy.)

According to most historians, during the time it took for the army to arrive—those "Thirteen Days of Glory"—not a single defender of the Alamo died until the morning of the final attack.  There was little fighting and no effective bombardment of the fort.  The largest pieces of Mexican artillery were the last of Santa Ana's units to arrive, and by the time they reached Bexar, the Alamo had fallen.

The Battle Was Not a Costly Victory for the Mexicans.

There is a general rule of thumb in military battles: the defenders have a 3:1 advantage.  If there are a thousand defenders, you need at least 3000 men to attack.  Following this rule, the 180-250 (estimates vary endlessly) defenders of the Alamo should have killed far more than the 450-600 Mexicans believed to have been killed during the battle.  A casualty ratio of 2:1 is considered fairly low for the defenders of a fort.

As Santa Ana said, “What are the lives of soldiers than so many chickens? I tell you, the Alamo must fall, and my orders must be obeyed at all hazards. If our soldiers are driven back, the next line in their rear must force those before them forward, and compel them to scale the walls, cost what it may."

Actually, the Mexican army almost reached the wall during the early morning attack without an alarm being raised.  The Mexican reports show that the Texas guards were asleep.  The first attack was successful and the battle was over in just a few hours.

The Alamo Was Not an Important Fort

Actually, Sam Houston wanted to destroy the fort, but was prevented from doing so by Governor Henry Smith.  The damn fort was not in a strategic location and was far too large for the number of men present to guard it.  This was precisely why the Texans were able to take it away in 1835 from General Cos—who went to Mexico and came back with Santa Ana and enough men to take it back. 

With the few men Travis and Bowie had under their command, they could not adequately defend the walls and still man their cannons—nor had they used their time wisely while waiting for the Mexican Army to arrive.  There were several weak points in the wall that almost could not be defended.  And no preparation for feeding the men had been made until February 23—the date the Mexican Army arrived.

If Travis had burned the fort and joined up with the men at Goliad, this would have added about 700 additional men for General Houston, an incredibly valuable addition.

Some of the Texas Heroes Are....Different!

Sam Houston resigned as Governor of Tennessee after his wife left him—shortly after the wedding.  For years, there were strange rumors of alcoholism and infidelity.  During this time, Houston met Congressman William Stanbery while walking on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Since Stanberry had recently publicly accused Houston of fraud, Houston beat the congressman to the ground with his hickory cane.  Though the congressman tried to shoot Houston with a pistol, the former governor escaped when the gun misfired.  Despite being defended by no less a lawyer than Francis Scott Key, Houston was fined $500 in damages, but left for Texas without paying.

Jim Bowie was a criminal wanted in America for illegal slave trading and in Mexico for land swindles.  If he had survived the Alamo, he would probably have spent the rest of his days in prison.

Jim Bowie was already famous for a spectacularly crazy battle called the Sandbar Duel.  He, and at least 5 other men, had variously shot, stabbed, and cut each other until the fight was over, by which time Bowie had been shot at least twice and stabbed six times.  This kind of lunacy made him, and his large knife, famous (or infamous). 

David Crockett had just been voted out of Congress, and was looking for a small pond in need of a big, albeit second-hand, frog.  Before leaving Tennessee, he wrote to friends encouraging them to move with him to Texas “if Van Buren were elected President.”  Van Buren was, and Crocket did, along with 30 friends. 

When William Barrett Travis arrived in Texas, he was running away from a failed marriage, mounting debts for which he was about to be arrested, and two children when he came to Texas.  At least one historian has put forth the theory that Travis was insane as a result of drinking mercury in a failed effort to treat his venereal disease.  Somehow, he had accomplished all of the above relatively quickly—he was only 26 years old when he died at the Alamo.

There Were No Survivors.

Well, yes and no.  None of the men who fought survived.  While there is scant evidence that a handful of men, including David Crockett, were taken prisoner during the fighting, if so, none were allowed to live long.  While General Cos did not believe in executing prisoners, and argued for mercy at both the Alamo and later at Goliad, General Santa Ana insisted that Mexican law, which labeled the defenders of the Alamo as pirates, be enforced. 

There were certainly survivors.  Nearly twenty women, children, and slaves did survive the siege of the Alamo and were allowed to return home.  The best known of these were Susanna Dickinson and Joe, the slave/indentured servant of William Barrett Travis.

The Battle Did Not Buy Time for Sam Houston

First, the battle did not delay Santa Ana any significant amount of time. 

Second, for most of the time during the actual battle, Sam Houston was on leave from the army, which existed mainly in theory, anyway.  During this time, he took care of personal business, negotiated with the Cherokee Indians, and was a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Conventions.  Houston did not return to the army until March 6, the same day the Alamo fell. 

Now in command of a small, but growing, army, Sam Houston planned to lead Santa Ana ever closer to the Louisiana border, where an American army was waiting, just across the Sabine River.  While Washington debated the wisdom of adding more slave territory to the Union, the army was waiting on the border to implement whatever policy the politicians finally agreed upon.  If Houston could somehow create a conflict between Mexico and America, Texas would gain a powerful supporter in the latter.

Sam Houston knew his army was what were at the time called irregulars, meaning an undisciplined and untrained force.  Houston knew that he could probably get, at most, one good fight out of them before they deserted and went back to their families. Knowing their true worth, he was not about to risk the future of Texas by actually using the army unless he had to.

Santa Ana had almost forced Houston to strike by dividing his army twice while pursuing the Texan army over the 45 days after the fall of the Alamo.  Then, suddenly, on April 21, 1836, Sam Houston realized his chance and attacked the sleeping army of Santa Ana at San Jacinto.  In a battle that lasted eighteen minutes, Houston had done the impossible, securing Texas Independence.

But I'm pretty sure the TV show will tell you that.


  1. Having lived in San Antonio (de Valero) for 20 years, I assure you that this is NOT the history that we learned! Everyone knows that the Alamo is the "Shrine of Texas Liberty" was defended by brave souls who only wanted to be free from Mexico. History is a funny beast. Someone once said "History is written by the winners". The Alamo story we all "know" is more like not letting facts get in the way of truth! Thanks for adding some FACTS to the story!

  2. One things Texans are good at is spinning a story. It's our great gift and in many ways is one of the keys to Texas success. Sam Houston was a particular bastard and despite his noble stand in opposing secession, he pulled some dumb stunts as governor. One of the most telling was his persecution of the Texas Navy, a military force both remarkable for its effectiveness given its small size and likely were the most responsible for keeping Santa Anna from being reinforced by sea and handing him his keister at San Jacinto. The Texas Navy was also responsible for the only recorded defeat (or at least the forcing of a retreat) of a pair of state-of-the-art steam battleships by sail-rigged Texas Navy and Republic of Yucatan warships at the sea Battle of Campeche, an action for which, Sam Houston, who hated the navy for some reason, court-martialed Commodore Edwin Moore for disobeying orders. He was acquited, a verdict which enraged Houston, but, hey, Texans love a winner and Moore's Texas Navy did some amazing things for such a tiny force. I used to fly a Texas Navy pennant on my Hobie Cat. My wife wouldn't let me mount a potato cannon as a stern chaser. She's a terrible spoil-sport.

    Here's the info about the Battle of Campeche. The battle was 7 ships (including two steam battleships) against 5 sailing vessels of the Texas/Yucatan coalition.

    Might be a fun story to tell.


  3. Sorry, here's the link:

  4. Actually in the second leg of the battle, they were up against two ironclad steamers and a wooden steamer, two brigs and two schooners. The Yucatan Navy was two schooners and 5 little gunboats.The Texans under Moore fought the British crewed and officered Mexican navy to a standstill much to the embarrassment of the Brits. Having fought the ironclad Mexican steamships essentially to a draw using only wooden sailing ships was an achievement for Commodore Moore, the Naval Battle of Campeche becoming the only naval battle in world history in which sailing ships held their own against steam-powered ships in combat.

  5. And the Mexican ships mounted Paixan guns throwing explosive shells while the Texans fired mostly round shot. One-sided, but the Texans fought them toe to toe and made them retreat. That's the kind of stories Texans like to tell around the campfire. Hell, we'll even give Sam Houston a kindly spin for the sake of a good story.