The story of the Alamo is known around the world. Like all legendary events, however, historical myths and misconceptions have sprung up that many people now take as fact. The following is a brief discussion of some of the inaccuracies that seem to be the most widely accepted.
1. The winter of 1836 was one of the coldest in Texas history.
The idea has somehow developed that 1836 was one of the coldest winters in Texas history. One fact that reinforces this notion is that the Mexican Army encountered a freak blizzard in route to Texas that began on the evening of February 13 and continued throughout the next day. The weather during this storm was severe enough to kill horses, mules, men and camp followers.1 The snowstorm, however, did not extend into Texas. Two observers in Texas in 1836, William Fairfax Gray and Colonel Juan Almonte, both kept records of the weather in their journals. From their entries information can be gathered that reveals the weather at the time of the battle. A cold front arrived on the evening of February 25 that dropped the temperatures into the 30s. Prior to that, however, it had been "shirt sleeve" weather. It remained cold and rainy but warmed to nearly 60 degrees (F) on February 29. That night, a second cold front swept the region. The temperature gradually warmed over the next few days. It remained cool on March 6, but by March 8 Gray proclaimed "Fine weather." Any Texan should recognize this as a description of typical Texas weather.
2. The Battle of the Alamo bought time for Sam Houston to build his army.
The notion that the men of the Alamo died buying time for Sam Houston to build an army is well-entrenched in Alamo lore, but a review of Houston's activities shows it to be unfounded. On November 12, 1835, the Consultation (the provisional government of Texas) appointed Sam Houston Commanding-General of the Texas Army. His authority, however, extended over the regular army, leaving him unable to legally issue orders to the volunteers already in the field.2 Houston dispatched recruiters to raise the regular army as well as agents to acquire arms, uniforms, and other supplies. With no troops to command, Houston received a furlough on January 28 in order to take care of personal business. He spent part of his leave conducting negotiations with the Cherokee Indians.3 With a treaty successfully concluded, Houston rode to Washington-on-the-Brazos, where he served as a delegate to the constitutional convention, remaining there until March 6.4 During his stay, the new government reconfirmed his appointment as commanding-general of the Texas Army, giving him control over all troops - regulars and volunteers. Houston arrived at Gonzales on March 11 to lead a relief expedition to San Antonio but by then the Alamo had already fallen. Thus, during the siege Houston was not building an army but engaged in other important business.
3. The men at the Alamo died not knowing that Texas had declared its independence.
It is true that the Alamo garrison most likely died unaware that the delegates at the constitutional convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos had adopted a Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836. Nevertheless, the Alamo garrison was in favor of independence and fully expected the delegates to secede from Mexico. The garrison had even sent its own delegates to the convention with instructions to vote for independence. Travis addressed the issue of independence in a letter sent from the Alamo on March 3, 1836: "Let the Convention go on and make a declaration of independence, and we will then understand, and the world will understand, what we are fighting for. If independence is not declared, I shall lay down my arms, and so will the men under my command."
Thus, Texas' Declaration of Independence would not have surprised them - it was what they desired and expected.5
"Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none."6
This famous quote conveys the notion that none survived the Battle of the Alamo. It is true that nearly all of the Texans under arms inside the fort were killed in the March 6, 1836, attack. However, nearly twenty women and children, who experienced the twelve days of siege leading to the final assault, were spared and allowed to return to their homes. The survivors also included Joe, the slave of William B. Travis. The best known Alamo survivor, Susanna Dickinson, was sent to Gonzales by Santa Anna with a warning to the Texans that the same fate awaited them if they continued their revolt.7
5. The only Texans who rallied to the aid of the Alamo were 32 men from Gonzales.
One question frequently asked about the Battle of the Alamo is why did not more Texans answer Travis' poignant pleas for help. The arrival of the Gonzales Ranging Company on the morning of March 1, 1836, is the only documented instance of assistance.8 Much scorn has been heaped on Colonel James W. Fannin, whose 400-man battalion remained at Goliad, only 100 miles away. Fannin's detractors ignore the fact that he also faced an advancing Mexican column and could not leave his post unguarded. Travis' letters were effective in bringing recruits to the field. More than 200 volunteers had gathered at Gonzales in preparation to march to the Alamo's relief when news of its fall reached the town.9 It was this collection of men that formed the nucleus of Sam Houston's army that eventually defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.10
6. The men of the Alamo could have left at any time because they were volunteers.
Although the majority of the Alamo's garrison was composed of volunteers, they were volunteers in the 19th century military sense of the word. These men had signed an oath of allegiance to the Provisional Government of Texas, declaring "I will serve her honestly and faithfully against all her enemies and opposer whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the Governor of Texas, the orders and decrees of the present and future authorities and the orders of the officers appointed over me according to the rules and regulations for the government of Texas."11
Citizen-soldiers, these men were bound to defend any post they were assigned and were not free to leave on their own.
7. William B. Travis was disliked by the garrison.
Travis fares rather poorly in the popular media, usually portrayed as a pompous martinet with few friends. In reality, Travis was outgoing, gregarious and respected by his peers.12 One fact that has helped create the notion that the men of the Alamo disliked Travis was the volunteers' refusal to take orders from him, electing James Bowie as their leader instead.13 The election of Bowie had more to do with the ongoing philosophical dispute between regulars and volunteers than it did the garrison's opinion of Travis.14 The volunteers simply did not want to take orders from a regular officer, even someone they respected such as Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis of the Texas Army.
8. The Battle of the Alamo would not have taken place had the garrison followed Sam Houston's orders to blow up the fort and leave San Antonio.
On January 17, 1836, Houston wrote Governor Henry Smith that he had "ordered the fortifications in the town of Bexar to be demolished, and if you should think well of it [italics added for emphasis], I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo, and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers..."15
Thus, Houston requested permission to give the order to destroy the Alamo - permission that Governor Smith did not grant. The lack of horses and mules meant that the cannon, ammunition, and other supplies could not have been removed even if the governor had agreed with Houston's plan.16
On February 2, 1836, Bowie expressed the following view to Governor Henry Smith:
"The Salvation of Texas depends in great measure in keeping Bejar out of the hands of the enemy. It serves as the frontier picquet guard . . . . Col. Neill & Myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy."17