No more mythic a story exists in the history of North America than the siege of the Alamo during the 1836 Texas war for independence. Virtually all Americans, unless they have been living under a rock their entire lives, have been exposed to the myth. In it, a band of less than 200 brave and intrepid men stood fast against insurmountable tyranny and sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. A trio of great leaders—William Barret Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett—presided over an American Thermopylae.
In the myth, repeated in popular culture and at the historic site itself, the Alamo’s garrison fought to the last defender and while they died at the Alamo they held out long enough for General Sam Houston to build the army that was successful in the Texas Revolution. In the process a horrendous military disaster was turned, abracadabra, into a political and cultural victory. And many Hispanic freedom fighters such as Juan N. Seguin—first mayor of San Antonio—also took their stands as legendary defenders of liberty inside the walls of the Alamo against Mexican strongman Santa Anna alongside their famous comrades. Accordingly, the heroic myth extends beyond the Anglo-American settlers to others in Texas.
This mythic story has been recited many times. It has all of the dramatic effect of a great novel—certainly appropriate since so much of it is untrue—never failing to engage the general public. The major elements of the myth include:
1. A small group of Texans stand up to Santa Anna’s numerous and armed Mexican army. Far from a senseless confrontation with the Mexicans, the defense of the Alamo becomes a delaying tactic making possible the later success of the Texas Revolution.
2. Determined to stall Santa Anna’s march to the north the Texans agree to stand and fight to the last man. In a dramatic event, Travis forms up his troops, draws a line in the sand, and asks those who will stand and fight to cross it. All do so except for Frenchman Louis Moses Rose—a veteran of Napoleonic Wars—who leaves the Alamo and is the only source for the “line in the sand” incident.
3. They experience a siege lasting thirteen days and then a final assault comes on March 6, 1836. All 187 defenders of the Alamo died in the final assault, heroically in this master narrative. Mexican casualties range from a low of about 70 killed as reported by Santa Anna (which no one believes) to somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 Mexicans killed. Capture of the Alamo exacted, therefore, an enormous price for Santa Anna.
4. A few weeks later, time gained by the defense of the Alamo, Sam Houston’s army surprised Santa Anna at San Jacinto and scored a great military victory. In the process Texas achieved its independence from Mexico.
If this sounds familiar it is because it is the still widely accepted story of the Alamo. It is ensconced in the interpretation offered at the historic site in San Antonio. It is still the basic account taught to schoolchildren in Texas, and in most other high school history courses. It is the story depicted in many books and in most of the films made about the siege, especially Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960).
It is important to recognize that this myth is not so much falsehood—as many people seem to believe—as it is a story about our past that points up the highest ideals of the society. As James Oliver Robertson observes in American Myth, American Reality (Hill & Wang, 1980), “Myths are the patterns of behavior, or belief, and/or perception-which people have in common. Myths are not deliberately, or necessarily consciously, fictitious” (p. xv). The story of the Alamo depicted here and in other mythic treatments, is a kind of poetry, about events and situations that have great significance both for those involved and those that follow. Myths are, in fact, essential truths for the members of a cultural group who hold them, enact them, or perceive them. They are sometimes expressed in diffuse ideologies, but in literate societies like the United States they are also embedded in historical narratives such as that developed for the Alamo.
What does the myth of the Alamo say about the culture that has embraced it? Everyone will have individual answers to that question, but let me offer a couple of suggestions. First, the ideology of freedom and democracy as manifested in the United States is heavily wrapped up in it. The idea of American exceptionalism, that American institutions and beliefs are penultimate in human history, finds representation there as well. In addition, the concept of personal sacrifice for a larger, presumably positive goal finds its place in the story.
The coming together of a diverse group of people, some of whom intensely disliked each other, for a significant purpose also makes its way into the narrative. Finally, the demonization of “the other,” in this case the dictator Santa Anna and his tyranny sets up the defenders of the Alamo as persecuted innocents. How far to carry these discussions of myth is everyone’s prerogative.