Remember the Alamo

The Alamo 1836 describes how Santa Anna’s excesses following his triumph at the Alamo helped turn the tide against him


The Alamo 1836: Santa Anna’s Texas Campaign
Stephen L. Hardin. Illustrated by Angus McBride
2001, Osprey Publishing, Oxford
96 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

TO SANTA ANNA, the self-aggrandising Napoleon of the West whose visions of Mexican glory were shaped as much by cynical opportunism as by raw ambition, the battle of the Alamo was a “small affair”.

As such, the siege and subsequent sacking of the poorly fortified compound in Béxar by a large Mexican force that overwhelmed “Texian” separatists without great military merit might have passed into history as one of the less meaningful episodes of the turbulent 19th century.

But like so many defeats before and since, the Alamo has entered the mythology of patriotic sacrifice from which nations are forged, providing a moral compass for Texans weakened by their own political divisions and new to war, and sowing the seeds for the subsequent Mexican-American War in 1846.

Effect upon Texan psyche

The defeat of a small contingent of regulars and volunteers at the Alamo, whose number included rugged frontiersmen since transformed into legends such as David Crockett and Jim Bowie, had a powerful effect upon the Texan and wider American psyche.

This excellent study of the battle, its background and its implications by Stephen Hardin is well worth picking up, not least because the author has striven hard to present a balanced historical picture. Hardin recounts in vivid detail the high cost in lives of the early morning Mexican assault on the Alamo compound, and the last stand by the Texans defending it amid vicious hand to hand combat.

But he also situates this individual battle within the wider campaign by the Texan secessionists, and draws attention to the many tactical errors made by the often foolhardy and inexperienced rebels. While painting a picture of the vainglorious Santa Anna that is inevitably negative, Hardin also praises the well-practised military skills of his subordinate General José Urrea. Santa Anna ordered the slaughter of Alamo captives, as he would subsequently do at Goliad, and had the bodies of the slain tossed naked on to a pyre. It was this disdain that has generated much of the moral force that the Alamo has evoked for Texans ever since. Had he spared the defeated, the cannon reports might not have sounded so loud in Washington-on-the-Brazos. Urrea, by contrast, was an honourable and capable general who pleaded, in vain, with his commander to spare the lives of his captives at Goliad. Hardin is also careful to point to the atrocities committed by Texans at San Jacinto – where Santa Anna’s complacency finally humbled him – in revenge for what had occurred at Béxar.

The author is particularly good at sketching the personalities of the main protagonists in this tale, which undoubtedly strikes a universal chord because of our fascination with individual and heroic sacrifice. We learn that, depsite the many legends that he fell on the field in a valiant last stand, Crockett – the “lion of the West” – did not die knife in hand but was captured in the Alamo church and thereafter executed. Bowie was an adventurous conman who pursued a very personal agenda. William Barret Travis abandoned his wife and child to seek his fortune in Texas, and was unpopular among his men. Sam Houston had a politician’s tendency to equivocate while stubbornly disregarding the facts and wielded little authority on the field, where his men often derided his orders. James Walker Fannin, who was roundly defeated in the disastrous battle of Coleto Creek, was a crony who had made his money from slavery.

Santa Anna, however, needs little introduction. This epic historical character whose personal fortunes were intertwined with those of his republic in that era looms large in this study. Just as it was Santa Anna’s audaciousness that allowed him to surprise and overwhlem the Alamo, it was his foolishness and arrogance that would eventually cost him the Texan war.

While Hardin situates this history in the unremitting internecine strife between factions within a Mexico struggling to find its identity, there are references and themes that could have been developed further, not least the issue of slavery and the support by local Tejano ranchers for Santa Anna’s centralist soldados. But in the tradition of US military history, Hardin’s story of the Alamo is one dominated by the strengths and weaknesses of individual personalities, traits that we would all recognise. The result is an absorbing, human story.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books