A man gets a lot of time to think about things as he’s wandering the back roads of Texas. On March 6th, my thoughts inevitably turn to the Alamo.
The first question is why the battle was even fought in the first place.
In retrospect, it’s apparent that neither side should have engaged the other at the Alamo. Santa Anna had no strategic need to take the mission because its location 125 miles inland from the gulf coast did not command any indispensable land or water routes. Not only that, but supplies for Santa Anna’s army could have come more easily by river or along the coast from Matamoros.
Having said that, Santa Anna had several "moral" reasons for wanting to attack. One was to avenge the defeat of General Cos a couple of months earlier in San Antonio. Another was to show the Texians that they would pay a price for resisting. But he needn’t have attacked. He could have waited a few more days for the siege guns that were en route and that would have reduced the Alamo to rubble without much in the way of Mexican losses. But his stupidity and his ego (that whole "Napoleon of the West" thing) cost his army several hundred of its best soldiers, weakening it.
Likewise, the defenders had no good strategic reason for defending the Alamo. Neill and Bowie made the initial decision to defend the Alamo just because they thought they could. Then, after they were trapped, basic beliefs of honor and manhood took over. After it became clear that they were not going to get help from outside and that surrender was not an option they basically had the choice of trying to escape or fighting to the end. They started saying to each other, in essence, "I’ll die before I turn yella." So, even though they had no strategic necessity to defend the Alamo, they defended it for reasons perfectly clear to themselves, just as Santa Anna attacked it for reasons perfectly clear to himself.
Of course, it is also true that the the sacrifice of the men at the Alamo benefited the Texian cause in several ways. First, the destruction of the Alamo woke up the Texians, especially the older settlers who, for the most part, did not favor revolution. Second, the story of fighting to the last man stirred imaginations and increased support for the Texian cause in the United States. Third, it weakened Santa Anna’s army significantly and provided a rallying cry for Texians for the rest of the war. Lastly, by delaying the Mexican invasion for two+ weeks, the Alamo defenders gave the convention that met on March 1st the time to declare independence and organize a temporary government for Texas.
One of the things that many Texans don’t know is that, nearly a year after the battle, Juan Seguin brought his company of cavalry to San Antonio and examined what survived of the piles of charred remains from the three pyres of burned Texian bodies that Santa Anna had set alight right after the battle.
Seguin gave orders that the bells in San Fernando should start to peal, and keep ringing throughout the day, then engaged a Bexar carpenter to build a coffin. They covered the interior with black cloth, then placed the ashes, small bits of bone etc… from the two smaller piles in the box. Though the contents reflected the remains of many different men, Seguin caused to be inscribed on the inside of the lid just three names: Bowie, Crockett and Travis. Laying a Texian rifle and sword atop the casket, his men carried it to San Fernando, and there it remained as a procession gathered in the street outside, the bells ringing all the while.
At 4:00 p.m. Seguin led the mourners back through the main street of town, across the San Antonio river, and back toward the Alamo and the remaining pile of ashes. Seguin gave a speech (in Spanish), volleys of rifle shots were fired etc… Then the box was buried. But the spot went unmarked. They did not think to mark it. Who could forget the final resting place of the immortal Alamo garrison? And yet, within a generation, it was lost.
Today, the coffin is probably covered over by a highway or a shopping mall.
So now, if you didn’t know it before, you know the rest of the story.
And I feel kind of like Paul Harvey.