So many of us are familiar with this historical battle cry that was the symbol of the Texas fight for independence from Mexico. “Remember the Alamo” has a real nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Fewer than a couple hundred American volunteers taking on a few thousand Mexicans. It didn’t seem fair. Since 1911, 14 different movies (theatres and TV combined) have depicted the famous heroic battle against impossible odds, with two movies the more noteworthy: one starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett in 1960, and the other with Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett in 2004, with the latter piece being the more historically correct.
What actually led to the Battle at the Alamo? What were Texans (or Texians as they were called then) so ticked off about? Actually, get this…the major issue in the fight for independence was slavery. Yes…slavery. And what Texas believed was their right to preserve it: a simple fact well-known at the time that has been somewhat diminished since then due to such things as society pressure and political correctness.
The trouble started fifteen years before the battle...
Mexico had just gained its independence in 1821, after 300 years of Spanish rule, and as a result of their breaking away were now a severely cash-strapped government looking for extra tax revenue. One scheme to combat this, they enticed southern United States cotton plantation owners to take up residence in the Mexican territory of Texas and continue planting, harvesting, and shipping cotton by way of a new venue. It was the slave labor, of course, which made the whole venture hugely profitable. Each owner had a lot invested in this human manpower, having put out upwards of $1,000 per slave. Once these settlers brought their slaves with them, there was approximately one slave per five Texans within just a few short years. At first, it was a great relationship between the Mexicans and these new settlers: The cotton owners made money, paid their taxes, and the Mexicans were filling their government coffers.
However, the Mexican government was facing pressures within their country--as well as from around the world, including England and the northern United States--to abolish slavery, which Mexico eventually did in their mother country and all her territories in September, 1829. The Texans were livid. It’s important to note that Mexico’s president at the time was Vincente Guerrero, a man of black heritage. Within weeks the law was changed to make Texas exempt. Then, when Guerrero was assassinated a few months later, the Mexican government changed hands, and those in power passed a new law prohibiting further American settlement and any additional slave immigration into Texas, a terrible blow for the Texan cotton industry.
Enter Stephen Austin, later immortalized as the Founding Father of Texas. Virginia-born and Missouri-raised, he brought 300 American families with him into Texas beginning in 1825 to settle in the San Antonio area. Within five short years, Americans outnumbered Mexicans ten to one throughout the state. In late-1833, Austin travelled to Mexico City to deal with issues presented by his fellow Texans, such as the lowering of taxes, and the possibility of near-future independence. The Mexican government wouldn’t hear of such mutiny. They jailed Austin and refused to release him until August, 1835. By then, there were about 20,000 Texans and 4,000 slaves in the territory.
Four months later, in December, dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mexican president since the previous April, declared another new law abolishing any form of slavery in Texas. It was the last straw for the settlers and their leader, Stephen Austin, who boldly announced that Texas was now known as the Republic of Texas and would be forever free of Mexican rule. One of the first laws made by the new republic was a ban on free blacks within its borders. The leader of the ground fighting forces for Texas independence, General Sam Houston, began forming an army. But he needed time, manpower, and supplies. And in a hurry.
Meanwhile, Santa Anna had assembled a huge army made up of mostly conscripts, ex-cons, and vagrants and headed north to put a stop to this defiant, rebel bunch of Texians. En route, the Mexican army had more than their share of mishaps, having to deal with cold weather, several inches of snow in areas, a stretched supply line, lack of food, and Comanche raids that depleted their force.
At the end of February, 1836, Santa Anna and his men reached the Alamo, a former Catholic mission outside San Antonio that had previously been a fort commanded by Mexican soldiers and run now by Texian soldiers numbering 189 volunteers under the joint command of Colonel James Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel William Travis. One of the volunteers was frontiersman and former Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett. The fort covered three acres and had 1,300 feet of area to defend by the Texan men with small arms, 19 twelve-pound cannons left behind by the fleeing Mexican soldiers stationed there just a few months prior, and one, giant 18-pound cannon brought in by New Orleans Greys volunteers.
On February 23, Santa Anna deployed a 13-day siege using 1,600 men, which grew to another 1,500 men by March 2, finally overtaking the Texians during an early morning assault before sunup. Most of the volunteers were killed during the final assault, while a half-dozen were captured and executed upon orders by Santa Anna. One of them may have been Crockett. But no one knows for sure. All the bodies were stacked and burned to ashes. By some accounts, about 600 Mexicans were killed in the battle, which made for an alarming loss rate (three to one) considering that the Texans had been so badly outnumbered in the first place.
Santa Anna then turned his attention on the larger Texan army of Sam Houston, which had been gaining more recruits once the news of the Alamo reached across Texas like a prairie wildfire. When Houston discovered through intelligence sources that Santa Anna had spilt his army, he--with 700 patriotic men now--engaged Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, during an afternoon Mexican “siesta.” With his men shouting the battle cry “Remember the Alamo,” Houston’s band of men beat Santa Anna’s force in only 18 minutes of vicious fighting. Santa Anna was caught the next day and forced to sign--at gunpoint--the Treaty of Velasco declaring Texas independent of Mexican rule.
At first, Texas remained the Republic of Texas, with Sam Houston as its president from 1836-1838, then again from 1841-1844. Texas finally joined the United States on December, 29 1845 as a slave state. From then until 1859, Houston served as a state senator. Cotton was King in Texas in those early years. In 1849, the state produced 58,073 bales at 500 pounds each. Ten years later, the numbers jumped to over 400,000 bales, the sharp rise due to more available land upon the removal by force of many Indian tribes.
Houston was elected governor in 1859, and was still in power when Texas voted to secede from the Union on February 1, 1861. It joined the Confederate States of America a month later. A pro-slaver and a slave owner himself, Houston denounced his state’s action, however, refusing the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy on the grounds that he believed in preserving the Union. As a result, the Texas legislature had him removed from office.
In April, 1861, two months into his retirement from public office, Houston stated before a crowd: “The North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche, and what I fear is, they will overcome the South.” Very few listened. Houston died in 1863 at age 70, two years before the Civil War concluded.
Following the crushing defeat of the Confederacy in the war, Texas soldiers came home to a bankrupt situation, their state in disarray. It took the Longhorn cattle industry with their massive cattle drives, the discovery of oil, and the continued production of cotton for the state to get back on its feet by the turn of the 20th century. This time in a large way and without slavery. Today, Texas produces a third of the country’s total cotton supply.
Ironically, the Longhorn herds were descendants of Spanish cattle brought to Mexico by early Spanish colonists at the time of Christopher Columbus. The Longhorns later roamed free throughout Mexico, before they migrated north into Texas, where they were rounded up and shipped east for profit.
And the rest…is history, Texas style. Cotton, cattle, and oil. Oh, and we can’t forget the railroads.