Saturday, May 24, 2014

Battle of the Alamo

Fig.1: What's this place again?
They tell us that we must "Remember the Alamo!" But I've got a lot of stuff bouncing around my brain, like all 282 laws on the Code of Hammurabi, and the order of succession for the British throne (I'm only 486,593,204th in line!), and which establishments have dollar tacos on what days of the week. There needs to be a good reason for me to make room in my memory banks for yet another piece of information. So should we care about the Battle of the Alamo? Statistically, it's a relatively insignificant moment in the Texas Revolution, with the Mexican army overpowering a force of less than 200 Texian rebels to capture a small mission-turned-fort within a sparsely populated area. It also does not appear to be indicative of the overall war, as Texas would eventually shake off Mexican rule despite the loss, briefly becoming an independent republic before its annexation by the United States. So what's the point? Wouldn't we be better off remembering to have our pie à la mode instead? Well I guess the least we can do is take a look at the battle before promptly sending it to "working memory hell" along with everything we learned about trigonometry and the fact that there's a Caddyshack II (darn, I had to remind myself).

First of all, why was Texas revolving anyway? Mexican rule of the region, as well as in California and New Mexico (yes, they already felt the need for a new one) had been shaky ever since their independence from Spain in 1821. The majority of the population were settlers from the southern United States who still preferred their familiar lifestyle of speaking English, owning slaves, and eating more than three meals a day (MURIKA!), even though those things where discouraged by the Mexican government. The man who decided to step up was Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, or (thankfully) Santa Anna for short. Santa Anna was perhaps the major figure of independent Mexico's early history, becoming President a record eleven non-consecutive times (take that, Grover Cleveland)! In December 1835, he threw the original constitution in the shredder and sent out a memo regarding a new one. In it, he changed the style of rule from a federalist (the states have their own powers) to a centralized one (everybody has to listen to the big men in the capital), which threatened Texas's freedom to do what they wanted without any consequences. What kind of life is that?

Open revolt in Texas began in October 1835, as armed residents defeated Mexican troops stationed in area. This included Texian victory at the Battle of Béxar in present-day San Antonio, where rebels were lucky enough to come into possession of the small hundred-year-old mission called the Alamo, originally built to convert Native Americans to Christianity and had been hastily converted into a fort without any renovations to make it more defend-able. Jackpot! Santa Anna (fig.2) decided that he was the only one qualified and handsome enough to suppress the rebellion, and after the necessary farewell parade, he put his fourth presidential term on hold to lead the Mexican army north straight to the Alamo (those parades would sure get expensive after his eighth time leaving office). He made the controversial decision that the Texians in rebellion did not comprise an actual army, but rather a band of pirates, thus making so that all captured soldiers would be immediately put to death without mercy. This was most likely unknown to the Texians themselves, who probably expected to be welcomed with cushy chairs and hot chocolate with marshmallows upon surrendering, as was custom since the glorious days of chivalry.

One of the Texian leaders, Sam Houston, did not think the Alamo was worth remembering right off the bat (insightful man), and ordered for its men and artillery to be transferred somewhere more important. Colonel James Bowie (along with his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust) arrived to shut the fort down, but fell in love with its quaint style and groovy exterior, and promised the troops that he and the Spiders from Mars would help defend it. Some reinforcements and volunteers soon arrived, most notably Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier, who felt the need to boost his legacy after apparently already killing a bear when he was only three, fighting single-handed through the Injun War, fixing the government, and patching up the Liberty bell (or so we heard tell). This brought the Texian force to a whopping total of nearly two hundred to defend the Alamo against Santa Anna's two thousand professionally-trained soldiers, but I'd double that number based on their heart and guts. So, yeah, they were still screwed.

Fig.3: "C'mon, folks! Step right up to your certain death! 
"Please don't be shy!"
The Mexican army arrived on February 23, 1836, and soon began to batter the old fort with cannon-fire, to which the poorly-supplied Texians used those very cannonballs to fire back! Unfortunately, Bowie fell ill (his face was a mess), leaving the young and inexperienced William Travis as the sole commander. Meanwhile, Santa Anna was reinforced with a thousand more soldiers, and personally led his bugle players in an intimidating fight song within earshot of the Alamo (with he himself doing a twelve-minute solo). Travis knew that their chances were slim to none, and gave the defenders a choice by drawing a line in the sand and asking for those willing to fight to come across (fig.3). According to legend, all stepped forward except Moses Rose, a French expatriate who already saw enough bloodshed in Napoleon's army, and wasn't willing to lose his life for a lost cause at an insignificant fort (he was certainly willing to forget the Alamo!). Whether this story is true or not, Rose is remembered as the Coward of the Alamo, and is always brought up whenever Americans start ragging on the French (which is never too hard).

The final siege began at dawn on March 6, 1836. The estimated 189 Texian defenders put up a tremendous fight, but stood as much of a chance as a squirrel at a treeless dog park. One by one, the men were cut down in the heat of battle. Travis was shot while firing over the wall. Crockett reportedly killed sixteen Mexicans himself before becoming overwhelmed (fig.4). Bowie, still sick in bed but wishing to be a hero just for one day, fired his pistols as soldier after soldier burst into the room; he was eventually bayoneted, and sent to his floating tin can far above the world. A few Texians did attempt to surrender, but Santa Anna stayed true to his word about treating the rebels as pirates, giving them scurvy before ordering their execution. The wives and slaves of the defenders were kept alive and ordered to spread the word about the ferocious Mexican army and mariachi band here to end the rebellion.

Fig.4: Crockett was unfortunately a little rusty in fighting single-handed that day.
If Santa Anna hoped his annihilation of the Alamo would scare Texas into submission, he had a thing to learn about who not to mess with (that would be Texas). People from all over the region, as well as in neighboring U.S. states, grabbed their trusty rifles given to them for their fifth birthday and made their way to join Houston's army. Santa Anna, confident as ever after yet another parade, split up his army to quell resistance from all over Texas. This turned out to be a bad time, as Houston surprised him at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836; the Texians routed the Mexicans in about the time required for a paid coffee break, capturing Santa Anna in the process. He was forced to sign a treaty recognizing Texas's independence, which hurt his reputation in Mexico and brought his ego down a notch or two (which was probably good for him). He would later regain his status as the best Mexico had to offer during a tasty war with the French, in which he lost his leg in battle and had it buried with full military honors (can't even joke about that one!).

Fig.5: Wouldn't it suck for Mexico if gold was 
discovered in the region they had to give up? 
How unlucky would that be?
As for Texas, its separation with Mexico wouldn't be officially recognized by the Mexican government until it got by with a little help from a friend. The United States added it as its 28th state in 1845, and then convinced Mexico this was okay by invading their country and taking California and New Mexico along with it (fig.5)! Thus Texas became American in fact as well as in spirit, changing their denonym from Texian to Texan to cut down on needless syllables. And how did Texas repay the U.S.? By seceding and joining the Confederates a little over a decade later. Texan gratitude at its finest!

So is the Alamo really worth remembering? The Texians got their butts kicked but won the war soon thereafter anyway. Can't we just treat the Alamo like a worthless preseason game? Well, the loss at that shoddy fort may have boosted patriotism and brought more revolutionary soldiers into the fray. The cruelty the Mexicans displayed in slaughtering those noble defenders like pirates convinced many on-the-wooden-fence Texians to veer towards independence, and that rallying cry of "Remember the Alamo" kept them going as they charged to victory at San Jacinto. So maybe it wasn't the outcome of the battle that mattered, but the feeling of unity and determination that came out of it. Darn, I guess the Alamo deserves to be remembered after all! Better make room in my brain for it. Sorry, photosynthesis; you and your intricate yet simple chemical formula are going to have to be regarded as witchcraft as far as I'm concerned!

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