The Alamo: a case study in male disposability

Featured Image By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0,

There are those who do not understand the story of the Alamo; but they do not understand the nature, and sometime valor, of men.
T.R. Fehrenbach, Texas Historian

2016 marks the 180th anniversary of the battle of the Alamo, an incident that has been chronicled and debated ever since in history books and historical novels. 15 movies have dealt with the incident, starting with The Immortal Alamo in 1911, and the Alamo in downtown San Antonio remains the most popular tourist site in Texas. To my knowledge, no one has ever discussed the event as an outstanding (or, if you prefer, egregious) example of male disposability – on both sides.

First of all, the Alamo need not have happened. The rebels captured it on December 10, 1835, but on January 17, 1836, Sam Houston, commander-in-chief, sent a message to the troops and ordered them to abandon the Alamo, blow it up, and remove the artillery to other environs.

William Barret Travis, commander of the Texians (the term Texans did not become popular till Texas was admitted to the Union) ensconced in the Alamo, had some rather melodramatic ideas about achieving glory via death. In his famous plea for assistance on February 24, 1836 (the day after Santa Anna and the Mexican army arrived in San Antonio), he wrote; “I am determined to sustain my post as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his honor & that of his country – Victory or Death.” Even with reinforcements, the former was unlikely, and the latter was all but assured. Actually, there was a third option, though Travis didn’t offer it to his troops till the day before the final battle.

Holding out until March 5, just three days after the Texas Declaration of Independence was ratified, Travis realized that the Alamo defenders were in an untenable situation. They were hopelessly outnumbered and could not withstand an all-out assault by thousands of Mexican troops. Surrendering was no better than a fight to the finish, as Santa Anna had already indicated no quarter would be given. So Travis gave the men of the Alamo a choice.

According to legend, Travis drew a line in the sand and invited those who wanted to stay with him to cross the line and come over to his side. Historians doubt that Travis literally drew a line in the sand, but he did indeed inform his men that they could retire from the fray if they chose.

While there is some debate about the exact number of men inside the Alamo, only one defender, Louis Moses Rose, an elderly (by the standards of his day…he was 50 years old) decided to evacuate and managed to escape the night before the final battle. A former soldier in service to Napoleon, Rose decided to call it quits in the battle against the Napoleon of the West, as Santa Anna fancied himself.

Now whether or not Travis actually drew a line in the sand is unimportant, though it is a powerful metaphor. He offered more than 180 men a chance at life, and only one took him up on it. What was Louis Moses Rose thinking? Was it the old discretion-being-the-better-part-of-valor thing, or living to fight another day? Or did he realize – correctly – that his death could achieve nothing?

Abandoning the Alamo on the eve of the final siege might have been more beneficial for the Texians’ cause. After all, they had delayed the Mexican army’s advance for 12 days. Remarkably, they had suffered no deaths during the siege, but now they were short of ammunition and gunpowder. If it were a matter of male utility, wouldn’t it have been more efficient for the Alamo defenders to attempt to escape? After all, couriers had been coming and going all through the siege. Some of the men escaping would not have made it, but the ones who succeeded would thus be available to fight in future battles.

Speaking of male disposability, let’s not forget Santa Anna, tucked away in his command center 500 yards from the Alamo, and his squandering of Mexican soldiers. Mexican body counts vary widely. Texas A&M University has come up with a chart compiling all estimates of the body counts for both sides and come up with a range of 311-2000 Mexican. No matter the final body count, overrunning the Alamo was a costly enterprise.

I think it’s safe to say that most of those Mexican soldiers were not particularly enthusiastic about taking part in the siege, as most of them were conscripts (a lot of them had been sprung from jails) gathered up by Santa Anna as he marched north from Zacatecas, where he had put down another rebellion. The tyranny of the central government in Mexico City had inspired many rebellions. Four years after the Alamo, another secession movement broke out in the state of Tamaulipas. Santa Anna was hardly the people’s choice.

The nice thing about vastly outnumbering your opponent is you can just keep sending men into the breach until they finally win. The disposability of men is a function of their abundance. Much like an oversupply of cheap labor obviates the development of labor-saving devices, an oversupply of soldiers allows leaders to simply keep feeding them into the meat-grinder until victory is achieved, rather than put on their thinking caps to devise some sort of strategy that might accomplish the goal with fewer casualties.

From a military standpoint, wouldn’t it have made more sense for Santa Anna to bypass the Alamo and head east after Sam Houston and his army? Well, Santa Anna was more of an egotist than a strategist. He had taken the Texians’ occupation of the Alamo as a personal insult. When the Texians captured the Alamo in December of 1835, General Martin Perfecto de Cos – Santa Anna’s brother-in-law – had surrendered to them.

Even so, if Santa Anna was determined to assault the Alamo, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to wait until his heavy artillery (bogged down in mud on the northward march) arrived so that he could breach the walls and his men wouldn’t have had to resort to scaling ladders?

It is worth pausing to note that chivalry was not dead, as Santa Anna spared the non-combatants, including Susanna Dickinson (the wife of defender Almaron Dickinson) and her daughter, some Mexican women, and children, as well as two slaves. In other words, on March 6, 1836, white male privilege was nowhere in evidence.

Though there was no counterpart of a Trojan horse, the “Texian Iliad,” as it was referred to just a few years after the battle, captured the public imagination. As a last stand against overwhelming odds, the Alamo was sometimes called “The Thermopylae of Texas,” hearkening back to 300 Greeks holding off hordes of Persians in 480 B.C. Looking to the future, the battle of Wake Island (initiated by the Japanese just hours after Pearl Harbor) is sometimes referred to as the Alamo of the Pacific, as it was another siege involving a vast army besieging an entrenched but much smaller opponent. Rooting for the home team is always a favorite pursuit, and when the home team is the underdog, it inspires, even more passion in the fans/citizens.

What makes the Alamo unique is the men had a choice. If you want to leave, do so, good luck, and no questions asked. You’ve done your duty, now save your skin. But peer pressure was a factor in 1836, even though the phrase probably wasn’t in currency back then.

The men surely realized they were signing their own death warrants by staying there. They might have rationalized that decision by acknowledging that their deaths would buy a few more hours for Sam Houston, who was recruiting more and more men while his army was retreating towards the east. As it turned out, the news of the Alamo defenders being wiped out, as well as mass executions of rebels at the town of Goliad on Palm Sunday, did inspire more men to volunteer.

The families of the Alamo defenders were not in immediate danger. Many had joined the “runaway scrape” headed for safety in Louisiana. Others were already hundreds of miles away, as a good number of the men in the Alamo were adventurers from outside of Texas. So the men were not laying down their lives in defense of their families, and there were no women to shame them.

So why didn’t the men try to escape? Did they believe that every Mexican soldier they killed was one less Mexican soldier who could fight Sam Houston? Or were they like modern men committing suicide because they perceived there was no way out? What was the motivation for the big three: Colonel Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett?

The once-vigorous Jim Bowie was a broken man, suffering from typhoid and still mourning the death of his wife and children due to a cholera epidemic. He was doomed. Might as well take a few Mexican soldiers with him.

Davy Crockett was 49 years old – older than the U.S. Constitution. Having been voted out of the House of Representatives by his constituents in Tennessee, he uttered the famous words, “You all can go to hell. I’m going to Texas.” In the last letter he wrote, to his daughter and son-in-law, on January 9, 1836, he penned, “I am in hopes of making a fortune.” It’s tough to get rich when you’re dead. So why did he stay? Already a living legend, did he want to assure his legendary status forever? Had he invested in coonskin cap futures?

Travis was the youngest of the big three, just 26 years old. Despite his domestic troubles (supposedly he killed a man who had cuckolded him) back in South Carolina, he might have had a bright future. But he was willing to exchange his life for glory. If Travis’s ambition was to go down in history, he certainly achieved it. This concept of glory-by-death was still in evidence as late as 1958 when Lon Tinkle authored 13 Days to Glory, a popular Alamo history that is still widely available.

On the other side, why did the Mexican soldiers allow themselves to be sacrificed? The march across the desert of northern Mexico in winter wasn’t as bad as the Bataan death march, but it was no leisurely stroll. Given their numbers, they could have mutinied, fragged Santa Anna and his officers, burned the bodies, and deserted. Unfortunately, the typical Mexican peasant was trained to obey authority no matter what. Ironically, the Mexican government looked down on the American institution of slavery while the lot of the Mexican campesino was arguably worse.

There may have been a touch of racism in Santa Anna’s cavalier treatment of his troops. Technically, slavery did not exist in Mexico, but there was a caste system. At the top of the heap were the gachupines or peninsulares, i.e., Spaniards who had emigrated from the Iberian Peninsula. Criollos (or Creoles) were the new world offspring of those Spaniards. Next came the mestizos, those of mixed Spanish and Indian blood (since the majority of Spanish emigrants were male, this blending was inevitable), and finally the Indians or indios, who were a conquered people.

Aside from the officer corps, the Mexican army was largely composed of the two lower castes. So Santa Anna might have figured there were plenty more where they came from, so why hold them back? They were as disposable as Kleenex. On the other hand, history is rife with examples of commanders who did not hesitate to sacrifice lower class men of their own race to achieve their goals, so it may be more a matter of class than of race.

It’s also possible that the ambitious Santa Anna may have been frustrated because an accident of birth prevented him from ever ascending to the highest caste. For that reason, he may have been something of an overachiever; if he could never be a gachupin, he could be the ultimate Creole alpha male…and if thousands of lower caste men had to die to propel him to the top…well, sacrifices must be made.

If I were defending or assaulting the Alamo, I don’t know what I would have done – but I don’t consider myself expendable. Faced with certain death, I’d have to make damn sure it was worth the sacrifice. Otherwise, hasta la vista, baby. Then again, the Alamo fell 180 years ago, and male consciousness has changed.

T.R. Fehrenbach, author of the opening comment, noted of the Alamo defenders “There was a core of barbarian hardihood, and barbarian warlikeness, in each of these men, different as they were.”

So these men were more formidable than contemporary video game warriors. The likes of Anita Sarkeesian would not faze them.

I’ve always felt there’s a little of the barbarian in all of us boys (some parents, schoolteachers, and feminists would likely agree). The Alamo defenders surely had more of it than contemporary men and likely more than their peers.

The phrase “Remember the Alamo” is still in common currency, but perhaps we should add, “Get in touch with your inner barbarian.”

That would look good on a T-shirt or bumper sticker!

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