Remembering the Alamo

The Battle of the Alamo ended on this day in 1836, 1,500 Mexicans under the command of President-General Santa Anna overcoming some 200 American soldiers and volunteers after a siege of almost two weeks. With few reliable eyewitness accounts of the decisive sunrise assault, key facts remain uncertain — for example, whether Davy Crockett died defiantly or by execution, perhaps after surrendering. But the uncertainty made the Alamo fertile ground for the legend makers, the following excerpted from a tribute issued by the citizens of a nearby Texas town just days after the battle:

They died martyrs to liberty; and on the altar of their sacrifice will be made many a vow that shall break the shackles of tyranny. Thermopylae, is no longer without a parallel, and when time shall consecrate the dead of the Alamo, Travis [Alamo co-commander William B. Travis] and his companions will be named in rivalry with Leonidas and his Spartan band.

Travis apparently did use his saber to draw a line in the sand, offering a fight/flee option to his men. Fittingly, Randy Roberts and James S. Olson divide their A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory (2001) into two parts, the first half exploring the historical record and the second half exploring “how Americans gave and continue to give meaning to the event.” During the 1950s, the meaning-giving reached craze levels with Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett television movies, which flooded America with more than coonskin caps:

To viewers of the 1950s, Davy’s world was not much different from their own. It was a place where liberty was under siege, where freedom-loving citizens, who knew they were right, were battling incalculable odds. It was Greece and Turkey in 1947, Berlin in 1948, Korea in 1950, or any one of the other flash points of the Cold War. Davy was a visible expression of the Truman Doctrine, and his mission in Texas was to fight the encroachment of an evil empire….

Roberts and Olson go on to say that Disney’s Davy “scratched a line in the ever shifting cultural sands.” On one side stood those who debunked the Crockett legend, the national self-image, and the simplifications offered by the new medium of television; among those on the other side was William F. Buckley, who noted the “resentment by liberal publicists of Davy’s neurosis-free approach to life.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.