I was born half a decade ago in the Texas city of Dallas, yet I had never received a postcard from my birth-state until late last month. Ironically, I was in the midst of planning a trip to the States that will begin late next year and had just decided to add San Antonio onto the itinerary while en route to Houston. My sole reason to visit San Antonio, of course, is to tour the Alamo; it’s a pilgrimage that every Texan must undertake. I probably went there are some point in my very early childhood — my father once took a photograph that was included in a souvenir slide set sold in the gift shop — but I have absolutely no memory of a trip there.
The postcard was sent by a childhood friend of mine. Amy, and her brother Chris, actually date from the time we lived in the Dallas suburb of Garland. We moved to Midland, far away in West Texas, when I was around five or six years old. Amy and Chris visited us several times before we relocated to the Nashville, Tennessee, area. Although Amy and I corresponded a bit while I was in high school (living by then in northeastern Kansas), it wasn’t until I moved to Thailand a decade ago that I came back into contact with Chris via Facebook. I believe the postmark on this card reads 8 August (U.S. postmarks are the most hit-and-miss of any countries I receive postcards from); it arrived in Phuket on August 27, 2016.
The Alamo was originally known as Misión San Antonio de Valero when it was built in the eighteenth century as a Roman Catholic mission and fortress compound. This was one of several missions established by the Spanish government in East Texas, all of them quite isolated and difficult to provision. On May 1, 1718, a temporary mud, brush and straw structure had been erected near the headwaters of the San Antonio River and named after Saint Anthony of Padua and the viceroy of New Spain, Baltasar de Zúñiga y Guzmán Sotomayor y Sarmiento, Marquess of Valero. A presidio was built one mile (two kilometers) north of the mission. The first civilian community in Texas — San Antonio de Béxar — was founded nearby.
The mission moved to the western bank of the river within a year but was destroyed by the remnants of a Gulf Coast hurricane in 1724. It was then that the mission was moved to its current location, then just across the river from the town of San Antonio de Béxar and just north of a group of huts known as La Villita. The complex expanded over the next several decades to cover 3 acres (1.2 hectares). The stones were laid for a more permanent church building in 1744 but collapsed in the late 1750s. Reconstruction began in 1758 with 4-foot (1.2-meter) thick limestone blocks. It was intended to be three stories high, topped by a dome, with bell towers on either side but the third story and towers were never begun. While four stone arches were erected to support the planned dome, the dome itself was never built. It was built to withstand attacks by Apache and Comanche raiding parties. The mission was abandoned around 1793.
During the Mexican War of Independence, parts of the mission often served as a political prison and it served as San Antonio’s first hospital between 1806 and 1812. The buildings were transferred from Spanish to Mexican control in 1821 after Mexico gained its independence. Soldiers continued to garrison the complex until December 1835 when General Martin Perfecto de Cos surrendered to Texian forces during the Texas Revolution. While he’d been stationed at San Antonio, General Cos had ordered the demolition of the four stone arches intended to support the chapel dome and used the debris to build a ramp to the apse of the chapel building. Tree cannons were placed there that could fire over the walls of the roofless building. When the Mexican soldiers retreated, they left behind nineteen cannons.
About 100 Texians were garrisoned at the Alamo following Cos’s retreat. The Texian force grew slightly with the arrival of reinforcements led by eventual Alamo co-commanders James Bowie and William B. Travis. On February 23, 1836, approximately 1,500 Mexicans under the command of General Antonio López de Santa Anna marched into San Antonio de Béxar as the first step in a campaign to retake Texas. For the next 10 days the two armies engaged in several skirmishes with minimal casualties. Aware that his garrison could not withstand an attack by such a large force, Travis wrote multiple letters pleading for more men and supplies, but the Texians were reinforced by fewer than 100 men.
In the early morning hours of March 6, the siege ended when the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. After repulsing two attacks, the Texians were unable to fend off a third attack. As Mexican soldiers scaled the walls, most of the Texian soldiers withdrew into interior buildings. During the siege, Texians had carved holes in many of the walls of these rooms so that they would be able to fire. Each room had only one door which led into the courtyard and which had been “buttressed by semicircular parapets of dirt secured with cowhides”. Some of the rooms even had trenches dug into the floor to provide some cover for the defenders. Mexican soldiers used the abandoned Texian cannon to blow off the doors of the rooms, allowing Mexican soldiers to enter and defeat the Texians. Defenders unable to reach these points were slain by the Mexican cavalry as they attempted to escape. Between five and seven Texians may have surrendered; if so, they were quickly executed. Most eyewitness accounts reported between 182 and 257 Texians died.
The last of the Texians to die were the eleven men manning the two 12-pound (5.4 kg) cannon in the chapel. The entrance to the church had been barricaded with sandbags, which the Texians were able to fire over. A shot from the 18 pound (8.2 kg) cannon destroyed the barricades, and Mexican soldiers entered the building after firing an initial musket volley. With no time to reload, the Texians grabbed rifles and fired before being bayoneted to death. Texian Robert Evans was master of ordnance and had been tasked with keeping the gunpowder from falling into Mexican hands. Wounded, he crawled towards the powder magazine but was killed by a musket ball with his torch only inches from the powder. If he had succeeded, the blast would have destroyed the church.
Santa Anna ordered that the Texian bodies be stacked and burned. All, or almost all, of the Texian defenders were killed, although some historians believe that at least one Texian, Henry Warnell, successfully escaped from the battle. Warnell would die several months later of wounds incurred either during the final battle or during his escape. Most Alamo historians agree that 400–600 Mexicans were killed or wounded. This would represent about one-third of the Mexican soldiers involved in the final assault, which historian Terry Todish stated, was “a tremendous casualty rate by any standards”.
Several noncombatants were sent to Gonzales to spread word of the Texian defeat. The news sparked both a strong rush to join the Texian army and a panic, known as “The Runaway Scrape”, in which the Texian army, most settlers, and the new Republic of Texas government fled from the advancing Mexican Army.
in 1840 the San Antonio town council passed a resolution allowing local citizens to take stone from the Alamo at a cost of $5 per wagonload. By the late 1840s, even the four statues located on the front wall of the chapel had been removed. The sanctuary of the Alamo was returned to the Roman Catholic Church in January 1841. By the time that Texas was annexed to the United States in 1845, a colony of bats occupied the abandoned complex and weeds and grass covered many of the walls.
Within Mexico, the battle has often been overshadowed by events from the Mexican–American War of 1846–48.The United States Army appropriated part of the the Alamo complex for the Quartermaster’s Department in late 1846 and began restoring the convent building to serve as offices and storerooms. Soldiers cleaned the grounds and rebuilt the old walls, primarily from original stone which was strewn along the ground. A new wooden roof was added to the chapel and the bell-shaped façade (campanulate) was added to the front wall of the chapel. During the American Civil War, the complex was taken over by the Confederate Army but the Texas Militia surrendered to General Twiggs, commander of US Forces in Texas, in February 1861.
Following the U.S. Army’s abandonment of the Alamo in 1876, the church sold the convent to Honore Grenet who added a two-story wood building to the complex and used that, plus the convent, for a wholesale grocery business. The city of San Antonio began advertising the Alamo as a tourist attraction as early as 1877. The Catholic Church sold the chapel to the State of Texas in 1883 for $20,000. In 19th-century Texas, the Alamo complex gradually became known as a battle site rather than a former mission. When the Daughters of the Republic of Texas was organized in 1892, they made it one of their main goals to preserve the Alamo.
The Texas Legislature purchased the land and buildings in the early part of the twentieth century and designated the Alamo chapel as an official Texas State Shrine. In the early part of the century, there were many local arguments about how best to preserve the complex. During the Great Depression, money from the Works Progress Administration and National Youth Administration was used to construct a wall around the Alamo and to raze several non-historic buildings on the property. The Alamo was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960, and was an inaugural listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
The Alamo is now one of the most popular historic sites in the United States. Along with four other Spanish colonial missions in San Antonio, the Alamo was designated in 2015 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first in Texas and one of twenty-three in the United States. The Alamo has been the subject of numerous non-fiction works beginning in 1843. Most Americans, however, are more familiar with the myths spread by many of the movie and television adaptations, including the 1950s Disney miniseries Davy Crockett and John Wayne’s 1960 film The Alamo.