Remember the Alamo in San Antonio

Lisa Fritscher June 21, 2011 No Comments

Downtown San Antonio

Downtown San Antonio grew up around the Alamo

In virtually every way, San Antonio, Texas is a modern big city. One of the most populous and fastest growing cities in the nation, San Antonio offers medical research facilities, Fortune 500 companies, dozens of schools and colleges, and a mind-boggling array of tourist spots. Looking out over San Antonio’s downtown skyline, it is amazing to realize that the city was literally built around a single historic structure.

The Alamo

The Alamo San Antonio

The current Alamo site is just a fraction of the original

Settled by the Spanish in 1716, San Antonio originally consisted primarily of a series of missions protected by a fortified base called a presidio. Mission San Antonio de Valero was the first Spanish mission in San Antonio, founded in 1718 along the San Antonio River. The mission was secularized and then abandoned in the 1790s. The Mexican War of Independence gave control of Texas to Mexico, and Mexican forces occupied the mission from the early 1800s until the Texas Revolution. It is believed that the Mexican army changed the mission’s name to Alamo.

Texas Revolution

The Alamo Closeup

The original mission chapel

Under Mexican rule, Texas became part of a new state, Coahuila y Tejas, whose capital was hundreds of miles away. Sparsely populated and in need of settlers, Texas extended an open invitation to United States citizens who wanted to start a new life. Americans responded in a big way, and “Gone to Texas” signs appeared on homes and businesses throughout the United States.

Soon settlers from the United States vastly outnumbered Mexican-born citizens. Feeling increasingly isolated and disillusioned, Texas residents wanted to split from Coahuila to become a separate Mexican state. When Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became president of Mexico in 1833, however, he implemented a number of policies that were unacceptable to Texas. Increasingly, residents desired all-out revolution and independence from Mexico.

In 1835, Santa Anna issued a decree that all state militias should be dissolved. He insisted that the militia in Gonzales, Texas return a cannon previously given to them by Mexico in 1831. Defiantly, the militia responded to Santa Anna’s request: “Come and take it.” Mexican troops were dispatched to retrieve the cannon, but Texas forces were ready for them. The Battle of Gonzales, fought on October 2, 1835, was the first skirmish of the Texas Revolution.

Battle of the Alamo

David Crockett Painting

The real life Davy Crockett

By January 1836, Texas forces had established a small garrison of less than 100 men at the Alamo. On January 14, acting Alamo commander Colonel James C. Neill requested assistance from Sam Houston, unofficial head of the entire Texas army. Lacking the resources to replenish the garrison, Houston sent Colonel James Bowie (who popularized the Bowie knife) with a small force to salvage artillery from the Alamo and close it down. However, Neill convinced Bowie that the Alamo’s strategic location made defending it crucial. On Bowie’s request, a handful of additional men were dispatched to the garrison, including David Crockett (who spawned the legend of Davy Crockett).

Soon an army of 1500 Mexican soldiers took the nearby town of Bexar and set their sights on the Alamo. Though they knew they were outnumbered and likely to die, the men of the Alamo garrison refused to surrender. Legend has it that William Travis, who took command when Neill departed in search of reinforcements, drew a line in the sand. He asked all who were willing to die for the cause to cross the line. All but one did so, most with little hesitation.

San-Jacinto Painting

The Battle of San Jacinto won the Texas Revolution

Skirmishes erupted for 12 days, beginning on February 23. On March 6, the Mexican army launched a full assault on the Alamo. The garrison repelled two attacks, but the third breached the defenses. By 6:30 a.m. the battle was over. A few women and children who had taken refuge in the Alamo and a slave man named Joe were allowed to depart. Everyone else was killed.

Three weeks later, a portion of the Texas army was forced to surrender during the Goliad Campaign. On Palm Sunday, March 27, under direct orders from Santa Anna, the prisoners of war were murdered by Mexican forces in what has been termed the Goliad Massacre.

The defeat at the Alamo and the massacre at Goliad marked a turning point in the Texas Revolution. On April 21, despite being outnumbered, Texas troops under the command of Sam Houston used the element of surprise for a decisive victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. Soldiers shouted “Remember the Alamo!” and “Remember Goliad!” as they dove into the melee. After just 18 minutes, it was over. Santa Anna was captured, and Sam Houston agreed to save his life in exchange for Texas independence.

The Alamo Today

Alamo Walls San Antonio

These walls are part of the original Alamo complex

The modern city of San Antonio literally grew up around the Alamo. Today, the historic mission is in the center of downtown, across the street from the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums. Much of the original complex no longer exists, but visitors can tour the chapel, barracks building and grounds. Across the street, beside the museums, a series of low walls serve as benches for tired sightseers. Take a close look at the signs around the walls. These are actually pieces of the original Alamo complex.

Touring the Alamo

Crowded Plaza San Antonio

The plaza outside is filled with vendors and tourists

Inside the Alamo chapel, docents ask visitors to respect their environment as a sacred space. Out front, however, vendors hawk snacks and audio tours while photographers take advantage of the entry queue to snap the obligatory “I went to the Alamo” pictures, conveniently available for sale.

There was already a long line by the time Dad and I arrived at roughly 10:30 a.m. Free, or even close, parking is nearly impossible to obtain, so we settled on a $10 lot a few blocks away. We joined the snaking line, already extending to the chapel’s corner. The line moved relatively quickly, and we were inside by 11:00. There is no admission fee, but we decided to rent the audio tour. At a cost of $6 per person (2011 pricing), we felt that the historical descriptions were well worth the money.

Alamo Chapel

Though photography is prohibited in the chapel, we were allowed to snap one for this article

It was a smart decision. We would have been lost without the tour. There are informational signs in most spots, but it can be difficult to get close enough to read them in the crowded building. With the tour, we were able to step back from each display and listen to the narration, and then step forward for a quick look.

Though the chapel building was packed with tourists, the much larger grounds area had plenty of room for everyone to spread out. The beautifully manicured grounds, with restrooms and vending machines at the back, provided a shady oasis to rest and relax. Narrated presentations are offered throughout the day.

The former barracks is now a museum filled with artifacts. A short film presentation, offered multiple times throughout the day, tells the story of the Alamo in a succinct, easy to follow way. Docents are on hand to share information or answer questions, and the audio tour continues throughout the building.

Tips for Parents

Docent Presentation

Docent presentations are offered throughout the day

Don’t be put off by the chaotic scene and long lines in the entrance plaza. Once you make it through the chapel doors, you will enter a world where history is respected and celebrated. The Alamo is a critical part of American history, and deserves to be shared with the next generation.

There were a lot of families with small children on the day we visited, and the kids seemed absolutely enraptured. The Alamo offers a lot to see and do, providing an educational and entertaining experience for all ages.

With so much to absorb, though, take full advantage of the outdoor areas. There is plenty of space to sprawl out and relax or run and play. Taking frequent breaks from the history overload can keep everyone refreshed and recharged. Keep your family hydrated as well. It was extremely hot and dry on the day we visited, and many people looked close to collapse. Carry a water bottle to refill at the fountains, or purchase cold beverages at the vending machines. Pack a few snacks as well, as you are likely to spend longer than you anticipate.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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