The Alamo -- what were they thinking?

A bunch of guys want to break off from the Mexican Government. So they all get together at The Alamo, and are wiped out by the Mexican Army. They apparently had some idea that the Mexican Army might come after them, because they holed up at the old fort with some guns and stuff. But what were they thinking? That the Mexican Army was a bunch of Greasers and would never stand up to good American fighting boys? That the Mexican Army was stupid, and was going to send out small patrols to get defeated one at a time?

What did they have in mind?

Partly they were hoping to get many more reinforcements from their new government before the Mexicans arrived than they did get, I think.

As I understand it, some Americans were trying to take all of Texas away from Mexico.

Sam Houston was an American General who was building an army to face Santa Anna’s Mexican army.

The Alamo was a small mission building on the route Santa Anna took. It would be unwise to leave an American garrison there, so Santa Anna attacked it.
The defenders held out for a couple of weeks, giving Houston time to prepare.
They all died.

American settlers in Texas rebelled against the Mexican government for a variety of reasons. At first they were able to drive all Mexican troops from Texas. Then the ruler of Mexico, Gen. Santa Anna, invaded with an army of 1,500. The Texans had fortified the Alamo, so the Mexicans attacked it. Travis, the American commander, knew he would be unable to defend it with his small force of about 200. Although they were wiped out, they held out for almost two weeks and inflicted 400-600 casualties on the Mexicans. As mentioned, the delay allowed Sam Houston to gather enough forces to eventually defeat the Mexicans.

Modnote: While it was a term at the time, it was a derogatory and basically racist term. Please do not use Greaser in the future.

The main issue as I understand it, was that when Santa Anna (Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna) came to power, one of the things he did in 1835 was abolish the Mexican Constitution of 1824. Prior to this, the Mexican government had actively solicited American settlers through generous land grants in Texas.

The Texan settlers were on the verge of revolt after this, and when Santa Anna sent Gen. Cos and 500 men to Texas by sea as a show of force to quell any potential revolt, the Texans were primed and ready.

In October, the actual revolt began, with the Battle of Gonzales (“Come and Take It”) and the Battle of Goliad, which drove the Mexican Army from one of its two main garrisons in Texas (Goliad & Bexar/Alamo). The Texans then besiged Bexar (full name Presidio San Antonio de Bexar, today’s San Antonio), which was the largest city in Texas and the site of the Mexican garrison in the Alamo Mission. The Mexican garrison surrendered in early December after holing up in the Alamo mission for some time prior.

Santa Anna then sent a much larger army (~6000 men) over land to Texas to crush the revolt, and the first place they headed was Bexar, which was hastily fortified by the small Texan garrison under William B. Travis that had remained after the Texans drove out the Mexican army a few months earlier.

Militarily, the battle wasn’t terribly important, but the Texans did extract their pound of flesh, causing around 600 casualties among the Mexican attackers, which was 1/3 of the final assault force of 1800 men, and a 3:1 casualty ratio. A costly victory by any standard.

In a larger sense, the battle bought time for two things to happen - it gave the Texas government time to coalesce into a real government, and for Gen. Houston to gather his forces and retreat (“the Runaway Scrape”) until he could fight a battle of his own choosing at San Jacinto, where he caught Santa Anna’s army unprepared and fought a ludicrously lopsided battle*, captured Santa Anna and secured Texas’ independence.

  • At San Jacinto, 910 men of the Republic of Texas army caught 1600 men of the Mexican Army under Santa Anna unawares, and in a 18 minute battle, killed 650, wounded 200 and captured 300, including Santa Anna, while only losing 11 killed and 30 wounded.

I doubt many of the Alamo defenders were planning on heroically dying in the cause of Texan independence; I imagine most of them wanted to survive the war and get to enjoy that independence. I believe they expected that reinforcements would arrive before the Mexican army did and make their position more defensible. Or at least arrive before the Mexican army overwhelmed the Alamo and break the siege.

I started a thread on this ten years ago except it was to ask why Santa Ana attacked.
https://boards.straightdope.com/t/the-battle-of-the-alamo-why/566550

I am the descendant of one of the Alamo defenders.

That was beautiful, @bump. Thank you.

(San Antonio native, but not descended from anyone in particular.)

Washington used a similar strategy of retreat against the British at New York. The campfires were kept burning while his forces withdrew. He continued avoiding a direct battle until his forces were ready. The strategy worked equally well for Sam Houston.

I have wondered why some of the men didn’t withdraw before being totally overrun. I can only guess it wasn’t considered honorable.

Fighting to the last man is powerful symbolism for Texans.

You mean why didn’t they desert?

Good guess.

NO, not desert. Or at least not necessarily.

Tactical withdrawal against a superior force is a very common infantry tactic. Which takes skill and discipline to execute. You give ground to buy time while harrassing the leading edge of the enemy formation with fire. You’re not expecting to win a pitched battle here, but you are expecting to do some damage, slow the enemy advance, and also avoid being defeated in detail.

I’d suspect the real answer is they went from “waiting for the enemy to appear” to “completely surrounded and vastly outnumbered” very quickly. A proper withdrawal is done after you’ve made at least visual contact but before you’re surrounded / overrun.

Ultimately Houston made what amounts to a decision to hand the Alamo defenders a suicide mission and leave them to their fate. It was an economy of force move. IANA enough of a Alamo historian to know how much any of the three parties (Houston, the defending garrison, and Santa Anna’s forces) knew that was the case before it went down.

@aceplace57 didn’t ask why the whole group didn’t execute a “tactical withdrawal.” He asked why “some of the men didn’t withdraw before being totally overrun.”

My bold.

“Some of the men.” To me, that sounds like why didn’t some of them desert? Am I reading that wrong?

I agree @aceplace57 said (and probably meant) “some of”. Ultimately the difference between withdrawal and desertion is whether or not the commander on scene agrees with it.

Houston in effect told the garrison: “You two hundred stay here and die so I can get my thousands ready to counterattack later”. Economy of force.

It’s conceivable Travis at the Alamo could have decided: “You 150 make a break for it and tell Houston we’ve got 6,000 Mexicans here, not the 1,500 he told us to expect. Losing 50 of us here is inevitable; it doesn’t have to be all 200. 50 or 200, we’re only going to make a small dent in their numbers. Now git while the gittin’ is good!” Economy of force again.

Now in the actual event, Travis didn’t decide that. Instead they stood and fought with everything and everyone they had.

Whether that was because he was surprised and they were surrounded before they knew it, or he was not a good tactician, or his orders were to hold the Alamo at all costs, or the situation developed differently than we understand today or … I have no idea. And if anybody did desert, or fight poorly, that detail too is lost to history.

I believe your premise may be incorrect.

Details are unclear, but apparently immediately prior to the final battle, Travis explained to the men the dire situation they were in and said anyone who wants to leave can do so. So it wouldn’t have been desertion had some left (legend has it that one person did so).

Okay, I’ll buy that.

Not my premise. I was responding to @aceplace57’ s statement.

I thought some men could withdraw and join Sam Houston’s main force. Live to fight another day.

I’m not sure the entire force could withdraw without immediately getting over run.

The Texians were significantly outnumbered. I don’t know if the men had the training to withdraw as a unit and fight at the same time. It has been done. The Marines at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea achieved a fighting withdrawal with heavy casualties. The English did it at Dunkirk in WWII.

It was your premise.

aceplace57 asked why some men didn’t leave. You suggested that this would amount to desertion. This was incorrect, as they apparently could have left without deserting.

Oh yeah… I remember you now.