Smithsonian Article March 1986

The Alamo Remembered – From a Painter’s Point of View

By Eric von Schmidt

Webmaster's Note: This article first appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, March 1986

Alamo means "cottonwood." And just as cottonwood grows along rivers, and as rivers are the bloodstream of history, the Rio de San Antonio which flows past the Alamo has flowed into history. The history of Texas. The history of Mexico.

Eric von Schmidt Painting "Storming of the Alamo"

Photo graciously provided by George R. Janecek


Both countries still remember the Alamo -- sometimes with smoldering passion, often as heroic myth. But in each case it is a different passion, a different myth -- as I quickly found when I began trying to create a historically accurate painting of the battle, which took place 150 years ago this month.

For Texans, of course, the Alamo has become hallowed ground, a symbol of the fight for independence, casting off Mexican tyranny, and an inspiring example of true Texan grit. For the Mexicans the victory at the Alamo was seen as that of a nation outraged by rebellious colonists and arrogant pirates of a distinctly Anglo-Saxon character. They knew that if North America was not quickly contained they would stand to lose the province of Texas. They were right. In the end the Alamo helped set off a long series of disasters, costing them not only Texas but more than half of all Mexican territory. Allowing for exaggeration, it seems to me both sides were pretty much on the money.

 Mexico Was A Huge Republic 

In 1836 Mexico was a huge young country. Lately broken away from Spain, it had good reason to claim ownership of much of what is now the Southwest and the Pacific coast of the United States. In its early stages it was also a republic with a brand-new federal constitution; its ideals were high, its goals were wide. Mexican provinces had their own legislatures. One such was a vast tract of turf between the Sabine River and the Rio Grande that eventually became Texas. The main reason Mexicans opened up colonization of these remote northern regions to foreigners was that they couldn't get their own people to do it. Comanches and Apaches figured the territory was theirs, and anyone foolish enough to come into it was fair game.

This was rich land. Beautiful land, too. Immigrants from the United States flocked to it. In return for swearing allegiance to Mexico and its constitution of 1824, and at least nominally becoming Roman Catholics, they got land, special deals on duty-free trade, and were left virtually free from Mexican taxes. "A live mastodon would not have been a greater curiosity than a tax collector," one immigrant reported to the folks back home. Another described the place as a "heaven for men and dogs; hell for women and oxen." By 1830 three-fourths of the population of this Mexican province was North American.

Proud of its Hispanic culture and its charitable act, the Mexican government saw itself as benefactor. It was almost as if there was a Catholic version of the Statue of Liberty standing in the middle of the Sabine River beckoning to the huddled masses flooding in from the North. So it became furious when it saw that some Texans looked on Mexican citizenship as a sort of temporary joke, owned slaves (then forbidden by Mexican law), resented all restrictions from Mexico City and took it for granted the province would soon be theirs. Mexico had long been ruled by Spanish viceroys. The new republic's government soon succumbed to its own strong man, President-General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Coming to power as a "liberal," he quickly suspended the constitutions of all provincial legislatures and threatened reprisals against any citizen who challenged the power of his central government.

War Drums Pound

Some Texans, like William Barret Travis, were spoiling for this particular fight. Others, like Stephen Austin, counseled patience. Austin even journeyed to Mexico City to plead with Santa Anna. For his pains he was tossed into prison without an audience -- and held for more than 18 months.

The upshot was that Santa Anna marched north with an army to assert federal power. One of his targets was a handful of defiant Texans who had taken hold of the Alamo, a great walled courtyard with an attached church built by Spanish priests not as a fort but as a mission. Col. James Bowie had brought orders from rebellious leader Sam Houston to blow the place up as indefensible, and retreat. But once there, Bowie couldn't bring himself to give the order. And his co-­commander Travis, eager to draw attention to the plight of Texas even if it might mean martyrdom, sent out a message calling upon "all Americans in the world" for help. He would fire another shot heard around the world, he felt, and even if the Alamo fell, "the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse on him than defeat."

When Santa Anna approached the Alamo he had about 2,500 men. The defenders of the Alamo, augmented by volunteers like Davy Crockett and, later, 32 brave souls from the town of Gonzales who marched in at the last minute, numbered only 188. For 12 days the Mexicans had besieged and bombarded the Alamo with little effect. Then, near dawn on March 6, 1836, Santa Anna sent 1,500 troops against it. When the killing stopped, something like 600 Mexicans lay dead or dying. All but one of the men and boys who defended the Alamo were dead. A single Mexican defender, out of eight who had fought for Texas, somehow managed to escape with his life.

Myth, Legend, History?

Of the defenders' heroism and resolution there is no doubt. But some celebrated examples are more than questionable, most notably the story that Davy Crockett died on top of a pile of 30 Mexicans whom he dispatched before succumbing. As Reuben Marmaduke Potter, the first U.S. chronicler of the Alamo, put it: "Where horror is intensified by mystery, the sure product is romance."

Anyone trying for a cohesive portrayal of the battle is confronted by all sorts of difficulties -- not the least being the fact that you cannot be truthful at all and put the three most famous defenders on the same canvas. Travis was killed on the north wall of the plaza in the early moments of the attack, about 150 yards from Crockett's position defending the southeast palisade. Bowie, who earlier shared command with Travis, lay sick in bed in the south barracks and was killed there. The Alamo fell, not because it was too small, but because it was too big and too spread out to be defended by so few men.

Analysis of Three Historical Paintings

My earliest research produced three celebrated depictions of the event: the ones that turn up everywhere. All are good and quite different from each other. Assuming that the earliest would be the most authentic, I based my first sketches on Theodore Gentilz's The Fall of the Alamo. The date accompanying the reproduction was 1844. His neat and tidy version offers a bird's-eye view, lots of space, a good deal of information and almost no sense that an actual battle is being fought. Later I learned that this rather prickly Frenchman didn't arrive in Texas until 1844, that his sketches for the painting could not have been made until 1848, and that the final work probably wasn't completed until about 50 years after the battle. While Gentilz shows the church facade as it looked before some U.S. Army engineers Taco-Belled it in 1850, his depiction of much of the rest is somewhat fanciful.

Next I encountered Robert Onderdonk's Fall of the Alamo, which seemed to have achieved a quasi-official status. It was completed in 1903, but there is nothing distant or remote about this five-by-seven-foot canvas. A stolid forthrightness here: the combatants are front and center. If you didn't know better, it would seem almost as though the Mexicans are getting whipped. Onderdonk's church facade is something of a hybrid. The 1836 roof line coexists with upper windows that were, in fact, added in 1850.

Onderdonk's biography says the painting was done on a commission from a Dallas businessman, James T. DeShields, and that the original title was to have been David Crockett's Last Stand. But the pose of Crockett is most intriguing. In 1895, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association began to swamp the country with a wildly popular and delightfully inaccurate lithograph by Otto Becker called Custer's Last Fight. If you reverse the mythically potent Custer over the figure of Crockett in Onderdonk's Alamo, you have a near-perfect fit. Both are complete with legendary yellow-tinted buckskins, legendary red bandannas, and even their legendary trademarks at full brandish: George's saber, Davy's long rifle.

The Fall of the Alamo is entirely unlike most of Onderdonk's other works, before or after. It is possible that DeShields suggested the "Last Stand" title, urging something along the lines of the Custer lithograph. Fortunately, except for the Crockett figure, Onderdonk came up with a stately and well-organized composition, quite unlike Becker's tumbling frieze of tangled bodies -- so suitable as a blear background to serious boozing.

There is a tone almost of religiosity in Onderdonk's Fall of the Alamo. And as in most works of this kind, it is not hard to tell the good guys from the bad. His clean-cut, almost dapper Texans possess an uncanny knack for fighting -- and even dying -- with a shining, Protestant grace. Their Mexican foes, blessed less fortunately, thrash about and expire in messy heaps. It should be kept in mind that while the painting was completed 67 years after the battle, it was only about four years after the end of the Spanish-American War. 

 A similar bias is even more evident in Henry McArdle's Dawn at the Alamo, finished around 1883. McArdle's Mexicans are so repellent as to conjure up flashbacks to the terrible flying monkeys in The Wiz­ard of Oz. Still, it is a remarkable work. If Gentilz has given us information, and Onderdonk has given us mythology, then McArdle gives us a vision. And what a vision it is. Hieronymus Bosch would have approved of this demonic swarm; Max Ernst would have applauded its surreal overtones.

The wonderfully lurid sky represents the natural occurrence and the dawn of Texas' liberty as well. McArdle captured the spirit of the battle. His painting is the only one of the three that conveys the raw feel of combat. But it is also a minefield of misinformation. For reasons of narrative and composition he puts the two main characters in places where neither of them actually fought.

Looking at these three paintings, I felt that one element was lacking: a sense of personal experience. For whatever reason, the painters stood outside their subject; to get closer, to get as close to the bone as possible, I realized I'd have to discard all my early sketches and involve myself with the reality of the fight.

But finding reality in the maze of myth and misinformation that surrounds the story of the Alamo is not all that easy. Fortunately, some very early sketches exist. Seth Eastman's 1848 pencil drawings offer many clues to the construction of the buildings. Lt. J. Edmund Blake's 1845 sketch shows the long barracks and part of the wall connecting it to the church. Blake's version is substantiated by a crude sketch done in the 1830s by Mary Maverick, the young wife of one of the original Texas rebels.

Perhaps the best primary source is not a drawing at all, but a small map. What makes it so important is its date: March 1836. It was drawn just before the battle by Santa Anna's commander of engineers, Col. Ygnacio de Labastida. It may be the closest thing we will ever have to a Rosetta stone that will help explain the Alamo defenses at the time of the battle. As Jake Ivey, an archaeologist involved in a 1977 dig at the Alamo, put it: "Mythology doesn't help when you dig a hole."

Eric von Schmidt's Painting Emerges

The Labastida map held up remarkably well during the excavations and it became my touchstone, too. Because I was trying to convey a confused and scattered event, I chose as "point of view" an angle that focuses on part of the Alamo church facade (because it's still there and because the defenders retreated to it to make their last stand). But it also takes in a large part of the original main plaza (because it isn't there anymore).

What first struck me was the incredible chaos, the noise and confusion that must have exploded in that plaza. Then the bayonets. I thought, "What must it have looked like, from slightly below eye level?"

Reuben Potter didn't visit the ground until five years later, and concluded that the defenders had four light cannons along the very southeast palisade position that I took as my point of vantage. Four became holy writ. Gentilz shows two, however, and Labastida only one. We now know that all the artillery positions and most of the fortifications were blown to bits by the retreating Mexican army in May 1836, after Santa Anna's forces met disastrous defeat at the hands of Sam Houston on the plain of San Jacinto. While Potter relied on speculation, another Mexican map, drawn later by Captain Sanchez-Navarro, an engineering officer who was present at the battle, also shows only a single cannon. I decided to go with one cannon, too.

Contemporary military practice dictated that a gun platform be elevated at least three feet above the ground. The raised platform gave me just what I needed pictorially. The "viewer" would be directly involved in the eye-level foreground conflict but would also be aware of the fighting in the plaza beyond.

Another consideration was the "low wall" that separated the area in front of the chapel from the fighting in the distant plaza. Potter sets its height at four feet, but I have found no basis for his estimate. The wall is recorded on the Labastida map and in Mary Maverick's sketch, but it is not mentioned in any contemporary account of the assault. So it seems likely to me that the wall was too low to be of much military consequence.

Another hardy Alamo fable insists that the battle was a duel between Kentucky long rifles and Mexican muskets. While the former, a long-barreled, small­bore "squirrel gun," was effective in its natural habitat (the Eastern frontier), it was damned near impossible to load while on horseback. A few would have been on hand, no doubt. But the principal arms probably were shotguns and the shorter hunting rifles, the plains forerunner of the lethal Hawkins type. Lt. Col. Jose Enrique de la Pella, whose diary records a firsthand account of the battle, speaks of the disorder and confusion of the troops as they attempted to climb the wall at the northwest corner. He says, "The first to climb were thrown down by bayonets already waiting for them behind the parapet. . . ." Those bayonets were probably attached to captured muskets.

Weapons Of War

The musket commonly used by Mexican infantry at the time was a British export, the third model Brown Bess, only slightly improved since the American Revolution. But with a vicious, triangular-shaped 14-inch bayonet attached, this heavy, four-and-a-half-foot musket became a brutish, terrifying thing. As for the defenders' small arms, de la Pella mentions pistols. No doubt a few Bowie knives, or similar large knives, were used in the last fighting; but it was undoubtedly the smaller, prosaic, butcher-type knife that predominated. It was only after the fall of the Alamo, which made Bowie a national hero and martyr, that the Bowie version, with its long blade, clipped point and cross guard, became popular – so popular that the English cutlery industry was soon kept busy churning out the weapon for the American trade.

Santa Anna's general orders stated that ". . . all shako chin straps will be correctly worn -- these the Commanders will watch closely." Can't you just see the Mexican officers, with all hell breaking loose, trying to keep good track of those shako chin straps?

Texan get-ups are more troublesome. In all previous portrayals, the clothes lean heavily toward the "cowboy-cum-mountain-man" look. It is misleading to base the general dress of these men on the sometimes exotic Anglo - Indian garb of Fess Parker as the fictional Davy Crockett or of the real Sam Houston. Men with an affinity for native American culture were in the distinct minority. “The period of the 1830s was distinguished by a rather effeminate and extremely unpicturesque style of costume for men." So notes the author of a 1937 History of American Costume, and judging by contemporary images, this description was right.

Many of the men who died defending the Alamo were newcomers to Texas. Some would have arrived with little more than the citified clothes on their backs: flyless pants reaching up to just below the rib cage; coats, tight in the shoulders, sleeves and waist.

Even near the frontier, period prints show a surprising number of top hats. They were as common as the fedora would be a century later. While the cowboy-mountain-man look has been favored by painters, cartoonists and moviemakers, the "cowboy" would not be a reality for several decades. Furthermore, actual mountain men moving westward after the 1820s had a distinct inclination to make a right turn (north) when they got to the Mississippi River.

Coonskin Cap, Hat, -- Heck, What Did Davy Wear?

Headgear made of animal skins has been around since prehistoric times; but there is little credible evidence that Crockett wore a coonskin cap during the fight. The only known Anglo survivors of the battle, Susanna Dickinson and her small daughter, viewed the grisly aftermath as they were being led from the Alamo. She said she recognized Crockett lying dead and mutilated near the church, and even remembered seeing his "peculiar cap" lying by his side. At the time the word "cap" only implied headgear with a visor, and peculiar in this instance, didn't mean odd. It merely meant the cap was Crockett's particular hat. And since in my view he didn't wear coonskin hats generally, I did not take the large leap into mythology required to equate "peculiar" with "coonskin."

A lot of Alamo lore is easier to disprove than to dislodge. Regarding the timing, most of the early, major writers on the subject have fixed the end of the battle as late as 9 o'clock and some dodge the issue entirely. In his biography Santa Anna states that the battle lasted four hours. This is a splendid example of "the longer the battle, the greater the heroism" syndrome. Those who have taken his word for it would have done well to note that in the meager seven sentences that he devotes to the entire Alamo episode, there are four other self-serving lies, among them the assertion that 600 Americans (versus 200 Mexicans) were killed.

This fierce and bitter clash was intended as a night attack, and as Walter Lord correctly states in A Time to Stand, it was certainly over before 6:30 A.M. John Wayne, who filmed the battle almost as if it were a gigantic shoot-out at high noon, built an Alamo all his own just for the movie. Located in Brackettville, Texas, about 100 miles west of San Antonio, this seemed the perfect place to find out how much light would have been present on the morning of the battle.

Keeping in mind that the "Waynamo" faces east instead of west, I spent a night wandering around in the faint moonlight, jotting down impressions with a big felt-tip pen. It wasn't until 6:30 A.M. that I realized I was writing in red, not black.

Phase Of The Moon, March 1836

A nonspecific quality pervades all the paintings I consulted, as if "weather" has taken a holiday. Yet De la Pella mentions that "The moon was up, but the density of the clouds that covered it allowed only an opaque light in our direction, seeming thus to contribute to our designs." It turns out that March 6, 1836, was three days after the full moon, so, between 3A.M. and 6 A.M., the moon was 88 percent full.

General orders called for the assault to begin at 4 A.M. Then it was delayed for an hour -- why, no one knows. Maybe the cloud cover began to dissipate. When the signal to attack finally came, it was an archaic trumpet call, a faded memory of the brutal Moorish wars in Spain: the Degilello. The name comes from the Spanish for "to slit the throat." It would have been echoed by the massed bands at Santa Anna's command post; that sound and the shouting of the charging columns converging on the Alamo from four directions woke up the defenders.

Battle Of The Alamo

Essentially there were two battles that morning: one outside and one inside. The small Mexican artillery pieces never succeeded in breaching the wall and were not used in the final assault. In effect, it was a chaotic shifting mass of troops outside and a confusion of half­awake defenders within. Three of the four Mexican columns drove at the northwest corner where the Texans had attempted to shore up the crumbling north wall; the attackers used the horizontally placed logs as a kind of ladder.

Unskilled in even the basic knowledge of musketry, many Mexican soldiers suffered throughout from "friendly fire." De la Pella laments: "the commander-­in-chief maintained that they would become accustomed to gunfire during combat." One wonders how many of the hundreds killed and wounded on the Mexican side were victims of this philosophy.

My painting shows the end of the battle inside. Once the Mexicans were within the walls it surely did not last long. The explosion of lethal energy is almost beyond comprehension. Because Travis was already dead and Bowie, burnt out by fever and alcohol, played no role in this part of the battle, only Davy Crockett appears in my painting.

In a few minutes the Mexicans were in control of the plaza. Ramon Martinez Caro, Santa Anna's secretary, wrote of this final part of the attack: "The enemy immediately took refuge in the inside rooms of the fortress, the walls of which had been previously bored to enable them to fire through the holes. Generals Amador and Ampudia trained the [Texans'] guns upon the interior of the fort to demolish it as the only means of putting an end to the strife. On the opposite side, where there was another entrance to the enemy's stronghold, the resistance was equally stubborn."

  This is the view I show. The Texans have abandoned the outer defenses of the fort. The Mexicans have over­run the plaza and are in the process of penetrating the area directly in front of the church. The commander of the attacking column, Col. Juan Morales, sword in hand, is directing the action. Crockett, who commanded the southeast gun position, gestures for his men to fall back into the church. This section of wooden palisades was considered the weakest point in the defenses, but there is no evidence that attackers gained entrance there.

Crockett Is Seen In The Background Directing The Men To The Chapel For The Last Stand


The old Spanish friars who built the Alamo had constructed a series of three-room structures along the west wall. By the time of the battle, many of the roofs had been torn off, the houses filled with rubble and ten-foot-high ramps built for gun batteries. Only low platforms were required for the other cannon. But the stone buildings were strongly built. The foundation of the barracks shown at left in my painting was uncovered during excavations, and it is said that the bull­dozer used to build the hotel now opposite the Alamo accomplished in less than an hour what Santa Anna's artillery failed to do in 12 days of bombardment.

The End Of The Battle

Texans Fire From The Chapel

According to Mexican accounts, several men attempted flight and were cut down outside by Mexican cavalry. When the Mexicans finally took the church their forces brutally mopped up there. A few men were taken alive simply because they were not found until after the massacre. Theirs was the saddest fate of all. De la Pella records in his memoirs: "Some seven men had survived the general carnage and, under the protection of General Castrillon, they were brought before Santa Anna. Among them was. . . the naturalist David Crockett, well-known in North America for his unusual adventures. . . . Santa Anna answered Castrillon's intervention in Crockett's behalf with a gesture of indignation. . . . Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves. . . . As for me, I confess that the very memory of it makes me tremble and that my ear can still hear the penetrating, doleful sound of the victims."

All the women and children who survived were set free. Some say Santa Anna gave the women each two dollars and a blanket, and sent them on their way. At the time he thought he had crushed Texan resistance with the example of pitiless ferocity. But in this he missed the point entirely.

The Mexican Flag Is Raised Above The Long Barracks

I hope my painting honors the sad stones of the Alamo. If it does not convey the popular notion of that battle I can do no more than to quote its first historian, feisty old Reuben Potter: "If we owe to departed heroes the duty of preserving their deeds from oblivion, we ought to feel as strongly that of defending their memory against the calumnious effects of false eulogy, which in time might cause their real achievements to be doubted."

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