A historical case of mass cremation: the Alamo

What can we say about mass cremation based on the example of the cremation of the bodies of the Texans after the Battle of the Alamo? The number of bodies is generally set at 182. The available sources (eyewitness accounts) are certainly of questionable accuracy and late vintage, but let’s see what picture they give. The number of pyres described is generally either 2 or 3, with two fairly large pyres and sometimes a third smaller pyre, described as being built later for additional bodies as they were found.

Few sources offer details about the cremations. These are the most detailed accounts of the pyres I’ve seen:

Pablo Díaz

On our approach we saw a huge pillar of flames and smoke shooting up to a considerable height to the south and east of the Alamo. The dense smoke from this fire went up into the clouds and I watched it while the fire burned for two days and two nights. Then it subsided and smoldered.
[…]
they were burned on two different pyres. These were about 250 yards apart and one was on each side of the Alameda. The one on the north side was the smallest, while that on the south side was the largest. The latter was probably about twenty feet longer than the former. Both were about the same width – about eight or ten feet. Both pyres were about ten feet high when the flames were first kindled and the consuming of the corpses commenced.

In alternate layers the corpses and wood were placed. Grease of different kinds, principally tallow, was melted and poured over the two pyres. They were then ignited and burned until they burned out, leaving but a few fragments of different members. Most of the corpses were entirely consumed.

When I reached the spot I saw ashes, as well as the blackened chars of the different anatomical fragments.

Juan Antonio Chávez

When we returned the bodies of those that had perished in the Alamo were still burning on two immense pyres on the old Alameda. I went to look at them and the sight indelibly impressed itself upon my memory. One pyre occupied a position on the site of where the new Halff building is. The other was diagonally across the street on what is now known as the lawn of the Ludlow House and the recently built house adjoining it on the east. The bodies burned for several days and the wood and tallow fuel used for consuming them was frequently replenished. I made several trips to the scene, which so fascinated me I could not stay away until all of the bodies had been consumed. They were all reduced to ashes except a few charred heads, arms, and legs that were scattered about. These were gathered up and placed in a shallow grave where the Ludlow House lawn now is.

The account in the article “Builder’s Spades Turn up Soil Baked by Alamo Funeral Pyres” (San Antonio Express, March 26, 1911), based on interviews with Enrique Esparza, Pablo Diaz, and Juan Antonia Chavez, states that there were two pyres, one sixty feet long and the other eighty feet long, both ten feet wide.

Combining the accounts gives us pyres with a total volume of 11,200 to 14,000 cubic feet (317 to 396 cubic meters), which burned for days, and achieved a somewhat incomplete cremation of around 200 bodies. The witness who claims the most first hand observation of the pyres states that they had to be refueled. Sources give sparse information on the source of the wood – some refer to Mexican soldiers gathering it from the forest, some say that they mainly conscripted locals to gather it themselves, but it seems that at least some of the wood was green, and that tallow and other sources of grease were used to help the pyres burn.

This information comes with all the limitations of oral history, but it is certainly more supportive of revisionist statements about cremation than it is of the standard story of cremation in the Reinhardt camps. In Mattogno Graf and Kues’ book Sobibor it is estimated that 230 bodies could be burned using green wood, on a pyre of 120 cubic meters, with a total time of two days: one for burning, and one for building the pyre, allowing it to cool, and removing the ash. The performance of the Alamo cremations seems to have been considerably worse than this – not a good sign for orthodox holocaust historians, who assume that mass cremation is very easy.

There is also another interesting incident of mass cremation from the Texas Revolution, although here the available information is even less precise. After the Goliad massacre, the 342 bodies were cremated, or rather a cremation was attempted, but due to inadequate available fuel, or perhaps because only green fuel could be found, the bodies were only roasted rather than cremated. Information that would allow a quantitative analysis is lacking, but the incident still suffices to call into question accounts of the easy destruction by fire of piles of bodies.

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