The Alamo: “Here heroes died….”

In 1983, I visited the Alamo. The only part of the old mission that remains is the church–which is considered a “shrine” by Texans–and the long barracks, part of which served as a hospital and once saw horrific slaughter in its darkened rooms. As you enter the building, you immediately become aware of how serious Texans are about the place: a sign near the main entrance reads, ““Be silent friend here heroes died to blaze the trail for other men.” If there is anything in the United States that could be thought of as a temple of liberty, it is this place where, in 1836, around 200 Americans died fighting a dictator who, at one time, threatened to march his army all the way to Washington, D.C.

The truth about what happened during the 13 day siege quickly dissolved into myth after news of the massacre spread across the United States, and the myth has taken root in the hearts and minds where it still resounds today. Movie makers have fed the myth (what baby boomer doesn’t remember Fess Parker swinging away with Old Betsy, or John Wayne swinging away with a torch?), and books have been written and continue to be written about this American Thermopylae, all of which suggests that the issues underlying the occurrences in South Texas in 1835-36 are still very much alive.

And, indeed, they are. Today, as the furor over immigration and what to do about our porous southern border continues, some have latched onto the story of this country’s history with our neighbor to the south, some with revisionist intent and others with the hope of restoring the glory that we once perceived in our battle for liberty. In the process, more truths are forthcoming, some of which suggest that the battle of the Alamo wasn’t so much about glory than about something less honorable, other of which suggest that–just as we suspected all along–it was something heroic waged in the face of tyranny.

The newest entry into the literature of the Alamo, The Blood of Heroes – The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo–and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation, (Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 500 pages) by James Donovan, revisits the story and leaves us once again proud of what occurred and of the men who gave their lives.

I couldn’t find a lot of information about author Donovan, who lives in Dallas, TX, other than that he is a literary agent and historian. I have, however, read his previous work about another battle-turned-myth, A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn–the Last Great Battle of the American West (Little, Brown and Company, 2009). I was impressed with his scholarship there, and am likewise impressed with his more than 100 pages of appendices, notes and bibliography in The Blood of Heroes.

Revisionist historians have claimed that the myth of the Alamo was fueled by racism, that Americans who lost to the Mexicans got back at them by painting Santa Anna and his troops as vicious and largely unworthy of our respect. Only sheer numbers made it possible for them to overcome the likes of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett, and William Barrett Travis, and the 200 or so other frontiersmen who could shoot the fly off a branch with their long rifles.

Wayne’s libertarian vision of the historic battle was only occasionally historically accurate. Yet, it captured the spirit of what the Alamo was all about. Image credit: Wikipedia (low-res).

Not so, says Donovan. While it is true that the Americans did not fear the regular army, it had nothing to do with the fact that they were Mexicans. It was because many in the army were poor men, or convicts who were pressed into service and whose level of dedication was poor at best: many were but one snowstorm away from desertion. But Americans knew full well that it was nigh near impossible to defeat Santa Anna’s feared cavalry who, with their seven-foot lances, were well capable of taking out any number of men with long rifles–and in fact did just that at the Alamo. The Mexican army was filled with men who were as patriotic as were the men inside the fort, men who were decent, who fought for principle, and who lived and died with honor.

Inside the Alamo, there was a score of Tejanos–Mexicans descended from the original Mexican and Spanish inhabitants from the 1600s–who died fighting for the same reason as their American counterparts: they chafed at the attack on their liberty that Santa Anna represented. The famous knife fighter, Jim Bowie, was known in Mexico as Santiago Buy, the Anglo who had married into one of the foremost Mexican families in San Antonio, was a Mexican citizen by choice. Another defender at the Alamo, who left as a courier and later fought at San Jacinto, was a prominent citizen of Bexar named Juan Seguin. Seguin would be regarded later as one of the heroes of the Texan Revolution.

This wasn’t about race. It was about liberty.

Residents of Texas at the time were citizens of Mexico. Most of them were content with that arrangement, and few wanted to rock the boat. Santa Anna’s rise to power, and his increasingly tyrannical posturing, drove more and more to rebellion, and the taking of San Antonio de Bexar in December 1835 by the Texians was a challenge that Santa Anna could not let stand. Still, before, during and after the 13-day siege and massacre at the Alamo, only a handful of men would come to the aid of the embattled garrison of the old mission. In truth, it wasn’t the Alamo that tipped the scales in the Texas revolution, but the subsequent slaughter of nearly 400 Texans by Santa Anna in Goliad. The men there had surrendered and were promised parole. His excellency ordered no quarter, any promises made notwithstanding. Many–if not most–of his officers vehemently disagreed with the executions but eventually had to follow orders. It was this slaughter of helpless men, as much as the tragedy at the Alamo, that made inevitable the slaughter of Santa Anna’s men at San Jacinto and the birth of the Republic of Texas.

Some authors have argued that the freedom that the Alamo defenders died for was the freedom to own slaves, after the emancipation of slaves by the Mexican government in 1829 made the practice illegal. True, Mexico had outlawed slavery, and many negroes were enlisted among the fighting men who attacked the Alamo. But if the Texas Revolution was about slavery, then so too was the Revolution in 1776, since among the freedoms anticipated by many of our founding fathers was the freedom to continue the practice of slavery. Since many of the Alamo defenders came from the South–Bowie, Travis, and Crockett among them–slavery was a part of their culture. Still, only a small number of the Texicans who fought against Santa Anna owned slaves themselves. If anything, what brought Americans to Texas in droves was the possibility of obtaining land. Generous grants of land were made available–and there was plenty of it in Texas–to any who would come and servie the provisioal Government. Land equated to liberty, and that liberty (and all that it entailed, not just slavery) was being threatened by a ruthless and dangerous man who fancied himself the “Napoleon of the West.”

Donovan points out the hypocrisy of the Mexican government which, while it outlawed slavery, did nothing to change its peonage system. Peons in Mexico were treated as harshly as slaves, and were virtually the property of their overseers, yet nothing was done to alleviate their suffering. Peonage in Mexico was integrated into their economic system as slavery never was, so the concern for human rights by the Mexican government was selective at best, and opportunistic at worst. Peons in Mexico continued to live in slavery, and no one seemed to care.

Donovan addresses some other controversial topics in his book. Did Crockett surrender, or die fighting? Did Travis draw a line in the sand? Did a man named Louis “Moses” Rose fail to cross that line, and leave before the battle? And did a large number of men actually try to escape from the fort during the attack, only to die in the open field southeast of the mission walls?

Billy Bob Thornton’s role as David Crockett in the 2004 movie “The Alamo” was probably as close as anyone has come to depicting the frontiersman as he was: simple, kind, determined, and decent. Image credit: Entertainment Weekly

Donovan cites considerable evidence in support of the fact that Crockett did die fighting, and that the basis for the story of his surrender is suspect. And yes, Travis probably did give a speech and draw a line in the sand, over which all but one crossed. And Moses Rose? He was a real person, he escaped from the mission, and was taken in by a family who cared for him and corroborated the story years later. Finally, a large number of men did leave through the picket wall on the southeast side of the mission, hoping to make it to the nearby Alameda and make their way to Gonzales. Unfortunately, Santa Anna had anticipated this and had his lancers waiting. All of the defenders who left–some 60 to 80 men–died at the hands of the cavalry. Were these men cowards? Hardly. They were frontiersmen who knew that staying penned in was certain death, and who decided it best to take their chances in the open. Actually, it was the smart thing to do. Unfortunately, they were outnumbered and outgunned.

The Alamo is rightfully a shrine to those who sacrificed, fought and who died in defense of liberty, but we can’t forget that many of the supporters of Texan independence were Tejanos who were as opposed to tyranny as the Americans alongside whom they fought.

Texas would cease to be Republic and be granted Statehood in 1845, and the subsequent war with Mexico (1846-1848) would gain for the Unites States the rest of what is now the southwest United States, establishing a border along the meandering Rio Grande. Yet, echoes of a time when the Mexican flag flew over Texas are still present in our not-too-distant memory, a time when values clashed and freedom beckoned, a time when people were willing to suffer and die in their pursuit of happiness. The shoe is on the other foot: in the 1830s, Americans were flocking to Mexico in search of a better life. Now, hundreds of Mexicans sneak across our border in search of the same thing.

Would it help for us to hearken to the cries of the men who fought at San Jacinto, and “Remember the Alamo!” or “Remember Goliad!” Revisionist historians say no, that’s the worst thing you can do. But James Donovan would probably disagree. In the walls of that mission lived–and died–some of the finest that America had to offer–Mexican and American alike. They found something they could agree on, something that transcended race.

Freedom.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

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