All my blog topics will be taken from the Old West and how better to start than with the granddaddy of all stories of the struggle for the land west of the Mississippi, the Alamo. The story is as mythic as any of western fact or fiction and shows, maybe more than any other, how history and legend are impossible to untangle in Western Lore. As in all legend or myth the story of the Alamo says more about those who tell it or hear it than it does of the men and women who inhabit the tale.
I first visited the Alamo as a boy in the early 70s during a family vacation. I’d seen Disney’s Davy Crocket and John Wayne’s The Alamo and had read Lon Tinkles best seller, Thirteen Days to Glory. None of these prepared me for what I would find in downtown San Antonio, a small city park surrounded by high rise office towers which dwarfed the iconic Chapel, awash in a sea of asphalt. Though pleased at having made the trip to the site, I left slightly underwhelmed at the reality of what I found there. In a way the trip prepared me for the changes to the story that were to come.
You see I came along before the narrative of the Alamo had modified and mutated. The “history” I learned was that 186 men all chose to sacrifice themselves on the altar of liberty rather than surrender to the might of the tyrannical dictator, Santa Anna and his 5,000 troops. William Barrett Travis bravely defied all odds sending what he knew would be his last words in a letter to Texans and all Americans preferring death to dishonor. He drew the first line in the sand and all the brave defenders crossed it stepping into certain death. Confined to bed, Jim Bowie died fighting with a brace of pistols and his famed knife. Davy Crockett met his end fighting to the last and beset by dozens of Mexicans. This “history” I learned inspired the young boy I was.
But soon after my visit the revised “history” began to emerge. The latest version is that as many as 300 men were commanded by Travis, a cruel slave holder, philanderer and scheming adventurer. They faced perhaps 2000 in the Mexican Army. Their commander was out for glory in defending a fort he’d been ordered to abandon. His letter was a crass attempt to cash in after the Texas army marched to the relief of his garrison, and he died in the first minutes of attack without putting up much fight. Bowie never regained consciousness from the fever that gripped him. He was slaughtered while passed out in his bed. Crockett and maybe a score of others tried desperately at the end to surrender and were summarily executed as they begged for their lives.
And so the “history” had evolved over the time since my first visit to the Alamo, as I set out for Texas with my own children and returned to San Antonio after 40 odd years. What I found now was a beautiful garden spot in the city center, alive with shade trees and flowers. The Chapel was a solemn place for reflection on those who died here, and the exhibits acknowledged the bravery of those who fought on both sides of the conflict. It was an oasis in the midst of one of the country’s largest urban centers.
In the years since I first visited the Alamo America has changed. We once believed, and just a bit naively, that we were a better breed of men. We saved the world during the 1940s and so enjoyed a special place among nations. We didn’t give much thought to our shortcomings in matters of race in those days. We fit well the old tale told of the Alamo.
But the intervening years left us jaded and cynical. For some we were never anything special at all and for others our time of greatness has past. For many we have been only a cruel, racist and violent people. This idea fits the revised story of the Alamo and reflects our sophisticated view.
I think the truth lies elsewhere, away from either extreme and perhaps in a kinder less self-important idea of who we are. The truth is those Texans were scared, maybe some of them were even cowards. When did you ever fall into a crowd of a couple hundred people who were all noble? But in the end they stood up and on the whole gave a good account of themselves. That’s what matters.
And the Soldados they fought against under Santa Anna – they gave a good account as well. They marched farther, faster and in more bitter cold than any army in North America ever had to reach the Alamo. And they sacrificed just as much as any Texans did in the fight for their patriotic cause.
So if you have the chance, take a quiet moment under a shade tree in the heart of San Antonio. Pause for a while and you will hear what their story, Texan and Mexican alike, has to say about you, about us – if you’ll listen.