Remember the Alamo

On hearing that expression, a lot of non-Texans think, “Huh? Why?” Not having had that much education in history, I wondered the same. I mean, I knew there was one hell of a fight in Texas somewhere along in their revolution for independence, at someplace called “the Alamo”, but I really didn’t know any more than that. I presumed the Alamo was some large battlefield plain, sort of like the ones you visit in Pennsylvania or the Carolinas that were host to Civil War battles. I didn’t think it’d be a small mission in the center of town! After many years of ignorance, I learned why the battle mattered. And I think you should know too, at least a little bit, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Here’s what I found out. There was once a Spanish church compound originally named Misión San Antonio de Valero that had fallen into some disrepair and disuse. Eventually the Mexican army stationed some cavalry there and the place became known as the Alamo. There was a barracks in place for many years, as it had stone walls and was the only real fort-like structure in the area. During the Mexican war for independence, it was taken and retaken by opposing forces. After gaining independence from Spain, prosperity reigned and Texas was opened to all for immigration, especially to US citizens. But sometime in the 1830s the Mexican military “temporarily” took over Mexico (and therefore the Mexican state of Texas) until a new constitution could be written. Uh huh, yeah, sure. Texans believed this takeover was against democracy, against the rule of law and it was uncertain whether civilian democracy would ever be restored to their land. Things had gotten ugly and for some, it was clearly time to fight or live under tyranny. But for a lot of people, just trying to make a living and feed their families, a need for bloody rebellion was an ugly thing to accept. People were ambivalent. Eventually when some rebel Texans fought for independence, the Alamo was taken by the rebels and the Mexican army was forced out. Well, the army wasn’t going to take rebellion lying down (no surprise here) and regrouped to re-take the Alamo and punish those who had affronted them. On February 23, 1836, the Mexican forces, led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, attacked the Alamo, with further troop reinforcements on the way. The insurgent Texans held out for 13 days against Santa Anna’s army, but they knew they were in deep trouble and up against superior forces (especially knowing that the enemy had more men coming). William B. Travis, the commander of the Alamo sent forth couriers carrying his earnest and beautifully written plea for help: specifically, reinforcements. If the strategic position of the Alamo was allowed to fall back into Mexican hands, it would be a terrible setback for Texan independence – maybe an unrecoverable setback. He also knew if they didn’t get reinforcements, they weren’t likely to survive. Here’s Travis’ letter, one that was later reprinted in newspapers across the United States and Europe:

Fby. 24th 1836
To the People of Texas & all Americans in the world—
Fellow citizens & compatriots—
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna — I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man — The enemy has demanded a Surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken — I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the wall — I shall never Surrender or retreat
Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with dispatch — The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country — Victory or Death
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt

A week later, after receiving Travis’ plea for help, a mere thirty two soldiers from Gonzales would slip through the Mexican lines arriving safely to the Alamo. This made for about 200 guys to defend a low stone fort against thousands of armed soldiers. Not exactly good odds, and Travis knew it. He knew they were likely to die at this fort if they would not surrender, and he was honest about it with the men. He drew a line in the dirt with his sword, said that anyone willing to continue the fight should step over it. They all did but one. Predictably, death followed at the Alamo. A few women, young children and slaves survived the aftermath when Santa Anna eventually took the fort, but mostly the Mexican Army put everyone to death. Some of the men who died at the Alamo were already heroes, including James Bowie and Davy Crockett. Their bravery in the face of certain death moved the people of Texas and indeed the western world. The battle at the Alamo galvanized public opinion and became a rallying cry; it was the event that united Texas against Mexico and became a symbol of the cost of freedom. The Alamo is remembered as “a heroic struggle against impossible odds — a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom.” For decades, the Alamo has been quite effectively preserved by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas – the quote is from their web site, thealamo.com.

Weighty stuff, eh? You can see how the people of Texas would take this site very seriously, to the point where it is considered a shrine. The site itself is very well-presented but does not allow photography (bummer!). You get a good feel for the history of the place and for Texas in general, and I enjoyed it. I happened to be there at Davy Crockett’s birthday and there was a *huge* party that night in town despite a big thunderstorm. The fine hospitality of San Antonio continued to display itself all day. For example, there’s a courthouse and post office building next to the Alamo that had recently been restored and I was given the chance to have a look around it and take some pictures. You may recall that in a couple of situations when I have photographed a courthouse, there’s been a suspicious inquiry afterwards. Not this time – in fact, there was a kind invitation to come on in and look around since the restoration work was so pretty. Now that’s a welcome. And that’s Texas.

Sometimes I hear from my Texan friend that we in California are a bit self-centered and rude. I never really thought so until I went to San Antonio. But now, I think I see his point. After the proper reception I experienced, California seems an inconsiderate place. On the other hand, those Texans have an ornery side: In 1982 while wearing his future wife Sharon’s dress, Ozzy Osbourne drunkenly urinated on a cenotaph erected in honor of those who died at the Alamo, across the street from the actual site. A police officer arrested him, and Osbourne was subsequently banned from the city of San Antonio for a decade. Eventually, he apologized, donated $10,000 to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and was granted forgiveness. Don’t mess with Texas, eh? Still, I liked San Antonio and I hope to visit again. If you get there, check out the Alamo –it’s worth your time.

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1 Response to Remember the Alamo

  1. Used to live in Texas…and remember well when I visited the Alamo. Glad you had a chance to do and to share your story with us! Try and visit the Hill Country if you haven’t already. It’s one of my favorite parts of Texas…and there’s some pretty darn good wine in them there hills!

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