Moving Beyond Myth, Memory, and Fallacy in Texas History
By Light Townsend Cummins, Mary L. Scheer
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2016 University of North Texas Press
All rights reserved.
Line in the Sand; Lines on the Soul
The Battle of the Alamo in Myth, Memory, and History
Stephen L. Hardin
Editor's Note: The Alamo lies at the center of the Texas myth. It also holds a place essential to the memory of Texas. Few Texans, if any at all, would fail to mention the Alamo as one of the most significant icons of what it means to be a Texan. It has been perhaps the most essential part of the myth and memory that created the Anglo-American identity of Texas. The Alamo myth embodies in its inherent values most of what many Texans hold dear in defining their identity: freedom, independence, strength of action, sacrifice for the general betterment, and a host of other parameters of character or good judgment that comprehend the world view of Texas identities. We are all continually admonished to "Remember the Alamo." Anyone painting a picture of the Alamo myth in all its manifestations would require an extremely large canvass upon which to work. As noted by Stephen L. Hardin, entire books have been written on the myth and memory of the Alamo and its impact on shaping Texas identities. The following essay takes a less sweeping and more finely focused view of the Alamo myth by examining some of the smaller, component fallacies that have been perpetuated regarding historical events related to the Alamo story. Some of these fallacies, slow to be corrected and almost impossible to expunge from public memory, have traditionally composed the building blocks of the larger, all-encompassing, and broad-ideological role the Alamo has played in defining both the Texas and the American identity. Professor Hardin's purpose is not to smite those who over time have been untruthful in fashioning Alamo narratives, but to highlight the sometimes imperceptible dividing line between truth and fallacy in the fashioning of myth and memory. After all, great narratives are composed of smaller tales, each told as a meaningful component of the complete myth. Does it matter some of these regarding the Alamo are fallacies? Probably not because the realistic possibility of relegating them to the storehouse of history has long passed. It is, however, essential that historical fact be separated from fallacy. That is the purpose of the following essay.
There is a rich academic literature touching on the myth and memory of the Alamo, including works by authors such as Holly Benchley Brear, Richard R. Flores, James Crisp, and others. These studies analyze the role the Alamo has played in determining the American character since the fateful battle of 1836. In particular, Brear finds the story of the Alamo to be "the creation myth" for Texas. In that regard, it is almost impossible to overstate the impact that the Alamo has had on determining identities in Texas and across the nation as a whole. Flores has noted: "The Alamo, as a major feature of cultural memory, references not only aspects of 1836 but the social and historical moment of its remembering as well." Myth has so enshrouded every aspect of the Alamo story that it becomes difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to separate the fanciful from the factual. The essay that follows examines the Alamo below the level of its all-encompassing cultural influence across time as a conceptual and large-scale myth, concentrating on the fallacies embodied in component parts of the Alamo story, the latter likely caused by a desire to extol the doomed defenders beyond the point that evidence merited. For that reason, some parts of the Alamo narrative fall into the category of fallacy. Yet, newer myths also evolved, often produced by politically correct trends that sought to undermine treasured traditions, and changing the meaning of the battle. Like older myths, documentation often failed to support them.
It is useful to define terms. When discussing the role of myth in Texas history, contentious question-and-answer sessions invariably ensue. Predictably, a fuming member of the audience asks a question like this one: "Tell me, Dr. Hardin, when you talk about the Alamo myth, are you claiming that those brave men didn't actually die there, or that it's just a fairy story someone made up?" That is one definition of "myth" — "an unfounded or false notion" — but not the one at play today. No, the operating definition is, "a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon." The battle of the Alamo is a perfect example of this second definition.
When Texans shouted "Remember the Alamo," were they urging people to recall a catastrophic defeat? Was it an appeal for contemplation and caution, so Texans never again suffered such a loss? No, of course not. What began as a cry for vengeance became one of pride and exultation. Outsiders, those who fail to understand Texas culture and deny Texas exceptionalism, find it curious that natives celebrate a crushing slaughter. They fail to understand that the defenders' last stand transcended mere history, becoming both symbol and icon. It represented to Texans and many Americans "a people fighting against tyranny and arbitrary rule and for personal liberty and the rule of law." Or, to state it more succinctly, Texans and Americans constructed a myth that became universally recognized and extolled as emblematic of Texan identity.
Hardly had the smoke cleared over the old mission before Texians began to describe the episode in mythic terms. Less than three weeks after the battle, a Texas newspaperman employed extravagant language to pay homage to the fallen defenders:
Spirits of the mighty, though fallen! Honors and rest are with ye: the spark of immortality which animated your forms, shall brighten into a flame, and Texas, the whole world, shall hail ye like the demi-gods of old, as founders of new actions and as patterns of imitation!
Notwithstanding all that President Andrew Jackson had on his plate — issues with Indian removal, the Second Seminole War, the upcoming presidential election — he felt himself moved to reply to the nine-year-old Jackson Donelson. He was the son of Andrew and Emily Donelson, the president's closest living relatives. From his boarding school, young Jackson had written his "Uncle" Andrew mourning the fall of the Alamo. On April 22, 1836 (the day following the Texian victory at San Jacinto), the "Old Hero" responded to the boy:
Your sympathies expressed on hearing of the death of those brave men who fell in defense of the Alamo displays a proper feeling of patriotism and sympathy for the gallant defenders of the rights of freemen, which I trust will grow with your growth ... and find you always a strong votary in the cause of freedom.
Old Hickory voiced the feelings of most Americans. Although Texas had not yet joined the American union, "those brave men" had died in defense of American values and traditions — "in the cause of freedom."
Four years later, Texians had codified this rhetoric. Upon visiting San Antonio, Texas, booster A. B. Lawrence waxed elegiac:
Will not in future days Bexar be classic ground? Is it not by victory and the blood of heroes, consecrated to liberty, and sacred to the fame of patriots who there repose upon the very ground they defended with their last breath and last drop of generous blood? Will Texians ever forget them? Or cease to prize the boon for which these patriots bled? Forbid it honor, virtue, patriotism. Let every Texian bosom be the monument sacred to their fame, and every Texian freeman be emulous of their virtues.
Thus, almost immediately the battle lost its factual content, ceased to be a calamitous military defeat, becoming instead a paradigm of "honor, virtue, and patriotism." The myth made acceptable that which was inherently intolerable. It consoled Texans, assuring them that the sacrifice of Travis and his men had not been in vain.
No surprise then that Texans began to embellish the narrative. No praise of the fallen defenders could be too effusive; no estimations of slain soldados at the foot of Jim Bowie's sick bed could be too high; no presumptions of Mexican malice could be too excessive. In 1860 Reuben Marmaduke Potter, an American citizen living in Matamoros during the Texas Revolution, wrote the first historical account of the fall of the Alamo, depicting the siege as "a great heroic epic." Artists such as Henry A. McArdle and Robert Jenkins Onderdonk elevated the Alamo defenders to mythic status, painting "noble Anglos" fighting "treacherous Mexicans," on their canvasses. By the end of the nineteenth century the parable also became the central scene of a Lone Star morality play, a melodrama in which slain champions served as primordial types. Consider, for example, this paradigm of purple prose contained within a popular textbook:
The Mexicans, bleeding, wounded, and shattered, hesitated to renew the attack, but the stern command of Santa Anna and the flashing sabers of the cavalry, forced them on. By tens, by hundreds, they swarmed up the ladders. Down fell the first, down, down went the second, crushing all beneath them, while the Texans stood like gods waiting to let others feel their mighty strength.
Such perceptions survived the romantic nineteenth century and thrived even into the mid-twentieth century. In 1960, actor and director John Wayne described his film The Alamo as "the story of 185 men joined together in an immortal pact to give their lives that the spark of freedom might blaze into a roaring flame. It is the story of how they died to the last man, putting up an unbelievably gallant fight against an overwhelming enemy; and of the priceless legacy they left us."
Wayne unintentionally identified the problem with the mythic Alamo. The traditional story was, indeed, "unbelievably" gallant. Nevertheless, those of a certain age who grew up with the Walt Disney version — who wore coonskin caps and sang "Da-vy, Davy Crockett," until it drove parents to distraction — are frequently aggrieved when some historian tells them that their childhood hero may not have gone down swinging ol' Betsy a la Fess Parker. They are chagrined when their children and grandchildren, who did not grow up with Fess Parker and John Wayne, fail to share their enthusiasm for the tale. The bombast and lack of credibility that accompanies most of the mythic accounts tends to alienate younger people who, quite rightly, demand to examine the evidence.
One of the newer fallacies suggests that despite "the desperate bravery of the garrison at the Alamo," Bowie and Travis were foolish to attempt to hold a post of no military significance. The battle should never have been fought and "their contribution to the strategy of the Texas Revolution was nil or negative." Those who hold this view tend to examine the battle only in tactical terms. To fathom the encounter fully one must appreciate its strategic context.
Any general worthy of his epaulettes could have read a map. In 1836, two major roads led into Texas from the Mexican interior. The first was the Atascosito Road, which stretched from Matamoros on the Rio Grande northward through San Patricio, Goliad, Victoria, and finally into the heart of Austin's colony. The second was the Old San Antonio Road, a camino real that crossed the Rio Grande and wound northeastward through San Antonio de Béxar, Bastrop, Nacogdoches, and San Augustine before crossing the Sabine River into Louisiana.
Yet what was manifest to Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna was equally clear to Texian leaders, who took steps to block these vital transportation arteries. Two forts barred these approaches into Texas and each functioned as a frontier picket post, ready to alert the Anglo settlements of an enemy advance: Presidio La Bahía at Goliad and the Alamo at San Antonio. James Clinton Neill took charge of the Béxar garrison. Some ninety miles to the southeast James Walker Fannin, Jr. subsequently commanded at Goliad. Both Neill and Fannin determined to stall the centralists on the frontier. Still, they labored under no delusions. Without speedy reinforcements, neither the Alamo nor Presidio La Bahía could long stand.
The self-styled "Napoleon of the West" sought to emulate the French emperor. Santa Anna planned to strike swiftly, hurl his columns along parallel roads, and achieve strategic surprise. Ignorant of his intentions, the rebels dispersed their meager forces against the threat of multiple Mexican advances. Santa Anna, keeping the Texians guessing, would concentrate his battalions to deliver a hammer blow where the enemy was weakest.
The generalissimo anticipated ensnaring the rebels in a strategic pincer movement. On February 16, he crossed the Rio Grande near modern-day Eagle Pass with the bulk of his army and rumbled toward San Antonio. The following day, General José Urrea forded more than three hundred miles downriver at Matamoros with about five hundred infantry and cavalry. Barreling up the Atascosito Road, his mission was to retake Goliad.
San Antonio de Béxar was the linchpin of Santa Anna's stratagem. "Béxar was held by the enemy," he explained, "and it was necessary to open the door to our future operations by taking it." Once he had reduced the Alamo, the town could serve as a supply depot, a stopover for weary soldados, and a springboard against rebel enclaves further east. Some critics have argued that once he had surrounded the Alamo, he could have simply monitored the garrison and continued his campaign. Yet what sort of commander would allow an enemy garrison to remain just outside his base of operation and sit astride his central line of communication?
His officers, however, whispered that other issues might have influenced Santa Anna's plans. Some observed that Goliad, which controlled the entire Texas coastline, was actually of more strategic importance than Béxar. Even so, Béxar was the political hub of Tejas, a consideration of enormous symbolic importance.
Although Travis had initially objected to his posting, once there he began calling Béxar the "key of Texas." Curiously, Santa Anna and Travis selected similar metaphors to describe the town's strategic importance. Like Neill and Bowie, Travis came to realize that the best way to protect Texian families was to stop the enemy at San Antonio. One may argue the tactics of the battle, but to assert that San Antonio de Béxar was of no strategic significance is absurd.
Another component fallacy that has perpetuated the Texas myth is that Travis and Bowie disobeyed Houston's orders to abandon the Alamo and blow it up. On January 17, 1836, General Sam Houston wrote Governor Henry Smith that he had ordered Colonel James Bowie and a company of volunteers to San Antonio. Traditional misunderstanding of the letter's contents created one of the most persistent canards of the Alamo story.
For the careful reader, Houston's own words clarify the issue: "I have ordered the fortifications of the town of Béxar to be demolished, and, if you think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers. [T]he sooner I can be authorized the better it will be for the country" [Emphasis added].
Houston clearly wanted to raze the Alamo and withdraw, but it is likewise obvious that he was asking Smith's consent to do so. Smith and the council could concur upon few issues, but on this occasion both the governor and the council agreed they must maintain the Alamo and the San Antonio River line.
On January 19, Bowie rode into the Alamo. What he saw impressed him. The old mission had begun to look like a real fort. Neill's arguments and leadership electrified Bowie. He declared that he and Neill had resolved to "die in these ditches" before they would surrender so valuable a post. Bowie's letter confirmed the governor's view of the defensibility of the Alamo. Smith and the council had already concluded that Texian forces must hold Béxar, and Bowie's judgment only strengthened this determination. Rejecting Houston's plan, Smith prepared to funnel reinforcements and provisions to the Alamo. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Texan Identities by Light Townsend Cummins, Mary L. Scheer. Copyright © 2016 University of North Texas Press. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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