History, it is said, is written by the winners.
Well, not always. The history of the Alamo, as it has been understood by thousands, not only in America but around the world, was shaped and told by the losers. One hundred and eighty nine men, mostly white immigrants from the southern United States, Texians as they were called, – some of them illegals- and a few native born Spanish-descended Tejanos lost their lives, and the Alamo, to a Mexican Army. You’d not know it from hearing the shout, “Remember the Alamo!” still used by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Depending on who is shouting it, where and when, it may mean —
- Remember the perfidious Mexicans – read current enemy- and give it to them!
- Remember the glorious martyrs for liberty and homeland;
- Remember Davy Crockett swinging his rifle, “Old Betsy,” and Jim Bowie slashing with his knife – true heroes to be emulated.
After reading in The Half Has Never Been Told of the importance of slavery for Southern immigrants to Texas in the decades before the Civil War, I took up, as a companion piece, Forget The Alamo. The famous battle, March 6, 1836, was in reality an effort by the Mexican government, and army, to reclaim authority over their own territory, in which slavery had been banned, from slave owning and slave proselytizing Americans. The three authors, Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, write not as historians but, as Tomlinson says, as journalists, all with Texas roots and deep interest in its history.
The result is a highly interesting disabusement of all that Disney has taught us, with his Davy Crocketts, Jim Bowies and valiant last-stands at the Alamo. Far from fighting for liberty, as the myth would have it, the Texians pouring into eastern Texas, that is Mexico, were by-and-large illegal immigrants from the United States, often fleeing debt-collectors in the South (labeled by their own neighbors as “GTT,” Gone To Texas,) and ready to fight for the “liberty” to own, work, and sell slaves.
The opening chapters bring us through the years prior to 1836. Texas-Coahuila is a Mexican state as Mexico wins its independence from Spain (1821) and bans slavery in all its territories. Facing a strong and determined Comanche nation in its north-east territories Mexico invites American settlers to the region to act as a counterbalance. Stephen Austin “The Father of Texas” is all for it, until he discovers that slavery is prohibited.
Off he goes to Mexico City to lobby for a Texas exemption. Without slaves, no Americans will come.
“Texas must be a slave country. Circumstances and unavoidable necessity compels it,” he wrote a friend.
At the same time, many Mexican states, including Texas-Coahuila, are pressing for a federalist form of government –more power to reside at the state level. Santa Anna, several times the president, as well as general, says no way; the nation must be united. A multi-part struggle is set up: centralizing Mexicans, federalizing Mexicans, Comanche warriors and Anglo slave-holding Americans.
The second series of chapters is a fairly detailed look at the battle itself, something for those who like to read of battle tactics, good and bad, carried out or invented after the fact. Reportage on the actual characters of those high in the pantheon of Texas heroes is included: Bowie –“a murderer, slaver, and con man;” Travis –a pompous, racist agitator;” and Crockett, “a self-promoting old fool.” (He was 49 when he died at the Alamo, not the young buck shown in pictures and movies.)
Following the battle chapters is an admirable work of historiography showing, by author and book, how the story of valiant Texans and perfidious Mexicans was built. The motivational cries of Remember the Alamo! by Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto, where he defeated Santa Anna, worked their way to the first generation of professional historians at the end of the century who, despite their detailed archival work, remained gripped in the racial straitjackets of their times.
Of great interest to those who grew up with Davy Crockett mania in the 1950s will be Walt Disney, his reasons for, and success in, making Crockett a popular figure. Beset with labor union problems, and convinced of Communist influence, Disney wanted to tell stories of “traditional American Heroes.” His writers scoured the past and, not coming up with authentic heroes, picked from popular frontier novels and a faux Crockett biography to give movie goers stirring legends and myths, Crockett, Bowie and Houston among them. Although well known in their own time as swindlers, slave holders and drunkards, Disney movies triumphed.
John Wayne joined forces in 1960, in his directorial debut, with The Alamo, Crockett (Wayne) shown beating back Mexicans with “Old Betsy.” He did no such thing. He surrendered, and was executed by the Mexican Army. In fact, contrary to the myth that the Texians and Tejanos decided to fight to the last man, a good many slipped away before the battle began. If you imagine that the culture wars started recently you will be startled to read that Wayne planned “The Alamo” to open just before the 1960 Presidential election with the idea of sinking the liberal, Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy. Mexico was a stand-in for the Soviet Union, and
“I want to remind the freedom loving people of the world that not too long ago there were men and women in America who had the guts to stand up and fight for the things they believed in.”
President Lyndon Baines Johnson was the third of the big cultural movers, using references to the Alamo repeatedly in his pursuit of American victory in Vietnam.
As younger historians began looking more closely, in the 1990s, at the history of slavery and Texas, competing stories began to surface. Descendants of the original Tejanos, some of whom had fought and died at the Alamo, wanted their ignored, or forgotten to have their day; white southerners didn’t have a monopoly on courage. Young activists began telling stories how school lessons of the Anglo-superior Alamo had first notified them that they, brown-skinned and of Mexican heritage — were not ‘really” Americans. Mexicans killing Davy Crockett took on the weight of Jews killing Christ, some recall.
Along with professional historians, especially Andrew Torget in his 2015 Seeds of Empire, came artists and activists. Chicano artists for the 300th anniversary of San Antonio produced “The Other Side of the Alamo” The culture wars were truly on.
The final chapters bring us to the messy present. Super traditionalists take on George P. Bush for allowing that some revision is needed in the public story of the Alamo – that in fact Tejanos, for instance, died there as well as Texians. Tea-Party favorite and Lt Governor Dan Patrick weighs in. Governor Abbot tweets that
“…Texas school children should be taught that the Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’! I fully expect the State Board of Education to agree.”
Phil Collins, the British Rock singer, enters, as an obsessed collector of Alamo artifacts. It turns out that his collection, meant to be the centerpiece of a new Alamo museum, may not meet the criteria of authenticity.The provenance of memorabilia, it turns out, is more scrupulously defended, by several orders, than that of historical events.
For all the seriousness of the subject, slavery, rebellion, massacres, the three authors handle it with an occasional light touch.
“The story of the Alamo is simple, right? Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barret Travis, and a bunch of their friends come to Texas to start new lives, suddenly realize they are being oppressed by the Mexican dictator Santa Ana, and rush off to do battle with him at an old Spanish mission in San Antonio.”
Nice turns of phrase enliven the telling: “(President) Monroe, it is clear, was keen to snap up territorial acorns that might fall from the Spanish tree.”
Forget the Alamo is not “heavy” history as is The Half Has Never Been Told, but it’s good, and necessary history. Far from the revised story of the Alamo being “politically correct nonsense’ as Governor Abbot complains, it is in fact a stripping away of a century and a half of politically correct falsehoods. If the result is a past that no longer proclaims white settlers as the paragons of virtue, rectitude and courage we can at least recognize it as closer to the truth of nation building, impassioned defense of slavery, and as having created the foundations of our lives today.