September 14, 2012 11:02:09 AM
If you remember the Alamo, as you are commanded to do by the utterance of that three-word phrase, you may well remember films made about the subject, or stories and legends in print form. The siege of the Alamo was long ago, in 1836, but it still looms large in American myth (not to mention Texas myth). You can visit the Alamo itself, and you will find a sanctified but dumpy old fort, not out on the range, but in the middle of downtown San Antonio. You can recall that at the Alamo, Americans suffered a disastrous defeat; it was a lost battle, but was within a larger war. Those are among the lessons to remember from The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo - and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation (Little, Brown and Company) by James Donovan. It is a sizeable book, 500 pages, but only about a hundred have to do with the siege itself. The pages before set up the causes of the battle and the personalities involved on both sides, and the pages after show how once the siege was lost, the war was won. The tale has been told before, of course, just as had that of Custer's Last Stand when Donovan wrote about that other defeat, but once again, this is a gripping history, full of detail that makes the old story exciting. This is how to remember the Alamo.
All the land grabbing to make up America was settled years ago, but at the start of the nineteenth century, there were the eastern states, a few states in the westward expanse, and then the vast spread of the Louisiana Purchase. It was supposed to include Texas, but then Spain imposed its ideas about what its treaties claimed and Texas was hers. Spain fell and Mexico became independent, eventually falling under the governance of General Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna, one of the main personalities described here. He dissolved the inchoate democratic government, declaring, "A hundred years from now my people will not be fit for liberty. Despotism is the proper government for them." Of course, he intended to be the despot. "His chief appetites," writes Donovan, "were cockfighting, gambling, women, the trappings of luxury, and the acclaim of the Mexican people." He was a great organizer, and he commendably led his military campaigns from the front, like his hero Napoleon, whose strategic thinking he did not approach. He was admired by his countrymen for his audacity.
He was not admired by the English-speaking colonists who poured into Texas, although initially they simply ignored him and the nominally Mexican government of the regions they commandeered. Many of them had ancestors who had fought for freedom from Britain, and many were of Scottish and Irish extraction, moving in from the southern states to escape debt or make their fortunes in a new land. They had a loose provisional government, and associated with it was an army that was "little more than a well-intentioned mob." In December 1835, the army evicted the Mexican units from San Antonio. There had been harsh fighting, but the Mexicans and the settlers had a friendly parting, and the Mexicans were allowed to take their arms with them. The outcome infuriated Santa Anna, who approached with a huge force that would outnumber the occupiers at least six to one.
Those occupiers were not within much of a fort. The Alamo was a three-acre compound, mostly a large courtyard, with armory and barracks and an ancient chapel. It had been built to withstand attacks from Indians, not cannons, and it lacked features of a real fort like protections for riflemen. Donovan gives short and colorful biographies of the three great personalities within the Alamo. There was the young William Barret Travis, a lawyer, and a romantic who loved the novels of Sir Walter Scott and was fastidious in his clothing, if not in his personal life. He had left Alabama and his wife and children five years earlier to escape from debtors' prison. He was an example of the man who could remake himself in Texas, proving to be a capable attorney. It was largely due to Travis that the men within the Alamo united into a suicidally brave force. James Bowie had gotten rich early in the slave trade and land speculation, but he was nationally famous as an indomitable knife and gun fighter with magnificent resourcefulness and courage. He had been in San Antonio for years and had married into a wealthy and influential family. Unfortunately, he had a severe problem with alcohol and had drunken rages during the siege. And of course there was David Crockett, who when Tennesseans had failed to elect him to a fourth term in Congress, famously said, "You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas." (Indeed, the phrase "Gone to Texas" was proverbial at the time, and was even abbreviated as G.T.T.) He deliberately set out for Texas to help free it from the Mexicans, bearing his favorite rifle Betsy; he was to use it at the Alamo with all the shooting skill that had made him famous.
Santa Anna would accept nothing but a complete victory. His columns of troops flew a red flag, signaling to all that no quarter would be given; victory was to include taking no prisoners. The Texans would accept no surrender. There may have been a siege, but by stealth, messages got in to and out of the Alamo. Travis sent out a message that he knew would be read by his fellow Texans and by Americans all over, and ended it with "I will never surrender or retreat. Victory or Death," with the last words repeatedly underlined. The stage was thus set for an annihilation. One of the great episodes in all retellings of the Alamo story is when Travis dramatically drew a line in the sand with the tip of his sword. He told his men that they were free to do what they wanted, but if they crossed the line to join him they would join him in a fight to the death. The ailing Bowie had his cot carried across the line, and around 200 Texans crossed as well, leaving only a French settler who declined and fled ("By God, I wasn't ready to die," he explained afterwards). The line-in-the-sand scene has produced disbelief from many historians who regard it as a romantic myth; in a fascinating account of an attempt to trace down the story, Donovan explains why he thinks there is sufficient reason to believe it. The other controversy faced here, in a long note after the text, is the fate of Crockett: did he die fighting, or was he ignobly caught and executed? Again, the better of the two stories wins out, and not just because it's a better story, but because of the preponderance of evidence, cited here at length.
Santa Anna's refusal to take prisoners incited disgust among some of his own officers, and when in a later action at Goliad the Mexicans slaughtered 400 Texans who had honorably surrendered, the outrage was worldwide. The outrage in the South led to Sam Houston mustering an army that finally defeated Santa Anna, making Texas an independent republic with Houston as president. Only after considering the aftermath of the slaughter at the Alamo, placing it in the context of the history of Texas and of America, and then explaining his decisions about researching legends historically, does Donovan bring this grand, satisfying history to a close.