March 6 dawned cool and clear, with hundreds gathered in Alamo Plaza to commemorate the 185th anniversary of the battle that would forever mark the Texas Revolution.

The annual commemoration is deliberately held at dawn to honor how the 1836 battle began, with the Mexican army advancing on the Alamo mission walls just before sunrise.

With the present-day streets around the plaza absent of traffic, and muted cell phones, the quiet of early morning produces “a really reverent, quiet atmosphere that really is unlike any other,” said Kevin Femmel, content and media specialist for the Alamo Trust.

Femmel said the sunrise ceremony must be experienced in person to truly understand the mixture of reverence and pride.

A somber moment

The dawn ceremony opened with an introduction by Hope Andrade, a board member of the Alamo Trust, the organization charged with keeping the Alamo’s history alive.

“Welcome to dawn at the Alamo,” Andrade said. “One hundred eighty-five years ago, at this time, in this place, the history of San Antonio, Texas, Mexico, and North America changed forever. This is a somber moment when we honor the sacrifice of Tejanos and Texians.”

Andrade summarized the enduring importance of the March 6 battle that would play an outsized role in forming Texan identity.

Of the ragtag group of besieged men, women, and children left without reinforcements to defend their own lives, she said, “In the face of overwhelming odds, their sacrifice forged the context for what makes Texas so special, and helped define a cultural and political identity that makes our state so unique.”

A spoken word narrative composite of the words of Alamo defenders on the eve of battle was read by Alamo Trust volunteers, followed by the laying of wreaths in honor of those who lost their lives on this date in 1836.

Jeff Hallinan, a member of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, traveled from Houston to be among the 300 attendees crowded into the plaza to witness a series of speakers recount the historical battle, and “to show respect and solidarity to the defenders themselves.”

During genealogical research Hallinan, a self-described history buff, discovered an ancestor of his was part of the ill-fated effort by Col. James W. Fannin to send reinforcements to the Alamo from Goliad. Fannin encountered difficulties and returned, only to die there fighting Mexican troops.

Members of the Sons of the Republic of Texas lower their heads and hold their hats at their chests during a moment of silence. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A family gathering

Later, an 11 a.m. ceremony for an estimated 200 attendees gave the day the feel of a family gathering, with many descendants of Alamo defenders, messengers, and survivors present.

Lee Spencer White, president of the Alamo Defender Descendants Association, opened the program by recounting the suffering caused by the battle.

“For we, the family, that are gathered here, the Alamo is personal. It’s not just some glorious battle. We lost our grandfathers here. We felt pain. We felt suffering. Mothers without their sons, wives without their husbands, and many, many orphans,” she said.

The ceremony centered on a reading of the names of all 189 recorded defenders who died during the battle, including the most familiar – Crockett, Travis, and Bowie – and the least familiar, such as a man named John from an unknown location with an unknown surname. Chris Chilton, a lateral descendant of defender Albert Calvin Grimes, began the reading, followed by several descendants who asked members of the audience to raise their hands if their relatives’ names were called.

Sally Avila looked on from a distance, standing in full Native American dress near the Cenotaph, the monument to Alamo defenders at the center of much recent controversy regarding the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza.

Avila is of Coahuiltecan ancestry and a member of the Alamo Area Tejano Descendents. Prior to the early morning ceremony, Avila participated in a Native prayer.

“It’s a beautiful way to share our individual culture,” she said of the Coahuiltecan prayer, “and celebrating [all] our individual cultures. We have more commonalities than we have differences. I’m happy to be a part of Texas history before it was Texas and now that it is Texas, and I just embrace the diverse cultures in San Antonio.”

Avila said she favors updating Alamo history to include acknowledgment of those who lived in the area before the Texians arrived, those Native Americans and slaves who built the Alamo for the Spanish missionaries, and acknowledgment of the slave trading that once went on in the plaza itself.

“I want the history of the Alamo to change because I want more cultures to be represented,” she said.

Sage is burned during a Native prayer in front of the Alamo before the Dawn at the Alamo ceremony. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The inclusion of such context is at the heart of the Alamo redevelopment effort, currently at a crossroads after the Texas Historical Commission disallowed moving the Cenotaph south of its current location, to open the historical battlefield.

Controversy erupted over the plan to move the monument, which was a key part of the plan advanced by Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), former chair of the Alamo Management Committee and tri-chair of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee.

On March 1, Mayor Ron Nirenberg replaced Treviño with Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), citing her experience in achieving United Nations World Heritage status for the colonial missions, and the need to move on from the Cenotaph controversy.

Artifacts on display

While the redevelopment plan hangs in limbo, Fennel said the Alamo Trust continues its mission to tell the story of the Alamo through events and exhibits of historical artifacts. A display opened Tuesday – Texas Independence Day – in the Alamo exhibit hall featuring objects in the Phil Collins Collection among rare artifacts from donors and other collections.

The Phil Collins Collection Preview is on display at the Alamo Exhibit Hall from March 2 - April 25. Photos taken on March 3, 2021.
A Mexican Dolores Cavalry Helmet from the Phil Collins Texana Collection. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Saturday the exhibit hall was whisper quiet, visitors listening to audio tour headsets pressed close to their ears, in stark contrast to the incredible violence contained in the long rifles, musket ammunition, cannons and cannonballs, swords and bayonets safely ensconced behind Plexiglas display cases.

The collection of Collins, a pop musician famously devoted to preserving Alamo artifacts, will go on display in spring 2022 regardless of the fate of the Alamo redevelopment plan, Fennel said. A two-story building planned for construction on the Alamo grounds will be dedicated to housing and displaying the hundreds of artifacts preserved by the Alamo Trust.

Among the hundreds of people wandering the grounds in the afternoon was Ana Olvera, a Dallas resident who, along with her immediate family, brought relatives visiting from Chicago to visit San Antonio and its famed historical site.

Olvera said she was not aware of the significance of the day in Alamo history before her visit. To better understand the meaning of the anniversary, she said she “would need to look into it more.”

Members of the Alamo Missions and Legacy Association fire long rifles in Alamo Street capping the end of the Alamo at Dawn ceremony. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

What she appreciated in viewing the chapel, long barracks, and exhibits throughout the grounds, was “seeing how they used to live, with what they had available back then,” which did not include electronics, air conditioning or other conveniences, “the things we’ve taken for granted.”

Eleven days of commemorative events conclude at 6 p.m. Saturday with another reading of the names of Alamo defenders.

Though the defenders lost their lives along with the battle that day, William B. Travis sensed in advance that the larger war might have a different result. In a letter to the Texas revolutionaries who had days earlier declared independence, Travis wrote, “… although [my men] may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy dear, that it will be worse for him than defeat.”

Mexican Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna was defeated 46 days later at the Battle of San Jacinto, guaranteeing Texas independence until it joined the United States in 1845.

Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...