A public unveiling last week of a replica of an 18-pounder cannon that was fired against Santa Anna’s troops from the southwest corner of the Alamo compound inspired this irenic headline in the San Antonio Report: “State, local officials bury the hatchet at Alamo cannon dedication.”
The officials were Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose agency controls the Alamo; Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose city controls most of Alamo Plaza; and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who controls the Texas Senate.
The irenic headline was very likely also ironic. If the hatchet is buried, it is not buried very deep. Furthermore, an incendiary bomb is scheduled to be dropped on the Alamo in June.
Fundamental issues divide the interests of the city from that of the state. City officials, reflecting a wide constituency of native Americans, Mexican Americans, and liberal voters, want the upgraded Alamo and its new “world class” museum, to tell the history more broadly and accurately than the cinematic version that has become Texas’ origin myth.
Patrick and other non-San Antonio politicians regard that version, with its sanitized focus on the 13-day battle in 1836, as virtually scriptural. Patrick has an image of the Alamo church on his cowboy boots and a scale model of it in his office. He also has memorabilia from the John Wayne movie.
I myself am very much with those who want the broader story told. It might not be as good for San Antonio’s tourism industry but it does have two things in its favor. First, it is more honest, and honest history is much more useful in understanding today’s world than is romantic myth.
Second, the rest of the story is much more interesting.
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That story, the context in which the Battle of the Alamo occurred – a context virtually untouched in the 1960 movie version – has been the subject of scholars for decades. But a new book written for the rest of us tells that and much more. Provocatively titled Forget the Alamo, it covers not only the period and pressures that led up to the Texas war of independence. It takes the story through the battle, into the decades after when the Alamo myth grew as the Alamo grounds degraded, and onto the more recent political battle in which the proposal to move the Alamo Cenotaph 500 feet south provoked threats of armed conflict.
The book is by three journalist friends who have breakfast every Saturday. Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News business columnist Chris Tomlinson is a former war correspondent. He is brave enough to take on the oil industry from the bowels of Houston. His previous book, Tomlinson Hill, unflinchingly told the story of how his ancestors brought slaves to East Texas and the fate of those slaves. His family was not amused.
Bryan Burrough, a former Wall Street Journal Reporter, is the author and co-author of numerous books, including Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, and The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes.
Jason Stanford is a former Moscow-based reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He has worked for politicians such as Gov. Ann Richards and Austin Mayor Steve Adler. He co-authored Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush. (OK, it should have been about Donald Trump.)
Their book is due out June 8, tossing the incendiary bomb mentioned above into the middle of the Alamo project. In order to preview the book I agreed not to discuss some particulars, but it is guaranteed to make news.
The book is loaded with facts that many have heard mentioned, but not with much detail. Perhaps the most important is the role of the issue of slavery in the run-up to the Texas War of Independence.
School children are taught that Texas sought its independence because President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had shifted power from the Mexican states to the central government and had become dictatorial – very much along the lines of our Civil War being about states rights versus federal power.
The book documents the importance of slavery to a large segment of immigrants. “[Stephen] Austin would say it over and over and over,” the authors write. “The only reason Americans would come to Texas was to farm cotton, and they would not do that without slaves. They really didn’t know any other way.”
Austin and his Tejano friend Juan Seguín (who owned slaves) would make repeated trips to Mexico City and later to state capital Saltillo to lobby on the slave issue. They would sometimes win compromises. The reason: Mexican officials “faced a conundrum: Either allow slavery or surrender an empty Texas to the Comanche and, down the line, the seemingly inevitable onrush of American squatters, who were erecting little farms all over East Texas’s empty expanses.”
That conundrum had Mexican authorities, who were constantly changing, issuing compromises that allowed slaves with restrictions, then abandoning those compromises.
The authors quote myriad sources and leaders on the importance of slavery, including San Antonio’s José Antonio Navarro, who “argued that without slavery, Texas would wither and die.”
While the book gives a detailed account of the actual battle, it also documents that the battle was not important to the military success of the rebels, other than using the slaughter of its fighters and those at Goliad as a battle cry. It neither strategically delayed the march of Santa Anna’s army nor materially reduced its numbers. Gen. Sam Houston had sought the abandonment of the Alamo before Santa Anna’s attack. Houston’s decisive victory at San Jacinto, which ended the war, was not a result of the Alamo.
The book, like many scholars, witheringly ridicules John Wayne’s movie, which establishes the virtue and heroism of the Holy Trinity of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett. The authors detail what they say is “the truth about Bowie, Travis, and Crockett. Bowie was a murderer, slaver, and con man; Travis was a pompous, racist agitator and syphilitic lech; and Crockett was a self-promoting old fool who was a captive to his own myth.”
The book goes on to detail the rise from the ashes of the Alamo the myth of its glory and much more. In the end it also presents the most insightful and comprehensive account of the current battle over the Alamo, the effort to upgrade the site, and to build a museum to house former rock star Phil Collins’ Alamo memorabilia collection and tell the story.
The design of the Alamo site and Alamo Plaza is half the fight. The City recently won a victory by overruling a plan to largely close off San Antonio’s most historic and vibrant civic plaza, making it a tourist-only zone.
The other half of the fight is over the story. The authors of Forget the Alamo want it to be the whole story. They argue that the broader context is more interesting, if less profitable, than the myth.
Tomlinson says they will be accused of “judging people from another time by your own values.” But he argues that when we make a monument about another moment in history, we are making a statement not only about the history but also about ourselves. He is right.
The Battle of the Alamo will continue, last week’s kumbaya moment not withstanding. If I had to bet on who will win, I’d bet on Dan Patrick. His Disneyesque approach has pushed out many potential major donors, and he is promising to make up for the loss with state funds. That, and the state’s ownership of the Alamo grounds, gives him great power.
Here, however, is a prediction: Patrick will attack Forget the Alamo, but he will not read it.
There is a generational aspect to the current battle. Many who are old enough to have seen Fess Parker and John Wayne play a mythical Davy Crockett are on one side. Many who have come of age during or are otherwise open to the racial awakening of Black Lives Matter are on the other. Whose side is history on?