The question sounds simple enough. It’s child’s play, literally, since state law mandates that every seventh-grader in Texas remember the Alamo. James White, a state representative who went to Houston public schools, undoubtedly took Texas history as a schoolboy before getting his doctorate and teaching Texas history himself. But whether White has actually learned Texas history is an open question after he published a since-deleted tweet hollering at the governor to lift coronavirus restrictions.

“As goes Tx, goes the US, goes the entire world,” he tweeted. “The American West was won at the Alamo AND the defeat of COVID19 must begin in Texas. OPEN & UNLEASH THE LONE STAR STATE!!!”

White, whose Twitter profile picture showed him giving a thumbs up with Donald Trump, came in for a bit of clowning as you might expect. But it wasn’t for his absurdist belief that a show of economic defiance would lead a global revolt against an airborne virus. In Texas, where gun ranges and liquor stores are considered essential businesses, believing that “cowering in fear” empowers the coronavirus is not uncommon. Instead, the Texas Twitterati ridiculed White for apparently not remembering that the Mexicans defeated the Texians at the Alamo.

White soon deleted his tweet, making orphans of the replies that contained jokes of varying wit. One reply, though, stood out. Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Political Project at the University of Texas, pointed out that White’s apparent misremembering of the Alamo is surprisingly common. In the February 2020 UT/Texas Tribune poll, Henson asked Texans, in effect, if they were smarter than a seventh-grader: “Whose armed forces won the Battle of the Alamo in 1836?”

It was a multiple-choice question, and still, only a little more than half of all Texans – 56 percent – got it right. Exactly half as many think the Republic of Texas won the battle, which has been compared to some of history’s most famous defeats: Thermopylae, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11. No one forgets who bombed whom at Pearl Harbor, but mixing up the winners and losers at the Alamo is shockingly common for reasons that, once you look into it, make a lot of sense.

Credit: Chart / Jason Stanford

Getting this question wrong was consistent across our usual dividing lines, including sex, education, partisanship, and ideology. Only two factors jump out in the cross tabs: age and race.

The younger you are, the wronger you are, at least when it comes to the Alamo. Texas aged 18-29 are the least likely to know Mexico won the Battle of the Alamo (43 percent), and the most likely to think Texas won (31 percent), that the United States won 10 percent), and to say they don’t know at 17 percent, which I suppose is a way of answering the question correctly.

I’m going to ask you now to shut down that part of your brain that is blaming youth for ignorance. This isn’t “kids today.” No one is getting off anyone’s lawn here. As we’ve mentioned, every single public school student in Texas gets a family-sized container of Alamo education. And I am going to argue that it’s precisely because Texas culture places so much emphasis on the Alamo that confusion now exists among younger folks.

That’s what Stephen Cure thinks. Cure taught seventh grade Texas history for eight years in Round Rock, a suburb just north of Austin. Every year, he always put on his final exam who won the Battle of the Alamo. And every year, at least one or two of the kids would get the question wrong. “Why? Very logical reasons,” said Cure. “Why would we spend so much time talking about a loss? That’s a 12-year-old’s logic. It makes total sense.”

Credit: Chart / Jason Stanford

But the answer goes deeper than emphasis to what the battle represents these days in our popular imagination. Texas public schools – and the culture at large – do not regard the Battle of the Alamo as a value-neutral historical event. The Alamo has become a story of good guys and bad guys that brings up all sorts of identity issues in a state as ethnically diverse as Texas. The myth of heroism and bravery is so pervasive that it clouds how Texans remember the Alamo.

When Cynthia Orozco taught Texas history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, one of the first questions she would put to her students is who won the Alamo. From Anglo and Hispanic students alike, she would always hear, “We won.”

“Who’s we?” she would ask.

When it comes to the Alamo, who we are is a loaded question in Texas, where Hispanics are as likely to know Mexico won the Battle of the Alamo as they are to think Texas did. In fact, a huge 61 percent majority of Texas Hispanics in Henson’s poll chose a wrong answer.

In Orozco’s college classes, “Basically, they would say that Mexico lost. The typical Texan mind is that Mexico lost the Alamo,” she said. “In the schools, basically the way we grew up is that the Alamo, what we learned from that as Mexican Americans is that Texas won and Mexico lost. Even if Mexico won at the Alamo, they lost because of the attention paid to the Texans.”

Credit: Chart / Jason Stanford

Like most kids in San Antonio, Denise Hernandez went to a public school where working-class Hispanic kids were the majority. She hated Texas history class. Her teacher, an older man, stuck to the John Wayne version of history in which Anglos were the good guys and Mexicans and Indians were bad. “Thinking back, I would say he was racist,” she said. “I remember hating that class because it was boring and he didn’t make it relevant to us.”

Hernandez, now a Chicana activist, does have fond memories of the school trip to the Alamo and the IMAX, where the Alamo movie has been a field-trip staple for area kids since the late ‘80s. “We’re excited because a lot of us had never been downtown,” she said. “We never even left our neighborhoods. So going to a big theater, it’s like a treat, right? And then we see this movie, and we’re idolizing Davy Crockett and these folks, and you don’t realize it’s weird until you’re older and you’re like, wait, that was messed up that we’re being taught that Mexicans are bad guys.”

At the time, she felt the need to identify with the heroes of the Alamo. So deep did that message get in there that she still misidentifies the traditional Alamo heroes as being on the winning side. “I think at the time I would say I felt like, yeah, I’m with the heroes of the Alamo or with the victors,” she said. “Nobody wants to be the losers.” 

This confusion over who won and how this plays out in racial and ethnic identity caused an awkward encounter at a packed event at the Texas Tribune Festival in September 2016 on the campus of the University of Texas. Stephen Harrigan, an acknowledged and respected Alamo-head by dint of his best-selling 2000 novel Gates of the Alamo, moderated a panel that featured state senator Jose Menéndez, whose district includes the Alamo, and George P. Bush, the grandson and nephew of his presidential namesakes and, more to the point here, the statewide officeholder whose agency manages the Alamo. 

The one who looked out of place was the slouching man at the end in the black polo shirt and black trousers. The schlump was likely the reason that a few hundred people had packed the auditorium. You can’t draw a crowd in Austin to listen to a couple politicians agree with each other – and Menéndez and Bush certainly did that. They’d come for one of the great oddities in Texas history, Phil Collins, who amassed reputedly the largest collection of Alamo memorabilia in the world and then donated it to the state of Texas.

Yes, that Phil Collins, but the focus here is on Menéndez, whose dad came from Cuba and mom from Mexico. When he was a kid she’d take him back there to visit relatives who would tease him that Texas lost the Battle of the Alamo.

Others could have grown resentful. Menéndez grew to appreciate how intertwined Texas was with Mexican and U.S. history, and because the Alamo is in his legislative district, he wanted to get it fixed up. The Alamo, he believed, didn’t have that feeling of an Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or the White House in Washington. There’s a smallness to it, which Menéndez chalked up to a major city growing up around it.  

“You gotta remember, too: We lost,” he said. There just aren’t a lot of battlefields we preserve in the United States to remember the losers. Even with Civil War battlefields, at least someone in the United States won. Gettysburg, at least for most Americans, is remembered as a pivotal victory.   

The panel went off the rails during the Q&A. Usually, a Q&A goes sideways when someone asks a question in the form of a statement, and that’s what happened when an older white man who looked like a shambolic Jimmy Buffet impersonator took his turn at the back microphone.   

“My question is related, but first I want to set the historical record correct. Senator Menéndez, you did not lose at the Alamo, and the children of San Antonio need to remember that,” he said.

“Well, I don’t know what side you’re putting me on, but go ahead,” answered Menéndez. The question was asked, something along the lines of why didn’t the city preserve the Alamo intact as the city grew, and an answer was offered, which was something along the lines of because it just didn’t work out that way, and the man made a move to leave, not entirely satisfied nor surprised, before Collins spoke up with an impish tone. 

“I’m interested to know why you said we didn’t lose. Who are you referring to?” he asked. 

“The Mexicans won the battle of the Alamo,” said the man, and the crowd laughed. If this doesn’t seem funny, it’s because it wasn’t, and that’s not why they were laughing. Clearly, the old white fella thought the brown-skinned Texas state senator who represented the Alamo was basically a Mexican. 

Menéndez shrugged, put his right hand on his chest – over his heart, if you will – and said, “I’m an American.” Again, the crowd laughed, and not because anyone was trying to be funny. Things had gotten a little tense.

“They did lose the war, but they didn’t win that battle,” said the man at the back mic.

“The Mexicans won that battle,” said Menéndez, who paused, trying to draw the man into the light. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him think. 

“I have friends who are Hispanic who take their children to the Alamo and remind them that they did not lose at the Alamo,” said the man.

It’s not every politician who can bridge a divide as wide as racism, though it probably wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. He was a Texan in Mexico but a Mexican in Texas.  

“No, this is true, but, but I’m gonna, I… I, you know, I…,” the senator began in the way of practiced public speakers do of throwing out a lot of rhetorical flares to buy himself some time. 

Then he found what he wanted to say.

“This is what I love about Texas. No matter where you go in the world and you start talking, ‘Hey, where you from?’ if it’s a Texan the first thing they say is, ‘I’m a Texan.’ Have you noticed that? People go, ‘I’m a Texan.’ And, you know, me and my cousins got into a lot of arguments over this. And the reality is I’m proud of our history. I’m not proud of everything that has occurred. Every society has had its blemishes, and you talk about slavery and that’s one of the big ones, and the biggest that we’ve had. So, the issue for me is that I just want us to be honest, you know? And I tell my children the same thing. My parents were immigrants. My mom from Mexico, my dad from Cuba. It’s like, look, you’re an American of Hispanic descent, and I’m proud of my descent. I’m proud of my Mexican family. I’m proud of my Cuban family. But the fact of the matter is I’m an American, and I’m a Texan, and I view history through that, but I want to be honest about it because I think everybody has room at the table, and I want to be mature enough to say, yeah, I lost there, but guess what? I got you at San Jacinto.”

This time the crowd did not laugh. They applauded, and this time they meant it.

Richard Slotkin, a professor at Wesleyan University, has a theory. His most famous work, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860, makes the case that the foundation of the American myth is that bloody fights on the frontier were necessary to make ourselves anew, whether we’re talking about individuals seeking a new start or as wilderness becoming a new world. As he puts it, “Violence is an essential and necessary part of the process through which American society was established and through which its democratic values are defended and enforced.” In Slotkin’s telling, the violence is a feature, not a bug. The “good guys” who die on the road to redemption are remembered as martyrs, their deaths obligating further violence. 

This is why, Slotkin argues, we remember Pearl Harbor to justify entering World War II and not, for the sake of argument, Nazi aggression against our allies before December 7, 1941 or their documented atrocities toward Jews. And it’s why Sam Houston’s troops yelled “Remember the Alamo!” at the Battle of San Jacinto and not some appeal to independence or self-determination. The martyrdom at the Alamo justified, if not demanded, violent revenge, and something new was created, in this case, the Republic of Texas.    

This is why these myths – less the events themselves than the justification for further violence provided by martyrdom – have been used by presidents since Theodore Roosevelt to explain U.S. foreign policy. Lyndon Johnson cited the Alamo to urge support for the Vietnam War, which as a literal connection made little sense. Only as a myth of regenerative violence does that have any logic.  

When al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States, remembering the Alamo became inevitably intertwined with never forgetting 9/11. The people who died in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, or on United Flight 93 were martyrs, and the only question was who we had to go kill to sanctify the dead.

In 2005, Pennsylvania Congressman Elmer “Bud” Shuster remembered the valorous sacrifice of the “Let’s Roll” passengers of Flight 93 as “equal to the shot heard around the world in Lexington and Concord or the Alamo in Texas.” Bill Clinton also compared Flight 93 not only to the Alamo but also Thermopylae at a ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Texas’ Ted Poe probably remembered the Alamo more than anyone in Congress and seemed to love nothing more than to link the Alamo to the war on terrorism. On Texas Independence Day 2005 – March 2 for the uninitiated – Poe called Santa Anna the “19th-century Saddam Hussein.”

And when George W. Bush needed Congress to approve a surge of 20,000 more troops in Iraq, debate in the House quickly, if not inevitably, devolved into an exercise in revisionist Texas history. Perhaps the oddest bit of revisionism was when Missouri’s Todd Akin wrote a twisted vision of the Battle of the Alamo for the digital age:

Mr. Speaker, we rise today to discuss this resolution that is in two parts before us. The first part says that we support our troops. The second part says that we are not going to send them reinforcements. This seems to be kind of a curious proposition, almost a nonsensical proposition. How do you say you support and then say, but we don’t want to send them any reinforcing troops? Certainly, we say that we want to give them body armor, we want to give them up-armored Humvees, we want to send them tanks; but the most important thing that you need sometimes as troops is some other troops to support you. So we are saying, oh, we want support, but we don’t want to support you. Picture Davy Crockett at the Alamo. He has his back to the wall. Santa Anna has got thousands of troops. So he gets his BlackBerry out. He checks with Congress. Congress says, Hey, Davy, we really support you but we’re not going to send you any troops. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

On that last part, at least, we agree.      

Bush, of course, got his troop surge. Whether we ended up with victory or death remains an open question, and I in no way am arguing that Bush used the Alamo to sell the troop surge or in fact any part of the war on terrorism. (In fact, he did not mention the Alamo in public as president.)

What I am saying is that the Battle of the Alamo exists as more than a historical event. It’s also a tool people use to justify the United States going to war, and has been for a long time. The Alamo is a story Texas has told to sort the good guys, who were the Anglo Texians, from the bad guys, or the Mexicans. What actually happened gets blown up by the story’s cultural payload, and historical literacy is the casualty.

Sure, White got his facts backward. But his tweet had what Stephen Colbert used to call “truthiness,” an emotional standard for accuracy in which what is felt to be true by the teller is right. White’s tweet was more like John Blutarsky’s exhortations to fraternity brothers.

“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

“Germans?” asks Otter.

“Forget it,” says Boon. He’s rolling.”

Remembering whether the Japanese or the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor doesn’t matter as much as the reason for remembering in the first place: to exact revenge through restorative violence. Getting his facts exactly straight about Texas’ creation myth doesn’t essentially matter to White as much as the truthiness of his all-caps appeal to the governor to unleash the Texas economy to defeat COVID-19 with the full force of our commerce.

Forget it Twitter, he’s rolling.

This piece originally ran in Jason Stanford’s newsletter, The Experiment. Follow him on Twitter at @JasStanford. 

Jason Stanford

Jason Stanford co-wrote, with Bryan Burrough and Chris Tomlinson, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of the American Myth, due out June 2021 from Penguin Books.