Monday, June 6, 2005

Remembering the Alamo

This weekend, El Jefe and SWMBO took the Heir to summer camp up near Kerrville. Following some begging by the Heir, en route, we stopped in San Antonio to view the Alamo, which the Heir had never seen. When he was 7 years old, the Heir used to tramp around the house and yard in his pseudo-coonskin cap with his toy musket, and watch all those old movies Fess Parker made in the 50’s portraying Davy Crockett. We’ve seen John Wayne die in celluloid at the Alamo countless times, so I suppose an Alamo trip was inevitable at some point.
The Alamo sits smack-dab in the middle of Downtown San Antonio, on Alamo Plaza, which, as we will discuss momentarily, is more descriptive a name than one might think. Driving in San Antonio can be a reasonably surreal experience to out-of-towners like us, but our handy-dandy Yahoo-generated map guided through the pinball maze of streets safely to the Alamo over streets named Bonham, Bowie and Crockett.
The Alamo is maintained by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who do a good job running the place with very little money and thousands of visitors annually to cope with. It's obscene but true that the State of Texas contributes nothing whatever to the Alamo's upkeep. However, “Alamo” is really misleading, because most of the mission/fort defended by Colonel Travis and his brave companions in 1836 is just gone – swallowed by downtown San Antonio. All that’s left of the original mission is the church itself, part of the attached corral, and the quarters for the mission’s friars, known to students of the Battle of the Alamo as the “Long Barracks.”
Pause a moment in the mission room where the Alamo’s women and children sheltered during the attack. This room appears to be in more or less original condition, and with a little imagination you can visualize waiting there nearly two hundred years ago, listening to the occasional boom of the big guns, the rattle-bang of the muskets, and the shouts of men in desperate peril. Equally moving is the nearby Long Barracks, where at the end of the battle, bands of Mexican soldiers fought room to room, up close and personal, bitter close-quarters infantry combat with bayonet, pistol and musket-butt, flushing-out the last desperate survivors of the Texian garrison.
Forget the kitschy souvenirs in the nearby gift shop (although your purchases do help support the Alamo), and go outside, back onto Alamo Plaza. This place -- the best spot to stop, sit and think for a minute is ignored by most Alamo tourists, all intent on getting into the generally recognized mission church that means “Alamo” to most people. But the heart of the 1836 Alamo used to be Alamo Plaza itself. The big, 1936 statue in the center of the Plaza – between the mission church and the shops along the south side of the Plaza – was the middle of the Alamo defended by Travis’s men in 1836.
The entry area in front of the Shrine, that is, the Alamo mission entrance, where a sign enjoins visitors to keep voices low, and gentlemen to remove their hats, is right near where the low palisade that Davy Crockett defended stood. Colonel Travis is believed to have died near the steps of the US Post Office, on the north side of Alamo Plaza, which was about where the north wall of the Alamo once rested.
There’ve been many books about the Alamo, but my own favorite is still Walter Lord’s A Time to Stand, published in 1961. Mr. Lord, a journalist turned historian, gets most of the facts right, tells a splendid story, gives good brief sketches of the protagonists, and throws in a sound evaluation of the military situation without all of the tedious social-history ruminations on class and race which are de rigueur for anything written today. As a bonus, he gives an excellent account of the Battle of San Jacinto.
Driving from Houston to see the Alamo enhanced the whole experience, at least for me. You may have figured out by now that military history is possibly a minor interest of El Jefe’s. In any case, the most interesting aspect of the Texian War for Independence for me is the period after the Alamo: that is to say wondering about the question of how General Santa Anna, (who did a splendid piece of work organizing, supplying and moving a Mexican army over the northern Mexican deserts and into Texas), managed to take the Alamo, wipe out the biggest Texian force (Fannin’s little army round Goliad), and still manage to lose the war.
Driving from Houston (site of San Jacinto) to the Alamo supplies part of an answer. Other than being in the Alamo, I can’t imagine a fate worse than being some poor Mexican conscript, probably with no shoes, walking across Texas in March/April, rainstorms alternating with heat, a river in flood to ford every couple of days, and having to fight a battle at the end of it, all the time hoping for something to eat. Meanwhile, Santa Anna, probably concerned about Houston escaping over the US border, wore his army out with longer and longer marches. To the Mexican soldier, Texas must have seemed endless. The Alamo has had lots of books written, but I think the wider war still awaits its historian. In any case, the Alamo trip was an interesting little excursion.

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