I first saw the Alamo in 1968. I was part of the Killeen High School Jr/Sr choir scheduled to sing at the HemisFair 68 in San Antonio. They put us up in these little tee-pee huts about fifteen miles out from the center or town, but the bus driver circled through downtown San Antonio to give us a close look at the Tower of the America’s, and, of course, winding our way back to Interstate 35 meant we had to go past the Alamo. It was night. The old chapel, the only original part left, save part of the Long Barracks, was lit up with a reddish-orange light, giving the building a surreal image to all of us high school kids in the bus. Being a choir, the girls began to sing a hymn. This was back in the day before God was expelled from school. Then they sang “Five Hundred Miles Away From Home.”
The Alamo was my first “famous” building. The next day was filled with activities at the fair, and, of course, we had to sing, but when all that was done I found my way down Commerce Street, and up the back of the Alamo. In those days you could walk right in. The caretakers were a bunch of little old ladies, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Once inside you could just look around at anything you wanted. I don’t think there was air conditioning there back then. The inside smelled like Tabasco. I remember the stone being solid, but worn. I wasn’t Catholic so I didn’t know the significance of the various rooms, or the layout of the main area. From there I went to the little museum just across the courtyard. The old ladies had filled it with personal items from Mexican bayonets to wedding gowns from the nineteenth century. It was quite boring to me at that age.
In front of the main building there was this huge monument that was like a cross between a grave stone and the Washington Monument. There were the lists of the names of all the defenders of the mission who could be identified, and an image of them kneeling in a fire so we all assumed that’s where Santa Anna burned the bodies. I learned much later that it was nearer to the La Quinta Hotel behind the chapel, beside what is now the River Walk.
In Texas back then it was required that you take Texas History. Until that all I knew about the battle that occurred in 1836 came from the John Wayne movie. I remember when I took the class in school I was rather let down when I saw the real Davy Crockett, who looked a little like my civics teacher. Even though I took the class, I really didn’t understand what really happened during the battle. Actually, it’s taken the better part of one hundred and eighty years to untangle what really DID happen during those thirteen days.
There are two viewpoints of the battle. There is what I call the “John Wayne” view i.e. big, brave white men with one old black guy huddled up in an old church while the Mexicans spilled over the walls like monkeys, and there are now diaries and letters from the Mexican side that demonstrates a well organized assault, planned out over about two weeks, designed to wear down the defenders and reduce the position. There are legends coming out of the battle, and Texans hold fast to them, but the truth can be far more interesting.
It is now commonly agreed upon that Travis, the commander of the fort, never drew a line in the sand. From his own communications he demonstrated a resolve to hold the position in the vain hope that Texans would rally to the cause and bring reinforcements to stay the Mexican army. This was folly. If there had been five times their number inside, Santa Anna would have just had to starve and bombard them that longer before the final assault. The assault was completely different from the John Wayne movie. Lining up your troops, in broad daylight, announcing a charge, and running into a brick wall would be the actions of a blithering idiot! The actual attack began about four thirty in the morning, ending just before sunrise. Santa Anna ceased the cannon fire early that night, allowing the defenders of the Alamo to rest for the first time in almost two weeks. After they were all tucked in, his troops just walked up to the mission. One Mexican soldier got caught up in the moment, and shouted, “Viva Santa Anna” as they reached the wall, which, of course, aroused the defenders and the fight began.
In our history class we were told that Travis fought bravely, and upon being shot, broke his sword, throwing it at the approaching troops, and killed a Mexican as he fell. It is more likely he peered over the wall and was shot it the face in the early part of the battle. Bowie really did die in his sick bed, and depending upon the condition of his health you can speculate at how much damage he did in those final moments. Then there’s Daaaaaavy Crockett. King of the wild frontier. The Fess Parker Davy died on the wall clubbing Mexicans with his musket. Of course, John Wayne stumbled, with a lance sticking in his chest, into the chapel, setting off the powder magazine, blowing the side out of the building. In classic John Wayne fashion after he got stuck, he broke the pole off, leaving only the end still in his chest, made a half hearted swing at a Mexican soldier who promptly fell dead at his feet, and entered the church. Mexicans were incredibly easy to kill in those days. In reality we have the Peña diary that claims Crockett, and several others were captured, and executed after the battle. Mrs Dickerson said she saw his body near the front of the chapel as she left, which would put him near the wooden barrier he was defending, but we do not know if he fell in battle, or if that was his point of execution.
The victory of the battle was the fact that what occurred there so completely irritated the Texans, that they eventually pulled themselves together and figured a way to make Santa Anna hold HIS position later at San Jacinto. As cries of, “Remember the Alamo” raced toward them, the Mexican soldiers pleaded in the only English they knew, “Me no Alamo!” It didn’t do them any good. In eighteen minutes that portion of Santa Anna’s army was routed, and the Republic of Texas was born beneath an oak tree. The mystique of the Alamo remains. In spite of all the history, and new information, every time I go there, I always go the the courtyard where Travis drew that legendary line in the sand. Hey! The line in the sand was cool.