No one is trying to topple the Alamo quite yet, but a new revisionist book on the foundational event of Texas history partakes of the iconoclastic spirit of our time.
The book, titled Forget the Alamo, is a harsh call for Texans, and Americans, to get over a battle deeply etched in our popular memory.
According to the authors, the Texans (then the Texians) were foolish to try to defend the indefensible. Some of the defenders tried to make a run for it. Santa Anna, the Mexican general central to the story, wasn’t so bad. And given the importance of slavery to the early history of Texas, the Alamo and the Texas Revolution are due an overall post–George Floyd reevaluation.
If there are legitimate disputes over the historical record, it’s really not hard to understand why a badly outnumbered garrison of men who fought ferociously against a government force almost to the last man and provided a rallying cry for a rebellion that quickly swept to success occupies an outsize place in our imagination.
Especially given that two of the most famous Americans of the time, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, died there.
Such an event is inevitably catnip for myth-making, but even when stripped down to its essence, the Alamo and the aftermath were truly extraordinary.
Santa Anna, president of Mexico eleven separate times, first took power as a federalist, then switched sides and became a centralizer. A new constitution squashed Mexican states that had been run largely autonomously. Santa Anna put down the ensuing revolt in the province of Zacatecas in horrifyingly brutal fashion, and then he came for Texas.
About 150 defenders holed up in the Alamo, and the rest is not just legend, but history.
Santa Anna did indeed signal that his force of more than a thousand would give no quarter.
William Barret Travis, commander of the garrison, did indeed write an immortal letter concluding, “Victory or death.” He made a plea for reinforcements that never came. “If this call is neglected,” he wrote, “I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country.”
Santa Anna’s troops did indeed launch an early-morning attack that was bloodied by the defenders, but quickly overwhelmed the fortification. Santa Anna insisted that roughly half a dozen survivors be executed and followed up this atrocity with the murder of about 350 other captured rebels in the Goliad Massacre.
Sam Houston, his forces swelled by volunteers, did indeed tell his troops prior to the Battle of San Jacinto: “We will meet the enemy. Some of us may be killed, and must be killed. But, soldiers, remember the Alamo, the Alamo, the Alamo!” In an astonishing turnabout, the battle turned into a bloody rout of the Mexicans that secured the independence of Texas.
Who wouldn’t want to make a movie of such events?
Of course, such popularizations aren’t going to be academically rigorous. Pushing back, the authors of Forget the Alamo assail the character of Jim Bowie and William Travis, and, sure enough, you wouldn’t trust them to manage your real-estate holdings. Texas at the time was a hard place, and the Mexicans and Comanche who contended for control of the territory weren’t paragons, either.
The authors note the contribution of the Tejanos, native Texans of Mexican descent, and regret how it’s missing from many accounts of the revolution, which is fair enough, but doesn’t detract from the basic story.
They make much of how Mexico abolished slavery, whereas Texas planters depended on it. Yet Mexico tolerated slavery in Texas and had its own rigidly hierarchical economic system.
By all means, let’s be as truthful as possible about the Alamo and the Texas Revolution. But it’s pointlessly destructive to tear down what deserves to be honored and to forget what — as Sam Houston insisted so ringingly and aptly — should be remembered.
© 2021 by King Features Syndicate