Monday, February 23, 2009

The Alamo 173 Years Ago

I'm glad I got an e-mail from friend phlegmfatale today. She mentioned her current day's topic, and also today’s blog entry by Robert at BLACKFORK blog. The two remind us that this date, in 1836, was when the Mexican tyrant Santa Anna began his siege of the Mission San Antonia de Valero at Bexar. That secularized church complex is better known to posterity simply as The Alamo. The town, Bexar, is now the city of San Antonio.
The Alamo chapel, unfinished facade, as it appeared in the 1830s and 1840s.

The major points in this story are fairly well known.
The mission-fortress was garrisoned by Colonels Bowie and Travis, co-commanding between 180 and 250 soldiers of the new Texas Army and volunteers. In late February, they were besieged by the Mexican Predient/General/Dictator Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón and some 2400 of his soldiers. The siege ended on 6 March when the walls were overrun and the defenders were all killed. The delay of the Mexican advance allowed the provisional Texas government time to write and sign a formal Texas Declaration of Independence.

Historian Lon Tinkle (1906 -- 1980) wrote the definitive popular history of this battle in 1958, entitled Thirteen Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo.

The battle has been studied and documented more or less regularly ever since the ashes cooled. Curiously, though, the majority of the longer, published works have been works of fiction. Mr. Tinkle‘s book was only the second full length factual study of the siege. Not all the information is undisputed. Distinguished Dallas book critic A. C. Greene, wrote that Tinkle’s book "gives the essence of the Alamo story without attempting to exhaust history's explanation", and "is more revealing of the minds and wills that were behind the fateful decision to stay on to death" than other, later treatments of the battle.

The book is still widely available and is well worth the reading.

I was at first tempted to try to recount all the high points of the siege, so far as they are known. As a voracious reader and proudly chauvinistic Texan, I have been reading all I can find on this topic for almost as long as I’ve been able to read. I know the various points of view, the controversies, the sometimes acrimonious disputes as to this point or that about the battle. For instance, it is well known and documented, but frequently glossed over, that, but for a massive and overt act of insubordination, the properly designated “Shrine of Texas Liberty” would likely have crumbled into gravel, noted only in passing as an early landmark from the days of revolution. Working on the best information available at the time, Sam Houston, military commander of Texas forces, ordered Colonel James Bowie to destroy the fortifications and to spike or carry away the artillery. Instead, Bowie, with Col. James Neill, decided to hold in place, to engage the Mexican forces for as long as possible.

While I have sufficient reference works on hand to make a pretty good job of such a recounting, I must confess that I would be doing little more than rehashing the work of better scholars than I. I have no newly located papers, letters, journals, or other sources. While well-read on the topic, I’ve made no independent studies of this already well-researched stretch of history and folklore. This being the case, I’ll content myself with recognizing the significance of certain dates for the next couple of weeks, as a reminder to all of us that there were, indeed, giants in the land in those days.


Modern appearance of the Alamo Chapel
Probably during the 1850s, while being used by the US Army, the Alamo was greatly repaired. The campanulate, or bell-shaped facade, was added to the front wall of the chapel. Until that time, the front had never been finished, and no roof had been placed.

LATE ADDITION: Since writing the above, I note that Robert at Blackfork has written another blog installment. In it, he gives much of the detail that I would have inserted over the next few days. He was first, and I’ll defer to him. Nice work, Robert.


Crucis said...

I've visited the Alamo several times. Initially while in training at Lackland/Medina AFB and years later while working for a computer company headquartered in San Antonio.

Each visit was memorable. I'm amazed how small the Alamo really is!

Old NFO said...

Agreed, the real battlefield so to speak, was tiny compared to what we think of today. That, in itself, makes it an entirely different perspective on the battle.

OldCop said...

I remember visiting the Alamo in my Lackland AFB days. It formed a strange lump in my throat as do so many places of honor one might visit.

Well stood Texans!

Anonymous said...

Truly a good example of how something can become larger than reality. I think you could argue that we would've won independence regardless of the Alamo. Or maybe it was critical to that fight. Its immaterial now, the myth is larger, more satisfying, and more useful than whatever the truth really is. Its too big to be judged.

Anonymous said...

The Alamo of 1836 was much too large for the Texians to defend---probably 3 and a half acres with 1/4 mile of wall. The little church and portion of the barracks are all that remain of the original sprawling mission compound.(which the Mexican army knocked down on their retreat from San Antonio in May, 1836.) Most all of present-day Alamo Plaza was surrounded by stone and adobe walls. The Carnival zone across the street from the DRT-controlled Alamo grounds was the west wall of the mission. To the north, somewhere inside the present-day courthouse lobby, Colonel Travis was killed.
The outline of a flowerbed on the south side of the plaza marks the Alamo's Low Barrack where the main gate was. In one of the siderooms of this barrack, Jim Bowie was killed. Thanks to few to no markers, the first-time tourist is unaware of all of this.

There is a movement to raze all the buildings around Alamo Plaza and rebuild the Alamo like it looked in 1836. For, as it stands now, people will continue to say, "Oh my goodness, it's so small! How'd they fit 200 men inside that small building?!

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