Texas in Myth and History

Against the Current, No. 216, January-February 2022

Dick J. Reavis

Forget the Alamo
The Rise and Fall of an American Myth
By Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford
Penguin Books, 2021, 386 pages, $32 hardcover.

THE HOLIEST PLACE in Texas is the Alamo, a former Spanish mission in today’s downtown San Antonio. The site of an 1836 battle between Mexican forces and Texan rebels, it’s the state’s most-visited tourist site. A plainspoken new book, Forget the Alamo, examines that conflict and the lives of its principals.

Three of the some 200 men who died at the Alamo on March 6, 1836 — William Barrett Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, along with a non-combatant, Stephen F. Austin, the land promoter who colonized Texas with white people — are today revered as the founding fathers of the Republic of Texas.

In a mandatory, year-long state history course, every seventh-grader in Texas is taught that these whites (called “Anglos” in the local vernacular) were and are heroes. Hollywood has probably contributed even more to the myth that Forget calls the Heroic Anglo Narrative of Texas.

The first of a dozen Alamo movies was Martyrs of the Alamo, produced by D.W. Griffith in 1915 following his Birth of a Nation, Hollywood’s first blockbuster, which revived the Ku Klux Klan. The most popular Hollywood film was probably The Alamo, produced and directed in 1960 by John Wayne, who also played the role of Crockett. But today, amidst a national controversy over Critical Race Theory, the supposed heroism of the founders and martyrs of the Republic is under challenge.

All the signs of a long-running controversy are in place. Texas Governor Greg Abbot, notorious for promoting a measure to ban abortions, has already laid on down the law on Twitter: “Stop political correctness in our schools. … Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo heroes were ‘Heroic.’“

Forget was written by three figures with chops in the state: an author, Bryan Burrough; a newspaper columnist, Chris Tomlinson; and a political consultant, Jason Stanford. The content of their book can be divided into roughly four themes: slavery, the Alamo battle, its historiography, and the shrine’s absurd place in current events. But its linkage of slavery and Texas is what packs a wallop.

Basic History

To comprehend the impact of Forget, a reader needs to know only the barest facts of Texas history. The Anglo colonization of Texas began in 1821, shortly after Mexico won its independence from Spain. Forget argues that Austin’s land schemes fell into plots by Americans to expand the Cotton Kingdom westward.

“Nothing is wanted but money and negroes are necessary to make it,” Austin, a former Missouri legislator, told his backers. For 15 years, while Texas was still part of the Mexican state of Coahuila, Austin lobbied with dozens of heads of state, congresses and legislatures to exempt or ignore Mexico’s de jure prohibition of slavery.

Initially he persuaded Mexican authorities to honor paperwork showing that Texas slaves were indentured servants, under contract — for as many as 60 years! The Mexicans accepted the claim because they had legalized peonage under a similar scheme.

Under a subsequent agreement, planters were allowed to import slaves from the United States with the provision that any children born in Texas would be free. But subsequent censuses indicated that no such children were born.

Anglo colonists and Texans of Mexican descent (called “Latins” or “Latinos” in the local vernacular), rose in arms as early as 1834, ostensibly in support of Mexico’s 1824 Constitution, which did not mention slavery.

Alarmed, Mexican authorities in Saltillo arrested Austin and carried him to prison in Mexico City, where he remained for the rest of the year. But by then, volunteers from militias in the American slave states had begun trickling into Texas.

Before another year had passed, Mexico and Texas were engaged in a full-fledged if brief war. The Texans named Sam Houston, a former U.S. Army general and governor of Tennessee, as their commander in chief.

Three notorious 1836 events, two of them poignant defeats, led to a decisive and nearly split-second rebel victory. On March 6, after a 12-day siege, troops commanded by general Antonio López de Santa Anna, a past and future president of Mexico, killed and/or executed about some 200 rebels who were holed-up in the Alamo and burned their bodies.

As the Mexican forces marched toward the Gulf Coast three weeks later, he ordered the execution of some 320 rebel prisoners of war held at Goliad, 90 miles east of San Antonio. Among those killed was their commander Jim Fannin, 32, of Georgia, a slave-trader and smuggler who specialized in African stock.

On April 21, Texans led by Houston, shouting “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” swooped down and massacred Mexican troops who were encamped near the city today bearing his name. They captured Santa Anna and forced him to sign a treaty granting independence to Texas.

Although the rebel leaders wanted Texas to become an American state, Abolitionists blocked the move in Congress. So the rebels declared a republic that upheld slavery, outlawed manumission, and forbade free Blacks to remain within its borders. Their Republic, however, was not much more than a government-in-waiting-for-annexation, bankrupt from its start to its finish.

Texas Latinos were, and are, perplexed by the creation of the Republic. Though nearly a dozen Latinos were felled at the Alamo and no doubt more at Goliad, Forget reports that “many Anglos suspected that Tejanos sympathized with Mexico. In the months after San Jacinto, they forcibly expelled them from the towns of Victoria and Goliad, taking their homes and stealing their livestock.”

Contemporary Latinos whom the book’s authors interviewed said that they avoid the subject whenever possible.

Slavery, Bribery, Profit

Most of Forget’s material on slavery is mined from scholarship, dating to Empire for Slavery, a 1989 work by noted Texas historian Randolph B. Campbell. But both the latest work Forget and a 2020 account of Austin’s diplomacy, South to Freedom, share an unfortunate generosity in the treatment accorded Texas-Mexican negotiations. They take Mexican abolitionism at face value.

“For Mexicans, newly freed from Spanish oppression, abolishing slavery was a moral issue. For the American colonists, it was an issue of wealth creation” Forget’s authors say.

Yet Mexico, like Spain before it, needed to populate its northern reaches. Neither Forget nor Freedom allege bribery or legislative horse trading as a motive for the creation of loopholes in Mexican law. It’s likely that neither was ever recorded, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

If Austin was a lobbyist for slavery, the reputations of the leading defenders of the Alamo don’t come away much better in Forget. William Barrett Travis, though only 26, had been named as the Alamo’s commander. An Alabama newspaperman who in 1831 abandoned a wife and child for Texas, Forget’s authors say that he “was a pompous, racist agitator and syphilitic.”

While the troops of the rag-tag regular Texas army obeyed him, the Alamo’s volunteers recognized Bowie as their chief instead. With him to the Alamo, Travis brought a slave, known only as Joe. When the mission fell, the Mexicans captured Joe and two of Bowie’s slaves whose names are unknown. After interrogating them, the Mexicans turned them loose.

Jim Bowie is often noted even today as the designer of a distinctive, wide-bladed knife. He settled in Texas in 1828. In his home state Louisiana, he had been a slave trader who, according to Forget, expanded his human holdings by “laundering” them by means that are stunning even by the standards of their era.

The United States had outlawed slave imports in 1808, but when its agents ran across smuggled slaves, rather than freeing them, they sold them at federal auctions. Between 1816 and 1820, pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte were smuggling slaves from Cuba and selling them at cut-rate prices at Galveston on the Texas coast.

Bowie and two brothers, Forget reports, “signed on as middlemen, driving groups of emaciated, enslaved Black people into Louisiana. At the border they cloaked themselves as customs officers, earning a reward of half their purchase price. Their costs halved, they then bought their own slaves at auction, giving them legal title to resell them. The profits were huge.”

Only the third fabled hero of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, gets off without censure in Forget. He was a folk hero who fled to Texas after losing an 1835 Congressional election in his home state, Tennessee. He didn’t join the Texas rebellion until weeks before his demise.

Making the Myth

Forget’s second thrust is a reworking of the military events of 1836. According to the received myth, when with his sword Col. Travis drew a line in the sand and asked his troops to step across it if they were willing to fight to the death, all of them did — and they died as they’d promised.

The authors admit that Travis was a combat casualty but Bowie was bedridden with typhoid when the Mexicans attacked, and according to some Mexican accounts, Crockett was executed shortly afterward with some two dozen other survivors.

A third section of Forget examines the historiography of the Alamo and its restorations. In the late 19th century, Texas practically forgot the Alamo. “When the battle’s fiftieth anniversary arrived in 1886,” Forget notes, there was no commemoration, no services, no fireworks, no nothing, nor the slightest impulse toward historical preservation.”

Commercial considerations had taken the place of reverence. Among other things, a building from which most of the Alamo defenders battled, known as the Long Barracks, had been turned into a grocery store.

That changed in 1905 after a San Antonio socialite, Clara Driscoll, met Adina De Zavala, a granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the first vice-president of the Republic. De Zavala collected writings and lectured about San Antonio’s half-dozen Spanish missions and had already formed a small group dedicated to their celebration.

Driscoll brought an Anglo name, Alamo-centrism and personal wealth to the effort, soon becoming a power in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, formed as a social club in Galveston. At her prodding the state entrusted Alamo restoration and management to the DRT.

Against De Zavala’s will, Driscoll’s wish dictated that the attractive mission chapel, instead of the drab, blockish Long Barracks, be billed as its centerpiece. Thanks to her restoration biases, most Texans also do not know that when they walk the Alamo’s grounds, they tread on the unmarked burials of Indians who died a century before the place became a battleground.

The final section of Forget is material for comedy. The faded British musician Phil Collins developed an Alamo obsession at the age of five, after seeing the Walt Disney series “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.” In 2004 he began collecting Alamo artifacts.

“Collins soon wanted to own just about anything that could even remotely be connected with the Alamo,” says Forget. Over the next ten years he amassed a collection perhaps worth millions of dollars. But “According to a dozen prominent antiquities collectors and archaeologists, not to mention the Alamo’s longtime official historian, the Collins collection is not what it’s cracked up to be.”

In 2014 the musician donated it to the General Land Office of Texas in exchange for a promise that within seven years, it would house it in a museum on the Alamo grounds. The Land Office had ousted the DRT as caretaker of the shrine and soon produced a $450 million plan to make “reimagine” the Alamo as a “world-class attraction.”

The plan included a museum for the Collins collection and called for the expansion of the Alamo’s footprint. One of its proposed changes was moving a 60-foot tall cenotaph, or empty grave for the martyrs, to a location 500 feet away.

Land Office commissioner George P. Bush, a son of Jeb who had launched a political career in Texas, soon faced demonstrations by militiamen, armed and wearing camouflage — in downtown San Antonio — who swore that the monument would be moved only over their dead bodies.

Bush then repudiated the plan, having already alienated both the militiamen and the planned restoration. Time is running out and the Collins museum is in limbo.

The closing line of Forget says that we “need to forget what we learned about the Alamo, embrace the truth, and celebrate all Texans.”

That notion is far-fetched today. The Alamo legend is too embedded in Texas lore to overcome the nostalgia of an aging generation of Anglos who as children took Hollywood history for truth or who attended Texas schools. But the route to forgetting is taking shape.

Someday, thanks to Forget and scholarly works, the city of Austin and its county, Travis, will probably change their names. Divining future monikers for trendy Austin is worthy of a parlor game.

Will Austin revert to Waterloo, its original name, or in recognition of its over-sweetened real estate market, be called Gentry or Upsell instead? Or maybe Willieopolis, after its pot-smoking balladeer? Since he has lately bought properties across Texas and says he’s now living in Austin, where he is building a Tesla factory, maybe the town’s name should be Elonville, or as wiseacres are already calling it, Musklandia.

January-February 2022, ATC 216

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