Thursday, May 29, 2008

Military History and Warfare: The Texan War of Independence: Musings on the Alamo

Last year I had the opportunity to re-visit the Alamo in San Antonio. I had been there once before as a child and the visit helped to spark a lifelong love of history. Situated in the heart of heavily built-up San Antonio, the interior of the Alamo is an island of calm. This seems remarkable given that for thirteen days between February 23rd - March 6th 1836 it was subject to a siege followed by a bloody massacre. The Alamo itself has existed since the 1700s. It was originally established as a missionary post by Spanish monks. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Spanish troops occupied it and used it as their base for operations in the area. After the Mexican revolution, Mexican troops took over garrison duties. It was therefore not surprising that the Texan colonists chose to fortify the Alamo in 1835/36 as a key part of the defences of the settlements further north.

Surveying the Alamo now, there is little to suggest that it would have made a good defensive position. Nonetheless, there were good arguments in 1835 for attempting to hold it against the Mexican army. There were two roads that led into the Texan interior from Mexico. The first was the Atascosito Road, stretching northward from Matamoros on the Rio Grande through Goliad and leading straight into the Texan settlements. The second was the Old San Antonio Road and wound north-eastward through San Antonio. Guarding both these roads and simultaneously acting as an early warning system for the colonies, there were forts at Goliad and San Antonio. Initially, General Sam Houston had ordered that the Alamo be razed to the ground and the position abandoned. This was rejected and Colonel James Neil (initially commanding the troops at the Alamo) instructed his engineers to begin constructing fortifications. By February, twenty-one pieces of captured Mexican artillery had been mounted on the walls and concentrated into batteries and a palisade wall had been constructed. Neil is often forgotten in retellings of the story of the Alamo, but it was thanks to his efforts that the Alamo was reconstituted into a defensible fortress.

Plans of the Alamo in 1836

Today the Alamo is garrisoned by an army of tourists and tour guides. And rightly so, the old mission station is well worth a visit by anyone with the any interest in military history or Texas history in general. The site was used again for military purposes during the American Civil War, but was abandoned shortly afterwards. Fortunately, an organisation calling itself 'the daughters of the Republic of Texas' formed and took it upon themselves to maintain and safeguard the Alamo as an historic site for future generations. International visitors to the site might be surprised to learn that the garrison of the Alamo did not consist entirely of Americans led by John Wayne Indeed, the Alamo Museum within the compound shows how diverse the settler population was in Texas during the early nineteenth century. Apart from settlers from across the United States, the defenders of the Alamo consisted of Hispanic 'Texicans', Englishmen, Irishman, Scotsman and Germans.

Surrounded by seven thousand Mexican soldiers, the one-hundred and eighty-seven defenders of the Alamo stayed at their posts. This is not to say that they were suicidal. Indeed, the commanding officer, Colonel Travis sent repeated messages requesting reinforcements throughout the siege. Unfortunately, none were available in time to come to the relief of the Alamo. On the thirteenth day, the Mexican army stormed the bastion and killed every last defender. The women and children were spared and set on their way to report what they had seen as a warning to other potential rebels against Mexico.

Other items of interest on display in the Alamo museum, include a bible owned by Jim Bowie and a rifle said to have belonged to Davy Crockett. The bible is particularly indicative of the kind of life Jim Bowie led prior to his death at the Alamo. Its sole distinguishing feature is the large gash running through its centre. This was apparently the result of an attempted murder by an Indian that Bowie had upset. The Bible sat in Bowie's pocket and took the impact of the knife, thus allowing him to escape and fight another day. Apart from the displays within the surviving buildings of the Alamo compound, there is an excellent film telling the story of the Alamo and the thirteen day siege. To its great credit, the museum emphasis both perspectives from the conflict. The Mexican government had encouraged immigration into Texas from the United States in order to increase the population of the state. The white settlers were primarily interested in Texas because of the land opportunities it offered. However, the large influx of white settlers began to cause the Mexican government concern. They feared that this far-flung Mexican province would become culturally and politically dominated by the settlers. When the Mexican government introduced legislation to limit the numbers of immigrants, tensions began to rise which would eventually culminate in the Texan revolution of 1835.

The centrepiece of any visit to the Alamo is the lecture tour conducted by one of the museum's enthusiastic guides. It is clear how important the Alamo is to many Texans and indeed Americans as a whole. Setting aside historical bias for a moment, the Alamo is far more than an old church-turned-fort. It is considered by many as a shrine to Texas independence. The heroic behaviour of the defenders in refusing to give in epitomizes the Texan ideals of self-determination and love of freedom. As such there is a statue outside the walls to commemorate all those who lost their lives defending the Alamo. The guides and museum are excellent and make the Alamo a ‘must see’ destination for anyone visiting the lone star state.

1 comment:

MudRake said...

I visited Brackettsville back in 1961 or 62 on a trip through Texas on our way to Sheppard AFB outside of Burkburnett on a change of duty station for my father. The place made an impression on me as I had only recently seen the John Wayne epic which was filmed in 1959 in 1959 I believe. It wasn't yet cleaned up and made more tourist frendly and had a lot of recent scars from the filming. Most notably the Alamo chapel was still scorched and blackened from the big explosion at the end of the movie. Thanks for the nice pictures.