- Dan Connors
Forget the Alamo- Is Texas history based upon a lie?
Forget the Alamo: The True Story of the Myth That Made Texas
Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, Jason Stanford 2021
History is told from the perspective of the survivors, and especially from the view of the winners, and for that very reason we should look back with skepticism. Historical events can be twisted and manipulated to fit current narratives, and that seems to be exactly what happened to the 1836 Battle of the Alamo according to this book. Reading Forget the Alamo makes one question why we need these flawed stories in the first place, and what other lies and embellishments lay in our history books.
Specifically, the Alamo has been showcased as an example of the "heroic Anglo narrative", which is used to place white male pioneers at the top of Texas history and mythology, while downgrading the importance of blacks, native Americans and especially Hispanics, or Tejanos as they are called in the state. Texas schoolchildren are drilled on this narrative from an early age, and the phrase "Remember the Alamo" is everywhere. Schools are named after Alamo legends and a huge monument has been constructed on the site. This book tells a much more layered and complex story that contradicts the heroic Anglo narrative, claiming that the battle for the San Antonio mission was a senseless slaughter with its goal to preserve the right to own slaves in Texas against a Mexican government that wanted to emancipate them.
The ironies of this story as detailed in this book are delicious. As most people know, the land we know as Texas was a part of Spanish territory in 1776 when the country was born. In 1810, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and Texas was still sparsely populated. White settlers crossed into Texas, mostly illegally, from the United States in pursuit of slave-enhanced cotton plantations or to run away from legal and financial problems. Mexico outlawed slavery, and threatened to shut it down, but put up with white immigration because it helped them with a different problem, marauding Comanche Indians that were terrorizing small villages.
Forget the Alamo does a great job setting the scene of early Texas history to give some perspective on why the battle ever happened in the first place. White settlers did not mix well with Mexican culture, preferring their own language, values, and views on race. They refused to pay taxes to the Mexican government and eventually decided to revolt, which is what led to the Alamo. It makes you wonder about today's political struggle in Texas, a state where Hispanics are well on their way to becoming a majority.
White Anglo militias took over San Antonio and the Alamo in 1835, forcing the Mexican authorities out. Santa Ana and the government responded with a huge army that retook San Antonio while the revolutionaries, led by a holy trinity of Davy Crockett, William Travis, and James Bowie held the Mexicans at bay from inside the old Alamo mission. The book goes into the backgrounds of the three heroes of the Alamo and paints them as fools, crooks, or slavers, and anything but the larger-than-life figures that Texas mythology promotes today.
The Battle of the Alamo takes up only one chapter of this book, and the authors see it as mostly an unnecessary last stand that provided no military value except for its propaganda use. The story, as told multiple times, was of much more value than the battle itself. The Alamo mission was hard to defend, and the soldiers knew full well that they would be hopelessly outnumbered well before Santa Ana arrived. They held out on the hopes of reinforcements that never came. The book attempts to shoot down many cherished Alamo myths- that Travis drew a line in the sand and asked volunteers who wanted to stay to cross it, - that Crockett fought valiantly to the very end (many think he surrendered and was killed), and that the defenders fought down to the last man. (Evidence is presented that Travis tried to surrender and that men tried to slip away after the battle was lost.)
The second part of this book goes beyond the days of the Alamo battle to show how politicians and historians have since used its story for their own purposes. The authors tell of huge battles between women who had different ideas of museums that should commemorate the Alamo. Politicians from LBJ to Donald Trump used the Alamo myth to their own purposes, all in service to the bigger narrative- American Exceptionalism, that excused any and all American aggressions- just because they were American. (and white, and male, and Christian)
The Alamo has become a lightning rod for debates about Texas history, complicated by the fact that it's believed to be on top of an American Indian burial site, next door to a historic lunch counter that figured into 1960's civil rights protests, and a huge thorn in the side of Texas's growing Hispanic population, most of whom dispute the heroic Anglo narrative that paints their ancestors as the bad guys.
The power of the Alamo story led to two major motion pictures, the worst of which was John Wayne's epic 1960 presentation that he hoped would shoot down JFK's election. Walt Disney came up with a Davy Crockett television production that embellished the shady reputation of Crockett and showed him to be a hero of the Alamo. Many textbooks and historical accounts were made about the event, all showcasing the heroic Anglo narrative and making Mexicans the bad guys.
Perhaps the most bizarre and fascinating chapter of the story is the last, where a rich British rock legend, Phil Collins, becomes so entranced by the Alamo legend that he becomes a fixture in San Antonio and a collector of Alamo souvenirs. Collins even offered to donate his bounty of ancient swords, pistols, and Texas memorabilia to a new, expanded museum that's been debated now for over 10 years. The main problem- the authors believe that most of Collin's treasure trove of artifacts to be fakes and forgeries and not worthy of a museum.
For now, the Alamo remains a small fraction of what it once was, surrounded by seedy tourist traps, and the hotbed of a story that is central to Texas history. Was Texas founded by brave settlers fighting off oppressive Mexican tyranny, or was it founded by violent opportunists who thumbed their noses at the law, enslaved blacks to make cotton, and eventually turned their backs on the Hispanic and Native American peoples who were there first? I guess it depends on who is writing the history.
I loved this book and had trouble putting it down. It made me question everything I think I know about history, and helped me to understand why Texans seem so different from other Americans.