The city of San Antonio sprawls shimmering in the heat of southern Texas. During hot summer days it is surrounded by a milky halo of haze that dirties the bottom edge of the endless roof of cloud flecked blue above. Traveling down the US 281 southbound towards the downtown area, the glass of it’s skyscrapers glint like diodes in the distance. 2.23 million people live in the greater metropolitan area making it the 2nd most populous city in Texas, it is 130 miles from the Mexican border across the Rio Grande and it is bisected by the San Antonio River that flows through the city. The watercourse is usually choked by ferries of tourists and pleasure boats motoring slowly under it’s many bridges. The idyllic setting of modern architecture, hot sun and the iron blue water chugging it’s way towards the Guadeloupe River, that pours into San Antonio Bay and the Gulf of Mexico over 100 miles away from the city, has attracted a fringe of fashionable Cafe’s and Restaurants to its twin concrete banks. The city also has a thriving tourist industry, every year 26 million people come from all over the world to see the sights, and not a few of these will be heading there because of one thing, they remembered that the Alamo is in San Antonio.
It stands in a plaza across a busy street in the middle of the city with well watered, manicured grass and trees cordoned off by fences, traversed by a white stone pavement. The lovely looking white adobe church is dazzling in the sunlight and stands in the middle of the plaza, set back from the low line of the restored “Long Barracks”. It sits humbly, but proudly, surrounded by the blocks of more modern buildings with the lone star of Texas flying in front of it. The iconic headboard facade rises to a rounded point above the impressive entrance, the dark eyelets of its evenly spaced, deeply cut windows stare out like eyes from the shade. It is so neat looking that it could have been made by a cookie cutter. You are looking at all that is left of the Alamo. Here in 1836 the most famous battle in Texas History, and one of the top five most famous battles in America, was fought.
In 1836 Mexican president General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna with over 3,000 men blockaded and bombarded what was then an old mission station, turned cavalry barracks, turned rebel artillery fort. The 13 day siege in which every single male defender died, (except for slaves, slavery being illegal in Mexico, and women and children, bar accidents) and saw the death of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Barret Travis. It Inspired the Texan revolutionaries to fight for victory or death, in the struggle that wrested control of Texas from Mexico after the Battle of San Jacinto and the capture of Santa Anna. The end came just before dawn during the early hours of the 6th of March when, with no breach in the walls, Santa Anna ordered his infantry to take the fort the hard way. After a furious fight, the Mexican soldados, attacking from three sides, broke into to compound and gave no quarter. As the sun rose that morning an estimated 600 of their compadres lay dead and dying across the fort and doubtless they had some scores to settle.
Today when you stand in the long line to get into the chapel, you are confronted by numerous symbols of how Texas had commemorated her fallen hero’s, the tall Alamo cenotaph stands at one end of the plaza and serves as the greatest reminder. But in a way it’s a perplexing snow job. A blind of patriotism has been drawn across the place, obscuring any trace that the Mexicans had ever been there, not least that it was they who won the battle. The feeling of being on hallowed ground is reinforced when you enter the cool of the the chapel, now roofed to house exhibitions of artefacts. If you decided to buy that Davy Crockett coonskin then you’ll have to take it off, and if you forget, or try to take a picture you had best swallow your surprise and listen good when the representative of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas approaches you. The DRT have been custodians of the site since 1905, and will politely (or as may be the case firmly) advise that visitors remove hats, and refrain from flash photography inside the chapel. When you reply it had better be in a low undertone. Remember you are in a shrine and you must speak in hushed, respectful tones, stow your camera and humbly remove your hat.
All of this is completely admirable, and despite the wry looks such structures draw from British tourists such respect to what others regard as cold history is touching. The Texas Revolution was a particularly emotive conflict. Santa Anna’s cruelty to prisoners, mixes with an invincible American propaganda machine to make sure that to this day Mexican soldados are remembered only as murderous thugs, just as heartless and cruel as their commander. While the defenders were deified into legends, the attackers were morphed into faceless ciphers of evil. Oppressed masses of colourfully clad, dark skinned murderers who fought bravely only when they had superior numbers; craven multitudes, the better to shoot down from the Alamo’s walls.
Warfare to Spanish American’s was a nasty business. The wars of revolution and independence that engulfed the continent from 1810 to 1830, saw a bitter and violent struggle of recrimination and massacre adopted to oust the Spanish. Under the old regime, rebels were punished by death. More often than not they were shot out of hand, with their leaders hanged, dismembered and displayed in public areas of important cities. When the French invaded the “Madre Patria” Spain’s field armies were no match for Napoleon and his marshals, but when the population arose in Guerrilla bands the tables were turned. War to the Knife was the conflict so graphically depicted by Goya’s “Horrors of War”, and this was the war waged by the revolutionaries in America against the Spanish. Spanish governors, American Loyalists and heroic revolutionaries like Bolívar all practiced this type of warfare, the Libertador himslef once ordering the death of 1,000 Spanish prisoners and proclaiming a War to the Death, in which all of Spanish blood were liable for extermination.
Given this it seems strange that the Mexicans should still be seen as the stark enemy of movie lore. It’s not even as simple as arguing that in Central and South America such acts of cruelty had occured regularly, and thus was to be expected. For the Battle of the Alamo was not in military terms either a mass execution, or indeed realistically a massacre, wherein one would expect allot of civilians and unarmed soldiers to be mercilessly gunned down. The garrison was alerted by the cries of the soldados rushing the North wall and were under arms in minutes. After that the attackers were lashed by torrents of grapeshot and musketry and were repulsed within 15 minutes. Defeat loomed until General Juan Amador lead the wavering 3rd Attack over Travis’ dead body and opened the northern postern. An hour of close quarter fighting followed, and by most accounts all went down fighting save for a handful who were executed in that morning on Santa Anna’s orders. His reasons for this were the same reasons others before him had executed prisoners, to send a message. The garrison had been offered no quarter because by the rules of war interpreted loosely by Santa Anna, as rebels, having refused a summons to surrender and forced the enemy to storm the position, they had forfeited the right to mercy.
Santa Anna certainly deserves very little positive commemoration in either the U.S. or Mexico, nor is there much cause to celebrate even the Mexican victory, given the result of the war. However given the amount of Confederate monuments scattered around Gettysburg and other civil war sites, monuments that honour the enemy of the victors an enemy that fought for rights that included the institution of slavery, there is cause to consider the ordinary Mexican’s who fell at the Alamo. The only difference that I can see between these and the Alamo is that the civil war was a family affair, but since a large proportion of Texans are of Mexican descent, some 10 generations and more by now, and the Texas Revolution was fought while Texas was still part of Mexico, (the Texan status as rebels giving more clues as to the motive behind the no quarter order at the Alamo and the shameful execution at Goliad), this doesn’t quite add up. The Mexicans it seems only fought at the Alamo so the Texans could build monuments, it’s as if they weren’t even fighting for a reason.
While researching this little bit, I thought I was going to end up putting the blame on American prejdice against the enemy, however as I looked into the matter I realised that, just as in the case of the Alamo there are two sides to the story. The truth is, those civil war sites are littered with confederate memorials because individual states, or private citizens put them there, state and federal goverments just allowed them to do it, after all, why should they take responsibility for commeorating the enemy? As far as the Alamo goes, if the Mexans or those of Mexican descent won’t or can’t, who will? After the Alamo fell, Colonel José Juan Sanchez Navarro suggested that the names of the soldados who died should be inscribed on a plaque made of a captured gun and mounted outside the church. However just to compound his faults, Santa Anna had the poorest opinion of his soldiers, and Navarro suspected that his General had vetoed the idea because of this prejudice, it was a bad decision for posterity. The last resting place of the Mexican dead is obscure, they were collected and buried in the Campo Santo cemetery (the old town burial ground) on the western edge of San Antonio.
I am unclear as to the the current position of the remains, my research suggests the original cemetario de Campo Santo was directly outside the Alamo church or some hundred yards from it towards the river, but at some point the old graveyard was moved, and when you search for the location on google maps it leads to the southern most edge of San Antonio, very far away from the Alamo. It is highly unlikely that a Mexican monument of any sort would be erected in the Alamo plaza, the building itself is a good enough monument to the story of both sides. The accepted story of which is so embedded in legend that to put a memorial to the Mexicans there would border on sacrilege to many Texans, but what about at Campo Santo? In 2010 a journalist noticed that there was no memorial to the four Scottish defenders who died at the Alamo, and action was taken, in a fitting ceremony in which this tiny minority was officially recognised, a plaque of Caithness stone was placed on the site so that they could be remembered. It should be noted that even at Culloden, a place of dark deeds where the victors mercilessly executed the rebel wounded where they lay, and lay waste to the land thereafter, putting a whole culture on the verge of extinction, has a stone commemorating where the British dead were buried.
By the time the sun rose over the Alamo the defenders had killed at least two times their number before being wiped out. The vast majority of the dead lying around the Alamo the next morning were Mexicans, who had obeyed their officers and done their duty without questioning orders, it’s what soldiers do. No matter who it is that makes it happen, the soldados, who fought and died storming the Alamo at dawn on the 6th of March 1836, deserve more of a legacy than the nearby Cantina Mexicana, that sells Davy Crocket Burrito’s to hungry passers by.
Here are some Links
An interesting discussion from 2000 highlighting the controversy.
Some links showing efforts to conserve the Alamo and how it is being run.
Daughters of the Republic of Texas website.