Book Review - Forget the Alamo
Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford
This is a timely book given current national debates on culture wars, critical race theory, and the indoctrination of our children. The book takes a look at the history, legend, and myth of the Alamo and its place in the Texas Pantheon. It is written in a conversational and slightly humorous style, but make no mistake, it is history. It starts with two modern incidents and then takes us back in time to before the Alamo with a history of Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans coming into Texas. I won't tell you about the two modern incidents so as not to ruin it if you decide to read the book.
The story of early American involvement in Texas is complicated, but using the documents of the times and letters of the participants, the authors lay out a clear understanding. The government of Mexico allowed American immigration into Texas to help stem off raids by various Native American groups and to help populate what was the farthest reaches of Mexico. The American immigrants, both legal and illegal, yes the authors note the irony, came to make money. The way they made money was cotton and cotton was profitable only with slave labor. Southern Americans would not work cotton themselves, so they wanted slaves. This was very stated from the beginning in the letters and documents of the Americans who came to Texas or were interested in coming to Texas.
The government of Mexico, however, was uncomfortable with slavery, having recently thrown off the yoke of Spanish imperialism. The struggle between American immigrants and the Mexican government focused on the issue of slavery. The Mexican government repealed slavery throughout all of Mexico in 1829, except for Texas and American immigrants were worried the central government would soon outlaw slavery in Texas as well. By the time Texas declared independence in 1836, the central government in Mexico City had agreed to all the concessions Texas asked for. The idea of Texans fighting for liberty and freedom was a later construct.
The book then provides an overview of the Alamo battle. The interesting thing is that the authors use letters, diaries, and documents from the Mexican side. This information has long been purposely excluded from the Alamo cannon by the state of Texas. I can understand why: with this new information and other documents, it becomes clear that the last stand at the Alamo was not a sacrifice for freedom or a strategic decision to give Texas more time to raise an army. The men at the Alamo took up a position as a screen for the rest of the army of Texas and found themselves quickly surrounded by the Mexicans. At that point, they had no way to escape. During the siege Col. Travis, the Texas commander, even communicated with Mexican General Santa Ana to discuss surrender. Santa Ana refused.
The battle went sort of as reported, but with some significant differences. There is no evidence for Travis drawing a line in the sand. Most of the 13-day siege was desultory artillery fire back and forth. The final assault was relatively quick. Crockett did not die fighting as is depicted in various movies, but rather surrendered and was executed. Jim Bowie was killed in bed, suffering from typhoid, and in no condition to fight. Half the Alamo fighters managed to make a run for it but were ridden down by Mexican cavalry.
None of the soldiers survived the battle. All the prisoners were executed on Santa Ana's orders. The only survivors, together with Mexican or Tejaos as they are called, were Mrs. Dickinson, her baby, and Joe, Travis’s slave. Mrs. Dickinson was sheltered in the actual Alamo church, so she did not see what happened. Most of the last fighting took place in the building next to the church, and along the walls, so she was not the best witness. Joe told his story, having witnessed Travis take a bullet to the head early in the final assault.
All these details were known throughout Texas and Mexico immediately after the battle, but also soon after, people began to change the narrative provided by Mrs. Dickinson and Joe. The story grew into the legend seen today. This legend was heavily promulgated by the Texas legislature and schools were forced by law to teach the myth of the Alamo. Mexican eyewitness accounts and writings were ignored and at times, forbidden from being taught.
The book then follows the Alamo story throughout history to the present day, including the politics surrounding the Alamo legend. Many of the names that crop up are recognizable as those fighting the culture wars today and crying about critical race theory and indoctrination of our children. The book clearly shows, using hard evidence, how children have been indoctrinated over the years but by the state of Texas. The basis of the story Texas tells has nothing to do with reality or history, but rather promotes a mythology of exceptionalism and freedom rather than the truth, which like most truths contains good and bad. It conveys an anti-Mexican viewpoint and hides the driving reason of slavery as the reason for independence.
The irony of today's battles over illegal immigration, and teaching children about slavery is palpable throughout the book. I was surprised to learn that the singer Phil Collins is an Alamohead, and how such an important landmark as the Alamo has been allowed to decay and sections destroyed. For a structure that holds such a high place in Texas history, it has been treated shabbily.
If you like your history whitewashed and prefer the myths and legends, don't read the book. If you want to learn and be educated and have your ideas challenged, I highly recommend the book.