“AND EVERYTHING DEAR ……….”

 

Drawing of the Alamo Mission in San Antonio. It was first printed in 1854 in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion. (WikiMedia Commons)

“I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character….”

William Barret Travis, from the Alamo February 24, 1836

Today, 188 years ago, a pre-dawn attack was launched against an old mission that had been converted into a fort. The mission had been under siege for the last 12 days and Santa Anna, the dictator of Mexico, was impatient to move on into the interior of Texas to finish quelling a rebellion.

“Buck” Travis was 26 years old and somewhat of a hot head. He was like several of the men that he found himself, by twist of fortune, commanding in that old, never completely finished mission just beyond the San Antonio River. In his short life he had proven himself to be both brave and irresponsible, a flawed failure determined to create a new condition for himself. When he penned his famous letter at the beginning of the Alamo siege he had only held command for 13 days, assuming it when James Neill left to attend to family business. Before another 13 days could pass he would be dead in the pre-dawn darkness. The last man in his command would barely see the early light of March 6 before he too would be dead.

There were no angels behind those walls when Santa Anna began his four-pronged attack in the pitch black darkness. The men who would die within those crumbling walls that March were not perfect men, nor were the ones who later used their legacy to build first a nation and then a state. Inside those walls were schemers with grand plans, simple farmers with much smaller hopes for the future, adventurers, merchants, at least two ministers and an undetermined number of rogues. There were men whose families had come from Spain and had been either in Mexico or Texas for generations. There were a few who had only been in Texas a matter of months if not weeks. There were some who held title to thousands of acres and many more who had little to lose but their lives. The three best known names of the defenders included an almost legendary knife-fighting brawler, who had authored one of the biggest land frauds in American history, and who had been sent to destroy the Alamo, not defend it; a failed United States Congressman deeply in debt who had sworn to never live under a presidency of Andy Jackson’s apparent successor, seeking both a new start and a last chance; and the young commander who deserted wife, child and debts to now find himself shouldering the sudden weight of a seemingly doomed position. They were all a lot like us, imperfect.

By the time the mid-morning sun was bright on March 6, the bodies of the less than 200 defenders were being burned somewhere in front of the roofless chapel of the old mission. One account has Santa Anna watching until the body of James Bowie, the widower husband of his God-daughter, was dragged to the pile, and then turning to leave as it was thrown on. It would be months before Juan Seguin could return and gather what remains he could find. The exact location of even these is still uncertain.

But before the smoke was through drifting southward on the north wind which came with daylight, and the bitter sweet smell of burned flesh had melted into the atmosphere, this varied collection of men were well on the way to becoming a permanent symbol of what their commander had termed, “everything dear to the American character”.

That famous letter had been written the day after Santa Anna had besieged the small command. There would be others written and sent out before the final attack. But this one was copied over and over again as it was passed throughout the settlements of Texas. It is this appeal, finished and signed with “Victory or Death,” that has become what some call a “declaration of defiance”.

After all of the things that have been written about the Alamo battle—and I have read most of them—there are two reflections that I would focus on as we approach another anniversary of the old mission’s conquest. One is that regardless of our past or shortcoming, there is heroic potential in us all if we just answer the call. The other is an examination of just what those things are which are dear and central to the American Character.

William Barret Travis had been raised in South Carolina, but had moved to Alabama by the time he set about making a place for himself in the world. He was still in his teens when he tried teaching but lasted only a few months, just enough time to romance a 15 year-old student whom he would later marry. He tried establishing a newspaper while studying for the law. Both the newspaper and legal career were failures and left what seemed to him huge debts. He had a wife, a son, a daughter on the way—and an arrest warrant for the debt. He left them all behind and headed for the Mexican territory of Texas.

In Texas, he began a law practice but proved to be a hot head who clashed with authorities in Anahuac; almost starting a shooting conflict over a mere exchange of words. He answered the call to the “Lexington of Texas” to help the settlers at Gonzales protect their small cannon from Mexican authorities – but he got there too late to take part in anything. He was a junior officer in the loose association of Texian forces which converged on San Antonio in October of 1835 at the beginning of the Texas Revolution.  The ill-organized siege lasted into December, and he served mostly as a scout for a cavalry unit commanded by Randle Jones. He was not there in December when Ben Milam led a house-to-house attack that expelled General Cos and his Mexican troops from Texas. A family letter written by Travis’ cavalry commander labeled him as both “impulsive and insubordinate”.

By the end of January there were less than 100 men stationed in San Antonio, and there were rumors of Santa Anna planning a return in the spring. Travis was given a commission in the “regular army” and sent with 30 (or 18 depending on whose account you accept) men to reinforce James Neill’s command. Neill left and Travis was supposedly in control of the “regulars”.

Jim Bowie had arrived with a volunteer force with orders from Sam Houston to save the cannon and blow up the Alamo (which Old Sam considered a death trap to defend), and then rejoin Houston. For his own reasons, Bowie had decided that San Antonio was “the key to Texas,” and was determined to stay. His immediate excuse was the lack of enough draft animals to haul away the cannon (at the time the Alamo might have been the most cannon intensive site west of the Mississippi River), but San Antonio was also his adopted home where he had courted his wife and where his in-laws’ house stood. Ben Milam had died on their doorstep in the December battle.

Most of the men, both regular and volunteer, preferred Bowie as a commander but Travis held the official title and they had to reach a workable agreement. After some discussion, and considerable drinking on Bowie’s part, a joint command was agreed upon. But by that morning of February 24, Bowie lay ill and the full command rested on Travis.

The arrival of Santa Anna’s forces on the 23rd sent the small band hurrying to “fort up” behind the old walls and gradually become trapped in a fate that they would not have expected just hours before. None of those men had come to Béxar to die in a crumbling death trap. But almost without realizing it, that had become their lot.

There is a line from one of the better Alamo movies spoken to Travis by a stricken Bowie from his cot: “Buck, if you live five more years you might just be a great man.”

A thoughtful Travis answers, “I believe I will have to settle for what I am now.”

So it is for all of us.

If all the legends are exact, accounts matter little in the meaning of the events which took place that winter northeast from San Antonio de Béxar on the opposite bank of the river. It is such moments of decision that we all find if what we are now measures up. Those moments rarely come at opportune times. And how we respond to the heat of those moments will remain as our measure.

In Travis’ case, he proved to have both the words and the leadership necessary for great moments, even if they were fleeting ones. The men whom he commanded held their post with a determination that even by the most conservative Mexican accounts cost Santa Anna 3 dead soldiers for each rebel killed; and although they never realized it, those 13 days allowed the Convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos scheduled for March 1 to take place. And in a small cabin in that tiny village, Texas independence was declared on March 2.

It does not matter if the legend of the “line in the sand” is completely true. Each of those defenders crossed their own line, in their own way, stayed and accounted for themselves as few could.

Travis died on the wall, close to the west gate, in the early moments of the pre-dawn attack with a single gunshot to the head. We have no way of knowing who fired the shot.

I don’t know for sure if Bowie died as his sister-in-law described, slashing with his famous knife after having fired his pistol at point blank, only to be bayoneted and tossed in the air like a bale of hay. Perhaps he lay there too weak to even raise his arms. Either way, his decision and his actions speak for themselves.

There are at least half a dozen accounts of Crockett’s death, including one journal by a Mexican officer claiming the former congressman was clubbed down and captured only to be executed. But in the final view, I am convinced that it matters little if Crockett died swinging what was left of his rifle, defending the wooden palisade on the east of the unfinished chapel, or if he was dragged, beaten, bloody but alive to be bayoneted with the other wounded.

Regardless, the impact of what happened in those 13 days of siege, and on through that last morning, is the result of how those flawed men answered the call when it was thrust upon them. It serves as a reminder to us that the call that counts is the one before us now. It is those who act on those calls who shape the world for all the others.

I do not intend to even attempt to touch upon all the aspects of the American Character at this moment. Hopefully, I can at least touch (or even hint at) some small part each time I visit here. For now I hope to throw some sliver of light on the cultural conflict which lay at the bedrock of what became the Texas Revolution, which is too often dismissed by the left as just another Anglo land -grab.

There was a definite cultural divide between the central Mexican government and the imported Americans who had come to dominate the territory of Texas. The mostly Scot/Irish Americans were allowed to settle in territory north of San Antonio because the centralized Spanish government had failed miserably in getting it done. There were some “native Texians” already there, but few in number. They were the most hardy and independent of the Spanish subjects who took to the survival environment, and were for the most part as free-minded as their new Anglo neighbors. Many of them had Basque blood in their veins. Almost all of them were among the revolutionaries.

Whether Spanish or Mexican, the government of Mexico City was traditionally European and centralized to the extreme. A remote, vibrant, growing, and culturally different territory was ripe for disputes. Almost every issue which grew to become an all-out revolution had its roots in centralization by a distant government and/or trade (free markets) – not much different from the revolution hardly more than a generation before.

An overly centralized government has a natural conflict with a culture of self-reliance. In fact, they cannot coexist, regardless if they are colonists in North America or kulaks in the Soviet Union. Regardless of any other aspects, that should be the point to reflect on today. There was a time when the American Character was one of self-reliant individualism – Texians, by nature, rejected centralization and considered it something worth fighting over. The differences between the Texians and Santa Anna were cultural, but it was not racial—sorry leftists.

The history of this nation has been the living proof that the culture of individual liberty is not racial. All who have come here and absorbed that culture (or brought the seeds of it with them) have found it a blessing. They were not exempt from all the secular ills and faults of mortal men, but they practiced liberty at a level never experienced anywhere else in history. Those who do not fully accept it, or flat out reject it, yearn for the false safety of the collective and fret the risks that come with commanding your own life’s course.

I do not mean to over simplify the conflict. All such matters can give birth to volumes of accounts and analysis of every twist and turn. There were people of both good and bad character and intentions on all sides. So it is with all human events.

When the Alamo fell on the morning of March 6, its flag was the Mexican tri-color with 1824 in the center of it representing the federalist Constitution of 1824 which Santa Anna had suspended. They had no way of knowing that just four days before at Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas had formally declared its independence. The principle of federalism, local control of as many matters as possible and individual independence were very much at the center of what was defended behind those walls.

As matter of disclosure, I will admit family ties might shade my view. At least three different family branches commanded troops during those days. Another rode almost 400 miles in a bitter February, swam his horse across four icy rivers to represent all of Texas north of the Trinity River at Washington-on-the-Brazos, and, at 70, would be the oldest man to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence.

I have read the journals and family letters of these men, listened to all the passed-down stories, weighed them against more thoroughly researched material, and blended all of that into what I am still trying to learn about the history of us all. I believe I know what they valued. I do know that whatever it was, they would fight like hell for it.

I also know them to be flawed humans, certainly no better than most of us. Some perhaps not nearly as good. Most came to Texas on tired horses, having left where they came from in a hurry and making sure none could catch up. But in the end, they can still be best measured by what they valued and what they did about it.

They had not set out to become icons, but that’s what they became. What they symbolized was the ancient struggle for the individual to be able to shape his own destiny by his own hand, along with the home that struggle had found on a new continent. That struggle has not been, and never will be, mistake free. It is a struggle of flawed human beings, inch by inch gaining some ground toward a better tomorrow.

But one of the points of the struggle is that despite their flaws, their Creator granted them not only a path to salvation but natural individual rights to be held in this life. The fight to protect those rights and to hold stubbornly to them was what the meaning of that morning in March amounted to. It is a large part of what that discernible American Character is about. It is our heritage. We can hope that what we do with it can be measured as well as the actions of those very human, very flawed men.

Our part of that struggle might not be at the end of a bayonet (for the time being) but it is just as important. The possibility of our loss of those rights is as real as Santa Anna’s troops pouring over the walls. I only hope that our American Character, like theirs, is stronger than our flaws.

 

*Note – There are those who will contend that I have posted on this subject in the past. They are, of course, correct. But this past Saturday was THE Independence Day, March 2 and I was enticed to take part with some rather out-spoken Texicans who had me “lecture” on the subject. I was, of course quite informative.

I will admit that the celebration was recollected on “Super Tuesday” as we watched some local results. I was inspired by the come-from-behind results to sit here and recreate this. Yes, whiskey was involved. But only the finest Irish that could be found at such at late hour!! And some home-brew from Cut-Hand Bottom was allowed to qualify.

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There are 7 comments.

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  1. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    As a clarification, the first picture was taken in 1858 after some restoration. The earliest was taken some time before that during the time of the Mexican War and, of course, both are of the iconic chapel which had been given a more complete look by the 1850s.

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Excellent history lesson . . .

    • #2
  3. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Fascinating post.  Thanks.

    The quote does make me wonder about something.  What is “dear” to the American character, other than “Liberty,” which was already mentioned?

    • #3
  4. Rōnin Coolidge
    Rōnin
    @Ronin

    Thanks for the post…  Much appreciated.

    Texas By-God

    • #4
  5. Doug Watt Member
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    There were no angels behind those walls when Santa Anna began his four-pronged attack in the pitch black darkness.

    Indeed, and that could apply to history that includes New Mexico, and Arizona. The closer you are to the border the more dangerous life becomes. The Tucson area did not really have an Alamo moment due to its distance from Mexico City and Washington DC. The border was nothing more than a line drawn on a map to rustlers, bandits, and the Apache that crossed the border seeking to pillage, or to flee from deeds committed on one side or the other. 

     

    • #5
  6. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    There is a nice state park at Washington on the Brazos. The Constitution Hall is somewhat less formal than its Philadelphia counterpart. The park also has a good museum largely centered around how people lived in the area over time. The good news is that the whole park is being rehabbed and improved. The bad news is that the museum and much part of the grounds are closed while the work is going on. I look forward to seeing it again when everything is done in 2025.

    • #6
  7. Kirk Member
    Kirk
    @Kirk

    Thanks for this excellent post! As a native Texan, this touched my roots deeply!

    • #7
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