The tale of the heroes who held out in a Spanish mission and created the Texas Republic leaves out a critical detail: Slavery

 


Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford
   

As a child growing up in rural West Texas, I learned a lot about my state’s proud history. At the center of that history was the siege of the Alamo, the battle that the Mexican army won but which became the rallying cry for “Texian” forces that went on to defeat Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto in 1836. We learned about heroes like William Barret Travis, who with his sword famously drew a line in the sand, inviting men to cross it to defend the mission church to the death or to retreat to safety—with all but one fellow taking the fatal step. We learned about Davy Crockett, who, out of bullets, used his rifle as a club, fighting to the death, and Jim Bowie and his knife, and so many other martyrs who went down swinging. The rallying cry “Remember the Alamo!” fueled the Texian army’s drive to San Jacinto and victory. The Republic of Texas became an independent nation, with Sam Houston its first President, and March 2 became as important to most Texans as July 4 is to American citizens elsewhere. Unfortunately, almost all of this history that we learned so proudly turns out to be bunk—or so say the three Texas writers of Forget the Alamo.

The contrarians are Bryan Burrough, author of well-regarded investigative histories, including New York Times bestseller Barbarians at the Gate (2009); Chris Tomlinson, columnist for the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News and, in his book Tomlinson Hill, chronicler of his family’s slave-holding history; and Jason Stanford, political consultant and former communications director for the mayor of Austin. The authors solidly stack evidence enough to crush many popular myths about Texas history in general and the Alamo in particular. Their book’s latter half initiates readers in the complex farrago of intra-Texan disputes over which take on the Alamo is “true” and how best to treat it. To Texans, this is serious business—some condemn the revisionist impulse that this book represents, others approach the issue with their own perspectives and agendas. Truly, the battle for the Alamo continues.

As the authors argue, traditional Texas history’s gravest omission has been slavery’s centrality in triggering demand for independence from Mexico. Since the early 1800s Americans had been moving into the Mexican district of East Texas intent on growing ever more cotton, whose profitability demanded ever more enslaved labor. However, upon winning independence from Spain in 1821 Mexico outlawed slavery. That abolition vexed slave-holding American immigrants—the Texians, who fought for independence in large part to assure themselves of the right to hold others in bondage. After 1836, the Republic of Texas was established as a slave-holding nation.

Ever since, the Alamo and the Texas Revolution have occasioned a permanent tussle between adherents of contrasting versions of events, with official Texas history and popular sentiment tilting toward the interpretation that has heroic Texians dying gloriously. In recent decades, however, scholars scrutinizing the myth have found it deeply flawed. The received history makes no mention of all of Latino troops who fought alongside the Texians at the Alamo and beyond. The battle narrative is hogwash, and the larger Alamo story, including the structure’s origins as a mission built by the Franciscan order to facilitate conversion of indigenes to Christianity, has been erased. The long war between traditionalists and revisionists centers on but is not restricted to the old mission building, preserved as a saintly relic enshrining the traditional reading. In retort to that point of view has arisen a movement dedicated to renovating the vicinity and establishing an Alamo museum. Calls for those as yet undecided ends come from a clangorous chorus: The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Native American and African American groups, conservative Republicans, and others, each intoning its own objections and advocacy.

Well-written and engaging, Forget the Alamo is by turns a serious and brashly entertaining account of how the Alamo story has functioned as a unifying myth of Texas history and the fount of a constant stream of learned criticism from those who know better. Highly recommended to fans of Texas history. —Barbara Finlay contributes regularly from deep in the heart of her native state.