An Alamo Visit
Stephen L. Hardin is a history professor at The Victoria College in Victoria, Texas. Author of the award-winning Texian Iliad: A Military History of the Texas Revolution, 1835-1836 (University of Texas Press, 1994), Prof. Hardin has served as a historical advisor for television and film productions on Texas history. He answers questions about what it's like to visit the Alamo.
Does the Alamo attract many tourists?
The Alamo is the state's premiere tourist attraction. In any normal year, more than two and a half million visitors come from all over the world to stand before those old stones and honor the courage and sacrifice of the defenders. Tourists tend to intertwine the site with the city's public image. So much so, in fact, that many people call San Antonio the "Alamo City."
What is left of the original structure?
The only portions of the 1836 compound that remain are the church and the lower floor of the long barracks -- and air pollution and traffic vibrations threaten those buildings. Yet, city planners have addressed those problems by directing traffic away from the historic structures. During the 1990s, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas undertook extensive restoration to check the gradual deterioration of the limestone in the church. Their efforts were a smashing success and assured that the old church will stand for generations to come.
What do tourists think of the Alamo?
"It's so small!" That is the most common observation of people visiting the Alamo for the first time. They fail to understand that the sands of time and the sprawl of a bustling city have severely eroded the original compound. During the battle, the fort's main plaza contained almost three acres, making the defensive perimeter just under a quarter of a mile long. Yet, the extensive compound that thwarted Mexican general Santa Anna for thirteen days is long gone. Visitors can still see some of the ordnance used during the siege, including the famous eighteen-pounder and the gunade, a stubby naval cannon. On the grounds, be sure to look for the exceptional point-of-focus signage. Designed by illustrator Gary Zaboly, each sign reveals to viewers what the Alamo fort would have looked like if they were to have been standing on that exact spot in 1836. More than any other interpretive tool, these signs allow us to reconstruct the site in our mind's eye.
Has anyone done archaeological excavations at the Alamo?
Yes. Archaeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio have conducted several extensive excavations. These have yielded considerable information concerning the location of the fort's original perimeter and details relating to the construction methods employed by the Spaniards. These excavations revealed that portions of the Alamo compound were much larger that we supposed.
Has anything relating to the Alamo defenders been found?
That's difficult to determine. Several years ago archaeologists uncovered a human skull on the grounds. Many people immediately leapt to the conclusion that the skull must be that of an Alamo defender. Recall, however, that the Alamo was a Spanish mission long before it served as a fort. It is far more likely that the skull was that of an Indian convert buried inside the compound. Even so, archaeologists have uncovered hundreds of musket, rifle, and cannon balls that date to the time of the battle. One cannot, of course, link any of these to a specific defender.
Usually we remember the sites of victories -- not defeats. What makes the fall of the Alamo so memorable?
Almost as soon as the smoke cleared, the Alamo and its defenders transcended mere history, entering into the realm of myth. The slaughter at the Alamo finally awakened the Texians to their peril. It forcefully drove home that the war for independence from Mexico was far from finished and they must unite or lose all. Like the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae, and the Frankish hero Roland at Roncesvalles, the fall of Travis and his men provided a potent rallying symbol, filling Texians with righteous anger. Six weeks later, when Sam Houston's victorious rebels swept the field at San Jacinto, they rushed into battle shouting, "Remember the Alamo." From that day to this, Texans always have.
Who defended the Alamo and why were they fighting?
Traditional accounts emphasize William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett -- the so-called Alamo "trinity" -- but in a larger sense each member of the garrison was a hero because each paid the last full measure of devotion. In most battles (if I can appropriate an old cliché) all give some; some give all. At the Alamo, all gave all.
Each man had his own reason for being there. It is clear that Travis was fighting for Texas independence. "Under the flag of independence, we are ready to peril our lives a hundred times a day, and to dare the monster who is fighting us under a blood-red flag, threatening to murder all prisoners and to make Texas a waste desert," he wrote. A youthful idealism propelled most volunteers from the United States. In a letter to his brother, Kentuckian Daniel W. Cloud explained: "The cause of Philanthropy, of Humanity, of Liberty and human happiness throughout the world, called loudly on every man who can to aid Texas.... If we succeed, the Country is ours. It is immense in extent, and fertile in its soil, and will amply reward all our toil. If we fail, death in the cause of liberty and humanity is not cause for shuddering."
Tejano defenders were fighting against a dictatorial regime that had abolished the Mexican Constitution of 1824. Before or soon after the siege began, Santa Anna offered amnesty to all Tejanos. Enrique Esparza, son of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza, recalled that "quite a number" of the garrison's Tejanos took advantage of the offer. The knowledge that they could have left renders the dedication of the nine Tejanos who remained to the end -- and perished -- all the more impressive.
The defenders came to the Alamo for abstract philosophical and political reasons. But when the final assault came, they stayed -- and died -- for each other.
The Alamo defenders were outnumbered about 10 to 1. What gave them hope that they could prevail?
The men of the Alamo were not suicidal. Travis and the garrison honestly believed that they could hold the fort -- at least until backup arrived. That the promised reinforcements did not arrive was a consequence of the dissension and discord that plagued the provisional Texas government. From the first day of the siege, Travis constantly wrote letters requesting assistance: "I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch." By March 3, Travis' letters took on a bitter and condemnatory tenor: "If my country men do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect." Three days later, his words proved prophetic.
Is it possible to separate the myth from the history of the Alamo?
History informs; myth inspires. Like most folks, I first became interested in the story through the movies -- and films had an enormous role in creating the Alamo mythology. Yet as one delves into historical documents, one comes to understand that the real story is more fascinating than anything cranked out by a Hollywood screenwriter.
It is possible -- not easy, but possible -- to separate the myth from the actual events. To do so, however, might be overly pedantic. Much of the Alamo mythology entered the public imagination. Like the fable of Washington and the cherry tree, the tale of Travis drawing the line evokes a powerful message, teaches important cultural lessons, and informs us about the values of those who concocted it. That's the function of myth.
Understand and appreciate the myth; understand and appreciate the actual history. But one should graze them in different pastures. Problems arise -- for both individuals and countries -- when citizens begin to accept their mythologies as history.
What do you personally experience when you visit the Alamo?
Without being overly mystical, I think the site holds uncanny power. As soon as I set foot on the grounds, I feel its intensity. Encased in those old stones, I sense the presence of history. You cannot help but be aware that on this very spot, brave men fought and died for a cause they believed to be larger than themselves. One must be a complete churl -- or an utter dullard -- to remain unmoved by this place. It is, therefore, wholly appropriate that we approach with a measure of awe, respect, and even reverence.