The Alamo has a claim to being not only the most resonant historical site in America but the most peculiar. Generations of visitors have stood in front of the old mission church in downtown San Antonio and scratched their head in confusion. For one thing, the Alamo itself seems far too small to support the unbounded legend that has grown up around it. The towering building that most people expect to see turns out to be a squat and oddly configured structure that is in almost every way inscrutable. What is this place? What really happened here? Why is it enveloped in an atmosphere of such oppressive solemnity? Why all these signs and plaques demanding that we remove our hats, that we “be silent,” that we regard this secularized church not just as an artifact of history but as an unparalleled shrine?
The Alamo has long been a place where casual visitors were almost guaranteed to get the wrong idea about the storied battle, along with a desperately blinkered interpretation of its meaning. In the past few years, however, things have changed significantly for the better. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the famously embattled custodians of both the Alamo and its legacy, are delicately shifting from an almost religious presentation of the site to one that showcases its factual history. The horrendous old paintings that once adorned the walls of the church have been relocated to the gift shop, plaques that had once seemed randomly placed have been strategically regrouped, and the sacristy rooms have been opened to the public for the first time in recent memory. In addition, a recently erected Wall of History does a first-rate job of presenting the Alamo in a meaningful context, from hopeful mission community to doomed fortress and through to modern times. And this month a series of illustrations by artist Gary Zaboly will be placed at certain key locations on the grounds to give visitors a long-needed perspective on how the Alamo appeared during the siege.
But even with these decisive improvements, it is still not an easy place to puzzle out. For instance, what most of us think of as the Alamo—that indelible old church—is not really the Alamo at all, merely the sole surviving building of a once sprawling mission complex. So many of those other buildings have been lost to history, so many of the old walls torn down and so many others added, that the real Alamo can only be perceived by close scrutiny and hard imagining.
Casual visitors can improve their chances of making sense of the Alamo by first stopping at Rivercenter Mall to see Alamo… The Price of Freedom at the IMAX movie theater. It’s by far the most accurate Alamo movie—the only one that correctly depicts the battle occurring in darkness—and it is considerably more entertaining than the soporific orientation films that abound at historic sites. Presentations led every half hour by Alamo staffers are helpful too. (Private and after-hours tours can also be arranged; call 210-225-1391.)
But if you’re not a casual visitor—if, like me, you saw the Alamo as a child and have been haunted by it ever since, and have returned again and again to try to somehow conjure up its ghostly history for yourself—then this is the itinerary I propose.
Begin at the Tower of the Americas (600 HemisFair Park) and ride the elevator to the observation deck. From this commanding height, it is still possible to see, at least in its essential contours, what used to be the Mexican frontier town of San Antonio de Béxar. Innumerable movies have conditioned us to think of the Alamo as sitting in isolation somewhere out on the Texas prairie, but the view from above makes it clear that that was never the case. The Alamo was very much a part of a community and was located just across the San Antonio River from the center of town. The river’s looping course is still more or less what it was in 1836, the year of the siege, though from the top of the tower the river itself is difficult to spot, since it is crowded out by downtown buildings and its presence is only detectable by the bright multicolored umbrellas of the Mexican restaurants that line the River Walk. But the Alamo is plain enough, the cruciform shape of the church visible in its parklike grounds, and only a few blocks to the southwest you can make out the twin bell towers of San Fernando Cathedral, which once marked the geographical and spiritual heart of Béxar. The main downtown street—now known as Commerce but called Potrero in 1836—still runs past the cathedral and then east into the shallow hills, where in the old days it became the Gonzales Road, the crucially strategic route to the nearest Anglo settlement of any size.
It was foggy and drizzly the last time I looked down upon San Antonio from this height, but I could still make out the distant hills to the northwest from which the Mexican army had suddenly emerged on the afternoon of February 23, 1836, after a brutal forced march through the deserts and freezing mountain passes of northern Mexico. The purpose of the expedition, personally commanded by Mexico’s autocratic ruler, General Antonio López de Santa Anna, was to seize Béxar from the control of an insurgent army made up of aggrieved Anglo colonists, native Mexicans, and land-hungry volunteers from the U.S.
It was from a less commanding height, the steeple of SAN FERNANDO Cathedral (115 W. Main Plaza), then a church, that a Texian lookout first reported the enemy to be in sight. The 150 or so men of the Béxar garrison, taken by surprise, hurriedly retreated across the river and into the Alamo. Within hours, the town was in the control of the Mexican army, and a red banner—a signal that the rebels could expect no quarter—was waving over the church. The steeple of San Fernando, from which that banner flew, was torn down in