My Own Private Alamo

Some days, the icon of Texas independence seems like just another old building. But there’s plenty to celebrate and remember—if you know how to look at it.

March 2000By Comments

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 the 1870’s, along with most of the original structure of the church. But portions of the old church’s nave are still intact. The marble crypt in the baptistery proclaims itself to be the repository of the remains of the Alamo heroes, though there is a serious question as to whether this is really the case. Still, the breath of history stirs within this place. It was here in 1831, for instance, that James Bowie, the beguiling knife fighter and land swindler, married Ursula María de Veramendi, the teenage daughter of Béxar’s most prominent citizen.

If you leave the church and head east down Commerce Street, you’ll be following the route by which the Texians retreated into the Alamo. It is not an obviously historic walk. All the original Spanish colonial buildings that once lined the street are gone, replaced by loan companies, Chinese restaurants, jewelry stores, parking lots, and abandoned businesses with boarded-up windows. But the street still runs true to the course it did in 1836, and in five or six minutes you should reach the COMMERCE STREET BRIDGE, which spans the San Antonio River at the approximate location of the old Potrero Street Bridge. This is the thriving center of the River Walk, but the river itself is on life support, an artificially maintained and much degraded version of the sparkling watercourse it once was.

It was here, in the late afternoon of February 23, that an important parley occurred between Major Green B. Jameson, the young engineer who was in charge of the Alamo’s fortifications, and Colonel Juan Almonte, one of Santa Anna’s staff officers. For the Alamo defenders, it was a day of fright, confusion, and uneasy second thoughts. William Barret Travis, the 26-year-old Alabama lawyer who commanded the Béxar garrison in a fragile alliance with Bowie, had promptly responded to Santa Anna’s red banner with a cannon shot. But Bowie himself, already gravely ill from an unknown affliction, was not in quite as impulsive a mood. He wrote a note asking for a parley and sent Jameson out with it under a white flag. According to Almonte, Jameson “manifested a wish that some honorable conditions should be proposed for a surrender.”

After Bowie’s offer was rejected—Santa Anna was only interested in unconditional surrender—Travis sent out his own messenger. Travis had apparently reconsidered his situation and, as Almonte recalled, “stated to me… that if I wished to speak with him he would receive me with much pleasure.” But by then it was too late for diplomacy. Travis’ offer was refused, and the men of the Alamo could no longer pretend that Santa Anna harbored any notion of mercy.

When Jameson returned to the Alamo to report his grim news, he would have walked up Commerce to where a Dillard’s department store now stands and taken a left into Alamo Plaza. From there, it was only fifty yards or so to the GATEHOUSE OF THE ALAMO. Like so much of the Alamo, this important structure is no longer standing. But its location is marked by a grassy area in the middle of the plaza. The building was a long stone gallery with interior rooms and an arched gateway that served as the main entrance to the Alamo. At the time of the siege the gate was guarded by a half-moon artillery battery called a tambour, and there were exterior ditches as well that gave the defenders cover when they sallied forth from the walls. These defenses were put to the test on the third day of the siege, when Santa Anna ordered a probing attack from the south. This initial skirmish turned out to be a rousing victory for the Texians, who drove the attackers back with artillery and small arms fire. In a letter that day to Sam Houston, Travis wrote that his men “conducted themselves with such heroism that it would be injustice to discriminate. The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty.”

The southern end of the Alamo compound was a clear strong point, and when Santa Anna made his final assault ten days later he did his best to bypass it, throwing his forces at the far weaker north wall instead. It was probably in one of the rooms of this building that Jim Bowie died, bayoneted on his sickbed.

Beyond the vanished gatehouse stands the ALAMO CHURCH. One of the world’s most recognized structures, it looks quite different than it did in 1836. The famous curved gable—an architectural flourish known as a campanulate—was added fourteen years after the battle, when the U.S. Army renovated the church for use as a warehouse. Until then, the building had been a roofless, crumbling ruin. The lower facade, though, has not changed, and the effect of the whole building is still one of mysterious force.

Just to the right of the churchyard you’ll see a parallel track in the paving stones marking where a wooden PALISADE once bridged a gap between the east edge of the gatehouse and the corner of the church. One of the women who survived the battle, Susanna Dickinson, recalled seeing Crockett’s body lying “dead and mutilated” in this area, with “his peculiar cap lying by his side.”

The issue of Crockett’s death has been a hot topic of debate for decades, with documents of varying credibility—including, most famously, the “diary” of a Mexican lieutenant colonel named José Enrique de la Peña—indicating that Crockett surrendered and was executed. Certainly there seems to have been executions, but the evidence that Crockett was among this group strikes me as unconvincing, and I’m inclined to believe that he died fighting somewhere in this churchyard.

As you stand directly in front of the church and look down, you’ll notice a curious strip of bronze and a plaque explaining that, according to legend, this is where Travis drew his famous LINE IN THE SAND. The key word here is “legend.” This stirring event, in which Travis gave his men the choice to escape over the walls or to stay and die, has been depicted in countless movies and is the keystone of the Alamo myth of deliberate self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, it is almost surely the invention of a man named William P. Zuber, who claimed to have heard the story as a child from his parents, who had heard it from the one man of the garrison who supposedly took Travis up on his offer to escape. Zuber wrote it down in 1871 after what he called “a phenomenol refreshment of my memory” and admitted that he essentially authored Travis’ speech to his men.

Another hallmark of Travis’ grandiloquence is entirely true, and that is the magnificent letter he wrote on the second day of the siege, calling for reinforcements and declaring, “I shall never surrender or retreat.” Travis probably wrote it in one of the rooms of the WEST WALL. Hardly anything on this side of the Alamo has survived, though if you cross the street at Alamo Plaza, just at the point where a stairway leads down to the Hyatt Regency hotel, you’ll see traces of its adobe foundation under a glass viewing panel. The wall, with its interior rooms and houses, ran straight north, about even with the building that now houses a T-shirt shop, Greystone’s American History Store, and a Foot Locker.

If you continue north across Houston Street and walk into the lobby of the Gibbs Building, you’ll be standing at the approximate site of the compound’s northwest corner—one of its deadliest artillery positions. Across Alamo Street from the Gibbs Building is the POST OFFICE (615 E. Houston). Walk up the stairs to the door and turn around. In front of you is the Alamo Cenotaph, a massive memorial built in 1939 that has never been much beloved but, like so many artifacts that clutter up the Alamo grounds, is now far too venerable to remove. Remove it anyway, using your imagination, and you’ll get an idea of the size of the mission courtyard that the Texians had to defend. From this vantage point, you won’t even see the Alamo church, since it is hidden behind the remnants of the old convent building that formed the southern part of the east wall. It would have been even less prominent in 1836, when the convent was two stories high instead of one, and the church itself, with its broken, low-slung roofline, was a good six or eight feet lower.

Now walk into the post office. The building dates from the same era as the cenotaph, and the wraparound mural above the lobby depicts the story of Texas with static, bygone conviction. What concerns us here, however, is not art but history. The post office was built over the site of the Alamo’s north wall, and when you stand in the lobby, you are standing pretty much in the place where the Mexican army (notably the men of the Toluca battalion, who suffered grievous casualties from point-blank cannon fire) managed to fight their way over the walls. It was somewhere around here—perhaps over by the metal detectors, perhaps by the post office boxes—that Travis was shot through the head in the first minutes of the battle.

The killing ground in front of the north wall, where, according to one source, the Tolucas lost half their rifle company in a single volley from the Alamo’s artillery, is now such a crowded cityscape that it is impossible to conjure up what it must have been like in the chilly predawn darkness of March 6, with those Mexican fusiliers and cazadores marching toward the ominously silent walls of the Alamo as signal rockets burst overhead and the defenders, frantically rousing themselves from sleep, began to sight their guns.

The attack came from four directions, but the north wall and the northwest corner were the breakthrough points. Once the Mexicans gained access into the fort and Santa Anna committed his reserves behind them, they became an unstoppable force, whereupon many of the defenders retreated into the CONVENT, or Long Barrack. As you leave the post office and walk down the eastern edge of the plaza toward the church, you pass the main building of the Alamo mission. It is hard to know today exactly how much of the original convent is still standing, since it was blown apart during the battle, transformed into a store during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and then all but razed in 1912. Probably the facade is all that remains, and even it has been reconfigured several times.

The second floor of the convent, which was once an arched cloister for Franciscan friars and may have housed the Alamo hospital during the siege, is long gone, and the rebuilt first floor is now the Long Barrack museum. The museum—whose artifacts include Santa Anna’s mosquito-netted cot—is definitely worth a careful look, but take a moment to remember that this is where some of the most hellish fighting of the battle took place. When the defenders hastily abandoned their positions on the overrun north and west walls, they had no time to spike their cannons; as soon as they took refuge in this building, the Mexicans turned the Texians’ own artillery on them, turning the convent into an abattoir. “A horrible carnage took place,” reads the de la Peña manuscript. “The tumult was great, the disorder frightful; it seemed as if the furies had descended upon us.”

Now it’s time to leave the museum. Remove your hat and go inside the CHURCH. What can one say about this place, which seems like the vault of history itself? But like many other features of the Alamo, this hushed and dark sanctuary is nothing like it appeared in 1836. The church had no roof back then. It was open to the winter sky, and an artillery ramp of packed earth took up a good deal of the interior. If you look up and around, you can see plainly enough the seams where those original walls were later extended to support the roof. This is most evident at the rear wall, where the artillery battery stood, and whose roofline was vulnerably low to the ground. There was death here too: The church was probably the last position the Mexicans took as they mopped up the resistance in the compound. The Texians had three cannons in the battery here, but they were pointed outward and in the end were probably not effective in defending against the final assault.

As you move through the church, take a good look at the linked rooms on the left side. This was the sacristy, where the women and children hid during the terrible hour of the battle. Susanna Dickinson recalled, in a suspiciously flowery interview given almost forty years after the event, that her husband burst into this room and said, “Great God, Sue, the Mexicans are inside our walls! All is lost! If they spare you, save my child.” Then, “with a parting kiss, he drew his sword and plunged into the strife.” I find her succinct testimony to the Texas Adjutant General’s office to be more credible: She said she saw no part of the fight, but could distinctly hear it. And what she heard, particularly in this church as the Mexicans were bayoneting the last survivors, would have been horrible.

When you leave the church through the back door, you will find yourself facing the ALAMO GIFT SHOP. Of course, you must go in. There are a few not-bad exhibits here and a spirited diorama of the final assault by Thomas Feely that should not be missed. But the real appeal of the place is in its staggering testimony to the undying iconographic power of the Alamo. The gift shop has been refurbished lately (it’s more tasteful and less cluttered), but its fundamental mission—to provide an endless and ever-varying stream of Alamo cups, plates, mugs, key chains, clocks, Davy Crockett teddy bears, snow globes, night-lights, golf tees, wallets, T-shirts, and plastic bowie knives—is clearly undiminished. I can’t believe I spent $22 on a necktie depicting Travis drawing the line in the sand, but God help me I did.

There is one more stop. Like most of the other important locations involving the Alamo, it is hard to pinpoint. Take a few minutes, if you can, to walk back down Alamo Plaza, cross Commerce at the light in front of Dillard’s, and walk east thirty or forty yards. There, across the street from the Rivercenter parking garage, you’ll see a PLAQUE proclaiming that it was on this spot that the “bodies of the heroes slain at the Alamo were burned on a funeral pyre.”

I tend to think the actual location was a little farther east, perhaps where the Denny’s or the La Quinta Inn now stands at the edge of Interstate 37. In any case, this is the general vicinity. According to a Béxar citizen named Pablo Diaz, the corpses of the defenders were burned in two piles, one on each side of the Alameda, a promenade lined with cottonwoods that once occupied the approximate space now commanded by the mall.

Diaz recalled that the pyres were about ten feet high, made up of alternating layers of corpses and wood. Melted tallow was poured over the bodies to help them ignite. “The dense smoke from this fire went up into the clouds,” he wrote, “and I watched it while the fire burned for two days and nights.” The air during those two days was filled with an overpowering stench, and thousands of vultures circled over San Antonio de Béxar. “It filled me,” Diaz continued, “with the greatest horror.”

That horror is distant now, out of mind and out of reach, overwhelmed by myth and overgrown by the city that San Antonio de Béxar came to be. But remembering the Alamo means remembering that almost anyplace you set your foot in downtown San Antonio bears the trace of that battle, that when you buy a shirt in Dillard’s or order your lunch at Side Wok Café in Rivercenter Mall, you may be standing at the spot where a soldado from the Matamoros battalion was killed by a Kentucky sharpshooter, or where a fleeing defender was run down by a mounted lancer in a hopeless escape attempt as the Mexicans poured over the walls. It is all sacred ground, and its history is disturbingly immediate—if only you know where to look.

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