Nation State

Two new books from big-time publishers tell our mythic story yet again. Does anybody outside of Texas care?

March 2004By Comments

SPRINGTIME IN TEXAS IS DIFFERENT than it is in other places; here we have to rave about the goddam bluebonnets and remember the Alamo and a whole bunch of other stuff: Texas Independence Day, Goliad, San Jacinto. I can hear the speeches now. But this year we’ll have an unusual amount of help with our homework—a new Alamo movie rumored to be released next month and a host of new books about the birth of Texas.

But what I want to know is, does anybody care about our past? The landscape of the long ago is still meaningful to historians and those readers who frequent the Texana sections of bookstores, but what about the rest of Texas? And the country at large? For those who have recently arrived here, Travis is the name of a county, and Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston are the names of universities. In short, is there a national constituency for Texas history?

The two newest books are by well-established historians. H. W. Brands, who hails from Oregon, holds a chair in American history at Texas A&M University, and currently lives in Austin, is about as prolific a historian as there is on the scene today. He has written books about Benjamin Franklin, Dwight Eisenhower, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. foreign policy, the Cold War, the California gold rush, India, and more. You name it, Brands has branded it. William C. Davis, from Missouri, is the director of programs at Virginia Tech’s Center for Civil War Studies, and he is no slouch in the productivity department either. He has written or edited some forty-odd volumes on the Civil War and the history of the South.

So why did these two historians, with track records of publishing books on topics of great moment to the nation, turn to Texas? In a recent promotional appearance at BookPeople, in Austin, Davis said he had grown tired of writing about the Civil War. This is not his first foray into these parts, however. His well-regarded Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis won a Texas Institute of Letters prize in 1999. Brands, having lived here for 24 years, seems naturally to have gravitated toward Texas as a subject; last year he wrote an article for this magazine arguing that the defense of the Alamo was a military mistake.

The titles of their books are cut from the same license-plate logo: Brands’ is called Lone Star Nation: How a Ragged Army of Volunteers Won the Battle for Texas Independence—and Changed America (Doubleday), and Davis’ is Lone Star Rising: The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic (Free Press). I asked Brands why he chose his title. He said that while “Lone Star” is “an easily recognizable metaphor for everything Texan, the word ‘nation’ holds a double meaning: both the Republic of Texas and the United States itself.” As for Davis, he said that he picked “Lone Star Rising” before he learned that Robert Dallek had already used it for his 1991 LBJ biography. (By the way, in light of Robert A. Caro’s findings about Johnson’s johnson, Dallek’s title may now be deconstructed to reveal that “phallic” rhymes with “Dallek,” thus making the “rising” somehow more fraught with potency.) Perhaps the authors and their publishers want to echo the most widely read history of the state in modern times, T. R. Fehrenbach’s Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans (1968).

Curiously, both books begin with a brief history of the arrival of sediment in Texas. Sediment, which is a fancy word for dirt, is not a subject likely to hold a reader’s attention for long, and so each author quickly moves to topics of greater interest.

Both of them, but especially Davis, spend a lot of time on the minor uprisings, revolts, and attempts by adventurers and freebooters to seize Texas from Spain, then from Mexico, before the final cataclysmic events of 1835 and 1836. Most were small-time operations, but there was one rebellion rather stunning in its magnitude. On August 18, 1813, about twenty miles south of San Antonio, rebel forces numbering approximately 1,400 and composed of Americans, Tejanos, and various Indians clashed with a large Spanish royalist army led by General Joaquín de Arredondo. More than 1,000 of the rebels were killed, and Arredondo set a bloody precedent for dealing with insurrectionists in the distant province of Texas by ordering the summary execution of those captured. Does any of this sound familiar? Not to me. The Battle of Medina, the largest and bloodiest ever fought on Texas soil, is one we missed in my Texas history class. Among Arredondo’s subalterns, incidentally, was a nineteen-year-old lieutenant named Santa Anna.

While Davis expends many pages on the long foreground, Brands pursues another tack. He creates a stronger narrative line by following first one figure for a few pages, then another, to drive the story along. Some of them, like Noah Smithwick—who authored a rousing autobiography, The Evolution of a State, or Recollections of Old Texas Days (1900)—are well known, at least among Texas history buffs. But others, such as W. B. Dewees, are quite obscure. An early settler, one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Three Hundred,” Dewees later published a memoir, Letters From an Early Settler of Texas (1852), whose authenticity has been challenged by other historians (as Brands notes in his bibliography).

Another little-known figure that Brands uses to especially good effect is the melancholy general Manuel de Mier y Terán. Sent north by the Mexican government to observe the activities of the American settlers who had moved into Texas, Terán in 1828 saw much that was admirable and much that was disturbing. The Americans were thriving, and they followed their instincts for land and profit. Terán concluded that American avidity needed to be curbed or else the province would be lost. He suggested sending more troops to Texas and putting an end to further settlement. Back in Mexico, Terán watched with mistrust as Santa Anna seized power in 1832 and Texas grew more rebellious. To a friend he said, “We are lost. Texas is lost.” It was all too much for him, and so he literally fell on his own sword.

Brands, whose narrative skills are impressive, brings William B. Travis vividly to life by quoting juicily from Travis’s journal: “Chingaba una mujer que es cincuenta y seis en mi vida.” Translation: “I _____ a woman that is the fifty-sixth in my life.” As this is a family magazine, I will not translate “chingaba“; besides, the word is still probably in widespread use in school yards around the state.

After reading the two books back-to-back, I was still puzzled as to whether Texas’s early history will have resonance outside the state—or in it, for that matter. So I asked Brands why he thought the Texas story would appeal to the rest of the country. “The Alamo,” he said simply. “There’s something about the story of the Alamo, of what happens to people when they know they are going to die.”

He has a point. I came away from both books feeling as though all of the preliminary build-up had been a long prelude to the Alamo chapters. Most of the schemers and dreamers of a Texas empire-to-be wound up at the Alamo. It ennobled the trinity of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett, redeeming their lives from disorder, busted plans, and careers on the near side of abject failure. But neither Brands nor Davis brings much that is new to the Alamo story. Had Thomas Ricks Lindley’s Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions (Republic of Texas Press, 2003) been available when they were writing, the Alamo chapters might have been more interesting. Lindley argues, for example, that Crockett left the Alamo on March 3, traveled to Gonzales, and returned on March 4, just two days before the end, with 53 new reinforcements. This bit of heroic recruiting boosts the role of Crockett at the Alamo, increases the number of defenders to approximately 250, and casts further aspersions on those who did not come to the aid of Travis and his besieged men.

The most prominent Texan who was not at the Alamo was Sam Houston, and Brands and Davis both do a good job of trying to plumb this most inconsistent, wily, and inscrutable figure (almost any virtue that can be attributed to him can be counterbalanced by a vice of equal gravity). Many of Houston’s actions from just before the Battle of the Alamo to several days afterward simply cannot be explained. Even his decisive victory at San Jacinto is shrouded in uncertainty. The fateful decision to turn right at a forked road, toward the swampy grasslands of San Jacinto, instead of left toward Nacogdoches and further retreat—even that action, so crucial to subsequent events, cannot be explained. We still don’t know whether it was Houston’s decision or one forced upon him by his democratic army.

When I was growing up, Texas history was a lot easier to follow. Travis drew a line in the sediment. Crockett went down swinging. Bowie dispatched many Mexicans from his sickbed. Moses Rose chose not to stay, swung over the wall, then morphed, later on, into Glenn Ford in The Man From the Alamo. And nobody told us Sam Houston was a big drunk.

Now we are asked to think about all this. Both books dramatize two big-picture themes. The first is that the spirit of democracy formed a tide in the affairs of Texans that could not be stemmed, not by politicians, generals, massacres, or anything else. The other is that the Texas Revolution mirrors the American Revolution. The little cannon that fired at Mexican troops at Gonzales on October 2, 1835, is our Lexington, our Concord, the shot heard round Coahuila y Texas; the Texas Declaration of Independence is a derivative and less eloquent version of the Philadelphia document; and so on. In any case, the Texas Revolution was certainly shorter and more compact. Instead of stretching over eight long years like the American Revolution, its duration was one month less than that of a full-term pregnancy, and it produced only three events for students to memorize: the fall of the Alamo, on March 6, 1836; the execution of Colonel James W. Fannin’s troops at Goliad shortly thereafter; and finally, the decisive eighteen-minute battle of San Jacinto, on April 21.

Texas schoolchildren have to learn about Texas—it’s the law—but the rest of the nation does not. On occasions in the past, the outside world has tuned in to popular-culture images of Texas big time: Giant, Dallas, Urban Cowboy. Now everybody’s being asked to deal seriously with early Texas history written by serious scholars in serious footnoted books. Seems like a hard sell to me.

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