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It's Time To 'Forget The Alamo' And Retell Its Story

Alamo San Antonio
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The Alamo at sunrise

The Alamo is one of the core stories of the founding of Texas. And in the 185 years since it was fought, the myths surrounding the Alamo are better known than the actual history.

It’s often remembered as an act of courage — which included nearly 200 men who fought for the state’s independence.

But three Texas writers said in their new book, "Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth," the driving force was protecting slavery from Mexico’s abolitionist government.

On a recent episode of Think, Krys Boyd talked with co-author Bryan Burrough about the Alamo’s latest battle: history versus lore.

Interview Highlights

On the driving force of the Texas Revolution

We argue in the book, as other academic historians have argued before us, that if you look at the Texas Revolution, it's really about money. It's why the Texans came. They came to make money raising cotton. Slavery, to them, was not a moral issue. This is an economic issue. This is the reason they came — to enact a slave-based cotton culture, which they did to fabulous, fabulous success. And it was the Mexican government's persistent warnings and threats of, actually, taking away slavery, the root of their livelihood, that caused the gap between Mexico and Texans.

On why Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William B. Travis the most famous martyrs all happened to be white men when so many who fought and died on the Texas side were Tejanos

The white man, if you will, controlled the message. They controlled the government that was going on at the time — the interregnum there in Texas.

The reason we know the Alamo today — the reason the world knows the Alamo — is really these wonderful, beautiful letters that Travis wrote from the Alamo, begging for reinforcements that, by and large, would never come. And they're all about how he's the light of civilization fighting against these Mongol hordes who have oppressed us fighting for our freedom. And Travis's letters are just masterpieces of what we would call spin today — not backed up by any facts in the historical record. But they did make him a martyr and bring the Alamo along with him in history.

The Alamo Cenotaph is a carving of the men involved in the battle of the Alamo. William B. Travis is on the left, Davy Crockett is on the right.
Bill Perry
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Shutterstock.com
The Alamo Cenotaph, also known as The Spirit of Sacrifice, in San Antonio.

On the myth that Alamo defenders fought to their death

At some point in February of 1836, they began hearing fairly specific warnings that Santa Anna was on the way from the Rio Grande with 6,000 fighters. They had at most 200 defenders. One of the great mysteries has always been: what on earth did they think they were doing staying there since they didn't have a chance at defending this fairly indefensible, open air mission outside San Antonio? It's pretty clear that Travis didn't believe a lot of the warnings that were coming, in part because they were coming from Tejanos and Tejano scouts, whose loyalties he didn't entirely trust. And along comes the day that the Mexican cavalry trots into town and Travis and Bowie and their 180 or so men scramble into the Alamo where they are trapped because they essentially waited too long.

The great myth has always been of Travis drawing his sword and giving this wonderful speech to the man, drawing a line in the sand and saying, “Those who fight for freedom step across this line to me.” We know that this story is essentially made up from whole cloth in the 1880s, a good 50 years later. In fact, there's no reason to believe that these men, except for the bravery that every man fought to his death, there was no conscious choice they made to stay there and die. Nor did Travis want to — we now know from Mexican sources that in the last two nights, Travis offered to surrender. But Santa Anna, who badly wanted to make them an example, refused and then stormed the fort and killed them all.

The Crockett myth is funny because it started out back in 1835-1836. The story was in the American papers that he had surrendered and been executed by Santa Anna. In fact, that was often held up as evidence of barbarity.

You saw that story throughout the 1800s, as late as the 1950s, until the Disney Davy Crockett. A lot of Americans, especially American boys, began viewing Davy Crockett as this modern day symbol of all that's right with America. And suddenly you start to see, modern historians get a little worried about pursuing or suggesting that Davy surrendered. And so you get the first few books that suggest “Oh, no, he must have fought to the death.” And then famously, this new legend comes about, thanks to John Wayne and his movie. We now know from Mexican accounts that it is, I'd say about 98% sure, that Crockett, along with six other men, did surrender and was executed.

Listen to the full conversation with Bryan Burrough, on of the co-authors of
Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, on KERA's Think.

On the legacy of 'Remember the Alamo' for the state

After the battle, Sam Houston was going to have to fight the Mexicans. He did not have an army. At the time he had recruits, he gathered steadily more recruits. And over that next month, he needed to form them into a fighting force that had a chance against Santa Anna. And essentially, the only way to do it was to imbue them with a fighting spirit. You had to get their morale up, to give them a reason to fight. All of that is encompassed with the idea of "Remember the Alamo, fight for the Alamo, avenge our fallen comrades."

Got a tip? Email Mia Estrada at mestrada@kera.org. You can follow her on Twitter @miaaestrada.

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