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New look at the Alamo story
on 8 December 2011
The siege of the Alamo, like the sinking of the Titanic, is one of those incidents which exert a fascination out of all proportion to their actual historical importance. For many, interest was first aroused by the depiction of the battle in the closing scenes of the 1950s Disney movie about Davy Crockett. This was followed in 1960 by the spectacular John Wayne version. The 2004 movie, starring Billy Bob Thornton as Crockett, did attempt to achieve more historical accuracy than the previous ones, but basically the story, in numerous books as well as the movies, remains the same: a small group of brave Americans, including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, fight for the freedom of Texas against the tyrant Santa Anna, by holding out against a large Mexican army for several days, before finally being overwhelmed and slaughtered, fighting to the last man, and taking hundreds of Mexicans with them. By their sacrifice, they buy time for Sam Houston to raise a Texan army and defeat Santa Anna.
Having had a lifelong interest in the Alamo, and having actually been there and stood in front of that iconic church front, I bought this book as soon as the UK paperback was available.
This book sets about "myth busting" in earnest. It uses a lot of contemporary evidence provided by Mexicans, which has apparently been ignored by previous American historians. The main points it makes are
1) The "fight for freedom" was fundamentally a fight to preserve the institution of slavery, which had been abolished in Mexico. Most the instigators of the Texas rebellion were big slave owners.
2) The Alamo defenders allowed themselves to get trapped because of their military inexperience, and because they seriously underestimated the Mexicans, who they regarded as inferiors. Most Mexican civilians resented the Americans, and failed to warn them of the approaching army.
3) The pre-dawn Mexican attack took them by surprise; most of the defenders were asleep, and they actually put up little resistance. Many attempted to escape, and were caught fleeing outside the Alamo and cut down by Mexican cavalry. There were very few Mexican casualties.
Predictably, these conclusions have been met by a certain amount of hostility amongst modern Texans who revere the Alamo defenders as founding martyrs. However, Tucker's sources seem to be fairly reliable, and to me, his conclusions aren't all that controversial. He's not implying that the defenders were cowards, or that Santa Anna was really a nice guy.
I do have a few issues with Tucker's writing style. He seems uncertain about whether he's writing up academic research, in which case there are too many unattributed quotations, or popular history, in which case he could have avoided a lot of repetition and halved the length of the book. He also assumes that the reader is already familiar with the story and the main participants.
In conclusion, if you are an Alamo buff like me, this is essential reading. If the story is unfamiliar to you, better to start elsewhere, such as "A Time to Stand" by Walter Lord, who, coincidentally, also wrote a very good book about the Titanic.