Ethics Dunce: Me. I Forgot The Alamo

It is now April, and though I vowed at the end of February to finally post a thorough essay on the significance of the Alamo to U.S. culture, ethics, traditions and ideals at some point during the dates corresponding to the fort’s siege and fall on March 6, 1836.

I never did.

I thought I had posted an earlier essay about the Alamo. No, I haven’t. This is as inexplicable as it is inexcusable. The Alamo is by far my favorite historical landmark, and one of the events in American history that most inspires and fascinates me, beginning from when I looked on in horror as Fess Parker, as Davy Crockett, desperately clubbed Mexican soldiers as the last Alamo defender standing, and hundreds more charged toward him, as I heard on the soundtrack,

His land is biggest an’ his land is best, from grassy plains to the mountain crest

He’s ahead of us all meetin’ the test, followin’ his legend into the West

Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier!

I learned all about Davy, of course, the real Davy, America’s first pop culture celebrity who created a legend about himself and by fate, irony or justice, inadvertently placed himself in a situation where he had to live up to his own hype—and by all accounts,did. Then there was Jim Bowie. I had seen several dramatized versions of his famous last stand, fighting off soldiers from his cot, finally dispatching one last attacker with his Bowie knife. It is one of the great examples of a scene so good it should have been true, though it wasn’t: Bowie was dead or unconscious by the time the Mexican burst into his sick room. Never mind: that’s how an American hero goes down, fighting. “Print the legend.” Later I learned how Bowie really was one tough, brave SOB, the perfect man for the Alamo, if he hadn’t been dying of cholera.

My impression of William Barrett Travis was biased by Lawrence Harvey’s portrayal of him as a martinet (with a British accent that supplanted his Southern one after the first scene) in the John Wayne film “The Alamo”, my favorite movie as a kid. The real Travis was a pefect example of someone who had failed in everything, including as a father and a husband, but redeemed himself magnificently at the end. His final letter to the world is one of the great proclamations of defiance, dedication and courage in all of history.

I will never forget my first visit to the Alamo, and seeing Texans weeping, openly, proudly, as they read the plaque with Travis’s words engraved on it:

Commandancy of the Alamo
Bejar, Feby. 24, 1836

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World

Fellow citizens & compatriots

I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism and everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch. The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country VICTORY OR DEATH.

William Barret Travis.

The story of the Alamo isn’t taught in schools outside of Texas. It wasn’t taught in my school, either: like most American history, I learned about the event though a thick mixture of pop culture, reading (Walter Lord’s “A Time To Stand” was a birthday present in 1961) and ongoing research. I recently completed “Texas Rising,” which was also just broadcast on cable as a mini-series starring the late Bill Paxton as Sam Houston. Historian Stephen Moore is a plodding writer, but he nicely puts to rest the currently popular politically correct slander that the defenders of the Alamo and the Texas rebels were fighting to keep their slaves, and trying to steal Mexico’s land. The Texians were opposing a dictator who had changed the terms under which they had come to the territory, and anyone familiar with the American character could have predicted what would happen when a despot demanded that they submit to unelected authority. The Alamo was a fight for liberty and democracy, and its martyrs exemplified sacrifice for principle and country.

I let them down. The story of the Alamo should be told and retold, with its ethics lessons made clear and bright. Next year, on March 6. 2018, Ethics Alarms will honor Davy, Bowie, Travis, Bonham, Almaron Dickinson and the rest of the 220 or so heroes who died that day, and do it the right way, not as an afterthought.

Don’t let me forget.


68 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Me. I Forgot The Alamo

  1. Thank you, Jack. That original letter has recently (in the last couple of years) come into the hands of the Daughters Of The Texas Revolution, into whose hands the care of the Alamo has been given by the State and it is on display, I’m told, in the chapel.

    I understand that I am a native Texan and as such have little or no chance of being objective about the Alamo. However, I have never been able to understand the slighting of the importance of the Alamo outside of Texas. If nothing else, the Alamo is a reflection of traditional American character; people ready to fight and put their lives on the line for those things important to them. Given that Santa Anna had abrogated the Mexican Constitution of 1824 and declared himself ‘President for life’, I would think the reasons for the Revolution would be obvious to even the densest. Add to that, he was a world class pedophile. Creative, but nonetheless, a pedophile.

    . I also have some trouble with people who come up with some of the goofiest stories “proving” the heroes of the Alamo were not, in fact, heroes but craven cowards. I refer, of course, to the claim that Crockett was found under a pile of women’s clothing. Billy Bob Thornton had a line of which I heartily approve in his depiction of Crockett. He is talking to Bowie, and says ‘People have expectations, Jim’. I suspect he was aware enough of his place in history to understand that he could do no other than what he did.

    It is entirely possible that we will never know the true facts about the last hours of the Alamo. What we do know is that the Alamo (and the massacre at Goliad) so motivated the men of Sam Houston’s Army that they defeated, in a very short time, a Mexican Army that outnumbered them slightly and produced, eventually, the only state ever to be a Republic recognized by a foreign government. The French Legation still maintains a presence in San Antonio.

    • To the credit of Billy Bob, he did the best job making the Crockett-surrendered myth look honorable. (One biographer also had a good argument, saying that Davy would have been the kind of guy who, realizing that all was lost, would have gathered a few survivors and said, “Stick with me. Maybe I can get us out of this.”)

      The story is almost certainly Mexican army propaganda. As William C. Davis wrote in “Three Roads to the Alamo”, nobody who knew Crockett saw him fall, so the only fair assumption is that we just don’t know what became of him. Davis thinks he might have been in one of the “breakout” groups. (My Dad liked John Wayne’s solution, having Davy blow himself up with the powder—except that we know that was a plan that wasn’t pulled off.) Did another defender say he was Davy to see if that worked? Sure, it’s possible, and the Mexicans would have no way of proving otherwise.

      Bill Bob is a terrific actor, but was miscast. He’s squirrelly, and Davy was not. For the time, he was a big (for the period), strong, impressive guy—the Duke’s was not a bad version at all. Bowie, we know, was really big for the time, maybe 6 feet, nearly 200 pounds. (And Houston was gigantic.)

      San Jacinto is the best example I know of how motivated volunteers will beat conscripted regulars without a stake in the quarrel every time.

      • “San Jacinto is the best example I know of how motivated volunteers will beat conscripted regulars without a stake in the quarrel every time.”

        I wouldn’t say conscripted… Santa Anna had some of his best (and volunteer) regular soldiers with him at San Jacinto. But yes, Houston’s men were the very definition of motivated: they were outnumbered and had run out of land to continue withdrawing on…they had two options: win or die.

  2. I had an aunt that lived in Helotes, Texas and we would visit her every year. An annual trip to River walk was demanded by my wife and the stop at the Alamo. Most tourist are somewhat surprised at how small the Alamo is, but the area in 1836 was quite large. I would also suggest for those touring the Alamo and River Walk to go into the lounge at the Menger Hotel. Also get the Mango ice cream at the Menger.

    The real tour for me is the Battle Ship Texas and San Jacinto site (link below) outside Houston (link below). The memorial to the battle that (surprise!) is taller than the Washington Monument.

  3. When I was in San Antonio, I visited the Alamo. Like most of my generation, my introduction to the Alamo was about its pointed lack of a basement, but I had read enough about its history in the intervening years to have an appreciation for the story.

    While there, I was again reminded that America has historical amnesia. So many people were under the impression that we had won the battle at the Alamo, and were rather gobsmacked that we hadn’t. Teaching more of American history, even the parts that we didn’t come out as victors, is important.

    • You just depressed me for the day. People really thought the Alamo was a victory? I have never heard of such a thing. Do they think Picket’s Charge was on a credit card? That 9-11 is a convenience store?

      • Just looking at the diorama should have been enough to realize that this was a battle we didn’t win. The numbers of Mexican soldiers depicted was overwhelming. I’m not sure if people thought the defenders were saved by the Riders of Rohan or what. But since Americans tend not to talk about our defeats, yet they somehow knew about the Battle of the Alamo, I think they rationalized that we must have won it then.

        I’m quite certain only a very miniscule number have ever heard of Picket’s Charge. 9/11 is a meme now (Bush did 9/11). Feel free to weep.

    • Really?

      That sounds memetic. I’ve never heard anyone think the Alamo was a victory. That strikes me as a myth that’s been spread enough to advance the stereotype that Americans are ignorant rubes. In all my discussions I’ve never heard anyone make that error.

  4. My wife is a very proud descendent of two families who had a member die as a defender in the Battle of the Alamo.
    Pvt Daniel W. Cloud, born 1812 in Kentucky, maternal side
    Pvt James Kenney, born 1814 in Virginia, paternal side
    I have, as yet unproven, ancestral family member Thomas P. Hutchinson who also died as a defender.
    We remember. We care.

  5. Don’t forget Juan Seguin and the other tejanos who died defending the Alamo. The fight was about resisting Santa Anna and the tyranny he was trying to impose on Texas. Too bad Houston didn’t just let his men hang Santa Anna after the Battle of San Jacinto.

      • I stand corrected. Seguin did not fight in the final battle although he later commanded tejano troops at the Battle of San Jacinto.

        • And if Santa Anna had been hung, who would have granted Texas it’s independence? Alive, he was “President For Life”…dead, he was just the ex-president’s corpse.

          • I’m sure Mexico would have found some better to replace the butcher Santa Anna. Houston should have given him “no quarter”.

            • You are aware that this battle stopped being a battle fairly quickly…first became a route then a massacre?

                • It’s a great example of tactical patience. Most casual readers don’t really know it, but Houston’s army and Santa Anna’s column were squared off apart from each other for a day or so *before* the battle. They each knew the other was there. Houston didn’t want to attack until he was comfortable with the conditions and Santa Anna didn’t want to attack until his best troops under General Cos arrived. Well, Cos arrived that morning after a forced march, exhausted, those men rested, while the rest of the army, confident Houston would not attack at all now, also rested.

                  The most annoying bit, Houston had some 1100-1200 men (a quarter of which were tasked to guard the camp, the baggage, the sick, etc…only about 900 actually took part in the battle). After the victory at San Jacinto, Houston’s Army swelled in a matter of two or three days to some 3000+ men.

                  For his Army to grow that big *that quickly* implies a whole ton of armed Texans were hiding out in ear shot or visual range of the battle to see how it turned out…

                  Woulda been nice to have them in the Army before then of course…

          • No telling what Mexico would have done. It was just barely done wrapping up it’s own civil war between Federalists and Centralists (Santa Anna being a leading centralist). Odds are, the civil war would have struck right back up and Texas would have just slipped away anyway.

            Houston played his cards right, I think. Other than the 1300+ soldiers removed from the field by the bold attack at San Jacinto, there were still some 4-6,000 other Mexican soldiers still in the field within a day or two march from Houston’s position.

            One thing, to remember regarding context of all of this: the Texas Revolution cannot be isolated to point of view of this being an Anglo land grab. It must also be seen in the greater arc of the break up of the Spanish American empire…from about 1810-1830, Mexico breaking away around 1820 and then going through it’s own immediate and long civil war.

  6. My school in Orange County, California, did teach real US history and included the Alamo (that was in the 1950s). I’m sure they have adopted Common Core and now only teach what is PC. I was disappointed in later years to learn some of the Alamo history taught was more legend than fact. Thanks for the great article.

  7. Many great visits to the Alamo when I was stationed in San Antonio. Hallowed ground. Grew up with Davy and had my coonskin cap. Just finished a biography of him by Michael Wallis. He did things in his life that would strain belief if he were a fictional character. They were all giants. I think General “Nuts” McAuliffe’s reply to the German offer of surrender had a lot of Travis in it.

  8. As I said in a previous response, we need more Texicans now – who will fight for freedom and stand up for their rights against all odds. Now of course it will be against the liberal attack on freedom of the press, first of all, and the freedom to think as an individual (every school and college in the country, apparently). It’s more than kudos to those who can think: it is absolute admiration — today especially — for those who have the courage to actually express their thoughts. This has become a very dangerous business.

  9. If David Bowie was already out when the Alamo was overrun, then isn’t it an unnecessary slight against the Mexican army to imply they killed a sick man in his bed? Unless they were already known to do that sort of thing…Leaving aside historical reality, what would be the ethical thing for a military force to do with an opponent that’s an armed invalid?

      • Sandbar Fight

        If the soldiers even had a notion of Bowie’s reputation and also a notion that any guy with a ridiculously gigantic knife might be Jim Bowie, I could understand the soldier’s willingness to ensure any possible-Bowie be given more than their fair share of bullet and bayonet holes.

        However, several instances of post-mortem mutilation are also recorded…that I obviously don’t approve of.

        • I doubt they knew it was Bowie, don’t you? Even so, there were probably individuals going down fighting in many of the rooms. Soot first and ask questions later seems like a reasonable reaction.

          If Bowie had been in full health and well-armed, I wouldn’t have bet against him. He’s one Western legend who earned his reputation.

          • No doubt. I’m just sayin if I was a sergeant that wanted to maximize his own guy’s chances of survival and I at least knew the reputation of American frontier fighters I’d at least tell my men “and if any of them seem to not mind being stabbed, go ahead and stab them a dozen times, cuz these guys actually like fighting…oh and as y’all know Jim Bowie is in there and he pretty much eats bayonets for breakfast and has chunks of guys like you in his stool, so don’t take chances.”

    • “Leaving aside historical reality, what would be the ethical thing for a military force to do with an opponent that’s an armed invalid?”

      Is the opponent trying to kill the military force?

      If yes, being an invalid isn’t a defense against being stopped by whatever means are available.

        • I’m confused though, is that analogous to an invalid trying to kill you?

          The Iraqis in those examples didn’t want to fight did they? It’s just wasteful excessive end-zone celebration to make them beg to surrender if they already are surrendering.

          • It’s an ethics dilemma. WWII had episodes in both Germany and Japan where soldiers showed white flags and attacked once Allied soldiers let down their guard. After one such incident, one of my Dad’s commanding officers issued orders that white flags should be followed by fire until all enemy soldiers had their hands up or were on the ground.

    • Jim Bowie still won fights even though he should have been dead…if my men were about to attack an outpost filled with guy’s of that reputation, I’d probably tell them that sick people who showed resistance were fair game.

  10. Thanks for the challenge, Jack. You made me go look up a list of books I had forgotten decades ago.

    I did know about the Alamo in fact. I was nine or ten when I was introduced to the events of that fateful day as well as the background of it, via an amazing history series for children, the Landmark Books, each one by a different — excellent — author. I found it on a list of all 122 at a rare book website:

    Remember the Alamo! by Robert Penn Warren

    You can read the first pages, giving you an idea of the level of prose (for children!), including original maps and old photographs, on Amazon (where else), which is pushing their Kindle edition as well as $18 paperbacks of reproductions.

    The Alamo history was followed alphabetically by “The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler” by William L. Shirer, which made me look more carefully through the list. I immediately wanted to read them all again (and some for the first time, printed long after I was gone from home and library).

    • Or this:

      Too bad the guys at the Alamo didn’t have this technological advantage. This last battle was a study in supreme courage…on both sides.

      • “Too bad the guys at the Alamo didn’t have this technological advantage. “

        A technological advantage that didn’t seem to pay off for the rest of the British central column a day before at Isandlwana…

        • Officious quartermasters, demanding a signed chit before issuing ammunition. Even as Zulu warriors climbed aboard the ammo wagons.

          • Meh. I think only one unit on the British line ran *low* on ammo. Every soldier’s basic load was 70 rounds… at 1000 men on the firing line, that’s 70,000 rounds before running empty.

            The Zulu suffered only ~3,000 KIA and WIA…

            Battlefield archaeology indicate that the infantry companies, caught completely by surprise, deployed on the initiative of their own company commanders while the camp commander began his coordinations. Those company commanders, young and aggressive deployed too far forward and were each too individually dispersed to provide effective supporting fires.

            The Zulu rapidly overwhelmed the line well before ammo was a concern.

            I think because one unit ran low or out, the rest of line chose to blame quartermasters to cover for their own mistakes. Not that they needed to be blamed for being aggressive in the face of a sudden onslaught.

            The real fault of the defeat at isandlwana was not quartermasters or infantry, it was a failure of Chelmsford to maintain aggressive reconnaissance patrols. Commanders ordinarily do that when overconfident.

            • I miffed some of the details typing that from memory. But the General cause of failure at Isandlwana wasn’t ammo availability. But inability to deploy in the best possible formation due to lack of Intel.

                • Currently reading, “How Can Man Die Better” by Col Mike Snook. An exhaustive review of the battle via available accounts and on the ground evidence. Piecing together the known reports in sequence and put into perspective on the ground reveals a much different battle than what alot of the mid to late 20th century revisionists would lead us to believe.

                  Mid-way through the battle, when pressure was getting heavy, but no serious emergency was evident, yes, one Quartermaster denied distributing ammunition from one particular wagon. But on investigation, that particular wagon was specifically tasked by the overall army commander to depart camp and resupply his own detached element several miles away from the camp. The quartermaster was merely ensuring that wagon remained ready to go.

                  All other evidence demonstrates that ammunition was being freely distributed from the other supply wagons.

                  The real burden of blame for Isandlwana would fall 1st on the overall army commander (Chelmsford) for breaking the central column into elements too small to defend themselves against a sizable Zulu force, and 2nd on a Custer-esque Colonel Durnford who, seeking a little glory sewed confusion in the camp by arriving the morning of the battle, and by merely outranking the current camp commander had nominal control of the area, but then immediately departed on his own movement to contact. The end result was a strung out mess of British soldiers in a confused command and control structure that ultimately formed themselves and fought well but were simply too few in number to handle some 20-25 thousand Zulu warriors.

  11. Since no one mentioned it…

    The Alamo just recently got accepted as a World Heritage site. The city and state have taken over the property from the Daughters of the Texas Revolution, and a full scale archaeological dig is in progress (the first serious on ever!) They are clearing much of Alamo Plaza away to rebuild portions of the old fort and restore a measure of the vista of the 1830s.

    Here is the official link for the effort:

    As a child we visited the Alamo EVERY YEAR, and it was the most looked forward to field trip in school!

    • Thanks, Slick. I didn’t realize that the reclamation was so large. Be nice to see ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not go away. Maybe some of the various Alamo exhibits and shows can be moved into the new compound. Right now, they’re scattered all over downtown.

      • Not sure it’s as official as we think…

        I wouldn’t mind there being a major restoration work there, but I’ve seen nor read any evidence that something major is in effect.

        I’ve seen some minor mentions of smaller restoration work for the Phil Collins collection.

    • Not sure how much progress has been made…

      That website is copyrighted back in 2010.

      I sure know there aren’t any major archaeological works currently ongoing (just there 2 days ago).

      How “official” is that effort?

      • The Express-News reports that the Master Plan should be completed in July. The Texas Land Office and the Alamo Endowment Board are involved in it, but I don’t know of any other official agency. Still, I’ve got my fingers crossed. There was a dig a short time ago near the steps going down to the Hyatt-Regency, on part of the west wall. Guess that’s all done now.

        • July???

          That’s an aggressive schedule for something that doesn’t even look like it’s started.

          I have a hunch what the July vision is must be an extremely toned down plan compared to what’s on that linked website.

          • Do keep in mind that this is only the plan, not the actual project. And, funding still has to be arranged, so it isn’t likely to be completed in my life-time. Oh, and that PDP outfit was selected to develop the plan in March of 2016.

          • Still digging on this. Apparently, in October last (2016) the General Land Office purchased 3 buildings across from the Alamo; The Woolworth (518 E. Houston St.), Palace (319 Alamo Plaza) and Crockett (321 Alamo Plaza) buildings. So, it looks like SOMETHING is going to happen

            • I’m eager to see the master plan unveiled in a week or so. I’m not exactly excited by what I see so far.

              I like the goal of reclaiming the original space and rebuilding some of the buildings to what they originally looked like.

              I’m not so fond of closing up the whole area except for an entry via the Southern Gate…

  12. Somehow this post is the top of the list for a search of Hal Moore.

    I didn’t realize he’d died this year in February.

    This is an interesting thing to consider about Vietnam vets.

    When I was a boy in the 80s, the WW2 generation was in its retirement years and hitting its golden age and I know we saw them as kinda of icons.

    Now, it’s the Vietnam generation (who served) hitting that age (been hitting it for a decade now), and what memory is there of them… what memory of them?


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