In 2006, a film adaptation of the ancient Spartan Battle of Thermopylae wowed the American movie-going crowd with its pornographic-like violence. The film, 300, introduced to the masses the story of King Leonidas and his paltry band of soldiers who met the Persian King Xerxes and his force of 300,000 men on the battlefield. Of course, the film plays with history a bit, as Leonidas had ancillaries to his battalion of 300, raising his force to about 5,000 or so men. Nonetheless, the story is remembered for the immolation of Leonidas’ army–himself included in the melee. Xerxes showed no quarter, slaughtering all of the Spartans and would win the day. In fact, Xerxes would go on to conquer and hold much of Greece during his lifetime, only to abandon his campaign due to civil unrest in his capital. The Greeks were able to route the remnant Persian forces and win Greece for Grecians.
Santayana’s maxim (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’) is made true by the retelling of the massacres of small bands of brothers against insurmountable odds. Not every outnumbered commander wins the day. And when it comes to the Alamo in San Antonio, Thermopylae is a mere skirmish compared to the those who, as the Daughters of the Republic of Texas say, immolated themselves in the name of Texas freedom. Texas settlers sought to break free from Mexican rule over what is now Southern Texas. Mexico was granted independence from Spain, but Texas was left as part of the newly independent Mexico. In late February of 1836, a small battalion of volunteers, led by William Travis and supported by James Bowie and Davy Crockett, defended the fortifications known as “the Alamo” from the 2000-strong Mexican Army led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The Texas defenders, at 189 volunteers, women and children, faced a well-organized force under Santa Anna. Retreating to the old mission chapel on the grounds of the Alamo, the Texans refused surrender. Santa Anna laid siege to the makeshift fort, and declared that no quarter would be given–everyone who fought against him would die.
The events ended as dramatically as Thermopylae, with the utter destruction of Travis, Bowie, Crockett and 189 others. Santa Anna would hold dominion over San Antonio for a few years, until his exhausted supply chains and distance from home led to his own defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. Texas would briefly exist as its own, free nation, under constant harassment from Mexico. These skirmishes would continue until the Mexican-American War in 1846 that ended not only the Mexican claim over Texas, but the Republic of Texas itself–as it joined the US as a state.
Like any monument, the Alamo seems smaller in person than on postcards. What is known as the Alamo started off as a house of peace. The modest stone mission chapel was once part of a grand compound where the Spanish missionaries hoped to convert the local Indian tribes to Catholicism. By 1790, the mission closed, and the stone chapel became first a hospital, then a military garrison for the settlement of San Antonio. The incursion of the Spanish padres into what would become Texas lay the foundation for this future battle, as the Spanish, through their mission work, established a colonial foothold in a region populated by migrating colonists from the British colonies and later, settlers from the United States of America.
Walking the grounds of the Alamo, I found myself in a constant cognitive dissonance. Here was a battlefield dressed in the vocabulary of the Spanish Catholic mission. The once prairie fields were full of manicured sod and parking lot cement. Signage and markers help to solemnize this place, asking the visitor for silence and respect. At the doorstep there is a brass bar, where legend says William Travis drew his “line in the sand” asking volunteers to give their lives for Texas independence. The prose of these historical markers uses turns of phrase such as “martyrdom” and “immolation” to describe the acts that happened on these “hallowed” grounds. Walking down the nave of the old chapel, with fieldstone floors polished and worn by millions of curious footsteps, I arrived at the back of the nave, in the old “choir” section of the chapel. It was here that the last of the Alamo defenders were slaughtered. One could easily be convinced that the dim, dank chill in the air is of death, indelibly stained on this place. It is of course more probable that the chill is from the piped in air conditioning. What caused this dissonance was not the tranquility that this shrine provided on a busy San Antonio day, but how something so sacred could be so profitable.
Looking at old photos of the compound, the Alamo was victim of a different Texas innovation–unbridled free marketeering. Within 30 years of the battle, and 20 years of the victory of the US over Mexico in the Mexican American War, the Alamo grounds became a commercial center. The old buildings were not set aside as a memorial, but were re purposed as a storehouse and retail establishment. While the chapel was left alone to ruin, the barracks and grounds were sold off to develop the new San Antonio. Hotels now stood sentinel where Davy Crockett and James Bowie once did. After 50 years of neglect and abuse, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas began to administer the grounds as a “shrine” to Texas independence. And even after that development, billboards, towering hotels and souvenir shops sit proximate to where Santa Anna’s army once camped. It is hard to take the Daughters seriously, not when so much of the Alamo story can be had so cheaply.
While much of the site has been stripped of its old, commercial past, retail seems to be as indelible of a stain as death on this place. Upon exiting the chapel, into a modest side courtyard, the visitor passes through the gift shop before earning parole. The tourist can stock up on all kinds of memorabilia, from a coon-skin cap to a commemorative Bowie Knife to thimbles and pressed pennies. While these sort of souvenirs do keep museums afloat, there is something particularly cheap about a place of such sacrifice offering wares so close to where so many died so tragically. One can’t help wonder a hundred years hence if say, the World Trade Center memorial might look the same way, with ample gift shops alongside benedictions and bronze markers.
I breeze through the gift corner, wanting to re-capture my sense of poignancy about this place, a place that for a brief moment held the last gasp of people seeking to live a free life as they understood it. And like those much older Spartans sacrificed on the war altar, this overall battle in the annals of history is muted, meaningless even. There is no Republic of Texas, just like there is no Sparta. The vanity of nations can be fleeting, especially upon those who cling to that ideal so very closely against odds. We like to think that those sacrifices are not in vain. We like to ascribe timeless meaning to days like the Battle of the Alamo. But perhaps those days belong to only to those who lived them, and their time, and their nation as they knew it in that moment. All we have are lessons not to repeat, and the detritus of past events to remind us of those lessons.
Battle of the Alamo: Photo credit: Foter / Public domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FalloftheAlamo.jpg
Hugo Schmeltzer Photo: Public Domain/CC/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hugo%26Schmeltzer.jpg