Written by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford
Reviewed by Kelly Haynes
Three Texas writers got together and studied up on the history of the history of the Battle of the Alamo – and it is fully apparent that they did not take their ideas from a single Texas history textbook. This is not a book of history – it’s a historiography (Yes, I had to look it up, and yes, I had to look it up again to figure out how to spell it). These writers – Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford – take a look at the way the Alamo story has been told over time, and it’s just as fascinating and entertaining as the Battle of the Alamo itself. Given how serious Texans are about the Alamo, it’s kind of dangerous, too.
Seventh-Grade Texas History
Perhaps my favorite part of Forget the Alamo is the discussion of how every Texas 4th and 7th grader goes through Texas history. Mexican-American and Tejano children learn about the cartoonish super-villain Santa Anna and how he came to steal the freedom of the Texian rebels. White kids look sideways at the Hispanic kids (no matter if they’re Colombian, or Honduran, or Mexican) and puff out their chests at how Jim Bowie, Davy freaking Crockett, and William B Travis all stood tall and fought for freedom and Whataburger until the evil Santa Anna sauntered up from Mexico to “come and take it” – killing all three of those heroes and the rest of the people defending the Alamo that fateful day. The following are some quotes from Texans that incite feelings of befuddlement – it is unbelievable that history is taught this way and yet, it is absolutely true – or at least it was in the 80s and 90s, when I was in Texas schools.
Every kid in Texas grows up learning the legend of the Alamo. Kids in central Texas even get to go on field trips! I grew up in the Houston area where we went to Washington-on-the-Brazos every year. One experience every single Texan has is that first, underwhelming visit to the Alamo. You walk through a dim room with some photos tacked to the wall and a donation box for the Daughters of the Texas Revolution.
“The way I explain it, is Mexican-Americans are brought up, even in the first grade, singing the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance and all that, and it’s not until the seventh-grade that they single us out as Mexicans. And from that point on, you realize you’re not an American. You’re a Mexican, and always will be. The Alamo story takes good, solid, little American kids and it converts them into Mexicans.”Andrés Tijerina
“Everyone has the seventh-grade story where, you know, they make the field trip and then all the white kids start treating them differently. Davy Crockett’s death, it’s sort of like a Chicano version of the Jewish Christ killers. If you’re looking at the Alamo as a kind of state religion, this is the original sin. We killed Davy Crockett.”Ruben Cordova
I led the Mexican Army to victory at The Alamo and all I get remembered for is the invention of chewing gum.”Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, probably. My Spanish isn’t all that great.
If you find Texas history fascinating, you’ll love this book. It might be your favorite. I liked it so much that I checked it out from the library in both audiobook and hard copy form and still bought a copy. As a history book, it is well-sourced and provides ample context for its claims. Unlike most Alamo history books, the accounts of Mexican soldiers that fought at the Alamo are read and considered primary sources, even if the information they contain isn’t favorable to the Texians. For an interesting perspective, check out El Mesquite: A Story of the Early Spanish Settlements Between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, written by Elena Zamora O’Shea in 1935.
José de la Peña’s La Rebellión de Texas
José de la Peña was one of Santa Anna’s officers. de la Peña was no fan of his General, and he makes detailed accounts of Santa Anna’s humiliations wherever he can. The most interesting thing in his papers is the mention of seven Texians who survived the Battle and had surrendered to General Castrillón. Texas legend doesn’t include this part. I paraphrase de la Peña’s detailed account here:
Seven men who had surrendered to General Manuel Fernandez Castrillón. Castrillón was an honorable General and marched them to Santa Anna, because prisoners of war were to be kept alive as promised. One of the seven men who had surrendered was none other than David Crockett. Santa Anna balked at Castrillón’s request to spare the captives. Later, to the horror of all who witnessed, had the seven men tortured and killed. Alamo legend, along with John Wayne’s famous Alamo movie, has Davey Crockett fighting to the death, refusing to surrender. Don’t even get me started on the Disney version.
William Barrett Travis’ Soft-Core Diary
Speaking of primary sources, William Barrett Travis kept a bilingual diary that, despite being of immense interest, is extremely hard to find. The actual diary is at the Texas state archives but is restricted. I couldn’t find any copies online, just notes and photographs of old paper copies. The allegations are that he made pretty detailed accounts of the number of women that he had sex with and the different kinds of sex they had. I think I’ve finally found the only thing that isn’t on the internet, so I guess I’m going to Austin soon to the archives to get a look at the Travis papers and the unrestricted part of his diary. If you find a copy in an old bookstore or a resale shop somewhere, I’d love to have a look at it. I may have to make a Freedom of Information Act request if that sort of thing applies to sex diaries. In fact, the search for the diary of Travis makes me feel like I’m in the hunt for Antonio Diogenes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Forget the Alamo and While You’re at it, Let’s Forget the Reason Behind the Battle
Of course, the myth of the Alamo is that the Texians were fighting for freedom. They were fighting for the opposite of freedom: the right to own slaves. Or as they liked to call it, the freedom to own slaves. The future of colonies in Texas depended on rich landowners moving from other southern states to grow cotton. They couldn’t make money on cotton without stolen labor. That “Come and Take it” sign? “It” = Slavery.
Gregg Cantrell, a Texas Christian University Professor, details the “tireless” effort Austin made to defend slavery. The plantation economic model in the 1820s-1830s could not be profitable if the landowners had to pay for labor, so naturally they wouldn’t move to Texas without a guarantee that they could keep owning people. When asked, Austin would answer, “‘Texas must be a slave country,’ and he put his money where his mouth was. He worked repeatedly and tirelessly to counteract the various efforts by the Mexican government to weaken and or abolish slavery.”
As a result of the revolution, The Republic of Texas became the first nation in history to write that slavery could not be abolished without consent of their “owners.”
SEC. 1. The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, nor without paying their owners, previous to such emancipation, a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated. They shall have no power to prevent emigrants to this State from bringing with them such persons as are deemed slaves by the laws of any of the United States, so long as any person of the same age or description shall be continued in slavery by the laws of this State: Provided, That such slave be the bona fide property of such emigrants.The Constitution of Texas, 1845, Section VIII (Partial).
If this idea bothers you, read the book – in its entirety – before you double down. Over and over, Mexico tried to abolish slavery. They had been under Spanish control for so long that this was an emotional issue for the people. Again and again, the Texians threatened to leave if they abolished slavery and found allies within the Mexican Government who helped write loopholes into the law.
With the rise of Santa Anna – who began centralizing power, raising Texian fears that he was about to rescind the slavery loopholes, the Texians decided to secede from Mexico. History has assigned more noble motives to the rebellious Texians than they deserve. If you haven’t read up on Texas history since high school – you ought to give this book a read. It doesn’t push a political agenda. What it does is shine the spotlight on everyone who was at the Alamo – the Mexican army, the Tejanos, the Texians, and the only person who was spared at the Alamo, William Barret Travis’ slave, Joe. Read this book and make up your mind. I believe the case made by the authors is compelling. I welcome debate from those who disagree.
The book flirts a bit with the old conspiracy theory that Sam Houston was fomenting rebellion in order to eventually become part of the United States. Houston had been close with the President of the United States at the time; Andrew Jackson. Houston once said that his razor might just shave the face of the President of a Republic someday.
Forget the Alamo is just plain interesting if you enjoy Texas, history, Texas history, Crockett, Jim Bowie, hell – even Phil Collins plays an important role in Alamo lore. Of course the book includes the story of Ozzy Osbourne peeing on the Alamo while wearing his wife’s dress. I give it five stars. Find it at your local library, or buy it, or listen to it. I recommend the Kindle version so you can search through and highlight the text easily when you’re excitedly telling everyone about it.
The only issue I have with the book is actually in the title. Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth – no matter what historians may dig up in basements of current Texans or former residents of Tejas y Coahuila, the myth of the Alamo will never fall. It may be the last myth standing when the world ends.
Interview with the Authors
I’ve included a really great video. It lasts for about an hour, and it is well worth the time. The three authors talk about everything that has to do with the book, including the threats and anger they’ve received for telling the story of the slaveholders and their motives regarding the Texas Revolution. This is not exactly news to some people, but Texans have done a great job at divorcing the causes of the Texas Revolution from the actual war itself.
Three noted Texan writers combine forces to tell the real story of the Alamo, dispelling the myths, exploring why they had their day for so long, and explaining why the ugly fight about its meaning is now coming to a head.
Every nation needs its creation myth, and since Texas was a nation before it was a state, it’s no surprise that its myths bite deep. There’s no piece of history more important to Texans than the Battle of the Alamo, when Davy Crockett and a band of rebels went down in a blaze of glory fighting for independence from Mexico, losing the battle but setting Texas up to win the war. However, that version of events, as Forget the Alamo definitively shows, owes more to fantasy than reality. Just as the site of the Alamo was left in ruins for decades, its story was forgotten and twisted over time, with the contributions of Tejanos – Texans of Mexican origin, who fought alongside the Anglo rebels – scrubbed from the record, and the origin of the conflict over Mexico’s push to abolish slavery papered over. Forget the Alamo provocatively explains the true story of the battle against the backdrop of Texas’s struggle for independence, then shows how the sausage of myth got made in the Jim Crow South of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As uncomfortable as it may be to hear for some, celebrating the Alamo has long had an echo of celebrating whiteness.
In the past 40-some years, waves of revisionists have come at this topic, and at times have made real progress toward a more nuanced and inclusive story that doesn’t alienate anyone. But we are not living in one of those times; the fight over the Alamo’s meaning has become more pitched than ever in the past few years, even violent, as Texas’s future begins to look more and more different from its past. It’s the perfect time for a wise and generous-spirited book that shines the bright light of the truth into a place that’s gotten awfully dark.
The authors were scheduled to give a talk at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX in July of 2001. I’ve been to the museum and it’s pretty amazing. I bought a burnt orange shot glass that says, ‘”You may all go to Hell and I will go to Texas.” – Davy Crockett’ on it.
Anyhoo, according to the authors there were hundreds of RSVP’s, and the event was going to be the largest on the book tour. The museum promoted the talk by taking to twitter, using hashtags like #TheAlamo and #TexasHistory to promise that they would talk about dispelling the myths that surround the Alamo and reexamine the history of the place. Well, some folks did not like that. At all.
The CEO of a conservative PAC tweeted, “A travesty that @BullockMuseum would use taxpayer $ to sponsor an event for the trashy non-history book ‘Forget the Alamo,’ Texans – and our glorious history – deserve better.” He didn’t say if he had read the book.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (R) tweeted: “As a member of the Preservation Board, I told staff to cancel this event as soon as I found out about it. This fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place” He didn’t say whether he read it or not. Weird. I thought he was really mad about cancel culture. I mean, he literally used the word cancel. Patrick and his political allies continue to decry the book as “fake news” – although the only thing they say is fake are the documents that mention slavery. Perhaps time-traveling liberals have gone back to 1835 or so and held the Texians at gunpoint while they wrote letters demanding that they be allowed slaves, and when they wrote the entire section of their constitution making it illegal to abolish slavery.