II The Siege of the Alamo
The date is 23 February 1836: a Mexican General, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and Centralist Mexican forces arrive at the Alamo, an old Spanish Mission in San Antonio. Around one hundred Texan volunteers have barricaded themselves inside the Alamo compound. The siege lasts for a total of thirteen days. On day eight and day ten of the siege, more Texans arrive at the Alamo bringing the total defenders up to 187. Led by William B. Travis, the defenders include Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. During the early hours of 6 March 1836, Santa Anna and the Mexican troops storm the Alamo and battle commences. All of the Alamo defenders are killed but the Mexican army also suffers many casualties and fatalities.
III The Battle of San Jacinto
The date is 24 April 1836: Santa Anna and the depleted Mexican Army have marched from San Antonio to San Jacinto. They engage in battle with the Texan army. The Texans are outnumbered but manage to secure victory, due in large part to the outcome of the Alamo action during which an estimated 600 Mexican troops have been killed by the defenders. The victory at the battle of San Jacinto leads to the signing of the Treaties of Velasco on 14 May 1836 which dictate that the Mexican army leave what is now the Republic of Texas. Texas remains an independent country for the next decade (1836-46).
Within the Texan historical tourist sites the Battle of Gonzales was used to ‘set the scene’, but was not a prominent part of the overall narrative. Interestingly though, while Gonzales-as-narrative remains somewhat under-developed within these memory sites, Gonzales-as-image is a much more pervasive part of the Texan self-identity. The likeness of the cannon and the words ‘come and take it’ were displayed on all manner of tourist souvenirs, even those found in the Stockyards, which did not actually tell stories about the Texan Revolution. It is the first indication we find that the Alamo’s story might indeed resonate with the narrative of toughness found in the punishment museums. While the actual event receives scant narrative description within the memory, the image and worded challenge have become an unofficial symbol or motto of Texan self-identity. As Clemons (2008, p. 67) suggests, within this story the Texans were able to overpower their enemy by displaying greater strength in battle, and to mock the defeated forces with the challenging phrase. There is a sense both of Texan defiance against the Mexican authorities and also Texan bravado and superiority over that which posed a threat. Much like the stories that celebrated the tough Texan approach to punishment and indeed the phrase ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’, the image chosen to represent the Battle of Gonzales likewise associates Texanicity with boldness and bravery in the face of danger.
Moreover, the elements chosen to signify the battle—the cannon and the phrase—together frame the story as one which celebrates retribution; the Texans believed the cannon was rightfully theirs and the Mexicans were wrong to try and retrieve it. In short, the Texans at Gonzales are portrayed using the masculine scripts of toughness and boldness, enacting retribution upon an inferior threat. The Texans invite (even dare) the Mexican army to do battle because they are confident of their ability to overpower the threat and secure a Texan victory. Yet we might also suggest that this initial scene-setting event strongly resonates with the narrative of backlash. While it is not the same backlash that Garland (2010) speaks of—it is not a story about ideological differences between the Northern and Southern states—certain narrative features are nevertheless consistent. For example, Mexico and Texas are portrayed as ideologically opposed and Texas is depicted as under attack from an enemy which is perceived to hold non-Texan values. Within the memory, the Texans need to defend themselves, their cannon and their values from an outsider threat. While Texas may not tell stories of backlash in its punishment museums, it would appear that a defiant response to a perceived threat is still an established part of Texanicity.
After the battle of Gonzales, the memory moves on to the siege at the Alamo, and it is this central part of the story that has become an important symbol in the politics of Texan cultural identity (Flores 2002). Indeed, many Texans will tell you that the Alamo is much more than a building in downtown San Antonio; it is a symbol of bravery, defiance and the ultimate sacrifice. Like the cannon flag, the image of the Alamo facade can be found on a wide variety of consumer products throughout the whole of America. From bed sheets to bicycle seats, ball games to camping tents, comic books to music records, the Alamo-as-image remains pervasive (Thompson 2001, p. 109). Yet the Alamo is not just remembered as an image, the Alamo-as-narrative has also been (re)produced countless times in formats as diverse as outdoor battle re-enactments, films, pageants, books, TV series and documentaries (Clemons 2008, Chap. 3). The Alamo as both image and narrative has become a master symbol, not only within Texas, but across the entire US (Flores 2002, pp. 130-53).
There are three events within the Alamo story worthy of note. First is a letter written by Texan William B. Travis; second is the moment the defenders decide not to abandon the Alamo; and third is their death within the mission walls. These three elements have secured the Alamo as a master symbol in American culture. The first of these occurred on 24 February 1836, when Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis wrote a letter of appeal within the walls of the Alamo compound to the ‘People of Texas and all Americans in the world’. It read:
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 and have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword. 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 and 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 and that of his country. Victory or Death.
In the original, Travis underlined the words ‘I shall never surrender or retreat’ once, and ‘Victory or Death’ three times, so when the letter is reproduced (as it is on a plaque at the entrance to the Alamo) attention is naturally drawn to these phrases. The letter itself is clearly a story about combat, boldness, honour and patriotism, but in terms of the Alamo-as-narrative it also develops the character of William B. Travis as an early protagonist within the memory. Travis is a brave man who ‘answered a demand to surrender with a cannon shot’ and is willing to ‘die like a soldier’ for his country. The letter tells us that Travis will sacrifice himself in the name of his cause, in the name of Texas. Whilst on my travels I spotted the phrases ‘Victory or Death’ and ‘I shall never surrender’ on countless souvenirs; everywhere in Texas people remember the Alamo. While I had expected this at the Alamo Shrine and San Jacinto Monument, to find memorabilia in the gift shops of the Stockyards, the Capitol, the Bullock—and indeed shops all over Texas—further confirmed the significance not only of the narrative event within the story, but also the importance of the Alamo story to the construction of Texan self-identity.
Silke (2006) asserts that the Travis letter and later on the deaths of the Alamo defenders, continue to serve as a model for bravery and defiance in Texas today. The character traits of Travis are extrapolated to become those of contemporary Texanicity. Maybe the best illustration of this are the souvenirs which employ the narrative soundbite ‘I shall never surrender or retreat—Victory or Death!’, prefixed with the words ‘A Texan’s Motto’. Seen on magnets, posters, postcards and key chains, these words are often presented with images of a cannon or a firearm, the state flag or just a lone star. As cultural objects they portray a very specific image of ‘a Texan’ in the present. The cultural scripts used to define the Texan self-i dentity are those which promote the image of Texanicity as combative, bold and tough, willing to fight any present- day threat.
In addition, Clemons (2008), Dawson (2002), Graham (1985) and Roberts and Olson (2001) all draw attention to another event within the narrative which cements the defenders’ heroic identity: the moment when William B. Travis drew a line in the sand and asked those who wished to stay and fight to step over it. This is the second part of the Alamo memory that regularly features in the representations offered in Texan tourist sites associated with history. While the ‘line in the sand’ event is only a small part of this iconic story about Texan bravery and sacrifice, as the Alamo Shrine audio tour suggests, it has nonetheless become an important part of folklore:
According to legend, Travis drew a line on the ground with his sword, and offered every man a choice; remain to fight or leave in order to live. According to the legend, only one man fled. History records that 187 remained to die.
This is one of the only instances where the Alamo Shrine (or any of the sites I visited) casts a doubt over the authenticity of its own narrative. Introducing the event with the phrase ‘according to legend’ in the audio track and ‘legend states’ on the plaque seems to suggest that it might never have occurred. Whilst we’ll likely never know whether the legend is true, this actually matters very little. Even if historians could prove the event to be a fabrication (and some believe they already have) the event is nonetheless already part of folklore and will never be entirely forgotten. Moreover, by labelling the line in the sand event as legend all other audio descriptions of not only the siege at the Alamo, but also the battle of Gonzales and the battle of San Jacinto become framed as fact. As a narrative device the words ‘according to legend’ are used to reinforce the authenticity of the rest of the story (Flores 2002, pp. 18-20).
The final battle at the Alamo—which occurred at the end of the 13-day siege—resulted in the death of all of the defenders. This was clearly a devastating defeat, but as the Mexicans marched away from the Alamo battleground victorious, the slain Texans had delivered what would turn out to be a deadly blow. Mexican General Santa Anna lost many men in the siege, and significant numbers of those who managed to survive were badly injured. The Alamo battle is most certainly a famous part of Texan self-identity, but more specifically it is the ferocity with which the Texans approached the battle that is a celebrated part of Texanicity. Not entirely dissimilar to the punishment museums, here we find Texas telling stories in which toughness is a revered part of the Texan past and the Texan present.
With all of the Alamo defenders dead, the story then moves on to the next set of events within the Alamo-as-narrative: the battle of San Jacinto and the signing of the Declaration of Texan Independence. The time lapse between the two battles (at the Alamo and San Jacinto) is of little consequence to the story and is rarely portrayed in any great detail. We simply learn that the heavily depleted Mexican army, led by General
Santa Anna, marched to San Jacinto where they encountered the Texan army led by General Sam Houston. An inscription on the base of the San Jacinto Monument reads:
On this field on April 21, 1836 the Texan Army, commanded by General Sam Houston ... attacked the larger invading army of Mexicans under General Santa Anna ... With the battle cry, ‘Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!’ the Texans charged.
The story continues:
The enemy, taken by surprise, rallied for a few minutes then fled into disorder. The Texan army had asked no quarter and gave none. The slaughter was appalling, victory complete, and Texas free!
Again the Texans were outnumbered, but it mattered not. Mexican General Santa Anna was captured, and later signed the Treaties of Velasco which secured independence for the Republic of Texas; ‘Texas was free!’ Interestingly, the Mexican Government never ratified the treaties and thus Texas was never—officially—independent. Such a detail is of little consequence in the Texan memory though; instead this triumphant success signifies a resolution. The Alamo defenders did not die in vain. In its entirety then, this is a story about Texans successfully defeating a non-Texan threat which eradicated the non-Texan values such a threat represents. Yet it is also a story in which Texans have created and defended an autonomous identity. It is here that we find the origins of the ‘Texas as separate’ motif, but also the narrative building blocks for the image of a ‘Tough Texas’, both of which have become pervasive dimensions both of Texanicity and the Texan approach to harsh punishment.
Strangely, the period in which Texas perceived itself as an independent republic (1836-46) is given scant attention within the Alamo memory. It is not within the scope of this chapter to consider why, although it could be suggested that as a narrative (in and of itself) the conclusion of the ‘Texas as independent’ story is far from one of victory. Texas, as a country, was unable to sustain itself economically and failed to ever truly secure its border with Mexico (Fehrenbach 2000). The Republic of Texas had little choice but to undergo annexation to the US—it was less of a choice and more of a necessity. Furthermore, annexation was not without its problems. Firstly, it initiated the Mexican-American War (1846—8) in a dispute over boundaries. Secondly, even if Mexico had given up Texas without a fight many Americans opposed the annexation because of the Texan commitment to slavery (see Silbey 2005).
So while the very final instalment of the Alamo story is actually Texan annexation to the US, the reasons for annexation and the controversy it generated do not feature. Instead, the Alamo-as-narrative concludes with a celebratory story of Texas’s importance to the US more broadly. This celebratory tone is well illustrated by the final inscription on the San Jacinto Monument which reads:
Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican-American War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American Nation, nearly a million square miles of territory changed sovereignty.
The significance of the Texas Revolution (and Texan Independence) is placed within a much bigger story about the progressive growth of the US in terms of land mass. Similarly, the audio guide of the Alamo Shrine tells the visitor that ‘some remember the Alamo for the role it played in history. The battle was an important step on the United States’ path to becoming a world power’.
In summary, the Alamo story presents Texas as an integral part of America’s historical development, the latter only possible because of the Alamo defenders. Brave, bold and tough, they represent the archetypal Texan past and present. From the stories being told about punishment to the stories being told about history, Texas is using cultural scripts of toughness to depict Texanicity. A tough approach is celebrated as the most appropriate form of attack when threatened by an enemy, criminal or otherwise. And make no mistake; the significance of the Alamo story in Texas cannot be overstated. As a visitor to the Alamo Shrine itself, the sanctity and sacredness of Alamo-as-place is overwhelming. This is not just a story about the Texan past; it is very much a hallowed part of the Texan present. Clemons (2008, p. 19) is right to state that the Alamo is far more than a tourist site dedicated to a historical battle—it has become a ‘shrine to Texan cultural identity’.
Yet the Alamo is not the only narrative from which the Texan selfidentity draws strength. In addition, Texas commands locational authenticity of the Old West or Wild West memory. It is here we find, once again, Texan historical tourist sites deploying scripts of boldness and toughness to depict Texanicity in the face of danger. It is here we find further evidence of punishment dimensions within the nationhood narratives upon which the Texan self-identity is built.