Gail Collins Almost Remembers the Alamo

This essay by John Willingham was published by the History News Network on June 25, 2012.


The first chapter of New York Times columnist Gail Collins’ new book about Texas is called “Remember the Alamo,” and the last chapter concludes with the words “Victory or Death,” proclaimed to the world by Alamo commander William Barret Travis before the fall of the old mission and the deaths of Travis and the other defenders.

The witty, incisive, but occasionally flippant story that emerges between these bookend pages is indeed defined by the columnist’s own battle with the Alamo, or, rather, with what may be called the Alamo mentality.  From this battle she emerges with an impression that will be shared by many outside the state, reviled by most Anglos within the state, and welcomed by the state’s emerging majority of Latinos.

In the book, As Texas Goes…How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, she is closer to the truth of the matter than most of the Texans who will disagree with her.  But both Collins and the guardians of the Alamo mentality exaggerate the extent to which that mentality is uniquely Texan in origin, though she does glimpse the legacy that a true remembering of the Alamo can yield.

Most of the men who fought and died at the Alamo, including Travis, David Crockett, James Bowie, and James Bonham, were men of the Old South, not the genteel Old South associated with Richmond, Charleston, or Savannah, but the edgy reaches of the South where the romanticism and notions of chivalry extolled by the cultured classes often found expression in frontier duels, bloody encounters with Creeks and Cherokees, and a fierce determination to brook no insult or challenge.  The rise of abolitionism in the North and recent slave rebellions in the South reinforced a defiant, defensive attitude.

And often, as in the case of Travis, Bowie, and others, the impulses associated with this attitude could lead to reckless behavior: not only duels, but the illegal “importation” of slaves, and even the abandonment of women for the sake of personal gain.  For some of these men, the lure of Texas was that it promised the opportunity for them to assert themselves anew against their problematic pasts, not as simple farmers but as powerful figures, leaders in politics, wealthy planters, or, most compellingly, military heroes—roles honored in the culture of the South. 

The point is that Anglo Texas, the Revolution, and the Alamo were products of the westward thrust of the Old South at a time when the South was under attack, when cotton required new lands and more slaves, and when the cult of “chivalry” was ascendant, however crude and violent in its manifestations. Many figurative lines were drawn in the sand and river bottoms of the Old South before legend ascribed to Travis the most famous line ever drawn.  

It is the size of Texas now that makes the state so influential and so tempting a target for Collins and others.  If Alabama had 26 million inhabitants today instead of Texas, a story about the influence of that state would be similar despite the change in locale. This is not to say that Texas is not significantly different from Alabama; but the aggressive conservative mentality that Collins confronts is very much the same in both states.  (One difference, as we shall see, is that Texas carries a latent power that will one day transform the state.)

For Collins, it is Rick Perry who now most clearly represents the Alamo mentality, and in the widespread sense that the Alamo bestows a degree of justification on rigid, absolute stances, she is correct.  She is most trenchant and entertaining when discussing the many examples of how this absolutism translates to policy views on sex education, the deregulation of financial institutions, on public education, and on environmental policy.  (She neglects to emphasize how the financial wizards in her present hometown took the deregulation promoted by Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, and Dick Armey and multiplied the resulting damage to the economy geometrically.)

The influence of these extreme views on the nation is not amusing, however, and she makes a strong case that Texas-backed policies, with the exceptions of LBJ’s civil rights and environmental initiatives and Bush 41’s support of the Clean Air Act of 1990, have burdened the nation, even to the extent of costing taxpayers in other states to pay for Texas’s refusal to fund social services and education.

Writing for the state’s leading magazine, Texas Monthly, James Henson grants that Collins has written a “solid summary of the liberal critique of the Texas model.”  But, he writes, “…she never fully appreciates the class and ethnic divisions that have long defined political power here. This leads her to over-generalize about what ‘Texans think.’ The occasional interviewees on the left side of the spectrum are presented as lonely voices of reason in a state full of self-defeating nuts.”

“When it comes to taking potshots at Texas,” Henson concludes, “Collins is almost as quick on the draw as the governor she relies on for easy laughs. Unlike Rick Perry, though, she only wounds her prey.” 

Some of the easy laughs come when Collins discusses the sex education practices in Texas.  Take the headliner for Chapter 8, one “Speedy the Sperm.”  According to Collins, an abstinence-only curriculum product called “Why kNOw” that has been used in Texas “has the poor teacher construct an 18-foot-long model known as ‘Speedy the Sperm’ to demonstrate condoms’ alleged failure to guard against STDs.”  The result of poor sex education can be seen in the example of a male college student in Texas who asked his professor about the student’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

Seriously, as Collins notes, the birth rate in Texas is the second highest in the nation, behind the state of Utah.  The state’s abstinence-only sex education policy is a biological line in the sand that is continually erased by the actions of young Texans.  But the demographic feature that will transform the state is the rise of the Hispanic population. 

 “Before long,” Collins writes, “this is going to be a majority Hispanic state, and there’s no way the political or business leadership reflects that fact.”  Demographers predict the change will occur by 2030, and many Latinos in Texas believe it will happen sooner than that.  Where the Old South stopped in 1836, the new Texas, increasingly less Southern, will emerge two centuries later.

So what will happen when the Alamo mentality, largely Southern in its origins, meets the Latino majority? Over time, perhaps, the Alamo itself, a real place and a real event in history, will be remembered less as a mythic symbol of glorified heroism or as a subject of casual derision, and be understood for what it was: a real and lasting wound shared by two cultures that now must live together.  If Texas can heal that wound, what a different message will emerge from the Lone State State.

In her final pages, Collins reports a conversation with Henry Cisneros, the former Mayor of San Antonio and a cabinet official in the Clinton Administration.  She asked him about the Alamo.  “I came to terms with it a long time ago,” he told her.  “It’s not about wars or Mexicans versus Americans or victory or death.  It’s just something that happened.”


The Alamo, Goliad, and the Age of Romanticism–Essay

Note: This is a more personal version of the same essay that appears on the main page under the same title.

My novel THE EDGE OF FREEDOM, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution, is mostly about the Goliad campaign in the Revolution—but the more I have thought about it, the more I realize that the book is really about the relationship of Goliad to the iconic symbol of the Revolution—the Alamo.

First, the process of writing the book.  The Presidio LaBahía at Goliad has been one of the most important places in my life, and I’ll tell you why.  About 30 years ago–my home was then in Waco–my family and I often drove to the Gulf Coast for short vacations.  Of course, with young children we were in a hurry to get to the ocean, and the first few times through Goliad, we didn’t stop.  But after a few trips, I had to stop.  I had completed my master’s in American history at UT by that time, and though I had decided not to pursue an academic career because of the lack of jobs in history, I never lost my passion for it, and I had also written a master’s paper on Texas history.

After spending some time at the presidio, the place began to pose questions to me.  One question in particular kept coming up, and that question was this: What did James Bonham, the famous courier from the Alamo, and James Fannin, the commander at Goliad, say to each other when Bonham arrived there in February 1836?

What I didn’t know then was that answering this question and the other questions that it spawned would take much of my time for three decades.

While writing scenes of the long debate that I imagine occurred between Fannin and Bonham, I eventually realized that I was seeing the Alamo from the perspective of Goliad, rather than seeing Goliad through the dominant lens of the Alamo.

And then I began to feel that, in the relationship of the Alamo and Goliad, one could see signs of one historical age fading away and hints of another age emerging, one similar to our own.

I believe that the Alamo was a signal event of the Age of Romanticism, a time when passion and idealism seemed to eclipse the previous Age of Reason. Romantics such as the English poet Lord Byron sought to sacrifice themselves to the great cause of freedom, in his case the cause of Greece against the Ottoman Turks. Americans saw the fight in Texas as a chance to share in the glory of their forefathers, and even Texans motivated by greed or a desire for adventure also could claim to be chivalrous warriors, knights in the cause of freedom, disdainful of both risk and brute reality.

Here I am concerned with a particular strain of Romanticism, one that took hold in the American South during the first half of the 19th Century.

That Southern Romanticism was (and still is, in some ways) characterized by the noble and, to use a word of those times, chivalrous devotion to heroic achievement, to fame and glory, to an idea of women– more on this later, in relation to Goliad—to an idealized past, and to an intense sense of personal honor and pride that would brook no insult or challenge.  Even a mild affront could turn into a duel.  The few paces between the dueling parties provided the only middle ground there was, with life and triumph on one side and death or defeat on the other.

The influence of this Southern Romanticism on the people and events of the Texas Revolution has not been the subject of extensive scholarship. But in my attempt to describe the influence, I am indebted to the work of the late Rollin G. Osterweis of Yale and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, emeritus professor at Florida, both of whom wrote about the Old South generally, rather than about the impact of the Romantic Age on events in Texas.

The term code of honor, to me, is the best description for the masculine version of Southern Romanticism, although Wyatt-Brown calls it the rule of honor.  Within that code there is the cult of chivalry, the glorification of military valor, the adoration of the hero, and the enshrinement of Southern women.

Why was the South receptive to this code of honor?  For one thing, the South was and probably still is a more physical culture than the rest of the nation.

To be sure, in the early 19th Century people in the North were no strangers to sometimes brutal working conditions that required great physical effort, yes on farms, but increasingly in cramped, dingy shops and factories.

But in the South so much of life was centered on the outside world—planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing; racing horses; forming militias to fight the Creeks or the Cherokees, and to capture runaway slaves; or, most urgently of all, to put down actual or feared slave rebellions.  And so there was an enduring martial spirit, beginning before the American Revolution, drawing strength from it, and carrying forward because of the still-violent Southern frontier and because of the need to keep slaves in check.

And of course it was heroic military action, above all, that could bring fame, glory, and the most fulfilling form of honor.  Not to mention that in a plantation society, a military vocation was often the best honorable alternative to being a great planter or a firebrand politician.

As the issue of slavery became more of a wedge between North and South, Southerners found ways to justify slavery, calling it a positive good.  A major apologist for slavery argued that not only was it a positive good for slaves, who after all—he claimed—were incapable of independent living; it was also, he believed, the key to honoring Southern women.

In the words of the Rev. Thomas R. Dew of the College of William & Mary:  “We behold the marked effects of slavery on the conditions of woman—we find her at once elevated, clothed with all her charms, mingling with and directing the society to which she belongs, no longer the slave but now the equal and idol of man.”

Thus did slavery emancipate the white Southern woman according to the Reverend Day.  Of course, most white Southern women did not live in households that owned slaves.  In fact, women were not the equals of men, were idols mostly when men needed something to fight over, and were expected to use their real or imagined leisure to instill in their sons the very code of honor that men cherished.

But the Reverend Day’s torturous justification of slavery had the effect of equating Southern womanhood with the survival of slavery at a time when the South needed all the reasons it could fine to sustain the institution. To denounce slavery was to threaten Southern womanhood, and so it became a matter of honor, that word again, to defend both, and to keep the South as it was, unsullied by crass and commercial Northern dominance.  Far from being evil, slavery was essential to maintaining the noble way of life, for what could be nobler than defending womanhood?

The novelist Sir Walter Scott was already famous when his book Ivanhoe appeared in 1820.  The book conquered the South—or, rather, it spoke romantically to the South in reassuring ways that the South needed.

The novel had it all: the honor of chivalrous knights loyal to virtuous women under duress; the noble heroism, the glory of combat, and a convenient story line that could easily be translated to the American South. Just as the Norman knights were far superior to Saxon knaves, so were honorable Southerners superior to the narrow, grasping Northerners who now criticized the Southern way of life.

One aspect of the code of honor, however, was that it was too often dependent on external validation.  If it was thought that your wife or daughter had been slighted, you were honor-bound to retaliate, often violently, even if the slight was trivial or non-existent.  Everything depended on appearances.  No insult could be borne, compromise was unmanly, the middle way un-heroic.  Logic and reason counted for little when honor was a stake.  Such was the burden of Southern Romanticism.

So after wandering through the weeds of Southern intellectual history, what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the Alamo and Goliad?

By way of transition, I want to relate a well-known story about Sam Houston and his mother that helps to illustrate what I have said up to this point.  A Virginian by birth, Sam was 19 when the War of 1812 broke out.  Mostly self-educated and absolutely devoted to Homer’s heroic epic the Iliad with its vivid story of the Trojan War, Sam no longer wanted only to read about larger-than-life men making their mark in history’s tablet; he wanted to be one of those men.

So he informed his mother of his plans to fight in the War.  Later, he spoke often of her response.  Handing him a musket, she said, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I would rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn back to save his life.” [Emphasis added.]

She then gave her son a plain gold ring.  Engraved inside the ring was one word:  “Honor.” You may know the rest of the story. Houston fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, under the approving eye of Andrew Jackson. Young Sam took a Creek arrow in his upper thigh, then rejoined the fight, leading a charge over breastworks, where musket balls smashed into his shoulder and arm.  These were not the last wounds Houston would receive but they cost him the most: some believe that his first wife, Eliza, who left him after only a few days of marriage, did so in part because of the hideousness of his wounds.  Whatever her reasons, Houston would allow no one to question her honor.

We will return to Sam Houston shortly in order to revisit his reading of Homer and to explore how that experience might have made him different from the other heroes of the Texas Revolution and how it probably helped him to become the greatest figure in the state’s history.

But now on to the Alamo and Goliad.

The Southerners at Goliad, including Colonel James Fannin, the commander there, shared the aforementioned romantic impulses, as did most of his men from the North or from Germany and other foreign lands. And I believe Fannin wished to be passionate and headstrong in the cause of freedom, as were William Barret Travis and Jim Bowie at the Alamo, men truly of their age and focused only on the honorable fight before them.

Let’s go back to that conversation between Fannin and James Bonham, who implored Fannin to march with his men to reinforce the Alamo. I imagine the earnest, thoughtful Bonham, a lawyer by profession, speaking eloquently in the voice of the Age, while James Fannin struggled painfully to meet the demands of the Age.

Yet when Fannin later answered the impulse to act in defiance of reality but in the spirit of the age, he did not win the glory he and his men wanted so badly.  His eventual effort to march to aid of the Alamo failed miserably because of the inability of his force to ford the San Antonio River, mainly because of the artillery they had brought along.

Historians have faulted Fannin for this and other shortcomings and failures, but the main criticism, especially by those who see the Revolution only through a military lens, has been that at a crucial point in March he divided his force, leading to further delays in leaving the presidio to join Sam Houston at Victoria after the fall of the Alamo was known. Even worse, the delay allowed the Mexican forces under General Urrea to catch up with him on open ground.

Why did he divide his force and delay going to meet Houston?  Well, blame it on men convinced that nothing, not military strategy, not the need to preserve the strongest Texian force left in the field, not—surely not—anything so trivial as mere military orders from Sam Houston or anyone else—none of these practical considerations could stand up to the honorable, the chivalrous imperative to march to the aid of a woman in distress.

And such was, or was thought to be, one Louisa Ayers. She was the wife of the tax collector of Refugio, whom he had left behind, unguarded, with other women and children. And this same Mr. Lewis Ayers now had as his knight-errant the former marshal of Refugio, Amon B. King, who himself had been so impatient to join Fannin and his men in Goliad that he had left his town untended.

After Mexican irregulars had looted the town, this marshal, now Captain King of the Refugio Militia, and Lewis Ayers demanded that Fannin send troops under King’s vengeful command to rescue the women and children in Refugio. Of course, typical of the chaos of the Texas Revolution, all of this happened just as Fannin received Houston’s order to join him at Victoria.

Now, after all you have read so far about Southern Romanticism, consider this question: What would William B. Travis have done if he had been the commander at Goliad rather than at the Alamo, and received word that women and children were in danger from the enemy, barely 25 miles away, and in urgent need of rescue? What would Travis have done if he had then learned that the very force he had sent to save those women and children also had to be rescued? What would the age have demanded of Travis? For a Southern commander to have ignored these pleas would have brought dishonor to him and his men. Their code, and their romantic age, demanded action, the consequences be damned. It was all or nothing.

Or, expressed in language more resonant: “Victory or Death.” Travis’ famous words from the Alamo declared not only the determination to die honorably for a cause but also declared, in the spirit of the Age, that nothing mattered but the code—fighting another day be damned; joining a force that might actually attain victory—be damned. Brute reality, the certainty of annihilation, be damned. There were only the bare, powerful, absolute words of the code: “Victory or Death.” As in a duel, the honor of the Texians had to be preserved; they could not run away, no matter the cost, no matter the odds.

Yet, when Fannin sought to act in the spirit of the Age, immortal glory was not the result. The Refugio relief mission not only cost Fannin time, but also left him about one hundred men short when he finally met General José de Urrea on the field of battle at Coleto Creek, near Goliad, on March 19, 1836. And on March 20, 1836, when Fannin heard the cries of his wounded and saw the newly-arrived Mexican artillery demolishing his trench work with salvos of grape shot and chain, the all or nothing, victory or death demands of his age ran smack into a very different reality from the one Travis had disregarded at the Alamo.

Given the choice of leaving his wounded on the field to die or waiting, with almost no ammunition remaining, for the Mexicans to kill them with artillery fire and bayonets, Fannin and his officers finally decided that they should try to save the wounded and maybe even the entire force of 300 men. One imagines that rarely was the tension between honor and humanity so great as it was during the deliberations among Fannin and his men.  

Pulled both ways, Fannin finally placed his trust in General Urrea. Together they groped for common ground, hoping that a vaguely worded surrender document might buy enough time for Urrea to circumvent the brutal decree of Santa Anna that all Texian captives be executed.

I believe that both men deserve our respect for rising above the impulses of the age to fashion an imperfect compromise meant to save lives. But, because they made a pragmatic 21st century decision on a 19th century battlefield, their efforts to save lives and similar attempts by Francita Alavez, the real Angel of Goliad, and others on the Mexican side, have not received the respect that they deserve, either during their own age or during the complex, ambiguous age their actions anticipated, namely our own.

If the Alamo was a glorious sacrifice in the cause of freedom, then Goliad was a bold if risky gambit in the cause of peace.  While we honor those who were killed in Goliad more than 180 years ago, let us honor as well what men and women on both sides tried to do before the slaughter of Fannin and almost all of his men took place on Palm Sunday, 1836.  The deepest tragedy of Goliad was that the risky gambit succeeded only for a few.

So this is what my fascination with the dialogue between James Bonham, the Alamo courier, and James Fannin, the commander at Goliad, has wrought: a desire to sort out the passions of the Age, to find out not only what the men might have said, but to discover, through fiction and research, why they said what they said, and to glimpse some of the cultural currents in their historical moment.

Finally, I want to return to Sam Houston, and his fascination with Homer’s Iliad. The first two lines of the Iliad are these:

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles

“The accursed rage that brought great suffering to the [Greeks].”

For it was the rage and impulsive actions of Achilles that led to even more killing, of his own people, of the Trojans, of Hector, and then to the terrible destruction of Troy–and all because Achilles felt that Agamemnon had violated his honor. The noble Achilles, instead of placing the needs of his people first, nursed a personal hatred and thereby lost his true honor. For true honor owes its first allegiance to something beyond the self; there is no real glory for the hero without this higher purpose.

So it was that Sam Houston, grown to early middle age, did not surrender to rage, impulse, or pride, or follow his personal siren song into the haven of seclusion, but instead endured insults and hints at his lack of courage in order to fight another day after the Runaway Scrape; and on that other day, April 21, 1836, at the battle of San Jacinto, he won. He was a man who cared less for appearances at that stage of his life than he did for his country. Even the name, Runaway Scrape, shows what many believed about Sam Houston before his great victory.

A Romantic, yes; but a Romantic with the wisdom of the ancients fixed in his brain, a Romantic who knew not only the greatness that individuals may achieve but also the terrible consequences that often ensue when human passions rule.

And after that day at San Jacinto, though wounded yet again, he refused to let his passions control him and rejected imprudent demands from his men; and he spared Santa Anna, and by sparing him and obtaining a pledge that all Mexican forces would leave Texas, he never had to fight General José de Urrea, a real professional soldier, unlike Santa Anna. No Romantic himself, Urrea was a man who, with superior force, might have won a more extended war.


The Edge of Freedom–Review in Southwestern Historical Quarterly

By Bob Cavendish,  from the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 115 (April, 2012): 428-429.

The Edge of Freedom: A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution. By John Willingham.

(Portland, Ore.: Inkwater Press, 2011. Pp. 404. Map, appendix. ISBN 9781592994465, 22.95 paper.)

“Include, also,” the review guidelines for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly state, “an evaluation of the author’s success in achieving purpose.” What, then, should the reader infer of John Willingham’s purpose in this “fact-based novel” of the Goliad massacre? Indeed, what ought to be the purpose of any historical fiction offered to historians and aficionados of Southwest history?

Intrigued with certain ambiguities surrounding the defeats at the Alamo and at Goliad, Willingham attempts to “suggest answers to mostly unanswerable questions,” “imagining and creating” as a novelist, while remaining close to traditional chronology. Historical fiction and docudramas have become, increasingly, the stuff of public history. How the past is understood, Daniel Aaron noted, is pertinent. Good historical fiction respects its framework while telling its story. How well does The Edge of Freedom pay homage to this revolutionary past?

Beginning with the San Antonio River ferry partnership between Carlos de la Garza and John Bower (both actual figures from the Texas Revolution), The Edge of Freedom narrates the impact of revolutionary Texas driving the two men into separate and rival camps. The narrative shifts easily among the competing perspectives of the Texians (Bower and Fannin’s command), the Tejano (de la Garza), and the Mexican (General José Urrea and his command). Here are the familiar events: James Fannin’s feeble move to reinforce the Alamo, the withdrawal from Goliad, the battle at Coleto Creek, and the infamous Goliad massacre. This novel’s “fiction,” however, is not in the sequence or nature of action but in the personal episodes and period dialogue. The Edge of Freedom is the human tragedy around Goliad in March 1836, of Fannin’s command indecision and Urrea’s struggle between duty and humanity. Conventional historians’ interpretations emerge from reports, letters, and diaries–reliable, “eyewitness stuff,” long on fact but sometimes ponderous. Good historical fiction recaptures the passion and immediacy at times absent within the bounds of standard chronicles.

The Edge of Freedom succeeds as a “fact-based novel” in its compelling blend of historical sequence and imagination: what likely occurred, and why? Despite the occasionally melodramatic language, “somewhere between the elaborate and formal diction of the late eighteenth century and the more florid language of the Civil War era” (359), we gain an appreciation of the consequences emanating from decisions and commitments reached by the various “adventurers,” ranchers, commanders, and others who are a part of this story.

The Edge of Freedom is not a broad strategic view of the Goliad campaign but is closer to the tactical level. Unlike Kenneth Roberts’s Northwest Passage, Willingham’s The Edge of Freedom remains closely tethered to actual events. James Michener once argued that meaningful literature inquires into real motives and behavior of humanity. The Edge of Freedom is an inventive glimpse into the choices and dilemmas that plague people caught up in political turbulence.

How accurate should a fact-based, historical novel be? The “typical historical novelist,” said Michener, is “a fairly honest researcher” who “knows what the facts are and ignores or abuses them at his or her peril.” Willingham’s annotated bibliography of fifty-seven primary and secondary sources follows an epilogue for seven of the principals (including Fannin).  Together these two elements indicate a respect he has for the era but more importantly, the purpose for which he writes.

The Edge of Freedom works best as a supplement to, instead of an alternative to, classic works of Texas’s revolution. Read alongside one of the contemporary general histories of the Texas republic or the Texas revolution (my vote: Stephen Hardin’s excellent Texian Iliad), The Edge of Freedom provides an enriching glimpse into the tragedy whose ghosts were evoked thirty-six days later on the San Jacinto prairies.