Alamo Preservation Efforts Now in Full (High-tech) Swing

The dark splotch on a limestone wall in the Alamo shrine looks like a watermark or the residue left behind by other wear and tear.

But when a conservator took hundreds of shots with a multispectral imaging camera and stitched them together, a picture emerged of what used to be there: a candelabra, colored in with yellow, green and white, painstakingly painted more than 200 years ago as part of a fresco. Once, its twin likely graced the wall several feet away, but now there’s a big chunk of plaster missing.

New discoveries like the painting, which dates from the Spanish colonial period, are coming to light amid a large-scale preservation effort that could shift perceptions about the Alamo by digging further into its past. Much of its history is often overshadowed by the 1836 battle, when defenders at the San Antonio garrison were killed by Mexican troops during the Texas Revolution. The site is also associated with a years-long controversy, in which its caretakers were accused of mismanagement and failing to preserve it. And though the Alamo is a cherished part of the state’s identity, many say its appearance is underwhelming, unreflective of its legendary past.

“People come to the Alamo and say, ‘Is this all it is?’” said Jack Cowan, president of the Alamo Plaza History Project, who has advocated for the restoration of the plaza area around the Alamo, including the removal of a neighboring Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.

The Alamo has never been studied with such sophistication and thoroughness, and with the first-ever preservation program underway, there’s a chance to bring renewed relevance to it, said Bruce Winders, a historian and curator on its grounds.

“If you want to understand what happened in 1836, you have to understand the earlier period as well,” Winders said. “Now, with demographic shifts, there are people who haven’t seen the 1960s movie and don’t know who John Wayne is. That’s an opportunity, if people are coming here without a preconceived notion of the Alamo. That’s the point where we’ll step in and go, ‘Let us tell you.’”

Originally a Spanish mission, the church housed Texians during the famous siege and was a military depot in the Civil War era, before being maintained as the iconic site that many view as a symbol of Texas pride and liberty. In each of these periods, renovations were made, raising questions about how to preserve a building that’s been cobbled together over the years.

“You have to look at the total history of the church. You can’t take it back to the mission period without destroying what was added in 1836. You can’t take it back to 1836 without destroying what was added in 1850,” Winders said, adding that the current plan is to maintain the building as it is.

Many clues about the building’s history have been obscured or erased over time by accumulating dust and erosion, along with major and minor construction projects. Two stones butting out from opposing walls used to support an arch that swooped over an outdoor patio. Graffiti — “Leonard Groce” and “J.A. Shannon 1850” — was, until recently, hidden by a membrane of grime. Still underneath a layer of plaster is an arch that experts think once formed part of a door.

Over the past few years, the public has brought pressure to make preservation a higher priority at the Alamo. From 2009 to 2012, controversy plagued the site after disagreement broke out among members of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who had been its custodians for more than a century, about how to fund conservation efforts. An 18-month investigation by the Texas attorney general’s office concluded that the Daughters failed to preserve the Alamo, among other findings. The office’s 38-page report said the Daughters never implemented a long-range plan for conservation, allocated insufficient funds to preservation and were slow to address problems with the roof.

The General Land Office now has authority over the Alamo and contracts with the Daughters to operate the site.

This summer, a group of Texas A&M graduate students, led by an architecture professor, began using a laser scanner to record images from the interior and exterior of the Alamo church. Eventually, they’ll create a digital 3-D model that acts as a database for exploring the building’s topography and tracking its deterioration, said Carolina Manrique, a Texas A&M architecture doctoral student who’s working on the project.

“It’s like Google Earth for the inside of the church,” Winders said.

Other experts are scouring the sacristy, a small room inside the church, for evidence that gives a clearer picture of the Spanish colonialists who occupied it in the second half of the 1700s.

Trinity University chemistry professor Michelle Bushey used an X-ray spectrometer to study the faded frescoes on the wall, including a chain of painted pomegranates and flowers that hugs the ceiling. When the U.S. Army took over the church in the 1800s, it might have used whitewash to cover all the decorations, she said.

With the spectrometer, Bushey could shoot X-rays at the frescoes, then capture the energy level of the returning rays to determine what elements were in the pigments.

“One of the pigments from the Spanish colonial era is a vermilion,” Bushey said. “It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t horribly expensive. It tells us a little about the resources they had.”

The Cowboy Strike of 1883 and the Demise of Old Tascosa

A cowboy strike, in Texas?  In a state now known for its right to work laws and general hostility toward unions?  And cowboys–well, let’s just say that they are not often associated with the words “collective” and “bargaining.”

Yet these allegedly lonesome men on horseback, working from “can see” until “can’t see” in heat and dust, lightning storms, and northers cold enough to freeze them to their saddles, did rise up against big cattle syndicates back in  March of 1883.  And they fought the brief but good fight to regain the rights they had lost to greedy or inept corporate ranchers who had taken over the open range that fit the cowboy soul like a well-worn glove.

Before the syndicates moved in there was a sense of community on the smaller spreads. The best ranches brought together tough, hard-working, essentially decent and practical men who respected one another and shared not only the elements and the endless plains but a heritage of frontier cooperation born of necessity: In 1883, the Comanche threat was less than a decade in the past.

A cowboy then, on one of the smaller ranches, could take some calves in lieu of pay and combine them with mavericks he had “gathered” on the open range to form his own small herd, good for sales or to supplement whatever victuals he usually had from his own fire or from one communal cast-iron pot.  The longer he stayed with a ranch, the more likely he was to have two or more horses to use, and the horses he was dealt improved with his tenure.  This was a real life with a stake.

The syndicates came in, understanding the business world but often very little of the ranching life on the plains.  Profits tended to be as low as their ignorance and speculative fever were high; so, as their heirs might do today, they blamed the people who actually did the work for the problem.  They cut wages, disallowed horses for personal use, stopped the gathering of mavericks, and offered no more calves for pay.  Then…they forbade drinking and gambling.  This was not much of a life, with no stake.

Tom Harris was a seasoned and respected hand at the LS Ranch and decided he had seen enough.  He rounded up some men from the LIT, the LX, the LE and the T Anchor, and made out a list of demands:


We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:

First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.

Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.

Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.

Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.


No one specified what made a good cook, or how much a bad cook should receive. Not much, probably.

Twenty-four cowboys signed the proclamation.  The number of cowboys who supported it thereafter was as variable as the disappearing mavericks along the Canadian.  Maybe upwards of three hundred had some ties to the strike.  The LE and T Anchor fired the strikers right away; more cunning by far were the LS and LIT.  They offered piddling increases to cowboys who stayed, and then they fired the rest. Then they picked up the leavings from the other outfits by paying the marginally higher wages, at least for a while.

The out of work cowboys drifted into Tascosa, as famous as Dodge City in its time as a stopping place for the big drives headed north.

The cattlemen would pause and water their herds along the Canadian, leaving the beeves under the disgruntled watch of the few hands who were not allowed to go into Tascosa for recreation.  Here is what state historian Bill O’Neal tells us about Tascosa at the time:

“A cluster of dives a quarter of a mile east of Main Street was dubbed Hogtown, partially because of the presence of such less than glamorous ‘sporting women’ as Homely Ann, Gizzard Lip, Rowdy Kate, Box Car Jane, Panhandle Nan, Slippery Sue, Canadian Lily, and Frog Lip Sadie. In 1878, Billy the Kid and four other fugitives from New Mexico’s Lincoln County War arrived with 150 stolen horses, enjoying Tascosa’s bawdy pleasures for several weeks. During the 1880s there was so much rustling in the area that Pat Garrett was hired to lead a band of ‘Home Rangers.'”

In the midst of such gentility, the strikers claimed that they would be peaceful.  Most probably were.  Newspapers covered the strike and reported gossip likely planted by the syndicates that the strikers were plotting to kill the owners, burn down fences, and kill syndicate cattle at random.  None of this happened.

On the other hand, a disturbing number of cows began to disappear from the syndicate herds.

Only two months after the strike began on March 31, 1883, it was over.  The efforts of Tom Harris and his comrades did not so much as delay the May roundup.  If they did nothing else, though, they gave the late, great Elmer Kelton a subject and title for his novel The Day the Cowboys Quit.  In those pages find the real dust of the plains.

As for Tascosa, whether from Hogtown or the few respectable precincts, some remained optimistic.  The railroad would come to town, finding its way past buffalo bones and through the attenuated grass. The syndicates would pour cattle into waiting trains, which would blow out steam and sound their whistles in their urgency to depart.  Surely some of the money would come back to the plains.

There are two books on Tascosa.  In reviewing John L. McCarty’s Maverick Town, in 1947, Walter Prescott Webb was characteristically direct regarding the fate of Tascosa: “It is useless to look on a modern map for Tascosa because the town is not there.  It died so long ago that the map makers have forgotten it.”

The Rock Island railroad had bypassed Tascosa in favor of Amarillo.  The Oldham County seat moved to Vega.  In the end, years later, only the former prostitute Frenchy McCormick remained in Tascosa, her husband and tavern-keeper, Mickey, having gone to his reward twenty-nine years before her death in 1941.  She had continued to live alone in their crumbling adobe home, without electricity and running water, insisting that Tascosa would come back to life.

Before Tascosa died, a volatile brew of syndicate hired guns, disgruntled ranch hands, and the insalubrious atmosphere of Hogtown erupted in a gunfight in 1886 at the Jenkins Saloon. Unlike the “ambush” of Billy The Kid, Webb says, this “was a real fight between the cowboys [gunmen] of the big LS outfit and the little men of Tascosa.  Three LS cowboys were killed, along with an innocent and too-curious ‘poverty-laden’ immigrant named Jess Sheets.” 

A great review of the more recent book on the town, Frederick Nolan’s Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times, came from Bill Neal in 2008: “Tascosa was located in a land beyond the law, a fact that many frontiersmen found appealing….Pioneer cowman Charles Goodnight pronounced Tascosa ‘the most lawless place on the continent.'”  It was said that one resident, perhaps Bill Gatlin, “used to kill men just to see if his pistol was loaded.”

Reading Neal’s review, I came across the name of Cape (Caleb Berg) Willingham, and was reminded that some of my relatives hailed from western Oklahoma and West Texas.  Cape Willingham had a solid reputation as a lawman and rancher, indicating that he actually knew how to do some practical things.  I therefore dismissed him as a possible ancestor until I found out he had also run a saloon.

Said to have been the first sheriff of Tascosa, he carried the true standard weapon of lawmen in those days, a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.  One day, while relaxing in the Equity Saloon, one of the town’s few “respectable ladies” burst in and screamed that a man outside had just killed her duck.  Perhaps intrigued that, for once, a killing had not involved a human, the sheriff went outside to investigate.  His concern was also enhanced because he had instituted what may have been one of the state’s earliest gun-control measures–he had banned firearms from Tascosa.

Clay Coppedge of the Country World’s Texas Trails tells the story:

“The duck killer turned out to be Fred Leigh, foreman of the LS Ranch, who had a habit of taking his guns to town in defiance of Willingham’s ban. The sheriff notified Leigh that he was now indebted to the woman for the fair market value of a duck and he might have been trying to figure out an exact sum when Leigh did something a lot dumber than shooting a duck — he went for his pistol. Willingham blew him out of the saddle with his shotgun, which ended the negotiations.”

Now, there remains in me a trace of the boy from Waco, Texas, who played cowboys and Indians, and “Army,” and watched westerns on TV, and that would get a kick out of claiming Cape Willingham as an ancestor.  And the duck story almost pushes me to the point of prevarication.  But, alas, Cape’s branch of the clan came west from Virginia through Georgia, and mine through Tennessee, so any connection is remote.

Cape Willingham, Charles Goodnight, the good hand Tom Harris, and the woman with the dead duck– all would be amazed to know that in 1939, not far from Boot Hill in old Tascosa, Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch was born.  Frenchy McCormick was still around by then to see it, and no doubt feisty at age 87.  And that, my friends, one-ups the duck.

W.C. Brann, the “Iconoclast,” Was Killed in Waco in April 1898

Loved, hated, admired and reviled, the journalist William Cowper Brann was shot and killed on a Waco street on April 1, 1898. His death ended a long feud with supporters of Baylor University–an institution that he had accused of producing “ministers and Magdalenes,” based on the alleged corruption of a Brazilian maid by an official at the Baptist institution.  Here is an excerpt about Brann from the Handbook of Texas, written by the late Waco historian Roger Conger:

“Brann took obvious relish in directing his stinging attacks upon institutions and persons he considered to be hypocritical or overly sanctimonious. He by no means confined his distaste to Baptists, but directed it generously to Episcopalians, anything British, women, and, perhaps with the greatest harshness, blacks. Among his targets was Baylor University, a Baptist institution that he scourged as ‘that great storm-center of misinformation.’ On October 2, 1897, Brann was kidnapped by student-society members and taken to the Baylor campus, where he was asked to retract his statements about the university. On October 6, having failed to leave town, he was beaten by a Baptist judge and two other men.

“In November 1897 occurred a street gunfight between one of Brann’s supporters, McLennan county judge G. B. Gerald, and the pro-Baylor editor of the Waco Times-Herald, J. W. Harris, and his brother W. A. Harris. Both Harrises died, and the judge lost an arm. On April 1, 1898, on one of Waco’s main streets, Brann was shot in the back by a brooding supporter of Baylor University named Tom E. Davis. Before the editor died he was able to draw his own pistol and kill his assailant.”

As a young Wacoan, I read Charles Carver’s Brann and the Iconoclast, shortly after the University of Texas Press released it in 1957.  (My mother had unwittingly paid for the book; good Baptist that she was, I am certain that she was unaware of its contents.) The book was fascinating, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Looking back on it now, I see it as a precursor for my interest in some of William Faulkner’s writing, for Waco in 1898 was a lot like Faulkner’s fictional city of Jefferson, a place where violence was a virtue for men who defended the honor of their women, or their own reputations. It is noteworthy that the man who killed Brann had a daughter attending Baylor; he took the reference to “Magdalenes” (i.e., prostitutes) personally. Violence in the name of honor has deep roots in the South, and of course in Texas.

Brann was an associate of William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, who purchased Brann’s original Iconoclast in Austin but probably never produced any issues. Brann bounced around Texas as an editor or columnist for several major papers–San Antonio, Galveston, Houston–before going to work for the old Waco Daily News.  Soon after, he revived the Iconoclast, in February 1895, and eventually won a worldwide circulation of almost 100,000, an amazing figure for the time.

Part of the success was due to Brann’s flamboyant style and astounding facility with words, given that he ran away from home at the age of 13. But as a journalist in need of money, Brann knew that the best way to boost circulation was to choose controversial topics, and what topics were more controversial in his day than women and religion? This was specially the case when the topic was women and their desire, or lack of same, for sexual activity. As for religion, Brann saw himself as Jeffersonian, mostly deistic with a preference for a remote God who wielded the instruments of a grand architect while creating a universe without dogma.

Of the Bible, he said: “He that accepts it in its entirety–gulps it down like an anaconda absorbing an unwashed goat; who makes no attempt to separate the essential from the accidental…may, like the ass which Balaam rode, open its mouth and speak; but he never saw the Angel of the Lord; he utters the words of emptiness and ignorance.”

There are Brann devotees to this day, but for me, even though the racism he embraced was prevalent in Waco and the South, his own expressions of it are so revolting that there is no giving him the benefit of acting under the influence of his times.

In an article titled “The Buck Negro,” Brann opens with these words:

“I once severely shocked the pseudo-philanthropists by suggesting that if the South is ever to rid herself of the negro rape-fiend she must take a day off and kill every member of the accursed race that declines to leave the country. I am not wedded to my plan; but, like the Populists, I do insist that those who object to it are in duty bound to offer something better.”

He continues:

“Drive out the ” n . . . [ a racist term for African Americans] young and old, male and female – or drive him into the earth! It may be urged that the ‘good negro’ would suffer with the bad. It is impossible to distinguish the one from the other until it is too late. It were better that a thousand ‘good negroes’ -if so many there be- should suffer death or banishment than that one good white woman should be debauched. We must consider ourselves first, others afterwards. The rights of the white man are paramount, and if we do not maintain them at any cost we deserve only dishonor.”

That this type of vile racism, grounded in the alleged protection of white women, would later erupt in a terrible lynching in my hometown a few decades later, is all the more disturbing. The Klan was strong in Waco in the Twenties, and the story is that they would meet on a hill near what is now North Twenty-Fifth Street. Were they the ignorant gap-toothed followers that we mostly see today, along with a little skinhead seasoning?

I found an answer to this question that struck home, truly, back when I was still living in Waco in the late 1980s.  My sainted grandmother had just died, after living out the last eight years of her life with me and my family. After her death, we found in our garage, folded neatly in a long, white cardboard box, a robe, or costume if you like, that had belonged to my grandfather. And so, wearing these detestable garments of the Klan, my grandfather might have been among those standing on that hill all those years ago, screaming out hatred from the basest and smallest part of himself.  A respected businessman who worked downtown, he might also have been at the lynching that took place not far from his store. Now, I can only hope that he was not.

The Complex Legacy of the Texas Revolution

Several decades ago, the great British historian J.H. Plumb, in his famous book The Death of the Past, not only described the distinction between the past and history, but predicted that the increasingly rationalistic west would soon throw off the illusions of the past, with its often manipulative distortions, and begin to operate on the more realistic plane of history.

What some Texans have called “the history wars” is essentially a conflict between the past as illusion or myth, and its nemesis, history. For most of the 180 years since the Texas Revolution, the past has dominated.  It is not hard to see why.

Think of the state’s early defining events—the Revolution, and later independence as a republic, making Texas the only state ever to have existed as a nation. But it was the Revolution, especially the battle of the Alamo, which made the Texas past the proud and stubborn thing that it is, still defiant and assertive against the forces of history, and of modernity, but no longer unchallenged.

The Power of the Alamo

The enduring power of the Alamo in myth and memory derives from its celebrated and absolutist essence: Victory or Death. Freedom or Tyranny. Good or Evil. Right or Wrong. As David Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” The key was being sure. 

And doubt was not in the makeup of Bowie and Travis, although Crockett’s political experience might have taught him to take a little time in fixing on the right. The story of the line drawn in the sand by Travis at the Alamo is stronger in memory and use than it is in the minds of most historians, but it is a perfect metaphor for the Alamo story: in life, war, morality—you have two choices, and two choices only; there is the line. Decide. Now.

One of the legacies of the Revolution, and of the Alamo, is that American democracy was able to grow in Texas, though not without vicious fighting with native populations and oppression of African American slaves and Tejanos. This kind of oppression was, sadly, not unique to Texas.

Even though the positive legacy of the Alamo and the Revolution has been far-reaching in its impact, it is also a hard fact that it has not been uniformly positive. To accept the legacy as unadulterated heroism traps it in myth and diminishes its great importance as history.

The Alamo and the Age of Romanticism

Any discussion of the Revolution must reckon with the Alamo’s long shadow. In dominating our memory of those days 180 years ago, the Alamo has obscured other potential legacies of the Revolution, principally that of the tragic events in and around the Presidio La Bahía in Goliad.

The Alamo hovers over the Goliad story and permeated the thoughts of the men involved in the Goliad campaign. Some of the men at the Alamo were previously well-known throughout the South—Jim Bowie, for one, was already renowned for his prowess as a fighter, and his famous knife was carried by men across the southern frontier.

David Crockett was much better known, indeed famous, throughout the United States; William Barret Travis was not so widely known, but in Texas he had already made his name as a firebrand during the disturbances at Anahuac in 1832. Their notoriety alone added drama to their actions at the Alamo, a drama that Goliad seemingly lacks.

But the tragic story of Goliad is laden with as much meaning as the battle of the Alamo. In fact, the story of Goliad is more resonant with our own confounding times than the famous fight at the Alamo.

The Alamo was one of the defining events of 19th century America, occurring at a time when men still fought duels over the slightest offense, and when a peculiarly southern code of chivalry— underestimated as a presence in the Texas Revolution—shaped the thoughts and actions of many Texan leaders.

Recall that the early 19th Century was smack in the middle of the Age of Romanticism. Nothing was more quintessentially romantic than the gallant sacrifice of one’s life in a noble cause. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were widely read, especially Ivanhoe, as was the poetry of the English Romantics.

So when the Alamo commanders sent their famous words—Victory or Death—to the world, both they and their world were in accord. The world saw the matter as they had seen it: The highest calling of a man of honor was to find his noble cause, and pledge his life—or death—to that cause. That the Alamo rose to iconic status almost at once is no surprise, for the Alamo epitomized much in the Age.

Goliad in the Shadows

But what of Goliad? Colonel James Fannin was in command there, although the use of the word command is even more out of place in the case of Goliad as it is in describing Sam Houston’s struggle to control his wayward forces during the later Runaway Scrape.

Shadowed by the reckless glory of Travis and Bowie, and by the mysterious workings of Sam Houston, Fannin could not find his own way by following their paths, no matter how he went about it, by turns impetuous, indecisive, and pulled in different directions by his refractory soldiers and the chaotic so-called government that never figured out who was in charge.

From the time he received a famous plea from Travis and Bowie for aid, delivered by James Bonham on February 19, to the final, tragic events at the Presidio La Bahia in Goliad on March 27, the specter of the Alamo—of its men and commanders—was continually with James Fannin.

More important to history and to our collective memory, however, is not Bonham’s mission, but the surrender by Fannin of his 300-man force to the Mexican General Urrea on March 20, following the fierce battle of Coleto Creek the day before; and even more important still is the tragic end that came to Fannin and most of his men on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836.

Most historians agree that the Mexican General Urrea sought to circumvent orders from Santa Anna to execute all prisoners, while Fannin agreed to something less than a capitulation in hopes of saving his men.  \Urrea risked severe censure, or much worse, in signing any such document. Both men relied on the honor of the other: Urrea believed that Fannin would keep his word and have his men lay down their arms, and Fannin believed that Urrea would do all he could to get the Supreme Government, if not Santa Anna, to grant clemency to such a large force rather than kill them all.

So in relying on honor, did not Fannin and Urrea meet the requirements of their chivalric Age? The answer is no. Although the ultimate mass executions of Fannin and his men caused greater outrage in America than the deaths at the Alamo, and provided equal motivation for Houston’s men at San Jacinto to kill Mexican soldiers trying to surrender, the fact that Fannin surrendered—that he failed to win or to die fighting—has subordinated the story of Goliad.

The cruelty and alleged perfidy of the Mexicans were fast absorbed into the collective memory, for memory welcomes injustice, another word for wrong, but memory abhors inglorious defeat.

A Slight to History?

So now when most people, most Anglo Texans, one should say, remember the Alamo, they see glorious death, indeed martyrdom, in the cause of freedom; but when they remember Goliad, even the outrage has faded, and there is no glory.

This as at least a slight to history, though it might comport with preferred ideas about the past.

The Alamo was an event of its Age, a defining event, iconic. But how much of the romance and chivalry of that Age do we find in modernity? How often do we, as individuals, set ourselves to a heroic task, our lives at stake, our weapons drawn in a battle to the end? Yes, our brave military personnel, our police and fire professionals, and many others of course, may be called upon in the course of their work to lay it all on the line.

And yes, there is in the legacy of the Alamo, the Revolution, and the Texas frontier a powerful and important call to individual strength and self-reliance, even in the face of daunting odds.

The point is not whether individualism and self-reliance are good in themselves; they are. The point is that when taken to the extreme, in disregard of others, and in defiance of reasonable compromise that is so much a part of the real world, they are anachronistic.

Goliad was only in small measure a part of its Age. It has paid the penalty for that. The only part of its story deemed worthy of remembrance has been the mass executions, disconnected in modern memory from the dramatic struggle to save lives that preceded them.

Yet to study real history is to accept its constant irony. In fact, Goliad was a 21st Century decision on a 19th Century battlefield, but it has failed to connect to the times it foreshadowed, our own times.  The principals strove to overcome their Age, their constraints, and their personal inclinations, in a pragmatic and, yes, honorable effort to save the lives of hundreds of men on both sides. They found a reasonable compromise. Their motives were for the most part good, though not without self-interest.

Would we understand such motives, such ends today? Would we, somewhat more accepting of the complexity of our world, now take a closer, more subtle look at what they did, and why they did it?

It is time now to look back and see the significance of Goliad, not only its resonance with the ambiguities of our time, but its deeper meaning as a tragedy. For what is more tragic than for good men and women, adversaries in war, to strive for peace and then die at the arbitrary whim of the powerful?

Is not peace sought in good faith after a bitter conflict as important as freedom fought for in battle?  Life is not much good without both peace and freedom. So let us remember the Alamo, and remember Goliad, for what they both actually were, and for what they both really mean to us today.


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.