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Alamo still symbolizes the struggle against oppression

Sunday, February 01, 2004

By Jeff Rovin, Travel Arts Syndicate

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Most days, a vendor sells snow cones from a cart outside the Alamo.

It can get oven-hot in San Antonio, especially in the landmark's large, open, tree-framed plaza. The men and women who defended the mission for 13 days beginning on Feb. 23, 1836, suffered through that kind of heat. They faced unrelenting thirst as well as blustery cold, non-existent sanitation and scant medical supplies, and those were just some of the physical privations.

There were also psychological hardships: watching as Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna massed nearly 2,600 well-armed soldiers to face fewer than 250 poorly equipped defenders -- "Texian" rebels as they were called -- who sent out desperate pleas for reinforcements. Except for 32 men from the town of Gonzales, none ever came.

Fighting for an independent state, the besieged had taken over a mission officially called San Antonio de Valero but better known as the Alamo -- the Spanish word for "cottonwood."

It was a site that 26-year-old commander William Barrett Travis had deemed defensible and one that Santa Anna could not afford to leave intact as he marched against the larger army being assembled by Sam Houston, former Tennessee governor turned general.

Texas is proud of the landmark and mindful of its history. Just a few yards from the street vendors is a sign. It commands (this is Texas, after all) that gentlemen remove their hats before entering the shrine.

Maybe you've been told that the Alamo is a disappointment. If so, don't believe it. It's true that it's right in the center of town and it's small, but the facade is one of a handful of bona-fide American icons, an image so powerful that it seems to grow larger as you look at it. Which you should do.

 
 
If you go ...

San Antonio

   
 

Sit yourself outside in the courtyard and stare at the building, like one of those abstract drawings that becomes Abraham Lincoln when you look away. The larger buildings around it will fade to insignificance.

Close your eyes. If you listen carefully, you can hear the silence the defenders heard as Mexican troops stealthily positioned themselves for the pre-dawn attack. You will feel the dry, dusty wind. You can imagine a time when there was no River Walk, the tourist attraction that runs through San Antonio, complete with amusement park-like boat ride and many restaurants. You can picture the small structures of San Antonio that once stood a short ride away.

After you have done that, you will be ready to go inside, to relive a legend, unique among fables in that it really happened.

The men who defended the Alamo came from the Deep South and the industrial Northeast, from Europe and Mexico. What were they doing here? What brought them together?

The answer: opportunity.

Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. That same year, Virginian Stephen F. Austin led the first group of American colonists to the region. They were drawn by the open spaces, the great rivers, the chance to start their own ranches and by generous tax abatements. However, by 1830 the Mexican government was concerned about the number of settlers moving in from the United States. They feared a takeover similar to what had happened in Florida under General Andrew Jackson -- who was now President Jackson. The Mexican congress briefly banned further immigration, although the region remained open to Mexicans and Europeans.

In 1833, the colonists petitioned the government for changes that would give the so-called "department" of Texas greater representation. President Santa Anna agreed to most of their requests. Nevertheless, two years later, after he had changed his mind, a quarrel over ownership of a cannon became the flashpoint that compelled the Mexican president to send troops to San Antonio.

The Texians met them with armed resistance. Skirmishes took place from late October into November. A five-day battle in December left San Antonio in rebel hands.

Shortly thereafter, Travis and dozens of volunteers arrived to participate in the struggle. When Jim Bowie fell ill, possibly with pneumonia, Travis was put in charge.

Determined to regain control of the area, Santa Anna himself took an army to San Antonio. The rebels were unprepared but undaunted. The siege of the Alamo began. There was constant artillery bombardment, making it difficult to sleep. The winds from the north were uncharacteristically cold and fierce at night. Food was increasingly scarce.

In a brief final battle, all the defenders were slain, but not before they killed twice as many of the attackers. Travis' slave, Joe, survived along with a few women and children. In order to spread the word of what had happened and to deter other insurgents, Santa Anna permitted them to leave.

Some of the original compound still stands -- the church itself, which doubled as a powder magazine, quarters and artillery position, the Cavalry Courtyard that was used as a stock pen, the Convento Courtyard with a well that dates back to the earliest days of the mission, and the Long Barrack. To walk it all is inspiring and humbling.

Ignore, if you can, the roof and the grave-cold air conditioning. Look at the flakes of paint that are part of newly discovered frescoes on the chapel walls. Reflect on the holes made by bullets, many of them blood-flecked for years after the battle.

Listen to the presentations given by young Texans and also by Mexican-Americans. They explain how the final battle unfolded -- in darkness, over in slightly more than an hour, confused attackers shooting each other as the roughest fighting took place in the Long Barrack, just northeast of that imposing facade.

Ironically, the Long Barrack had been the site of the first hospital in Texas. Today, it is a solemn museum that honors not just the battle but also the rich history of the site.

Consider the men who fell here. Not just the most famous of them -- Davy Crockett, the former Tennessee congressman and frontiersman, and Jim Bowie, the legendary knife-fighter (who was killed, fighting, from his sick bed), but also a man known only as "John," a freed slave. Henry Thomas, a German immigrant. Andres Nava, a native Texian.

They did not stand shoulder-to-shoulder. There were not enough men for that. They fought alone, with their thoughts and courage, or gathered in pockets around the sprawling complex. Reportedly, Crockett asked for, and was given, the most difficult position: the ground immediately south of the mission itself, an area known as the palisade.

Some had come for land, some for principal. Virtually all stayed though the end was not in doubt. In fact, the phrase "line in the sand" may have originated during the battle. Before the final attack, Travis is said to have drawn a line with his saber. He invited anyone who wished to stay with him to cross over. All but one man obliged.

The Alamo fell.

Within weeks, however, the Texian counterattack at the Battle of San Jacinto ended with the Mexican army defeated and Santa Anna imprisoned. Fewer than 800 Texians defeated a twice-larger Mexican force in 18 minutes. Santa Anna was found the next day, trying to sneak away through high grasses, dressed in the uniform of a common soldier.

Texas won its freedom. Yet while the Alamo represents a specific battle, it has come to stand for any struggle against oppression. As Kentucky volunteer Daniel Cloud had written en route to the mission, "If we succeed the country is ours ... if we fail, death in the cause of liberty and humanity is not cause for shuddering."

It's only the cherry syrup of a snow cone that stains a visitor's clothes today, a shadow of the blood that was shed here. Most important is to remember why.

New York Times best-selling novelist Jeff Rovin is the author of "Vespers," "Fatalis," Tom Clancy's "Op-Center" series, "Stealth War" and the forthcoming military thriller "Tempest Down."

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