The actual Alamo: Truth tops legend

March 12, 2000|By Mark Bowden | By Mark Bowden,Special to the Sun

"The Gates of the Alamo," by Stephen Harrigan. Alfred A. Knopf. 581 pages. $25.

In the winter of 1836, a force of 187 newly-declared "Texians" barricaded themselves in a ramshackle fort beside the Olmos River and for nearly two weeks held off 3,000 Mexican soldiers led by Santa Anna. The siege had an unhappy ending for the "Texians," who were eventually overrun by the generalisimo's forces and slaughtered to the last man.

War follows its own logic, however. Defeat in one battle can sometimes result in victory overall. The stubborn defense of the Alamo had the effect of crystallizing an urge for independence among the strange mix of Anglo settlers in this vast, arid region. The lop-sided nature of the confrontation, the fortitude of the Alamo irregulars under "Colonel" William B. Travis, the presence (and deaths) of such legendary figures as Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, and the final cruelty of Santa Anna's massacre at once ignited mass resistance against Mexico and planted the emotional seed for the republic and then state of Texas. Few American states have had such a dramatic start.

In "The Gates of the Alamo," Texas novelist Stephen Harrigan rescues this founding moment from the distortions of history. He sets out to debunk the myths that have attached themselves to the Alamo without diminishing the siege's importance and power. As is often the case, the real story is better than the legend.

History is most easily and powerfully remembered through the great stories that are told and retold. A nation starts out by burnishing such stories into heroic legends that seek to define its character. The Alamo, celebrated in song, paintings, books and later in film, is one of those central events.

Modern historians are busy deconstructing those myths, rescuing the uglier facts of the American story, the racism, expansionism and dishonesty that built this nation every bit as much as idealism and courage. Many of the "Texians" who instigated the war against Santa Anna were challenging Mexico's legitimate claims on the territory for no better reason than to further their own narrow ambitions.

Many fought to extend slavery (which was outlawed in Mexico) into this vast, newly-settled region. Correcting the old myths can be painful, but it is necessary if we are to arrive a more mature, well-rounded understanding of the multi-racial, multi-cultural struggle that is America.

In a sprawling narrative reminiscent of Larry McMurtry's tales of the real West, Harrigan imagines three characters who manage, improbably, to survive the siege of the Alamo. Terrell Mott, a brooding teen-ager who flees home and enlists with Jim Bowie's forces, his sturdy, independent mother, Mary Mott, who sets off after him, and Edmund McGowan, a dedicated botanist who finds himself awkwardly attached to the Motts and at the center of the siege. It is the novel's successful, central strategy that none of these three main characters begin with much investment in the struggle for Texas independence, yet find themselves irrevocably caught up in the fight.

By focusing on these three, rather than on one of the zealots who instigated the movement, Harrigan captures how the Alamo transformed a scattered series of frontier conflicts into a legitimate revolution.

Any insurrection begins with a core group of malcontents and radicals, and ends there unless something happens to rally a majority of citizenry behind it. "The Gates of the Alamo" shows how this one event galvanized a movement. It captures the way normal people in pursuit of their own dreams and ambitions, both Texan and Mexican, were drawn up in the swifter tides of history.

Along the way, we get distinctly human portraits of Bowie, Crockett, Travis, Santa Anna, Sam Houston and Stephen Austin that nevertheless preserve the uncommon traits that made each into a legend. It is a tribute to Harrigan's careful blending of fiction and fact that in the end I was disappointed to learn that Terrell, Mary and Edmund never existed.

Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999) and is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 03/12/00

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