Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Visiting The Alamo ~by Tanya Hanson

After my terrific  cowgirl vacation at the Silver Spur Ranch in Bandera a while back, I  realized I couldn’t leave Texas without a stay in San  Antonio.  “The Alamo,” I told Hubby. He nodded, having seen the structure during his army days at Fort Sam Houston.  “It must be glorious,” I went on.  “Huge and imposing  like Westminster Abbey.  Overpowering the city like Big Ben does London.”

He shook his head. “It’s something to see, but it’s kinda random. Small. Surrounded by hotels and shops. But you’ll love it.” And so I did. Despite its location amidst a bustling city, the Alamo grounds are surprisingly tranquil. Several times a day, I walked through them, sitting down to relax, enjoy, and ponder as well.  The fountain is especially lovely,  its four sides engraved with the names of four of the defenders, commander William Travis, his second cousin James Bonham,  Jim Bowie, and Davy Crocket.

In fact, my hotel was situated on Bonham Street, where a long palisade had once stood.
Before leaving home, I picked a hotel that advertised seeing The Alamo from it. And so I could, looking down from my thirteenth floor. (Yes, thirteenth! Woooooooo.) Because The Alamo is a war memorial, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who are the custodians of the edifice, decreed that no man-made structures can cast a shadow on it, and this is now a building code. So I checked whenever I  looked out.

No shadows.

Supposedly at one time, a grove of cottonwoods grew nearby, hence the name, since Alamo is Spanish for Cottonwood. Formal name is San Antonio de Valero Mission, and its purpose—long before its cornerstone was set in 1744—was a place to convert Indians to Christianity and to educate them.
As you may know, the Alamo’s chapel and compound were nearly destroyed in a 13-day battle in March 1836 by Mexican artillery fire against the Texian army of the four heroes mentioned above. Mexican general Santa Anna didn’t want the place to become a shrine to the estimated 190 defenders slaughtered there, so he gave a direct order that the mission be completely demolished. Not one stone was to be left standing.

In spite of his orders, the remaining walls of the chapel were left unharmed. Even though there wasn’t much left, Santa Anna’s direct order was never carried out. Nowhere in any Texian or Mexican war records is there mention that the general rescinded that order. Still, it was never carried out.

Tales and legends from Mexico as well as San Antonio insist that Santa Anna’s men indeed went to the building to carry out the order, but saw something that had them turn and run. “Glowing men with flaming swords” kept them from entering and carrying out the dirty deed.

Well, these guardian angels didn’t protect the mission for long. Or maybe folks reckoned the Alamo would still be guarded by the heroes who died defending her. But for the ten years of the Republic, this shrine to Texas liberty was mistreated, limestone already cut thieved to build other San Antonio structures. The two mostly-intact buildings, the chapel and the “long barracks” began to disappear piece by piece.

By the time Texas entered the United States, the chapel was a ruin, walls in places no taller than waist-high. The façade we know and love today was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1840’s when the military needed a warehouse to store grain and supplies and decided the old ruin was just the place.

By the 1870’s, the Army had outgrown this downtown headquarters and established nearby Fort Sam Houston north of town.  No one knows just who “owned” the chapel by now and a private merchant used it for his storehouse. By the 1890’s, it became a quasi-tourist attraction,  but many citizens considered it an eyesore. Both the city of San Antonio and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Texas claimed the site. After considerable litigation, the courts decided in favor of the church. The state of Texas bought the chapel and grounds it stood on, from the church, but the land surrounding the chapel—the land where the battle actually happened—passed into private hands.

Texas did little to restore the crumbling walls or preserve the building , and when the private industry closed its doors, a young woman named Clara Driscoll stepped in. She’d visited Europe, impressed with the preservation of its old buildings and historical sites, and was outraged at the condition of the Alamo chapel and the battle field. Through her letter-writing campaigns to newspapers  and her membership in the De Zavala  Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, she began whole-hearted efforts to begin proper preservation of this Shrine of Texas Liberty. This was in 1903.  Her fight to preserve the land around The Alamo, as well as her personal money including the last $500 needed, brought out statewide sympathy.  (Of course Clara’s battle was a lot more complicated and political than this but I reckoned she might deserve her own blog sometime along with her main rival Adina de Zavala.)

The state conveyed the property to the Daughters of the Texas Republic in October 1905, with Clara appointed custodian.  Nonetheless,  Adina de Zavala had possession of the keys, and it wasn’t until the DRT filed a civil action that Clara obtained them.

 I’m sure glad Clara did. The Alamo is a shrine where only five non-military people survived the battle, a touchstone of history. A symbol of unspeakable sacrifice and courage. 

How about you? Any historical site you like that should be preserved? Which ones are you glad have been restored?

Coming this spring from The Wild Rose Press


  1. Tanya, lovely post on the Alamo. San Antonio is one of our favorite places to visit, and we always include the Alamo and the other missions as well as the viaduct. So glad you took time to tour that city. Y'all come back, ya hear?

  2. Hi Caroline, this was my first-ever trip to Texas, and I think I got to see some pretty spectacular sights. Just a true dream-trip. I am so glad I got to stay near the Alamo. I did just take little walks through it. Had lunch at the Menger, awesome hotel. Thanks for the post...and I wold like to get back to Lone Star country, that's for sure. xo

  3. I live where the California gold rush of 1849 happened. There are so many buildings from the past there. One bar called The Hangman's Tree was going to be demolished and the hanging dummy would be gone. I always thought having it there as a reminder of the men hanged during those wild years should remain. Some thought it was a slight on Placerville which was formerly called Hangtown, but it was history and you can't or shouldn't change history - good and/or bad.

  4. I'm a little misty-eyed. San Antonio was my hometown growing up, and I miss it. Thank you for reminding me of my beautiful Alamo City.

  5. Hey Tanya. We traveled to San Antonio for hubby's conference one year, but I never got to see the Alamo. There's so many cool sites to visit there. We loved the area and can't wait to go back next year. I'll make a point to visit after reading your post!

  6. hi Paisley, I am so in love with Placerville. How lucky you are to live there! And I love its "hangtown" history! Thanks for the post.

  7. Hi Deborah, aw, what a lovely post. It was just a terrific place to visit. I hope to get there again. I didn't have a chance to see the zoo, King William area, or the firefighter memorial. Hope you are able to get back there!

  8. Hi Dora, I was scheduled to attend a conference in SA in 201...yes, right after September 11. Hubby had planned to go with me. Our kids begged us not go go, so I begged off the conference. Taking the River Walk boat ride, I can see why it's a popular place for conferences. Thanks for stopping by today! xox Means so much.

  9. Tanya, My husband and I visited the Alamo when we we're in Texas visiting his sister. It is impressive to walk through the tranquil grounds and feel the reverence those visiting give the site.

    Great post!

  10. Tanya--well done! I live in San Marcos, our daughter lives in San Antonio, and I've been to the Alamo about six times, I guess...also, I am a Daughter of the Republic of Texas, the Moon-McGehee Chapter in SM, and you'd think I'd know just about everything about the Alamo. But of course, I do not.
    Every time I begin to write a post about it or talk about it, I must research as though I knew nothing about it.
    In the early 60's, my husband and I lived in Houston and had a little girl--a toddler--when I accompanied him on a business trip to San Antonio. We stayed in the Menger, and while he worked, etc.,
    my daughter and I played in the lounge of the Menger--dolls, toys, etc. No one seemed to mind.
    And then I loved the Menger so much, I used it in Kat and the U.S.Marshal.
    The King William area, so beautiful and historic, was a red light district in SA for decades. It was sanctioned by the city so they could tax the area...and so, it was legal. Until Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was commander at the military base in SA during WWII, and he shut down the red light district.
    So, I used that red light district in Kat and the U.S. Marshl, too.

    As to other places I'd like to see restored...I don't know. I'm not a historian, but you live in California, and the few times I've been there has bowled me over with beauty and historic places. I remember visiting one mission--have no idea what it was now--but it was wonderful.

    Thanks so much for a wonderful post and great pictures.

  11. Hi Paty, I so remember the tranquility and peace I felt. Even though it's a place of such haunting violence. It's just got a vibe...definitely a place everybody should visit.

  12. Hi Celia, you brought back some lovely Menger memories. I didn't stay there but I really got the historic aura. It's massively haunted...a blog post I will do some day. Thanks for stopping by.

  13. Tanya, I enjoyed your photos and description of San Antonio. It's a fascinating city. I live in Fort Worth, a few hours north, but we visit San Antonio every few years. The Alamo is always a must stop.

  14. Hi Lyn, gosh, it was such a great visit, I wanna go back. I'm homesick. And i felt like such a big girl. I went there all by myself and didn't get lost once.

  15. Tanya, I'm a day late and a dollar short. I finally got to go to the Alamo about 10 years ago. I will never forget the feeling of walking in that building for the first time. I get chills just thinking about it. And the tour guide that was giving the talk about the battle and what happened was just fantastic-he really made it come alive. This was a great blog. I would love to go back there again.


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