Friday, August 20, 2021

The Alamo Before and After

Remember the Alamo!
Most Americans and many others know the significance of that stirring cry. The story of the Battle of the Alamo has been told and retold in print and cinema. But how much do you know about the 300-year history of the Shrine to Texas Liberty before and after the famous battle?

Established in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero, the site was one of several religious outposts founded in Tejas by the Spanish Empire. Soldiers controlled the territory and its indigenous people, who were taught the Spanish language and Catholicism by priests.

The mission was moved twice, the second time due to a hurricane, settling in its current location in 1724. A stone convento to house the priests’ private quarters, offices, refectory and gardens was built first. The mission church began construction in 1740 but suffered many setbacks and was never completed while the mission was active.

Mission de Valero as imagined in 18,83; wikipedia public domain

In addition to learning Spanish and the Catholic faith, indigenous residents of the mission were taught skills such as weaving, farming, masonry, and metalworking. They also worked to harness the nearby San Antonio River and built irrigation ditches called acequias, providing water for vegetable gardens and livestock.

Mission Valero was secularized in 1793. Lands and goods acquired by the mission were distributed to the indigenous residents who became parishioners at San Fernando on the other side of the river. The former mission became a community known as Pueblo de Valero.

However, threats on Tejas’ borders from French and American explorers caused Velero to become a defensive military post by 1803. It was occupied by a Spanish cavalry unit, La Segunda Compañia Volante de San Carlos de Parras. For short, they were called the Alamo Company after their hometown of Alamo de Parras, explaining how the post got its name.

The soldiers converted the old convento into barracks and established the first hospital in Texas on the building’s second floor. The Alamo Company remained at the outpost for 32 years, through Mexico’s fight for independence from Spain that culminated in 1821, and until 1835.

With the need to protect its northern frontier, Mexico had established laws allowing colonists into Texas. Led by men such as Stephen F. Austin, immigrants flooded in, attracted by land and opportunity. Along with the native population, they lived fairly free of government interference, being far away from the capital in Mexico.

This autonomy changed with the election of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna as president in 1833. He instituted a more centralist government, leading to a civil war and Texas seeking its own independence.

I will not go into the battles that led to the 13-day siege of the Alamo, its fall and the eventual defeat of Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto. If you wish to read a detailed account, visit this site: 

The Alamo drawn in 1838 by Mary Maverick; wikipedia public domain

Oct. 28, 1845—First U.S. Army Unit Arrives in San Antonio 

On Mar. 1, 1845, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution signaling impending Texas statehood. The U.S. Army dispatched three companies of the 2nd Dragoon Regiment – trained to fight mounted or on foot - from Fort Washita, Indian Territory, to San Antonio in the Fall of 1845 to protect the region.

The Dragoons established a camp near the Alamo in rented facilities which became known as the Post at San Antonio. The Army leased the Alamo between 1849 and 1861 and again between 1865 and 1876 for use as a quartermaster depot.

The Alamo ca. 1854; wikipedia public domain

The Depot quartermaster, Major Edwin B. Babbitt, recommended that the building be demolished and replaced with a new warehouse, but Quartermaster General Thomas Jessup vetoed that idea. Instead, he directed the building to be repaired. These repairs incorporated an arched façade to hide a new pitched wooden roof, giving the Alamo its world-famous silhouette.

“Absent Jessup’s directive…the Shrine of Texas Liberty would probably have been demolished…!” —George Nelson, The Alamo, An Illustrated History

With Texas’ secession from the union in 1861 the Alamo was under control of Confederate forces until 1865. In the late 1870s the Army began relocating its operations to what is now known as Fort Sam Houston.

Clara Driscoll, Savior of the Alamo

Clara Driscoll; wikipedia public domain

By1903, the Alamo had been neglected and was nearly torn down and replaced by a hotel. Once again, it was saved, this time by 22-year-old Clara Driscoll, whose grandfather had fought in the battle of San Jacinto. Donating her own money, she collaborated with the San Antonio chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas to protect the historic mission. For her generosity, Driscoll is known as the “Savior of the Alamo.”

Born in 1881, Clara was the only daughter of Corpus Christi millionaire Robert Driscoll. Educated in Europe, she knew the importance of preserving historical sites. She wrote: “By the care of our eloquent but voiceless monuments, we are preparing a noble inspiration for our future.”

When Driscoll died in 1945, her body lay in state at the mission’s chapel, in recognition of her work to preserve “the shrine of Texas Independence and glory,” as she described it.

A Battle Over Preservation

Today, the Alamo needs updates. Plaster is flaking off the walls of the nearly 300-year-old building. Its one-room space can hold only a fraction of key artifacts and is usually so packed with tourists that it’s impossible to give each exhibit the time it deserves. The surrounding plaza is a circus, packed with novelty shops and a Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.

But Texans are deeply divided over how to renovate the Alamo. A $450 million plan proposed in 2017 turned into a five-year fight over whether to focus narrowly on the 1836 battle or present a fuller view that delves into the site’s Indigenous history and the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution.

Several defenders in the 1836 Battle were slave holders, including William B. Travis and Davy Crockett. Whether or not to point this out in future displays at the Alamo is a bone of contention between conservative groups and those who wish to tell the Alamo story from a more inclusive perspective. Indigenous leaders also want the site to respect its ancient role as a burial ground. Historians argue that support for slavery really was a motivating factor for the Texas Revolution.

Alamo Cenotaph; image by David R. Tribble; creative commons share-alike 3.0

Another virulent disagreement concerns the Cenotaph, a 56-foot-tall monument to Alamo defenders erected in the plaza between 1936 and 1940. Under the renovation plan, the Cenotaph would be moved 500 feet south and deposited in front of the historic Menger Hotel. The intent was to make the plaza “period neutral” and help visitors imagine how the Alamo looked as a mission and fort. But conservative groups rallied in armed protest and turned up at public meetings chanting “Not one inch!”

The struggle over the Cenotaph ended when the Texas Historical Commission, a state board whose members are appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, voted to deny a permit to move it. Nearly half of the board members of the nonprofit raising funds for the Alamo renovation resigned in protest.

On April 15, the San Antonio city council voted for a new plan that leases much of the plaza to the state for at least 50 years — and leaves the Cenotaph in place. Let’s hope the new plan goes forward.

I have visited the Alamo several times and am always filled with awe for those who gave their lives there, but I agree the plaza needs to be redesigned to show more respect for the shrine. As for the matter of slavery, it distresses me to know some of our heroes owned slaves, but I’m not sure I want to dwell on that fact when I stand in the most revered site in Texas. What do you think?

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