Deaths, not details, significant

Ted Fehrenbach

What happened at the Alamo 163 years ago is something we still talk about, because it is important and will never be forgotten so long as men are men. It haunts our conscience and consciousness, which is why the question of and questions about the Alamo are regularly revived, and why the Alamo seemingly must be defended time and again

The battle itself was a brief moment in history and not a particularly bloody one as such things go. But it has assumed an importance beyond its time, its results or the lives of those involved. Today the Alamo is three things: an old building around which a battle was fought in 1836; an event that spawned a horde of myths; and a symbol. We talk about it here in Texas because we are compelled to do so, every time we confront the act itself, the self-sacrificing death of brave men.

How shall we see the Alamo today?

How should we see it?

First of all, we should never see it in terms of the ethnicity of the participants, purely as Texans and Mexicans beating up on each other. If that's all it were, there are many other encounters of greater significance.

We should not see it in terms of ancient grudges, in some quarters still unresolved.

We should never look upon the Alamo in terms of unhappiness with contemporary society or the way things turned out This is where today too many purported historians fail miserably.

If we try to rewrite history out of hatred for the present (or love of it) we are no better than the beasts of the fields, awakening each morning to a new world we shall never understand.

The Alamo was never a symbol of Anglo-Saxon superiority, nor of Mexican dastardy and defeat, though some may have tried to make it so. Brave men of many nations fought and died on both sides of those walls. There were fools and heroes on both sides.

We should, I believe, try to see the Alamo always in terms of the causes for which men fought. We do not need to be Greek to stand in spirit with the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. We do not honor Leonidas and his warriors because we admire everything in Spartan society, nor should we denigrate their prowess and courage because there was much to their life and times that we detest.

What we honor, what fighting men have honored, almost in awe, is the act of a brave band that held a Persian host at bay defending Grecian civilization until the last one died. And perhaps we should recall that for Leonidas and his Spartans, Thermopylae was "foreign" soil, certainly not their homeland.

One need not be Texan or American to honor the cause of the Alamo, which was liberty, the liberty of free men, men who refused to bend the knee to tyranny, to stand with those who died in the Alamo.

We must face the fact that in world opinion as well as our own, those who fought for the dictator Santa Anna were, like brave Germans or Japanese in 1941, historically on the wrong side. The world would not today be a better place, nor would Mexico, if Texans had lost their war of independence. If you believe otherwise, God bless you we have no grounds for rational discourse

Now every age since 1836 has had to face the fact of the Alamo. Every age to come will have to confront it. We cannot ignore it, even if someday that crumbling limestone relic falls to ruin. The symbol, what the Alamo stands for, will still remain.

I am not much interested in myths pertaining to the Alamo, though some enjoy wrangling over the legends. Whether William Travis drew a line in the sand or exactly how Davy Crockett died had no effect on history. It's unimportant whether there were 183 or 189 defenders' bodies in the smouldering ruins. These are minor details that absorb small minds. What is important is the collective actions of 180-odd brave men who made and, I think, changed history.

It is also of little importance, historically, whether the men in the Alamo were saints or sinners or how they got there. It was the manner of their dying that created our eternal symbol.

And this symbol is important. It keeps drawing us back to the Alamo. But why does it still seize our hearts and minds? Because its true meaning, however we talk around it, is one of blood sacrifice. This is what made those ancient walls into a shrine.

The human race is not beyond all that, and I for one believe we shall never be beyond it. But this symbol of blood sacrifice is one that some people want or hope to obviate, bury and forget in carping arguments.

If we ask, as some do, what motivated the men who died, what made them do it, we reveal more about ourselves than about those who chose to fight and die. When we attempt to psychoanalyze them, we seek not to solve their problems but our own.

What these men did, and why, is reasonably clear from contemporary evidence. They were men who rode to the sound of the guns, who never backed down from a fight, who placed a sense of personal honor above personal extinction. They were men who stood fast even when the going got desperate

In his letters Travis said it all. The Alamo was a strategic fortress that needed to be held to protect Texas, and Travis would hold it as both war and honor demanded, and if no one came to his aid, he was prepared to die fighting, doing as much damage to the enemy as he could. Barbarian values? Perhaps. But civilization has always been, and probably always will be, defended by such Victory or death was not an idle slogan to our ancestors, neither in Travis' words nor on the battle standard at San Jacinto.

Texans hold up the Alamo as a symbol of human courage and sacrifice, a place where fighting men won honor, and where we honor them perpetually for placing the defense of liberty above life itself. Without such sacrifice, our state, our nation, would not be.

The Alamo was not an act of inexorable history; it was history made through the conscious choice of brave men. These men did not want to die, had not intended to die but when the time came, they found their place and time upon those grim walls.

They still send us a message. How many Texans, and how many from other lands, have stood before the Alamo and asked, what would I have done? Would I have handled destiny in the same way?

Times change. There are eras in which mothers would not want to have a son serving under William Barret Travis. There are eras in which the concept of honor, as the men of the Alamo knew it, is not so much despised as simply not understood. There are times when people who are sophisticated without being wise can say, no war is a good war if one is killed in it which means, in effect, that no cause is worth dying for

Any age that fails to exalt courage will be confounded by the symbol of the Alamo and baffled by the men who stayed in it. Any time that does not in its heart believe in self-sacrifice will find the Alamo a mystery, a most troubling symbol.

Any age that cannot accept the fact there are causes for which men will kill and die, and clearminded accept the consequences of battle, may try to reject the symbol of the Alamo. It may even consider the symbol dangerous, for if its children honor it, they may try to emulate what happened there.

The Alamo is a fearful symbol for any age that believes that history is done, or which hopes to eradicate risk or proclaims pure and simple survival as an ideal.

For the Alamo is a symbol of a thousand battles, fought or to be fought by men prepared to make the supreme sacrifice for that which they believe. Any age that fears war more than servitude or death more than dishonor must denigrate the Alamo.

The Alamo, like all blood sacrifices, remains a triumph of the human spirit over death. Ages that fear death find human valor impossible to understand.

Ages that do not honor the concept of "liberty or death" will fight no Alamos. Ages and nations that do not cling to the great values of love, honor, courage, sacrifice and, yes, magnanimity, will not only fail to remember the Alamo, they may not long endure. Such ages may argue that the battle should not have been fought, forgetting that many things may be negotiated, but freedom is not one of them.

Yet, every age must approach the Alamo and deal with this disturbing symbol of both our past and present. For it transcends politics, cultures, nations and even civilizations, because it tells us something profound about the human race,..

Even when our civilization is no more, people will be drawn to.the story of the Alamo, fact and legend, as we are still drawn to the story of Thermopylae. Retelling the story, subjecting the men who died to reinterpretation and reanalysis, as every age seems wont to do, tells nothing more about them.

But how we approach this shrine, on this or any other day, tells us much about ourselves.

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T. R. Fehrenbach first delivered this address before the Alamo in 1986 during the Texas Sesquicentenial.

San Antonio Express-News, March 7, 1999. Used with permission.

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