Álamo is a Spanish name for a tree. The word is related, way back, to elm – you can see the resemblance, can’t you? So, of course, since words are faulty records of history, the tree it names is not an elm but a poplar – specifically, the cottonwood, and in fact several species of cottonwood, but most commonly the eastern cottonwood.
This tree is called cottonwood for a perfectly good reason: something of it looks like cotton – not its wood, but its seeds, or rather the little filaments attached to the seeds that help them be carried by the wind. In early summer the ground around a cottonwood is covered with a white cottony blanket, obscuring all below it. If you want to see the ground again, you will find that this cotton blanket burns rapidly and cleanly, vanishing like morning mist (but be careful – occasionally it ignites other things).
The eastern cottonwood is the state tree of no fewer than three states: Kansas, Wyoming, and Nebraska. But under the name álamo, it is most associated with a state that has as its official tree the pecan: Texas.
Remember the Alamo? Of course you don’t; you weren’t there. And yet, most people in the United States, many in Canada, and quite a few in other parts of the world remember the Alamo, or anyway remember something about the Alamo. It was, uh, a great American battle, like a huge thing with a lot of heroism, and in this big fort (was it a fort?), with great American heroes… Um… wait, was that where both Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett went to glory? Say, was that the battle where one of those guys drew a line in the sand with his sword? And the Americans… won or lost?
If you ever happen to visit San Antonio, Texas, you’ll have a chance to refresh your memory, as it were. A mere block away from the Riverwalk – a sunken riparian loop lined with Margarita-toting tourists perambulating a not-too-wide Disney-feeling stone path between restaurant patios and the shallow river (in which a few each week take accidental swims) – you will find the Alamo, or what’s there of it now. Just walk through the Hyatt lobby, past the Biergarten (“Prost, y’all!”), and along the brutalist sunken stream.
And then, up at street level, heralded by a Texas flag, past much open space and assorted visitors, there is the Alamo. Is it a large cottonwood, or a stand of them? It is not. It is stone buildings and stone walls. One of the buildings, a low, narrow, long one, is the oldest building in Texas, the long barracks. The long barracks doesn’t look like much on the outside, but when you get inside it, it looks like even less. However, it has a video and some historical displays on the wall. But there’s more. There are other buildings, and walled courtyards, and trees. In front of the oldest building in Texas is a large, ancient, gnarly tree. It’s an oak.
It has a well under it. The well is dry and its bottom is covered with coins and small bills. Maintaining memory takes money.
Beyond the big tree, next to the courtyard but not opening onto it, is the chapel.
The Alamo was originally established in the early 1700s as Misión San Antonio de Valero. Various buildings were erected, including a chapel, which was so badly built it collapsed within a few years. They started building a new one, but they never actually finished it. And before the end of the 1700s, the mission had stopped being a mission, for various reasons political and economic. It was abandoned for a while, and then used by various military groups and commercial enterprises. And somewhere in there, it started being called the Alamo, either because there were cottonwoods nearby or because for a time it was occupied by a cavalry detachment colloquially known as the Álamo de Parras Company, so called from the town of San José y Santiago del Álamo, near Parras in Coahuila. Which would mean that the cottonwood tree it was named after was in a village in what is now Mexico. Official memory sometimes carries things away.
The fame of the Alamo comes from the battle that happened there in 1836. Forces fighting for an independent Republic of Texas made a stand against the (also fairly new) Republic of Mexico, from which Texas was seceding. Americans, notably James Bowie and David Crockett, came to help Texas, but there was no official help from the United States of America, as it had treaties with Mexico and did not want to break them and engage in open war. At the time, the Alamo was a walled compound about the size of a city block, mostly open turf, and the chapel – or anyway, the walls and assorted other ruins that remained of it – was at one corner. The chapel was nothing much worth fighting for in itself – walls, no roof, rubble and dirt piled up the middle to make a ramp to the back wall – but it was worth fighting from, if you were going to make a stand at the Alamo.
I won’t recount the whole siege and battle; there are many websites that will tell you, and they mostly agree with one another. The siege lasted a week and a half from when General Antonio López de Santa Anna (yes, with a double n), the president of Mexico, arrived with his troops on February 23 – two days after his 42nd birthday – to when the Mexicans at last overcame the defenders on March 6.
The commander of the Texas forces was a 26-year-old American who had fled financial trouble and joined the Texas Army, Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis. He wrote letters asking for help; he didn’t get much, but one of them, closing with a cry for “victory or death,” has become famous, and he at least got one thing he asked for (the latter). He is also said to have drawn on a line in the dirt with his sword on March 5, inviting any men who wanted to stay and defend to step across it and join him, and the others could try to escape (and exactly one did the latter). There’s a rather dramatic statue of this moment on the grounds of the Alamo now, over near the washrooms. But it probably didn’t happen that way. We can’t really know for sure; even the guy who escaped died not long after. If it didn’t happen that way, well, it should have. If we’re going to pay to maintain memories, they should be inspiring.
I say that Travis was the commander, but for a time he had to split the command with Jim Bowie. The already famous Bowie, 40 years old and known as a frontiersman, soldier, and skilled knife fighter, arrived in January 1836. In early February, when Travis was given command, Bowie – who outranked Travis – resisted and put it to a vote, and the men chose him. He celebrated by getting roaring drunk and causing havoc in the town, and so, to patch things up, he agreed that Travis would command the regular forces while Bowie took over command of the volunteers. However, partway through the siege, Bowie got so sick (no one says from what) that he was confined to bed, which is where he probably died, armed with pistols and a knife.
The Alamo combatant who is most famous now – though not mainly for the Alamo – was Davy Crockett (“King of the Wild Frontier,” as the Disney show theme song had it). Crockett was already 49 years old and had been a member of the United States House of Representatives; when he lost his seat in the election of 1835, he famously (and perhaps even actually) suggested to the people of his district that “they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.” When the Texas Revolution started, he went to the Alamo with some men and arrived two weeks before Santa Anna did. No one is sure exactly where, when, and how he died; it might have been in battle, surrounded by Mexican corpses, or it might have been by execution after being captured. There are contradictory accounts. Some people have very strong opinions on this matter, because social memories are battlefields, too.
The actual Battle of the Alamo was shorter than some Zoom meetings, and even more abusively scheduled. For much of the siege, the Mexicans had fired artillery regularly; on March 5, they stopped, and the defenders finally managed to get some sleep… until 5:30 AM on March 6, when the Mexicans woke them up by attacking. The last of the defenders of the Alamo were killed at the upper end of the chapel before 7:00 AM. The whole battle, in which 212 defenders and at least twice as many Mexican soldiers died, could have happened between one time I wake up, look at my clock, and go back to sleep and the next time I do the same.
It is not, by the way, that Santa Anna’s men took no prisoners. They did take a few; then they killed them all. As to the bodies of the defenders, including the famous ones, they burned them in a heap in the middle of the compound, like so much cottonwood seed (but slower).
When the forces of Texas met Santa Anna’s men at San Jacinto on April 21, the brutality of the Mexicans at the Alamo made “Remember the Alamo!” a rallying cry. The battle of San Jacinto, which was won in 18 minutes and made 43-year-old General Sam Houston a hero, resulted in the capture of Santa Anna, who was allowed to return to Mexico after he signed a peace treaty three weeks later. That secured the independence of the Republic of Texas, which lasted until 1845, when Texans voted to join the United States. Many of those who fought for Texas were Americans in the first place, like Taylor, Bowie, and Crockett. The USA as a country wasn’t involved in the Battle of the Alamo, but it benefited from it after the fact, sort of like how the Alamo benefited from someone else’s cottonwood tree.
If you go to the Alamo now, the dirt and rubble are gone. It was in a sad state for some time, at first abandoned and then used for commercial purposes. At length its cause was championed by preservationists and taken up by politicians, and then it graduated from a place where a thing had happened to an official construction of memory. The seeds of events had taken root.
The chapel is the main attraction, the iconic building. The famous bell-shaped top of the façade (once criticized as looking like a headboard) was added in the mid-1800s, about 20 years after the battle. Its roof was added in the later 1800s. When you go inside, you walk on a stone floor that was added about a century ago. There’s not a whole lot in there – some signs, a model of the Alamo in 1836, some plaques, other people in controlled numbers, possibly ghosts but you can see those only in your mind. The chapel is no larger than some people’s houses: about 4,000 square feet, nearly identical in area to the nearby gift shop, which is also in an old stone building – but while the chapel is the empty coop of the flown birds of official memory, the gift shop’s souvenirs are their caked droppings.
You expect the Alamo to be huge, but it’s not. History often happens in places that are smaller than you expect. Memory and history have a magnifying effect. The seeds of memory come with a lot of fluff, but that fluff helps it spread and grow. You never really burn it all off, but sometimes it does take root – and sometimes it ignites other things.
And at the end, what remains, what is carried on the wind, is the words. You can keep saying “remember” long after the memories are vanished.