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Book Review: Exodus from the Alamo

Exodus from the Alamo: The Anatomy of the Last Stand Myth

by Phillip Thomas Tucker

Casemate Publishers, 2010

Phillip Thomas Tucker’s Exodus from the Alamo (published in the US in 2011) has its work cut out for it, as the author knows better than anybody. Before he can get to the story of Mexican General Santa Anna’s men killing the defenders of the little mission on the early morning of 6 March 1836, Tucker himself has a far more resourceful enemy to battle, and ultimate victory is every bit as much of a long-shot. Where Santa Anna had to defeat a couple hundred ill-organized militiamen, Tucker has to beat John Wayne. Talk about a suicide mission.

In 1960, Wayne fulfilled a long-standing obsession of his and brought to American movie screens The Alamo, a rousing story of the heroic defense of the old fort against the Mexican hordes drawn up on all sides. William Travis (played with elegant bombast by Laurence Harvey), Jim Bowie (a grousing Richard Widmark) and Davy Crockett (Wayne himself, fully ready to be elected President via a massive write-in) lead their hardscrabble followers in a hopeless defense of the Alamo’s crumbling walls, killing dozens of Mexicans apiece under the burning sun in a desperate attempt to buy brave Sam Houston enough time to assemble the forces that will later defeat Santa Anna at San Jacinto and save the Republic of Texas. Critics of the more cynical stripe carped about the movie at the time, but there’s simply no denying the reality there on the screen: John Wayne’s The Alamo is one hell of an effective movie.

Aside from the fact that they both involved members of the human race doing things on the planet Earth, the battle of The Alamo and the Battle of the Alamo have virtually nothing in common. The action didn’t take place under a burning sun – Santa Anna staged a pre-dawn strike. The defenders didn’t kill dozens of enemy soldiers apiece in their heroic desperation: most of them were caught weaponless and asleep. And the very heart of the story that was immortal long before Wayne came along, the myth of the valiant last stand, never happened – contemporary accounts have always asserted that there were many futile attempts at surrender (even, heretically, by Crockett himself).

Military historian Tucker has even worse news for the iconographers. In his passionate and gripping book, he makes what ought to be the definitive argument that many of the Alamo’s defenders, who were farmers and teachers and settlers mostly, not hardened soldiers, had no interest in fighting out a doomed suicide mission. According to Tucker’s painstaking reconstruction of that horrible morning (using a formidable array of sources, including many Mexican accounts never before utilized with such skill), there were many massed attempts at fleeing the mission rather than fighting to the last man. Tucker even toys with the idea that Travis himself organized such a flight and might have been involved in its initial stages before being cut down (unlike many Alamo historians, Tucker never loses sight of the fact that we’ll never really know exactly where everybody was during the fight).

If true, it made no difference in the material outcome. Santa Anna had posted detachments in the rear of the fort specifically to cut off any possibility of escape, so the end result was equally grim:

It is most paradoxical that perhaps the most glorified battle in American history was in truth merely a brief slaughter. A veil of darkness mercifully shrouded a brutal massacre from the sight of many participants. There was nothing glorious in Santa Anna’s no-quarter policy and its bloody results: scared young men far from home attempting to surrender in vain, and scores of escapees running for their lives out on the open prairie, only to be cut down by the sabers and lances of Mexican cavalrymen outside the Alamo.

Tucker’s “brief slaughter” was never really a battle at all – the disparity of the sides was too great. Instead, after the walls had been breached, Santa Anna’s army took about twenty-five minutes (eerily similar to how long it would take Custer’s 7th Cavalry to die at Little Bighorn, and Tucker examines how interchangeable 19th century Americans found their indigenous enemies) to snuff out a minor pocket of resistance before advancing on the real enemy, Sam Houston and the Republic of Texas.

Houston comes delightfully close to being Tucker’s main villain. Some readers (myself included) have been waiting a long time to see the man the Cherokee called “Big Drunk” (a wonderfully direct people, the Cherokee) described as the sodden, demented, opportunistic, cowardly wretch he was, and although Tucker is too professional to indulge such readers completely, he’s clear in his denunciation:

Instead of deserving renown as the “Father of Texas,” as endlessly promoted by Texas and American historians, Houston should have been denounced as the “Father of the Alamo disaster,” because of his apathy toward the Alamo’s fate.

Tucker is equally forthright on the strengths and weaknesses of the man who usually is the villain of this story: Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, vainly trying to cut a Napoleonic dash in the dust of the chaparrall:

On the battlefield, the penchant for risk-taking that led to disaster at San Jacinto nevertheless paid him early dividends, leading to promotions and acclaim as a daring young cavalry commander, when he often staked everything on one throw of the dice.

But as his book’s sub-title might hint, Tucker’s main target isn’t human at all: it’s the myth that has so thickly encrusted the Alamo for nearly two centuries, the myth John Wayne chose over reality for his movie. Before reading this book, I would have said I myself bought into little or none of that myth, and yet I found Tucker’s near-irrefutable proof of massed flights from the fort oddly unsettling. I hadn’t realized how comfortably the idea had settled in my mind that those defenders, realizing that Santa Anna’s red pennants meant no quarter would be given to his enemies, decided to fight to the end rather than do exactly what Tucker says they did: run for their lives only to get chased down and skewered by Santa Anna’s mounted lancers. The last stand is a powerful myth, which makes it personal: I would have been illogically irritated with any historian who chose to demolish that myth without first trying to understand it.

Fortunately, readers of Exodus from the Alamo are in good hands with Tucker (although not always with his editors – there be typos here) – he takes the myth more seriously than any other Alamo historian I’ve read, and he’s sharply aware of the enormous stakes that came to be involved:

Therefore the Alamo’s story – based upon the mythical last stand – evolved into a holy resurrection, a defeat that only paved the way for decisive victory by Houston’s ragtag army at San Jacinto, justifying a sense of cultural and racial superiority and a “racial enmity” that continues to exist to this day. In this way, the slaughter of the Alamo garrison was transformed into a great moral victory, a regenerative act of God’s will, a necessary sacrifice for the establishment of a dominant Anglo-Celtic civilization.

Since “lots of people tried to escape from the Alamo before it fell” requires only 12 words instead of 404 pages, Tucker spends a great deal of time grounding his later investigations and bombshells in a detailed and sweeping narrative of the Alamo’s entire context. This is more good news for his readers, since although he can get a bit garrulous, he’s a first-rate guide through a fairly tangled thicket. Quite apart from its sensational propositions, Exodus from the Alamo is the best English-language account we have of the entire lead-up to the doomed battle. Fans of serious, involving history should go to Casemate and buy a copy – and then later that night, perhaps after a discreet whiskey (or two), pop in The Alamo and sigh a little for lost innocence.