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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.

 

 

11 Comments »

  • Frank says:

    Best review I’ve read. This book should be required reading for all people interested in Alamo history. It replaces all the other books I’ve read on the Alamo legend.

  • tony says:

    Reading the book right now. I was brought up on the legend.saw the J.W. film as a teenager.
    Even managed a trip from home ( England ) to the Alamo.
    But was a teacher of history for many years…and this book tells it as it really must have been…including the nasty bits about the influence of race and the question of slavery.
    Having said that, all countries need legends or 1/2 truths…we have things like our view of the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk…you have the Alamo and a rag-tag citizen milita winning the War of Independence without a regular army or the French navy.
    great book…read it…find the trutghs in history…but the legends are fun.

  • Brad says:

    Currently reading this book and it is very, very poorly written. In addition to being bombastic, it assumes to have “discovered new material” when such new material has been previously written about, in same cases years before. All in all, it bad revisionist history that speculates way too much with no proof to back up some of its assertions (i.e. Travis’s suicide, multiple escape attempts, etc). The research is shoddy at best and author cherry-picks his sources. Avoid if you are looking for a balanced, well-researched and written account of the topic.

  • John A. Morrow says:

    So-why would emphasis be put on the Alamo defenders being “slavers’ or that they ,or some,fled?
    Typically revisionism-where everything is somehow saddled with “slavery”.
    Are the Spartans remembered at Thermopylae being “slavers”(in a time when ANY Spartan could slay a helot on a mere whim)or for something else?
    Is it really some sort of stigma that several prisoners(Crockett perhaps)were murdered after being overrun by thousands of Mexicans?
    That make them less heroic?
    If some fled the walls when they were breached at several points-is that somehow “less heroic”?
    The fact that these men stayed put 13 days makes them the heroes they were -and still are.
    Revisionists can nip & pick;remind me of chiggers….
    John A. Morrow

  • John A. Morrow says:

    Also:the Texian bodies burned by Santa Anna’s troops in two locations -any Catholic would understand that “rebels” would not be buried(or burned) in or on consecrated ground(i.e.inside the Alamo).
    Santa Anna would certainly have been aware of this.
    That all bodies were removed by the Mexicans from the Alamo is pretty well established.
    It may simply be a matter of convenience to pile & burn the Texians away from the village and nothing more than the convenience of nearby combustables(cottonwood trees,etc.)
    To base an assumption that the locations of the burned Texians reflects where they actually fell seems(to me)very,very shakey inference.
    How could anyone assume that this,somehow,indicates that the Texans fled the compound en masse?
    It would seem much more likely that the seperate burnings had to do with two or more Mexican units being detailed to burn the Texian bodies and the two different burn sites had to do with the availibility of firewood.
    Santa Anna moved all the bodies,including Mexicans,burying his own dead in a local cemetery and ,when filled or putrefaction fast becoming an issue,dumped his dead soldiers in the river.

  • Joe says:

    I have a library of over fifty books concerning the battle and this portion of Texas history. I have never read anything this ridiculous. The introduction starts this mess and the author continues. Luckily I checked it out from my local library and didn’t spend money on it.

    If you have read this and have it in your collection, please don’t pass it on to young people. Let’s preserve the truth of Texas History

    God Bless Texas

  • John A. Morrow says:

    After much thought-I’ve concluded that this author is just another “angry black man.”
    And this guy teaches “history”???

  • jeff says:

    am reading this book now. while i find it interesting, i also see alot of assumption as the author tries to reshape the facts. he conveniently ignores eye witness accounts when it suits him. it is obvious that he started with a verdict then held the trial in order to reach the desired conslusion.

    the true alamo story is being very properly being written about by some good authors. this book and man arent in that group.

  • Gerald says:

    Best review in awhile. The book should be a good read for all people interested in Alamo history.

  • Gary says:

    This book is in my opinion a joke!

    These are the letters that were written by Colonel Travis during the siege of the Alamo with dates and the day’s spent battling the Mexican Army.

    These are in the archives, read them and you will see these patriots fought with Honor!

    To The People of Texas and All Americans In The World –February 24, 1836

    Fellow citizens & compatriots –

    I am beseiged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna — I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man — The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken — I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism, & every thing dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch –The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country –

    VICTORY OR DEATH

    William Barret Travis Lt. Col. Comdt.

    P.S. The Lord is on our side — When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn — We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels & got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves –

    Travis

    To Major-General Sam Houston February 25, 1836

    HEADQUARTERS, FORT OF THE ALAMO: Sir; On the 23rd of Feb., the enemy in large force entered the city of Bexar, which could not be prevented, as I had not sufficient force to occupy both positions. Col. Bartes, the Adjutant-Major of the President-General Santa Anna, demanded a surrender at discretion, calling us foreign rebels. I answered them with a cannon shot, upon which the enemy commenced a bombardment with a five inch howitzer, which together with a heavy cannonade, has been kept up incessantly ever since. I instantly sent express to Col. Fannin, at Goliad, and to the people of Gonzales and San Felipe. Today at 10 o’clock a.m. some two or three hundred Mexicans crossed the river below and came up under cover of the houses until they arrived within virtual point blank shot, when we opened a heavy discharge of grape and canister on them, together with a well directed fire from small arms which forced them to halt and take shelter in the houses about 90 or 100 yards from our batteries. The action continued to rage about two hours, when the enemy retreated in confusion, dragging many of their dead and wounded.

    During the action, the enemy kept up a constant bombardment and discharge of balls, grape, and canister. We know from actual observation that many of the enemy were wounded — while we, on our part, have not lost a man. Two or three of our men have been slightly scratched by pieces of rock, but have not been disabled. I take great pleasure in stating that both officers and men conducted themselves with firmness and bravery. Lieutenant Simmons of cavalry acting as infantry, and Captains Carey, Dickinson and Blair of the artillery, rendered essential service, and Charles Despallier and Robert Brown gallantly sallied out and set fire to houses which afforded the enemy shelter, in the face of enemy fire. Indeed, the whole of the men who were brought into action conducted themselves with such heroism that it would be injustice to discriminate. The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points, animating the men to do their duty. Our numbers are few and the enemy still continues to approximate his works to ours. I have every reason to apprehend an attack from his whole force very soon; but I shall hold out to the last extremity, hoping to secure reinforcements in a day or two. Do hasten on aid to me as rapidly as possible, as from the superior number of the enemy, it will be impossible for us to keep them out much longer. If they overpower us, we fall a sacrifice at the shrine of our country, and we hope prosperity and our country will do our memory justice. Give me help, oh my country! Victory or Death!

    W. Barret Travis Lt. Col. Com

    To the President of the Convention March 3, 1836

    COMMANDANCY OF THE ALAMO, BEJAR: In the present confusion of the political authorities of the country, and in the absence of the commander-in-chief, I beg leave to communicate to you the situation of this garrison. You have doubtless already seen my official report of the action of the 25th ult. made on that day to General Sam Houston, together with the various communications heretofore sent by express. I shall, therefore, confine myself to what has transpired since that date.

    From the 25th to the present date, the enemy have kept up a bombardment from two howitzers (one a five and a half inch, and the other an eight inch) and a heavy cannonade from two long nine-pounders, mounted on a battery on the opposite side of the river, at a distance of four hundred yards from our walls. During this period the enemy has been busily employed in encircling us with entrenchments on all sides, at the following distance, to wit –in Bexar, four hundred yards west; in Lavilleta, three hundred yards south; at the powder-house, one thousand yards east by south; on the ditch, eight hundred yards north. Notwithstanding all this, a company of thirty-two men from Gonzales, made their way into us on the morning of the 1st inst, at three o’clock, and Col. J.B. Bonham (a courier from Gonzales) got in this morning at eleven o’clock without molestation. I have so fortified this place, that the walls are generally proof against cannon-balls; and I shall continue to entrench on the inside, and strengthen the walls by throwing up dirt. At least two hundred shells have fallen inside our works without having injured a single man; indeed, we have been so fortunate as not to lose a man from any cause, and we have killed many of the enemy. The spirits of my men are still high, although they have had much to depress them. We have contended for ten days against an enemy whose numbers are variously estimated at from fifteen hundred to six thousand, with Gen. Ramirez Sesma and Col. Bartres, the aid-de-camp of Santa Anna, at their head. A report was circulated that Santa Anna himself was with the enemy, but I think it was false. A reinforcement of one thousand men is now entering Bexar from the west, and I think it more than probable that Santa Anna is now in town, from< the rejoicing we hear. Col. Fannin is said to be on the march to this place with reinforcements; but I fear it is not true, as I have repeatedly sent to him for aid without receiving any. Col. Bonham, my special messenger, arrived at Labahia fourteen days ago, with a request for aid; and on the arrival of the enemy in Bexar ten days ago, I sent an express to Col. F. which arrived at Goliad on the next day, urging him to send us reinforcements — none have arrived. I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it arrives soon, I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms. I will, however, do the best I can under the circumstances, and I feel confident that the determined valour and desperate courage, heretofore evinced by my men, will not fail them in the last struggle, and although they may be sacrifieced to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse for him than a defeat. I hope your honorable body will hasten on reinforcements, ammunition, and provisions to our aid, as soon as possible. We have provisions for twenty days for the men we have; our supply of ammunition is limited. At least five hundred pounds of cannon powder, and two hundred rounds of six, nine, twelve, and eighteen pound balls — ten kegs of rifle powder, and a supply of lead, should be sent to this place without delay, under a sufficient guard.

    If these things are promptly sent, and large reinforcements are hastened to this frontier, this neighborhood will be the great and decisive battle ground. The power of Santa Anna is to be met here or in the colonies; we had better meet them here, than to suffer a war of desolation to rage our settlements. A blood-red banner waves from the church of Bexar, and in the camp above us, in token that the war is one of vengeance against rebels; they have declared us as such, and demanded that we should surrender at discretion or this garrison should be put to the sword. Their threats have had no influence on me or my men, but to make all fight with desperation, and that high-souled courage which characterizes the patriot, who is willing to die in defense of his country's liberty and his own honour.

    The citizens of this municipality are all our enemies except those who have joined us heretofore; we have but three Mexicans now in the fort; those who have not joined us in this extremity, should be declared public enemies, and their property should aid in paying the expenses of the war.

    The bearer of this will give you your honorable body, a statement more in detail, should he escape through the enemy's lines. God and Texas! –Victory or Death!!

    P.S. The enemy's troops are still arriving, and the reinforcements will probably amount to two or three thousand.

    To Jesse Grimes March 3, 1836

    Do me the favor to send the enclosed to its proper destination instantly. I am still here, in fine spirits and well to do, with 145 men. I have held this place for ten days against a force variously estimated from 1,500 to 6,000, and shall continue to hold it till I get relief from my country or I will perish in its defense. We have had a shower of bombs and cannon balls continually falling among us the whole time, yet none of us has fallen. We have been miraculously preserved. You have no doubt seen my official report of the action of the 24th ult. in which we repulsed the enemy with considerable loss; on the night of the 25th they made another attempt to charge us in the rear of the fort, but we received them gallantly by a discharge of grape shot and musquertry, and they took to their scrapers immediately. They are now encamped in entrenchments on all sides of us.

    All our couriers have gotten out without being caught and a company of 32 men from Gonzales got in two nights ago, and Colonel Bonham got in today by coming between the powder house and the enemy's upper encampment….Let the convention go on and make a declaration of independence, and we will then understand, and the world will understand, what we are fighting for. If independence is not declared, I shall lay down my arms, and so will the men under my command. But under the flag of independence, we are ready to peril our lives a hundred times a day, and to drive away the monster who is fighting us under a blood-red flag, threatening to murder all prisoners and make Texas a waste desert. I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms, yet I am ready to do it, and if my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect. With 500 men more, I will drive Sesma beyond the Rio Grande, and I will visit vengeance on the enemy fighting against us. Let the government declare them public enemies, otherwise she is acting a suicidal part. I shall treat them as such, unless I have superior orders to the contrary.

    My respects to all friends, confusion to all enemies. God Bless you.

    To David Ayers March 3, 1836

    Take care of my little boy. If the country should be saved, I may make for him a splendid fortune; but if the country be lost and I should perish, he will have nothing but the proud recollection that he is the son of a man who died for his country.

    The letter to David Ayers is the last known letter written by Travis before the fall of the Alamo on the morning of March 6, 1836.

    William Barret Travis died at his post on the cannon platform at the northeast corner of the fortress.

    He was 26 years old.

  • Frank F says:

    The great part about the Alamo is that due to the scarcity of survivors, “historians” can create their own accounts. Granted, the story has been overly glorified over the years, but I highly doubt that Professor Tucker’s account is any more accurate than the cowboyed-up 1960 John Wayne classic.

    To me, professor Tucker comes off as a well read troll, in that if he knows that the more controversial his telling comes off, the more readers that he is likely to get. As they say, no publicity is bad publicity.

    The one thing I can agree with is Sam Houston dissuading others such as Fannin from going to the Alamo. It was a suicide mission, and there was no point in adding to the body count. Why ultimately happened to Fannin and his men was unfortunate, but certainly not orchestrated.

    Regardless of what actually happens in the battle, one fact can not be disputed; whether or not it was their intention, the two hundred or so defenders of the Alamo bought Sam Houston some extra time to organize the army that would await Santa Anna’s forces at San Jacinto. That alone is enough to earn them the immortality that they’ll cling to long after Prodessor Tucker has been forgotten.

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