Tuesday, February 26, 2013

JFK 50 at the Alamo

The Alamo 4 AM March 6 1836 

Floyd: Alamo stewards might take notes from Dallas’ JFK presentation
Jacquielynn Floyd

Published: 25 February 2013

The crowds that lined up over the weekend in San Antonio to get a look at William Barret Travis’ famous “victory or death” letter were a gratifying testament to history’s enduring claim on modern consciousness.

With luck, the temporary return of Travis’ dramatic message to the Alamo, where it was written 177 years and (as of Tuesday) two days ago, signals a kind of marketing milestone. It’s time for the Alamo to assume a serious, scholarly position as a cultural and historical monument.

Not to say that the 1836 siege doesn’t endure as a thumpingly swell action story, because it does. Without the story, the building is a pleasingly scenic Spanish colonial mission chapel; without the building, the story is just another distant battle date for long-suffering history students to memorize.

It’s the combination that makes the Alamo such a popular attraction, but the public’s interest hasn’t always been as well rewarded as it should.

More than a century of proprietary-if-well-meaning stewardship by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas narrowed the Alamo’s focus to the Texans killed in its defense, turning what should be a living portal to history into a quasi-religious shrine, presenting the story in limited and highly subjective terms.

And I say this from an insider perspective: My great-uncle Dolphin Ward Floyd, six generations removed, was among the dead. Naturally, I incline to the view of the defenders as heroic freedom fighters rather than ungrateful land-grabbing rebels, but pretending they were a divinely anointed band of holy warriors omits a lot of awfully interesting history.

If the state waited a little too long to tactfully transfer custodianship of the Alamo from the Daughters to the people (in the form of the Texas General Land Office, which assumed control last year), at least there is still a building of which to maintain custody.
The same cannot be said for the site in its entirety. Indifferent preservation efforts and development squabbles have reduced the old fort’s footprint by 70 percent. Most of the 2 million-plus visitors who tour the site every year don’t realize the oak-shaded plaza out front was actually once enclosed within the fort’s walls.

Nor do they recognize that Travis’ own quarters and other Alamo structures once stood along a block now occupied by a strip of nonrelated, staggeringly tasteless tourist emporia.

“Considering the abuse heaped on it through the ages,” wrote Texas Monthly senior editor Gary Cartwright in 2008, “it’s a miracle the Alamo survives at all.”

If the Alamo’s stewards are still fumbling toward a lasting formula for how to present the ever-compelling site, they might take a lesson from (surprise!) Dallas.

The site of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination isn’t entirely analogous to the Alamo, but there are similarities.

Unlike the Alamo, of course, Dealey Plaza wasn’t jealously guarded — it was pretty much neglected during the self-hypnotic decades while the city tried to pretend nothing-happened-here-and-there’s-nothing-to-see.

But in more recent years, The Sixth Floor Museum — and, latterly, the city itself — has done a reasonably successful job of responding to enduring public interest in the site. The result is a thorough and fairly respectful presentation that acknowledges dissent without allowing the site to degenerate into a lurid conspiracy carnival.

Obviously, these are dramatically dissimilar venues. But both sites act as tangible magnets for a public hunger to grasp watershed events in our own history.

The best way to satisfy that hunger is with established fact and scholarship, candidly and respectfully presented — and with a minimum of theme-park tourist hokum. History is compelling enough without it.

   The world famous "Victory or Death" letter was penned by Lt. Col. William Barrett Travis while besieged within the Alamo by the Mexican army in San Antonio de Bexar. 

The Travis letter is universally regarded as one of the most heroic letters ever written.  Facing almost certain death, Travis vowed never to surrender or retreat and to "die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country — Victory or Death."

  The Travis letter is dated February 24, 1836.  Some have mistakenly referred to this as Travis' last letter from the Alamo. He wrote at least four more letters. Travis wrote a letter to General Sam Houston dated February 25, 1836 and three letters dated March 3, 1836.  One of Travis' letters dated March 3, 1836 which urgently requested aid for the Alamo was received by the Convention at Washington, Texas on March 6, 1836.  The delegates to the Convention at Washington had declared the independence of Texas four days before on March 2, 1836

   Travis never did surrender or retreat.  After a thirteen day siege by thousands of Mexican soldiers under the command of Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Alamo fell on March 6, 1836.  All of the Alamo's 189 defenders, including William Barrett Travis, were killed.  The country he and the others died for, the Republic of Texas, was only four days old.

   The original "Victory or Death" letter written by William Barrett Travis on February 24, 1836 is located in the Texas State Library and Archives in Austin, Texas.

The Travis Letter
Commandancy of the The Alamo
Bejar, Feby. 24th. 1836
To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World—
Fellow Citizens & compatriots—
     I am besieged, 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 & everything 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 Barrett 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 and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.

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