Not so long ago, the great British historian J.H. Plumb, in his famous book The Death of the Past, not only described the distinction between the past and history, but predicted that the increasingly rationalistic west would soon throw off the illusions of the past, and its often nefarious uses, and begin to operate on the more realistic plane of history.
What some Texans now call “the history wars” is essentially a conflict between the past as defined above, and its nemesis, history. For most of the 175 years since the Texas Revolution, the past has dominated. It is not hard to see why.
Think of the state’s early defining events—the Revolution, and later independence as a republic, making Texas the only state ever to have existed as a nation. But it was the Revolution, especially the battle of the Alamo, which made the Texas past the proud and stubborn thing that it is, still defiant and assertive against the forces of history, and of modernity, but no longer unchallenged.
The Power of the Alamo
The enduring power of the Alamo in myth and memory derives from its celebrated and absolutist essence: Victory or Death. Freedom or Tyranny. Good or Evil. Right or Wrong. As David Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” The key was being sure.
And doubt was not in the makeup of Bowie and Travis, although Crockett’s political experience might have taught him to take a little time in fixing on the right. The story of the line drawn in the sand by Travis at the Alamo is apocryphal, but it’s a perfect metaphor for the Alamo story: in life, war, morality—you have two choices, and two choices only; there is the line. Decide. Now.
One of the legacies of the Revolution, and of the Alamo, is that American democracy was able to grow in Texas, though not without vicious fighting with native populations and oppression of African American slaves and Tejanos. This kind of oppression was certainly not unique to Texas, however.
But if the positive legacy of the Alamo and the Revolution has been far-reaching in its impact, it is also a hard fact that the legacy has not been uniformly positive. To view them as acts of unadulterated heroism transforms them into myths and diminishes their great importance as history.
The Alamo and the Age of Romanticism
But it is the Revolution that occupies us, and any discussion of that event must reckon with the Alamo’s long shadow. In dominating our memory of those days 175 years ago, the Alamo has obscured other potential legacies of the Revolution, principally that of the tragic events in and around the Presidio La Bahía in Goliad.
The Alamo hovers over the Goliad story and permeated the thoughts of the men involved in the Goliad campaign. Some of the men at the Alamo were previously well-known throughout the South—Jim Bowie, for one, was already renowned for his prowess as a fighter, and his famous knife was carried by men across the southern frontier.
David Crockett was much better known, indeed famous, throughout the United States; William Barret Travis was not so widely known, but in Texas he had already made his name as a firebrand during the disturbances at Anahuac in 1832. Their notoriety alone added drama to their actions at the Alamo, a drama that Goliad seemingly lacks.
But the tragic story of Goliad is laden with as much meaning as the battle of the Alamo. In fact, the story of Goliad is more resonant with our own confounding times than the famous fight at the Alamo.
The Alamo was one of the defining events of 19th century America, occurring at a time when men still fought duels over the slightest offense, and when a peculiarly southern code of chivalry— underestimated as a presence in the Texas Revolution—shaped the thoughts and actions of many Texan leaders.
Recall that the early 19th century was smack in the middle of the Age of Romanticism. Nothing was more quintessentially romantic than the gallant sacrifice of one’s life in a noble cause. The novels of Sir Walter Scott were widely read, especially Ivanhoe, as was the poetry of the English Romantics.
So when the Alamo commanders sent their famous words—Victory or Death—to the world, both they and their world were in accord. The world saw the matter it as they had seen it: The highest calling of a man of honor was to find his noble cause, and pledge his life—or death—to that cause. That the Alamo rose to iconic status almost at once is no surprise, for the Alamo epitomized much in the Age.
Goliad in the Shadows
But what of Goliad? Colonel James Fannin was in command there—though the use of the word command is even more out of place in the case of Goliad as it is in describing Sam Houston’s alleged control of his wayward forces during the later Runaway Scrape.
Fascinated by the reckless ways that Travis and Bowie gained their glory, and by the mysterious workings of Sam Houston, Fannin could not find his own way by following their paths, no matter how he went about it: by turns impetuous, indecisive, and pulled in different directions by his refractory soldiers and the chaotic so-called government that never figured out who was in charge.
From the time he received a famous plea from Travis and Bowie for aid, delivered by James Bonham on February 19, to the final, tragic events at the Presidio La Bahia in Goliad on March 27, the specter of the Alamo—of its men and commanders—was continually with James Fannin.
More important to history and to our collective memory, however, is not Bonham’s mission, but the surrender by Fannin of his 300-man force to the Mexican General Urrea on March 20, following the fierce battle of Coleto Creek the day before; and even more important still is the tragic end that came to Fannin and most of his men on Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836.
Most historians agree that Urrea sought to circumvent orders from Santa Anna to execute all prisoners, while Fannin agreed to something less than a capitulation in hopes of saving his men. Urrea risked severe censure, or much worse, in signing any such document. Both men relied on the honor of the other: Urrea believed that Fannin would keep his word and have his men lay down their arms, and Fannin believed that Urrea would do all he could to get the Supreme Government, if not Santa Anna, to grant clemency to such a large force rather than kill them all.
So in relying on honor, did not Fannin and Urrea meet the requirements of their chivalric Age? The answer is no. Although the ultimate mass executions of Fannin and his men caused greater outrage in America than the deaths at the Alamo, and provided equal motivation for Houston’s men at San Jacinto to kill Mexican soldiers trying to surrender, the fact that Fannin surrendered—that he failed to win or to die fighting—has subordinated the story of Goliad.
The cruelty and alleged perfidy of the Mexicans were fast absorbed into the collective memory, for memory welcomes injustice—another word for “wrong”—but memory abhors inglorious defeat.
An Affront to History?
So now when most people, most Anglo Texans, one should say, remember the Alamo, they see glorious death, indeed martyrdom, in the cause of freedom; but when they remember Goliad, even the outrage has faded, and there is no glory.
This as an affront to history, though it might comport with preferred ideas about the past.
The Alamo was an event of its Age, a defining event, iconic. But how much of the romance and chivalry of that Age do we find in modernity? How often do we, as individuals, set ourselves to a heroic task, our lives at stake, our weapons drawn in a battle to the end? Yes, our brave military personnel, our police and fire professionals, and many others of course, may be called upon in the course of their work to lay it all on the line.
And yes, there is in the legacy of the Alamo, the Revolution, and the Texas frontier a powerful and important call to individual strength and self-reliance, even in the face of daunting odds.
The point is not whether individualism and self-reliance are good in themselves; they are. The point is that when taken to the extreme, in disregard of others, and in defiance of reasonable compromise that is so much a part of the real world, they are anachronistic.
Goliad was only in small measure a part of its Age. It has paid the penalty for that. The only part of its story deemed worthy of remembrance has been the mass executions, disconnected in modern memory from the dramatic struggle to save lives that preceded them.
Yet to study real history is to accept its constant irony. In fact, Goliad was a 21st century decision on a 19th century battlefield, but it has failed to connect to the times it foreshadowed, our own times. The principals strove to overcome their Age, their constraints, and their personal inclinations, in a pragmatic and, yes, honorable effort to save the lives of hundreds of men—on both sides. They found a reasonable compromise. Their motives were for the most part good, though not without self-interest.
Would we applaud such motives, such ends today? Would we, somewhat more accepting of the complexity of our world, now take a closer, more subtle look at what they did, and why they did it?
It is time now to look back and see the significance of Goliad, not only its resonance with the ambiguities of our time, but its deeper meaning as a tragedy. For what is more tragic than for good men and women, adversaries in war, to strive for peace and then die at the arbitrary whim of the powerful?
Is not peace sought in good faith after a bitter conflict as important as freedom fought for in battle? Life is not much good without both peace and freedom. So let us remember the Alamo, and remember Goliad, for what they both actually were, and for what they both really mean to us today.
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