"Let's get the golldamn flag back!"
A Texan -- who else? -- issued that vainglorious battle cry.
It was in the winter of 1984, down at oilman Claude D'Unger's place in Corpus Christi. He and an old buddy, Navy pilot Clay Umbach, were shooting the breeze, two Sons of the Republic reliving great moments in Texas history. Inevitably they hit upon the battle of the Alamo and a book called "A Time to Stand," in which the author revealed that the flag captured by Santa Anna here on the morning of March 6, 1836, was still stored in a brown filing cabinet in the basement of Chapultapec Castle in Mexico City.
For D'Unger, the vision was painful: Imagine the battle flag of the Alamo, symbol of Texas' victory-or-death tradition, filed away in a dank museum chamber in that inscrutable southern land. It seemed a hostage, not a spoil of war, and it needed to be recaptured and carried over the foreign mountains, deserts and traditions to its rightful place at the little mission in downtown San Antonio.
What better gift, said D'Unger, than to bring it home for the Texas Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of freedom from Mexico.
That celebration is at hand, the flag is not, and therein lies a lesson of sorts for modern Texas: Even in this place of mythic optimism, you can't always get what you want.
When D'Unger and Umbach sought to get their "golldamn flag" back, they did not organize an armed brigade and head across the Rio Grande on a liberation march.
They petitioned Congress.
"We wanted the flag so bad we knew we had to play it straight and not offend anyone," said D'Unger, an aggressive fellow by nature. "From the get-go, we damn near walked a path of appeasement with the Mexicans. Anything to get it back."
Two House members from south Texas, Democrats Solomon P. Ortiz and Henry B. Gonzalez, gave their blessing to the venture, and D'Unger went on to recruit the rest of the Texas delegation and nearly 100 members from 19 other states. He appealed directly to patriotism and local pride. Most of the heroes of the Alamo, after all, were from elsewhere: David Crockett from Tennessee, William Travis and James Bonham from South Carolina, James Bowie from what is now part of Kentucky.
Texan James C. Wright Jr., the House majority leader, suggested that it would be more appropriate to ask Mexico to return the flag on loan, rather than give it back permanently. Republican Sen. Phil Gramm took the hard line, saying the flag represented, in the words of press secretary Larry Neal, "what Texas is, what it was, and what it always shall remain." Gramm and other Texas politicians broached the subject with Mexico's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Espinosa de los Reyes, and diplomatic approaches were made to President de la Madrid.
Mexico, as it turned out, had heard this before. It seemed that every generation of American patriots had rediscovered the Alamo flag and sought its return. Twenty-five years ago, the Texas Legislature directed Texas to enter into negotiations with Mexico on the flag. Gov. John B. Connally vetoed the measure, citing a fact that Texans often need to be reminded of: Texas is a state, no longer a republic with its own diplomatic service.
In 1965, the capture-the-flag movement hit Congress. D'Unger's role was played by a wealthy real estate man from Amarillo who persuaded Senators John G. Tower (R-Tex.) and Sam J. Ervin Jr. (D-N.C.) to sponsor S.R. 112, in which the State Department was asked to obtain the flag's return so that it could "rest in honored glory." It was noted then that Mexico had a moral obligation because the United States, under the Truman administration, had returned the Mexican flags captured by its troops during the Mexican War.
The Mexicans never have said "si" or "no." They've just kept the flag.
There are several historical points of dispute concerning the battle of the Alamo, and one is whether the banner Santa Anna sent back to Mexico City was in fact a battle flag that was flying above the mission on the morning of the slaughter. There was no Texas flag as such that day, for it had only been a few days since Texans declared independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos, an event unknown to the 188 men under siege in San Antonio. Most historians believe that there were at least two flags at the Alamo: the Mexican Flag of 1824 and the flag of the First Company of Texan Volunteers from New Orleans.
The Texas revolutionaries honored the Mexican Flag of 1824 because it symbolized the constitution that Santa Anna had abandoned. But it was the New Orleans flag that Santa Anna sent to Mexico City, along with a note saying the flag proved that the Texas rebellion was being fueled by what he called "perfidious foreigners."
Charles Long, curator at the Alamo, is among those who believe that the New Orleans flag was not a battle flag but a ceremonial guidon and that Travis and his men must have flown the Flag of 1824 on that morning 150 years ago. But D'Unger disagrees, citing the diary of one of Gen. Santa Anna's assistants, Enrique de la Pena.
In de la Pena's account, the New Orleans flag, or something resembling it, is said to be flying over the Alamo. But if his rendition is trusted, then it follows that its account of David Crockett's exploits during the fight would have to be accepted, too.
The beloved, mythicized Davey -- bear-tamer, congressman, Indian fighter extraordinaire -- is said to have killed 50 to 200 Mexican troops during the 90-minute battle. No one knows for sure because the only surviving combatants were Mexicans, and to them all the coonskinned Tennesseans looked alike. Still, the legend persists. In Walt Disney's version, Fess Parker stands tall to the end, the last of the 188 heroes to fall. In several historical versions, authors state that someone "who could have been Crockett," was seen fighting off 18 Mexicans at a time.
De la Pena tells it differently. He says that "a David Crockett, well-known naturalist from Tennessee," was among a small group of defenders who hid during the final stage of the battle and eventually surrendered, only to be executed by the enraged, despotic Santa Anna.
But the Alamo must be more myth than reality. It evokes the image of valor, not the oversized souvenir shop that dominates the modern-day shrine. And so it is with the flag, regardless of its history.
The last American to examine the flag was curator Long, who traveled to Mexico City in 1979. He noticed that it was no longer on display and asked its whereabouts and whether he could photograph it. "They took me down to the basement of that musty castle," Long recalled, "and we spread out some paper on the floor and then laid the flag over it. I shot down at the flag and got several pictures. It seemed tattered, but they were doing a beautiful job of restoration. It was odd-sized, with gold fringe, faded light blue-gray in color."
Long did not seek the flag's return to his museum. "My standard saying is, it is theirs, not ours," Long said. "It was captured in war. Those are the rules of war."
Lest Texans get too riled over Mexico's possession of the Alamo flag on the sesquicentennial, perhaps they should consider life from the other side of the river.
The Mexicans want their cork leg back.
They lost it during a skirmish in the Mexican War. It was the cork leg of none other than the ubiquitous Santa Anna, who had lost his real leg during the French Pastry War of 1838, an odd little military action against France that began when some Mexicans invaded a French pastry shop in Veracruz, locked up the proprietor and ate his goods. Santa Anna lost a leg then, gave it a full burial and got an artificial one made of cork.
Around noon on April 18, 1847, Santa Anna was with his troops near Cerro Gordo. He was sitting in his carriage; the horses were untied. The battle, or so the general presumed, was being carried out some distance away, so he settled down for a picnic lunch of roast chicken. He took his cork leg off, for it was uncomfortable to have it on in the carriage.
Then, suddenly from the brush appeared a regiment of men from the Illinois Third. The volunteers rushed toward the carriage. One of Santa Anna's aides carried him off on horseback before he could be captured. The carriage was left behind. The fighting Illini wolfed down the roast chicken, pocketed some gold doubloons they found on the carriage floor and sped off with the cork leg. It remained in the possession of three soldiers from Pekin, Ill., who took it home after the war and used it to make money.
They traveled from town to town in the land of Lincoln, charging folks 10 cents a peek at the artificial leg of the famed Mexican general. Eventually the cork leg was placed in the trust of the state, and for a century it rested unseen in a vault in one of the executive buildings in Springfield.
All efforts by Mexico to get the cork leg back were rebuffed. The Illinois General Assembly almost handed it back during a special session in 1942, but the Democratic-backed resolution was ridiculed by Republicans, who said that if the measure passed, "the Democrats won't have a leg to stand on."
In 1970, Col. Carl O. Johnson, director of public affairs for the Military and Naval Department of Illinois, was asked to set up a museum display of military artifacts at the Camp Lincoln Illinois Military History Museum in Springfield. He hauled Santa Anna's leg out of the vault and put it on display, where it has been ever since.
Johnson said he recently got a call from officials in Texas, who said they'd like the cork leg for the sesquicentennial. "I'm not sure if it's going anywhere," he said. "It's ours, you know."