The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What people today — including Phil Collins — get wrong about the Alamo

The Alamo in San Antonio was the site of a legendary battle during Texas’s war for independence from Mexico. The defenders’ deaths became part of the state’s founding mythology. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
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Tolstoy knew that unhappy families are more interesting than happy ones; sportswriters have long observed that the losers’ locker room holds more human drama than the winners’; bards write comedy for the moment but tragedy for the ages. Similar insights have inspired historians of war. A victor wins laurels, but a glorious loser gains immortality. Thermopylae resonates after 25 centuries, Masada after 20. Even those who have nothing else good to say about the Confederacy can admire the doomed bravery of Pickett’s charge. The underlying dynamic is the same in all these. Few can identify with the great victors in life, but everyone can identify with the losers. We all suffer defeat; we all die. And we all hope we can die well.

The battle of the Alamo has captivated students of war and history almost since the March day in 1836 when the old Spanish mission at San Antonio fell to the Mexican army of Antonio López de Santa Anna. The defenders — a collection of American-born residents of Mexican Texas, American volunteers to the cause of the rebels and Mexican residents of Texas, or Tejanos — were killed at the end of a 13-day siege. But their action delayed the advance of Santa Anna against the main body of the Texan army, under Sam Houston. Six weeks later, Houston and the Texans defeated Santa Anna and compelled his agreement to Texas independence.

For those who considered Texas independence a good thing, the Alamo became part of the Texas founding myth, and its defenders were treated as martyrs. Not everyone considered Texas independence a good thing. The government of Mexico ignored the treaty Santa Anna had signed under duress and continued to send armies into Texas for another decade. American opponents of slavery labeled the Texas war for independence an enslavers’ conspiracy. Tejanos, including some who had fought in Houston’s army, started having second thoughts about independence when their erstwhile Anglo allies pushed them aside in the new republic. Enslaved Texans found their yoke weighing more heavily under Texan rule than it had under that of Mexico, which nominally forbade slavery.

And yet, as Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson and Jason Stanford explain, the myth of Alamo martyrdom — what they call the “Heroic Anglo Narrative” — predominated within Texas for generations. The book contains two parts: an account of the events surrounding the battle and a survey of interpretations and attitudes since then. For readers unfamiliar with either half of the story, the book provides a useful introduction.

At numerous points in their account of the siege and battle, the authors challenge the traditional view. In doing so they follow historians who abandoned the traditional view decades ago. They sometimes appear to be beating a horse that, if not dead, was put to pasture awhile back, at least outside the political classes. It’s no news to anyone, for example, that the commanders at the Alamo, William Barret Travis and James Bowie, were scoundrels before the war with Mexico. Even the traditionalists acknowledged that; indeed, it made the redemption of Travis and Bowie at the Alamo all the more praiseworthy.

Less familiar to some will be the post-battle story. The authors frame perceptions of the Alamo in a novel way, employing the contrasting experiences of two British musicians: Phil Collins and Ozzy Osbourne. Collins learned about the Alamo as a boy in the 1950s, from television and the movies, and he fell hard for the Fess Parker/John Wayne representation.

Osbourne knew nothing of the Alamo in 1982, when a music tour took him to San Antonio. “Ozzy was having a rough day,” the authors explain; before the day ended, he had been arrested for urinating on the cenotaph commemorating the Alamo defenders.

The authors don’t pursue the Osbourne angle beyond employing him as a stand-in for the revisionist school of Alamo history, which “metaphorically amounts to peeing on the Alamo legend.” They get more mileage out of Collins, who compiled a collection of memorabilia related to the Alamo. How closely related became a matter of intense interest among Texans after Collins agreed to donate the collection to the state, to be housed in a museum built for the purpose. The museum would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the project at once became a political battleground between traditionalists and revisionists. Collins got whipsawed in the debate, the more so when the provenance of many of his artifacts was challenged, as well it might have been, given the lack of documentation for many of the artifacts and the cottage industry that had developed in Alamo fakes and forgeries.

The freshest work in this book deals with the Collins controversy and makes a persuasive case that Collins was taken for a ride. The authors asked the Alamo’s official historian, Bruce Winders, what he thought of Collins. “He had been a rock star, and as you age, that all started to go away,” Winders said. “He was kind of at a loss. He was trying to figure out who he was now. And the Alamo filled that void for him. It was a phase for him. His Alamo phase.” Winders was asked whether the name of one dealer in particular who sold material to Collins set off any alarm bells. “Bells?” said Winders. “All the bells. Yeah, kind of like Notre Dame.” The authors can’t resist quoting the London Daily Mail declaring that Collins’s Alamo obsession showed him to be “one drumstick shy of a pair.”

Winders lost his job amid the scuffling, and Collins threatened to withdraw his collection. Texas elected officials, including George P. Bush, who as land commissioner had charge of the Alamo, moved quickly to reassure him. But in the crossfire of Texas politics, Bush found himself, and his Alamo project, under attack from the Republican right even as lefties denounced the Alamo as a continuing symbol of white supremacy.

Notwithstanding the book’s title, the authors — Texans all three — explain in their conclusion that they don’t really want Texans to forget the Alamo, only the “whitewashed” version. It’s a worthy sentiment, if hardly original. And it does bear repeating, since the politicians aren’t paying any more attention to historians than they ever have.

Forget the Alamo

The Rise and Fall of an American Myth

By Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

Penguin Press. 386 pp. $32