Anniversary: We Didn’t Always Celebrate the Alamo

Culture Watch

Mr. Alger is a freelance writer.

The names of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Travis and Santa Anna are forever linked to the final storming of the Alamo in the predawn hours of March 6, 1836 when the Mexican forces wiped out the garrison of hopelessly outnumbered defenders to a man. But how did the legend of the Alamo, the mythic visions of romanticized glory, pass down from one generation to the next?

How did the cry of"Remember the Alamo" a month later at the Battle of San Jacinto when Sam Houston's forces defeated a Mexican army and captured Santa Anna spread from heroic lore in the Lone Star State to a political symbol of American individualism and freedom during the Cold War and on through today?

The book A Line In the Sand: The Alamo In Blood and Memory by historians Randy Roberts and James S. Olson tackles those questions; first, by recounting a well-documented retelling of the 13 day siege and the climactic assault on the Alamo, but second, and perhaps, more interesting in many respects, they detail the story of thesurvival of the actual Alamo itself and then go on to show how a television show un-expectedly gripped the country and moved the Alamo from a symbol of Texas to one of heroic stature on a national level.

The Alamo may have been considered sacred by many but the actual mission was not treated as such. True, it was the site of a heroic battle, one in which fellow Texans and others gave their lives fighting for the independence of Texas from Mexico. Even Santa Anna contributed to the aura of myth by not allowing proper burial of the Alamo defenders, but instead, burning their corpses and never disclosing the location.

As Roberts and Olson state, in referring to the inhabitants of San Antonio de Bexar, who had witnessed the assault on the Alamo and its aftermath,"Many concluded that the spirits of the dead Texans, denied eternal access to their own bodies, had no place to go, neither to heaven nor to hell, and remained on the battlefield, angels of righteousness charged with defending the Alamo against future enemies."

Similar to the site where the World Trade Center stood, people scooped up relics from the Alamo, gathering rocks or stones, some for themselves as a tribute to Lone Star history, and others for profit, to sell such items as part of preserved history to future generations. In fact, as noted in A Line in the Sand, the town council even allowed citizens to haul away stones from the Alamo, as early as 1840, for a fee of $5 a wagon load.

Future occupation of the Alamo also took a toll on the mission. Soldiers of the Republic of Texas returned to occupy what was left of the Alamo in December of 1836, all walls having been destroyed before the Mexicans had departed, and returned to occupy it again in 1839. And it was also occupied by Mexican troops, first in March of 1841 and again in September of 1842.

After Texas received statehood in 1845, followed by the Mexican-American War, the Alamo was rented by the U.S. Army in 1849 from the Catholic Church for $150 a month to be used as a quartermasters' depot.

It was during this period that the first work was really performed to rebuild and restore the Alamo. In fact, under the direction of Major E.B. Babbitt, the now famous Campanulate, or bell-shaped facade, atop the front wall of the chapel, was erected. That facade, of course, is the image that immediately comes to mind for most when thinking of the Alamo, and it's difficult to accept that it never existed while Crockett and Bowie and company lived and died within the walls of the Alamo.

The U.S. Army departed from the Alamo in 1876 for another fort and the Catholic Church sold the mission to Honore Grenet, a businessman who constructed a two-story wooden building on the site and operated a grocery store there until he died in 1882.

The Catholic Church, which had retained ownership of the famous chapel, sold it to the State of Texas for $20,000 in 1883, while the actual Alamo mission was purchased by the mercantile firm of Hugo & Schmeltzer.

Two women, Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll, were responsible for saving the Alamo during the early turn of the past century when the sacred fortress faced the very real possibility of being razed and replaced with a hotel.

De Zavala came on the stage first in 1889, when she organized other women in San Antonio who were dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the early heroes of Texas. In 1892, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) was founded, and the following year the De Zavala Chapter of the DRT was started in San Antonio.

In an effort to preserve an American history, monuments and commemoration events were taking place across the land as the country began to come of age. Roberts and Olson note:"By 1900, more than two hundred thousand tourists visited Gettysburg each year." Yet, in San Antonio, the 50th anniversary of the Alamo was ignored, and, in 1903, there were no ceremonies at the site, the Texas flag flapping at half mast the only sign of tribute. That same year, Hugo & Schmeltzer announced its decision to sell the property to a buyer who planned to demolish the building and replace it with a hotel.

De Zavala went into action, first convincing Gustav Schmeltzer to give the DRT first option to buy the property. A school teacher, she knew she couldn't hope to match the $75,000 asking price but fortune was on her side when she ran into Driscoll, who was also appalled at the current state of the Alamo. More important, Driscoll was the heir to an oil, railroad and cattle fortune, and perhaps equally as important, both her grandfathers had fought at the Battle of San Jacinto.

A letter by Driscoll, published in the San Antonio Express in 1901, quoted in A Line in the Sand, shows exactly where Driscoll stood on the matter. In part, the letter stated,"There does not stand in the world today a building or monument which can recall such a deed of heroism and bravery, as that of the brave men who fought and fell inside those historic walls."

At De Zavala's urging, Driscoll joined the DRT and the two women promptly received a concession from Hugo & Schmeltzer; that for $500 the DRT would have 30 days in which to come up with another $4,500 and the option to buy would be extended for a year. After that, the DRT would be required to pay $20,000, followed by $10,000 installments for next five years.

Driscoll put up the initial $500 out of her own pocket and the De Zavala Chapter's Alamo fund-raising committee set out to drum up the required money to save the Alamo. The effort fell short, raising only a little over a thousands dollars, but once again, Driscoll stepped in, making up the difference with her own funds to reach the necessary $4,500.

De Zavala and Driscoll also lobbied to convince the state legislature to purchase the Hugo & Schmeltzer building for $5,000 but were rebuffed when Governor Samuel W.T. Lanham vetoed the bill, arguing that it was not justified and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

As the deadline of February 10, 1904 approached, when the payment of the $20,000 was due, the San Antonio DRT had only raised $5,666.23. Once again, Driscoll stepped in and purchased the Hugo & Schmeltzer building herself, also agreeing to pay the additional $50,000 in five future installments of $10,000 each.

Political pressure mounted after word of Driscoll, known as the Savior of the Alamo, and her generous actions spread throughout the state. In response, the state finally acted, appropriating the funds to reimburse Driscoll in January 1905, and Driscoll, in turn, subsequently transferred the title of the Hugo & Schmeltzer building to the State of Texas on September 5, 1905.

As pointed out in A Line in the Sand,"The bill, largely drafted by Adina De Zavala and sponsored by Samuel Ealy Johnson, also guaranteed that once Driscoll transferred title to the state, the DRT would be named custodian of the Alamo."

Johnson was the grandfather of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the future president, while a congressman, was one of the honorary pallbearers at Driscoll's funeral in July of 1945. Other such honorary pallbearers included Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, former secretary of state Cordell Hull and former vice-president John Nance Garner.

Driscoll had preserved the Alamo as a monument to Texas but it took Walt Disney and a television show to bring the saga of the Alamo into living rooms across America. Six days before De Zavala died at the age of ninety-three on March 1, 1955, ABC broadcast"the final episode in its Davy Crockett trilogy, in which Walt Disney's Davy Crockett died in Clara Driscoll's Alamo."

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puertorrican - 3/8/2002

Duh! Do you suppose that after Reconstruction and the illegal military occupation of the South, whereby we were denied our right to secede, that much would be left of our sense of being Texians? Today, in the "patriotism" frenzy of being an amorphous "american", try to hold your historical sense of being Texian. You will be called, at best, a dividor, at worst a traitor.

Deo Vindice

puertorrican - 3/8/2002

In Spanish there is only one (1) "n" in Ana, always.

David Romo - 3/8/2002

It was President Johnson's father and not his grandfather who saved the Alamo. Texas State Representive Sam Ealy Johnson jr. (1877-1937) was the father of President Lyndon Baines Johnson and member of the Texas Legislature who authored the Alamo Purchase bill. This was one of his most important bills of his legislative career. It is apparent that the Young Lyndon Johnson was heavily influenced by his father's stint in the Texas Legislature.

Nathan Williams - 3/6/2002

most place names do indeed use one "n," but the Mexican General/dictator born Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna Perez de Lebron is always referred to (at least in English language sources) as "Santa Anna."

Jennifer Thompson - 3/5/2002

Is there more than one accepted spelling for this name?

I'm not certain enough to say for sure, but I've always seen it with one 'n'--"Santa Ana." Most of the related geographical names in the vicinity of the Alamo seem to use the 'one-n' spelling, too.

But I'm curious nevertheless--is this an acceptable variant?