The Alamo; Today and in History

In front of the Alamo Church In front of the Alamo Church

There perhaps hasn’t been an event or a battle in American history that has so captivated the imagination of the American people than the siege and battle of the Alamo.  This and the following post will present two different portraits of this famous last stand.  I will first present a brief history of the Alamo battlefield, and then take you on a photo tour of that site as it is today.  I will then follow with an article on the impact that this one battle had on shaping the destiny of our nation.

The Alamo Battlefield history and today:

I made my first visit to the Alamo 1986. I became impassioned with the Alamo after seeing Walt Disney’s “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” in 1955.  This television show inspired me to study this battle and the battlefield, so I knew what to look for and where to find it.  But twice, as I was standing in the Church of the Alamo, now called the Alamo Shrine, I heard children ask their parents, “Is this all there is?”  It’s sad, but the fact is that the Alamo today is rather underwhelming. Gettysburg, Valley Forge, Yorktown and other battlefields are vast open areas with markers and monuments describing what took place at each site. The Alamo, however, is in the middle of the major city of San Antonio, and there aren’t very many visible battle site identification markers. In 2011 when I again visited the Alamo for the battle’s 175th Anniversary, there were walking tours of the battlefield, but I’m not sure if they’re still available. I will give you a photo tour of the main battle sites of the Alamo, but first, here is a brief history of how this battle site got to be the way it is today.

The history of the Alamo site began with the Spanish as they settled the New World. The Catholic Church started a mission program to convert the local Native Americans. They built five missions along the San Antonio River, with the Alamo being the first.  In 1724, after several site changes, the third and final placement for the Mission San Antonio de Valero (the original name of the Alamo) was laid out and construction began.  This site encompassed roughly 3 acres and was to be comprised of a stone church,       a two story stone Convento, adobe buildings that were used for workshops and living quarters for the mission workers. All of these structures were surrounded and connected by an adobe wall.  The Convento, the Priest’s living quarters, as well as the out-buildings and the walls were all completed.  The Church, with one disaster after another, was never finished and left to ruin. Meanwhile, east of the mission across the San Antonio River, the town of Bexar began to grow. The citizens there built their own church and didn’t need to worship at the mission. With the native population leaving the mission, and the Catholic Church losing interest in the mission program, in 1793 the mission was abandoned. The mission was not again occupied until around 1803, when a company of Spanish cavalry used the site as their fort. The company’s name was San Jose y Santiago de Alamo. From this long name the locals began calling the old mission the Alamo.

The Alamo remained a crumbing fort, with just minor fortification improvements until the famous battle of February/March 1836. After the fall of the Alamo on March 6th, General Santa Anna ordered the Alamo to be rebuilt as a defensive fort as he went off to chase Sam Houston and the Texan Army. After his defeat and surrender at the Battle of San Jacinto, Santa Anna ordered that the walls of the Alamo be torn down and its cannons destroyed so that the fort would be of no use to the Texans. All that the Mexican Army left standing was the ruined church, the battle torn Convento, the buildings along the west wall and the fort’s main gate building called the Low Barracks. The Low Barracks was part of the south wall and it was in one of its rooms that Jim Bowie died.

At the outbreak of the Mexican/American War, the U.S. Army leased the Alamo site from the Catholic Church, which still owned it.  The U.S. Army rebuilt the Convento and the Church buildings and used them as a supply headquarters. It was with the rebuilding of the Church that a roof was added as well as two new windows on the left and right side of the front below the roof line. It was during this reconstruction that the now famous “hump” was added to the top of the facade to hide the new roof’s peak.

The Alamo site continued to deteriorate as commercialism and greed destroyed what was left of the battleground. The Low Barracks was torn down to build a street car station.  The two-story Convento was refaced and became a general store and saloon, and the iconic Church was used as a warehouse.  The only structures that were left along what was the west wall were torn down and replaced with commercial buildings. On the site of north wall, where the Mexican Army first overran the Texan defenders, the US Postal Service built a large office building. Over the years, the various owners of the two remaining buildings and the City did little to preserve what was left. And the site of the most famous battle in Texas history was treated as an afterthought and sideshow.

The salvaging of the Alamo site really began after two events took place. The first was that the State of Texas bought the Alamo Church, and the second was when the railroad came to San Antonio. With the trains came throngs of tourists looking to see were Davy Crockett died.

Preserving those last two buildings was to become a challenge, and also a battle between two powerful women. Of those two remaining original buildings of the mission complex, the Alamo Church was in the best condition. It was fairly easy to change the Church from a warehouse to a shrine after the State took ownership. But the other building, the Long Barracks, was still the Hugo & Schmeltzer Mercantile General Store and Saloon, its historic walls covered over to look like a medieval fort. It took the daughter of one of the signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence, Adina de Zavala, to really begin the preservation of what was left of that historic structure. de Zavala was very much aware of the historical importance of not only the Alamo Church,  but also the Long Barracks. She knew that it was within the walls of the Long Barracks that on that morning of March 6, 1836, the bloodiest fighting took place.

de Zavala’s group didn’t have enough money to purchase the Long Barracks, so they contacted Clara Driscoll, whose two grandfathers had fought for the Republic of Texas. Driscoll was the daughter of a wealthy Texas rancher and had the financial resources to help the cause. Together de Zavala and Driscoll fought to buy the Long Barracks and also to gain the rights to control the entire Alamo site.  Each of these ladies belonged to their own separate historical preservation organizations and so, to become a stronger voice, in 1893 they joined together to become the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT). This became both a good news and a bad news union for de Zavala and her battle to preserve the historic Alamo site. Driscoll had put up the money to buy the Long Barracks, for which she was paid back by the State of Texas. However, Driscoll’s vision was different than de Zavala’s. Driscoll saw the Alamo Church as the focal point. She considered the Long Barracks to be an eyesore and wanted it torn down and made into a park.   She believed that everything else should be cleared away so not to take away from the Alamo Church. de Zavala fought hard to save the historic Long Barracks, even locking herself inside it to keep it from being torn down. A compromise was finally reached. In the compromise, what was left of the second floor of the Long Barracks was removed and the first level was allowed to remain standing.  With the second floor now gone, the Alamo church became the main focal point of the site, as Driscoll had wanted. Today, this one level building is the Long Barracks Museum.

 Another sad result of the battle between these two ladies is that de Zavala’s contribution has been over shadowed by that of Driscoll, who  is called “The Savior of the Alamo.”  On the wall at the south end of the Long Barracks, where the entrance to the Museum is, there is a bronze plaque that says that Driscoll, not de Zavala, was the one that locked herself in the Long Barracks.

In truth, neither de Zavala, nor Driscoll really understood the total historical importance of the complete 3 acres of the Alamo Compound.   de Zavala’s fight to preserve the second story of the Long Barracks was unrealistic, because there wasn’t much left of it due to all the rebuilding as it changed hands and uses. Clara Driscoll’s drive to make the Alamo Church, which didn’t play much of a role in the actual battle, the most important part of the site took away from those places on the battlefield where the real sacrifices took place.  This misdirected focus may be one of the reasons why the Alamo Plaza has become so commercialized and not appreciated for its total historical value.

But there is hope that the complete battleground and mission complex may be reclaimed and restored. A group of concerned citizens called the “Alamo Plaza Project” is currently working with the City of San Antonio in this preservation effort. Hopefully in the not too distant future when families visit the Alamo their children will not be asking them “is this all there is?”

Works Cited:

Thompson, Frank. The Alamo: A Cultural History. Dallas , Texas: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2001. Print.Nelson, George. The Alamo: An Illustrated History. Third Revised Edition. Uvalde, Texas: Aldine Press, 2009. Print.

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Up next a photo walking tour of the Alamo grounds and the battle sites.

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