After my terrific cowgirl vacation at the Silver Spur Ranch in Bandera, I realized I couldn’t leave Texas without a stay in San Antonio. “The Alamo,” I told Hubby. He nodded, having seen the structure during his army days at Fort Sam Houston. “It must be glorious,” I went on. “Huge and imposing like Westminster Abbey. Overpowering the city like Big Ben does London.”
He shook his head. “It’s something to see, but it’s kinda random. Small. Surrounded by hotels and shops. But you’ll love it.” And so I did. Despite its location amidst a bustling city, the Alamo grounds are surprisingly tranquil. Several times a day, I walked through them, sitting down to relax, enjoy, and ponder as well. The fountain is especially lovely, its four sides engraved with the names of four of the defenders, commander William Travis, his second cousin James Bonham, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crocket.
In fact, my hotel was situated on Bonham Street, where a long palisade had once stood.
Before leaving home, I picked a hotel that advertised seeing The Alamo from it. And so I could, looking down from my thirteenth floor. (Yes, thirteenth! Woooooooo.) Because The Alamo is a war memorial, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, who are the custodians of the edifice, decreed that no man-made structures can cast a shadow on it, and this is now a building code. So I checked whenever I looked out. No shadows.
Supposedly at one time, a grove of cottonwoods grew nearby, hence the name, since Alamo is Spanish for Cottonwood. Formal name is San Antonio de Valero Mission, and its purpose—long before its cornerstone was set in 1744—was a place to convert Indians to Christianity and to educate them.
As you may know, the Alamo’s chapel and compound were nearly destroyed in a 13-day battle in March 1836 by Mexican artillery fire against the Texian army of the four heroes mentioned above. Mexican general Santa Anna didn’t want the place to become a shrine to the estimated 190 defenders slaughtered there, so he gave a direct order that the mission be completely demolished. Not one stone was to be left standing.
In spite of his orders, the remaining walls of the chapel were left unharmed. Even though there wasn’t much left, Santa Anna’s direct order was never carried out. Nowhere in any Texian or Mexican war records is there mention that the general rescinded that order. Still, it was never carried out.
Tales and legends from Mexico as well as San Antonio insist that Santa Anna’s men indeed went to the building to carry out the order, but saw something that had them turn and run. “Glowing men with flaming swords” kept them from entering and carrying out the dirty deed.
Well, these guardian angels didn’t protect the mission for long. Or maybe folks reckoned the Alamo would still be guarded by the heroes who died defending her. But for the ten years of the Republic, this shrine to Texas liberty was mistreated, limestone already cut thieved to build other San Antonio structures. The two mostly-intact buildings, the chapel and the “long barracks” began to disappear piece by piece.
By the time Texas entered the United States, the chapel was a ruin, walls in places no taller than waist-high. The façade we know and love today was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1840’s when the military needed a warehouse to store grain and supplies and decided the old ruin was just the place.
By the 1870’s the Army had outgrown this downtown headquarters and established nearby Fort Sam Houston north of town. No one knows just who “owned” the chapel by now and a private merchant used it for his storehouse. By the 1890’s, it became a quasi-tourist attraction, but many citizens considered it an eyesore. Both the city of San Antonio and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Texas claimed the site. After considerable litigation, the courts decided in favor of the church. The state of Texas bought the chapel and grounds it stood on, from the church, but the land surrounding the chapel—the land where the battle actually happened—passed into private hands.
Texas did little to restore the crumbling walls or preserve the building , and when the private industry closed its doors, a young woman named Clara Driscoll stepped in. She’d visited Europe, impressed with the preservation of its old buildings and historical sites, and was outraged at the condition of the Alamo chapel and the battle field. Through her letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and her membership in the De Zavala Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, she began whole-hearted efforts to begin proper preservation of this Shrine of Texas Liberty. This was in 1903. Her fight to preserve the land around the Alamo, as well as her personal money including the last $500 needed, brought out statewide sympathy. (Of course Clara’s battle was a lot more complicated and political than this but I reckoned she might deserve her own blog sometime along with her main rival Adina de Zavala.)
The state conveyed the property to the Daughters of the Texas Republic in October 1905, with Clara appointed custodian. Nonetheless, Adina de Zavala had possession of the keys, and it wasn’t until the DRT filed a civil action that Clara obtained them.
Whew. I’m sure glad Clara did. The Alamo is a shrine where only five non-military people survived the battle, a touchstone of history. A symbol of unspeakable sacrifice and courage. And I miss it already.
Ps. I’m thrilled that on Monday, my second novella about Hearts Crossing Ranch, featuring one of the hero’s seven siblings, was acquired. Stay tune for further details.