Tanya Hanson: The Alamo’s Second Battle-Preservation

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 Nowhere in any Texian or Mexican war records is there mention that the general rescinded that order.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.

How about you? Any historical site you like that should be preserved? Which ones are you glad have been restored?

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.

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27 thoughts on “Tanya Hanson: The Alamo’s Second Battle-Preservation”

  1. Hi Tanya! I’m jealous . . . I’d love to visit Texas and San Antonio. My mom was born there. Thanks for the interesting blog post!

    And what a teaser about your second novella! Details, please!

  2. Great post, Tanya. I’ve been to the Alamo once or twice, and I’ve helped my kids with the report they are all required to do in the 4th grade, but I don’t think I’d ever learned about its history after the epic battle. I’d love to hear more about the two women who waged their own war over control of the property at the turn of the century. It is such a state and national treasure. I’m thankful the Daughters of the Texas Republic fought so hard to preserve it.

  3. We visited the Alamo last Fall. My husband had mentioned many times that it was in the middle of town and not to expect a large site. He also told me of the no shadow ordinance. He had visited while at the neighboring Air Force base. It is an interesting an peaceful site. I was not aware of the battle between Adina and Clara. Yes, there does need to be a post on this topic.
    Our trips always focus on historic sites and natural history. One very well done job of preservation is Fort Ticonderoga in Upstate New York. It too had been scavenged for building materials and was in ruins. Today it is almost completely restored. Luckily they have much of the land the battles were fought on. Its history goes back to before the Revolutionary War.
    Interesting how often it is the women who recognize the importance of saving our history and are the leaders for restoration. Often they just shame the men who have the power to make a difference into doing so. Whatever works!
    Thanks for an informative post.
    Good luck with the release of HEARTS CROSSING RANCH.

  4. Hi, Tanya. Great post.

    The site that came immediately to mind is this weird yellow rock wall in a bluff near my home. It’s close to the Missouri River and it’s this bare, straight up and down stretch of rock about thirty feet high and maybe that wide.

    It’s got initials carved in it. All over…and the local lore is that Louis and Clark carved THEIR initials in it, too, on their Expedition. But those initials or names or whatever aren’t there anymore, buried under two hundred years of grafitti. I feel bad about that.

    I’d also kinda like to carve my own name in that wall. 🙂

  5. Woo-Hoo! Big congrats on the new sell, Tanya! I’m so happy for you.

    The Alamo is such a strong symbol of Texas and embodies the spirit of the people. It would’ve been such a shame if it hadn’t been restored. I hate to see historical landmarks left to go to ruin. I think all historical sites need to be preserved. Kids would much rather see something with their own eyes and “feel” the history instead of reading about it in a book.

  6. Great post Tanya, I have never been to the Alamo just read about it in books. This is how I do most of my traveling! Maybe one day I will get to Texas for real, who knows! I love reading books set in Texas or any kind of western, they are my favorite!

  7. Hi Vicki, thanks for the encouragement LOL and good wishes. I too was practically desperate to visit Texas, and I’m so gald I had the chance to see at least this little corner of it. SA and the hill country are fabulous.

    Hmmmmm. This hero is a large animal vet (as well as wrangler LOL) who starts falling for his brother’s ex which results in tons of havoc LOL.

    So glad you posted today. oxoxox

  8. Hi Tanya, great post. The Alamo certainly needs to be preserved.

    We have a fairly impressive historical restoration here in Nova Scotia. It’s Fortress Louisbourg in Cape Breton. It changed hands a couple of times while the French and English were fighting over their colonies, and was eventually destroyed by the English. The fort and surrounding village have been restored, and the setting overlooking the ocean is beautiful. I’d like to write abook set there one day.

  9. Hi Karen, always so glad to see you here. Yeah, I am more than intrigued by Clara now. I can’t believe The Alamo rotted away for almost 70 years. It’s so special. That’s just not right. Thank God for strong women!

  10. Hi Patricia, thanks for the good wishes. Yes indeed, I’d know the Alamo was small and kinda stuffed into modern hustle and bustle, but it hasn’t at all lost its ambience. Even the folks visiting inside were quiet and respectful. The list of the war dead just brings on tears. I loved it an dam so glad it’s there.

  11. Hi Mary, graffiti is such a scourge! Grrrrrr. I wonder what the wall is left over from. (awk.) I bet you can devise a plot around it! You’d think somebody might know where a thirty-foot wall came from! I love imagining real people from long ago. oxox

  12. Hi Linda, yes, I am definitely a Texan fan now. Well, always was, but it’s different now having touched the soil. It was just a trip to remember every single day from here on. Thank you for your congrats. I’m having a good time at “the ranch” LOL.

  13. Hi Quilt Lady, always good to see you in the Junction. This was my first time in Texas too and it sure didn’t disappoint. I’m glad for books, too, and even the internet to let me peek at places I love. I’ve “been” to Brighton, England (anoter of my favorites) many times via the internet since our daughter went to university there. Happy trails!

  14. Hi Jennie, I always love hearing from you. How’s the writing going? I’ve not been to the Maritime area but would love someday to get to Prince Edward Islands and “meet” Lucy Maud Montgomery. Fort Louisberg sounds like my kind of place! Yes, you need to write a book set there! Thanks for stopping by today.

  15. Hi Lyn, oh, I’m so glad you got to visit. Even with all the bustling modern life outside, it’s a tremendously inspiring place. Thanks for posting today.

  16. Hey Tracy, yes, I’m glad hubby let me know it’s no Westminster Abbey. But so peaceful in spite of the tragic, heroic past. I loved learning about the legend of the (guardian angels) with glowing swords. Yowza! oxoxox

  17. Lucky you, Tanya. I’ve never visited San Antonio and have always wanted to, especially the Alamo and the river walk. The story of the Alamo’s preservation is fascinating (Clara looks like a romance heroine in her picture). Didn’t know the part about no building casting a shadow on the Alamo. That’s as it should be. Thanks for a great blog.

  18. Hi Elizabeth, oh, it’s a sensational place. The weather sure cooperated, too. As for the River Walk…well, I have suspicions that edifice will appear some day soon at Wildflower Junction, too. It’s not 19th century history but definitely historic in its own way. I totally loved it, too.

  19. sounds like a wonderful visit–thank you for sharing with us–i love the “no shadow” clause–very cool

    congratulations on your book!

  20. Hi Tabitha, thanks for the congrats. I am very happy that my little ranch family may bet their own stories. The shadow clause touched my heart, too. And I kept on checking!

  21. I have been to the Alamo and could not believe it was in the middle of a city. I remember watching Davy Crockett on TV as a kid and there wasn’t a hotel in site!! We visited Tombstone and Buckhill and the OK correll on one of our trips. What a kick reading some of the tombstones.

  22. It’s been 20 years since we visited the Alamo, so this brought back good memories. I didn’t know it meant cottonwood. Very interesting. NB

  23. I love your books, Mary. And my teenage assistant does too. This is a real shocker. What teen would admit to loving a western that has no fantasy in it? She and I both look forward to your next book.

  24. And so… did you see the basement? lol had to ask because Pee Wee Herman went to see the basement of the Alamo.

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