Exodus From the Alamo by Phillip Thomas Tucker
|Exodus From the Alamo by Phillip Thomas Tucker|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: An informative but difficult to digest re-telling of what really happend in the Texan revolution. Puts a whole new slant on the call to Remember The Alamo! - shame it's such hard going.|
|Buy? No||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 432||Date: September 2011|
Remember the Alamo!
The war-cry of generations of Americans is based upon the idea of the hugely outnumbered defenders of the Texan mission against the marauding Mexicans standing in defence of an ideal until death.
Unfortunately, it's based upon a myth. There was no such glorious last stand. The Alamo was an out and out fiasco from start to finish; it wasn't worth defending; most of the people there weren't there for idealistic reasons in the first place; and when it came to it, most of them took the opportunity to try to get out. Oh yes, and the marauding Mexicans were nothing of the sort – they were a well-armed, well-disciplined army, marching against revolutionaries who were supported by outsiders who clearly had their eye on a land-grab.
That's the thrust of the book.
Tucker makes a convincing argument. Indeed he makes a number of convincing arguments. The problem is, that he tends to make them over and over and over again, in a way that fails to sustain interest and makes it quite difficult to hold on to the salient points.
Let's look at the plus side first. This is a well-researched piece of history. As well as quoting liberally (if not always favourably) from most of the key works about the Alamo, Tucker has clearly also gone back to the source documents: contemporary letters, newspaper reports, battle reports, and testimony from both sides of the war. Testimony from the Texan side of the actual battle is obviously limited given how few survivors there were, but more of them that you might suppose if you've fallen for the legend.
What is established without doubt is what the war was about. This wasn't Texans fighting for liberty. The Mexicans had done that. When they threw off the Spanish yoke they set up a constitution that guaranteed freedom to people of all colours and creeds. This caused a bit of a problem in Texas. Many of the incoming settlers, settlers initially encouraged by Mexico it must be admitted, were from slave owning families. These Anglo-Celts as Tucker insists on calling them saw in Texas, good, cultivable land that could be profitably farmed – given enough hands to work it. At the time enough hands meant slaves. Texas is huge. A lot of the land is good farming land, but if you want to crop it rather than stock it, you need an awful lot of people. If you have an awful lot of land-owning people (something which won't happen overnight anyway) you by definition reduce the per capita return. If you ship in a load of unpaid labour, that problem goes right away.
The right to own slaves was one of the driving forces behind the Texan bid for independence from Mexico. When the Mexican constitution was drafted, it Texas won a reprieve in that it could keep its peculiar institution of slavery for a time at least. That was increasingly becoming a bone of contention however. Mexicans, who as a nation are as gloriously mixed-race as any on the planet, were increasingly unhappy with this anomaly, and the Texans felt their prerogative under threat. Of course, by the mid-1800s there was anti-slavery pressure from elsewhere as well.
Independence was the solution. We should also remember that THAT was the aim: independence. Texans had no notions of joining the United States.
The young stateside Americans who joined the fight, did so not to bring Texas into the Union, but because they saw the main chance for themselves: a chance to own land that they could never afford further north.
Accepting all of that, what about The Alamo itself? The so-called fort was nothing of the kind. It was a mission station. Originally built as something a-kin to a monastery i.e. a church with some attached accommodation by Spanish Catholics bent on converting the local populace to their brand of Christianity, it grew to become a fairly large open space surrounded by adobe walls, some of them faced with functional accommodation blocks internally. This space was much like the bailey of the old Norman castles of Western Europe. Its purpose was as a shelter for people or cattle in the case of attack. Unlike the castles however the Alamo had a few flaws.
Firstly, the attack that it was designed to defend against was that of Native American tribes who came with arrows, spears, and tomahawks. At best in the later stages of the ongoing conflict they came with rifles. They did not come with heavy artillery. Also they came on what could best be described as a raid, either for vengeance or to terrorise or win cattle or goods. They did not come with a tactical battle plan with a long term objective.
By dint of the immediately preceding history the Alamo was furnished with a number of pieces of artillery, including a much-vaunted 18-pound cannon. Unfortunately, the structure of those protective walls (again unlike the castle) wasn't designed to facilitate the defensive use of such weapons. There were no embrasures through which they could be fired. This meant that if the enemy managed to get in close (by dint of surprise or surreptition) then the guns became useless.
The perimeter walls themselves could potentially have been defended from above, by rifle and musket-fire, had there been protected walkways from which to shoot. There were none.
The recent history of the place, which had left the Alamo with its impressive armament had sadly also robbed it of the ability to use it. At the end of the year before the fatal attack (i.e. at the end of 1835) the equally ill-fated Matmoros expedition had virtually stripped the Alamo bare. It was short on food and other basic provisions such as uniforms, medicine and bedding. It was dismally short on horses and ammunition. And obviously the expeditionary force had taken the best of everything: the large amount of gunpowder left on site was low grade Mexican black powder, which was particularly susceptible to damp.
Add to that the fact that most of the soldiers were ill-trained novices, who were undisciplined (in both senses of the expression) and not just poorly-led but not led at all and you already have a disaster waiting to happen: even if it wasn't the case (as it clearly was) that the very size of the Alamo indicated that it would need at least three-to-four times as many men to defend its perimeter than were actually stationed there. Not to mention the fact that the records show that up to two-thirds of those were on the sick list.
Then there is the fact that, actually, the Alamo was not worth defending. It was strategically of no importance at all. There were much more defensible and commercially more important centres very close at hand. It was no surprise then, that no-one came to the rescue.
The final straw in all of this was the sheer unvaunted self-confidence of the Texan leadership. Convinced that they were fighting a barbarous hoard, they made no proper allowance for the highly motivated, well-drilled, well-armed men who would come against them. In particular, they under-estimated Santa Anna himself. For all his vanity and self-aggrandisement, his Napoleon obsession had taught him a trick or two. He knew the importance of surprise. He could keep order and discipline in a force largely made up of irregulars. He made speed. And he uses the only cover available for his final attack: darkness.
Once his men gained the walls, there was little the defenders could do. Their long rifles were only superior weapons in some circumstances. Those circumstances did not include close-quarter fighting, where they took far too long to reload, even without allowing for the inferior firing powder, couldn't take a bayonet and weren't even substantial enough to be used as a club. The English-derived muskets were much more crude – and much more effective in this kind of combat.
Again, unlike the olde-worlde castle, the Alamo did not have a central Keep. There was nowhere to withdraw to.
It was stand and fight (and therefore die!) or attempt a tactical withdrawal – or if you want to take the unkind view: run for it. Many at the Alamo did. At least 110 are known to have exited the Alamo. They still died, cut down outside the walls by Santa Anna's cavalry, but they didn't do so defending the indefensible, or fighting their way to a heroically pointless to the last man martyrdom.
Notably, Tucker doesn't condemn the men for this. He's clear that it was the only rational response in the circumstances. Ultimately, a dead man is generally of little use to a cause. Indeed he goes further and suggests that the exodus might even have been planned as part of a tactical withdrawal. The evidence suggests that it was carried out with more order than much of the fighting inside the walls. Whether the tactic was drawn up by the official commanders or by demotivated soldiers on the ground is something he has doubts about.
In the final analysis The Alamo should never have happened, for the simple reason that it wasn't worth it. It should have been abandoned, long before Santa Anna got anywhere near it.
This point is made and well made.
So given all of this, what is wrong with the work? Primarily the fact that however good a historian Tucker may be: he is not a writer.
He repeats himself time and time again: both in the use of specific phrases (by the end of the first chapter I was as heartily fed up with the peculiar institution of slavery as I would later become with the feisty Anglo-Celts and the Napoleon of the west) and in general explanations (too many times are we reminded that the garrison was asleep, that it was dark, that Santa Anna's attack came in the early hours, that it was a surprise attack).
Detailed research is essential to support a historical work, but that doesn't mean that you have share every last detail with the reader. No character, no matter how small a role he played in the events, gets a mention without we are also told when and where he was born, who he married, who her father was, whether they had any children. We don't need to know! There is a point at which this ceases to add verity and colour and just becomes clutter.
Likewise, there are frequent digressions into what the fathers of the key players had done in some earlier war, or even comparisons with events going back into ancient Rome. Not just an illustrative allusion but the full retelling of what happened and when.
The structure of the book is not helpful. Rather than setting the context and then telling the story of the Alamo chronologically, Tucker tries to address it thematically. This has intrinsic problems for the non-American reader because it makes a bold assumption that we know as much about what happened as the average American school-kid. Sorry, but it doesn't figure that highly in our national curriculum.
The approach might have worked if we'd got a synopsis of the final events up-front and were then taken back to examine the whats and wherefores of it. Instead, much of the analysis precedes the main event of the siege, the dawn raid and the exodus.
When he finally gets to the exciting part of the story, you can feel him straining against his own decisions. He wants to tell this like an adventure tale. Every so often there will be a few paragraphs of tension and events unfolding, but then this has to be interrupted for another discourse on what so-and-so was most likely thinking at the time. Most likely was another phrase, along with for instance , that was really grating by the end.
Even the author seems to find it difficult to stay within his own pre-determined framework. One chapter is entitled An Ineffective Siege. Much of it is given over to digressions on the changing nature of the war in general, including the previous history of the no-quarter approach, the various xenophobic and racist traits displayed by both sides, rather than actually focussing on the siege itself. When the action is brought centre stage, what it goes to show is that the siege was in point of fact extremely effective. It did its job in wearing down what remained of discipline and enthusiasm within the garrison. It wore out the inhabitants to the point of near-total demoralisation.
Worst of all, Tucker's editor has not served him well. If he couldn't persuade the author to cut much of the unnecessary padding or restructure the book more sensibly, then at least he should have done a decent proof-read. Typographical errors abound. One admirer of Santa Anna lamaneted the overall loack of resistance, Filisola was one of the most gifted lieutentants, the flag was raised roclaiming that the Alamo garrison would be killed to the last man, an image frm the movie set. Troops …celebrated like their was no tomorrow, Put off till tomorrow what should of been done today.
The selected illustrations don't add much, but typos aside neither do they particularly detract. The very useful map of the lay-out of the fort itself would have been infinitely more useful had been included at the front of the book (or even with the central batch of illustrations) rather than hidden away on page 252!
I cannot in conscience recommend this work. All in all it is a very difficult book to read and to extract information from, which is a shame because the general thrust of the argument is worth making. I'd like to see Tucker go back to his notes and write the two books that he has here tried to cram into one: a social and biographical history of the people who died at the Alamo, and a clear chronological synopsis of what actually happened. Most intelligent people would draw the correct conclusions from both.
For more American history we can recommend Signing Their Rights Away by Denise Kiernan.
You can read more book reviews or buy Exodus From the Alamo by Phillip Thomas Tucker at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Exodus From the Alamo by Phillip Thomas Tucker at Amazon.com.
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