One of the world’s biggest collectors of Alamo memorabilia is Phil Collins. Yes, that Phil Collins. Bet you didn’t know that! And Ozzy Osbourne, away from his hotel on a raging drunken spree, once was caught accidentally peeing on an Alamo statue. (By “accidentally,” I mean the Alamo part, not the peeing part.) Bet you didn’t know that either, although you aren’t, likely, surprised.
These fun factoids appear early on in Forget The Alamo: The Rise And Fall of an American Myth. It is a recent book by Bryan Burroughs, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, three Texas-born authors with backgrounds in history, journalism, war correspondence, and political consulting.
(I’ve read Burrough’s Barbarians At The Gate, about the 1980s hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco; in one memorable line, a top executive complains “is the fucking I’m getting worth the fucking I’m getting?”)
The book has essentially three sections:
- What the Alamo was actually about
- How the telling of its history changed with time
- The debates over that history today.
They’re all fascinating, in different ways. The authors usually refer to themselves as “we,” and have no compunctions expressing their personal opinions about the story they’re telling. These opinions are sometimes very funny.
What’s more, and this was a real joy for me, the footnotes are all worth reading. For example, an American negotiator sent by John Quincy Adams to try and buy Texas from Mexico, a man named Joel Roberts Poinsett, got nothing… except for bringing back “a pretty Mexican flower, which proved so popular it was named for him; the poinsetta.” (In the spirit of these, this article has two short footnotes!)
The Alamo Was About Slavery and the Famous Heroes Were Jerks
After successfully freeing itself from Spanish colonial rule, Mexico set about abolishing slavery. Texas slaveowners didn’t want that. So they rebelled against the Mexican government, lost a battle at the Alamo, used that battle as a rallying cry, won independence, kept slavery, and joined America as a slave state. So much, so familiar.
Since I’m not from Texas, and never will be, I didn’t know much more about the story than that. As is usual with such things, it’s both far more complicated and far more mundane.
To start with, the migration of Americans into Texas. It began with a dispute over the Louisiana Purchase’s boundary and eventually became a matter of interest-vs-disinterest.
Texas, at the time, was something of a worthless hinterland to the Mexican government. About the only thing it was good for, it turned out, was cotton production. Americans looking to strike it rich in the slavery “business” had a whole new area to gobble up and torture people in!
Meanwhile, their presence helped keep down the indigenous population, which Mexico was perfectly happy to have Americans do.
But the fact that slavery was illegal in Mexico complicated this arrangement a bit. It was one thing for smaller-scale slaveowners to quietly go about their savagery. But larger plantations (with their illegal slave trade) were another matter.
Plus, the Americans brought quite a bit of racism with them (Surprise, surprise!) and thus weren’t always the best of neighbors. Additionally (as was the case with a lot of American expansion), some of the newcomers were plain jerks. They were escaping violent criminal charges, abandoned families, financial swindles gone bad, and so on. In other words, they were riff-raff.
Enter some particularly ambitious Americans who sought to make political names for themselves, several of whom have Texas cities named after them today. When Mexico sought to compromise on the slavery thing (a timed phaseout or the freeing of slaves after a certain age), these would-be Presidents and Generals became increasingly unwilling to negotiate.
Once they grew too militant, Mexico sent a small army to deal with the annoyance, led by General Santa Anna, a man with ambitions of his own. (There was also some suspicion on the part of Mexico that America had backed the rebellion, which was untrue. Mostly.)
In an act of supreme arrogance, the rebel Texans decided to make a military stand at a small former Catholic mission in San Antonio. (The authors here describe it as such a terrible military location, there was no chance of defending it from Santa Claus, much less Santa Anna.)
This hubristic folly had drawn several of the famous names who’d slouched to Texas in failure, such as Jim Bowie (drunk) and Davy Crockett (booted out of office). Although the Texans were clearly outnumbered, their incompetent, syphilitic general, William Travis, stubbornly refused to surrender and were quickly wiped out once the battle began.
Those who were captured (some while trying to escape) were shot. Santa Anna was a pissy jerk himself.
The wipeout and rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” helped Texas raise more volunteers. Santa Anna got cocky, the Mexican army was defeated for the time being. (Of course, Mexico didn’t accept this, and later fought a war with the US Army over the matter.) So much for the minor battle of the Alamo.
Constructing A Texas Origin Myth
The story from here becomes familiar to most students of how history gets mangled, and is summed up in a famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (The movie starring John Wayne, who played a huge role in perpetuating myths about the Alamo.)
The real facts behind the battle, more-or-less known at the time (insomuch as a battle with no survivors on one side can be known), start to be distorted for various reasons. Families of the American dead wanted their loved ones to be regarded as great heroes. Authors wanted to sell more copies of sensationalized war or western writings. Many Texans wanted to use the Alamo as an inspirational “good prevails” story during their involvement in the Civil War and during their ongoing dispossession of indigenous land.
Also, of course, there is the post-Reconstruction era, when the reality of a treasonous war to preserve slavery was redefined all over the South (and not just the South) as an idealistic “lost cause” of freedom from tyranny — while subjugating the constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of former slaves and their descendants.
An organization, Daughters of the Republic of Texas, was formed, and among its other goals, set about sanctifying/preserving/restoring (and “improving”) the Alamo historic site.
What really seems to have made the Alamo into a holy shrine for (Anglo) Texans was a series of comics printed from 1926 to 1928 in a Dallas newspaper, and called “Texas History Movies.” Hugely popular and hugely racist, the series was eventually printed as a book, copies of which were donated (courtesy of an oil company) to every Texas seventh-grader for several decades.
Still, while the story and site (neither of which bore much resemblance to the original) became part of Texas’s origin myth, it wasn’t of much interest beyond the borders of that peculiar state. Until the Cold War happened. And television. And the movies!
The Kiddiefication Of The Alamo
Walt Disney wanted to produce kid-friendly Rah Rah ‘merica programming. His studio’s first mega-success along these lines was a miniseries about Davy Crockett, which spawned a Crockett craze among children and bore absolutely no relation to reality whatsoever. (Disney made a fortune merchandising Crockett tie-in crap, and cheated star Fess Parker out of every penny for it.)
The third episode concluded with Crockett dying heroically at the Alamo, fighting off swarming Mexican monsters with his empty rifle. In fact, he was captured and executed — something used to inspire Texas soldiers in the remainder of the war.
Then in 1960, John Wayne’s ferociously expensive, ferociously fictitious The Alamo was released. (Although historians agree that the Alamo set built for the film was amazingly accurate.)
As the authors here put it, there’s no “sense of the real men; Bowie the con artist, Travis the preening politician, Crockett the washed-up politico … women are baubles, madonnas, or whores”.
Teen idol Frankie Avalon is given a song. No portion of the Texas origin myth is left unused, making the film a staggeringly boring three hours long. It was a hit, although not a hugely profitable one given the cost. No doubt it became a Gone With The Wind for Texas; items from the movie shoot are still displayed at the Alamo site today.
A young Phil Collins was deeply moved by the film. Another young musician, David Jones, was moved by the Crockett TV show. When Jones began to receive some notice in his music career, he changed his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees — he picked a character from the Disney series, and so David Jones became David Bowie. (But at this point his part in the Alamo story ends.)
The (Partial) Deconstruction Of A Myth
In the 1970s and 1980s, American historians began to re-examine some portions of US history which had been overlooked, or so heavily biased to emphasize American exceptionalism that the stories bore little resemblance to reality.
For example, why were the heroes always white males, and why were the true horrors of indigenous genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow ignored?
These historians began publishing books and articles puncturing pieces of the Alamo myth. Few drew much attention until a childhood Disney buff named Jeff Long set about working on an Alamo book which he hoped would be “just the old hoary tale jazzed up for a modern readership.” (Long’s words.)
Simply going through the available archival material blew his mind. The book took six years to finish and involved research in both Texas and Mexico. Long worked odd construction jobs to pay for it.
Long published Duel of Eagles in 1990, which the authors here describe as “so over the top, it was as if he were physically stomping on everything written before.” While attempts at rethinking Alamo history usually caught some regional flack, Long’s book drew the attention of “professors, journalists, and amateur historians” nationwide. (Long, naturally, received death threats.)
Several works along these lines followed, and before long the Alamo’s legacy was another weapon in the culture war — especially in Texas, one of that war’s new epicenters.
One such battleground was the fight over school textbooks. (James Loewen in Lies My Teacher Told Me has described how textbook publishers frequently consider the sensitive feelings of Texas conservatives when composing their books, as one false move can lose sales in that entire state.)
Should textbooks include the names of Tejanos who died defending the Alamo? How should they describe the white “heroes” who did? Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the outraged wailings of “revisionist history” are as well.
Enter Phil Collins
As mentioned, Collins was a longtime Alamo fan, and in the mid-1990s, his then-wife bought him a receipt for items purchased by John W Smith (the last messenger to leave the Alamo with a plea for reinforcements, and later a mayor of San Antonio).
Collins began a collection of Alamo-related documents. He even entertained the notion that he may have been Smith in a past life. Over the following years, his collection grew to include such items as weapons and uniforms from the battle. He also established relations with antiquities dealers who began holding prized finds for this important (and wealthy) client.
Getting along in years, Collins approached the Alamo people, and decided to donate his massive collection — by then one of the world’s largest — to the state of Texas. For free. Alamo fans rejoiced; Collins was given several honorary titles by the city and the state.
Collins’s only request was that somebody build a proper museum to display them in. The Alamo as it was, mismanaged for years by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (long underfunded and a little corrupt), had become a fairly tacky tourist trap in bad need of repair. (It even has a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not wax museum.)
Everyone agreed that the site and the collection deserved a first-rate museum upgrade. The Texas General Land Office (now in charge of the site) set about raising money from state and city governments, nonprofit historical societies, and private donors (1). In 2015, the GLO announced plans for a full $450 million overhaul.
But the GLO’s commissioner made a few people mad about the plans. That commissioner’s name? George P Bush.
George Prescott Bush and Dan Patrick
As you can guess from the name, George P Bush is another in a long line of political halfwits whose career originates from a long-ago family fortune.
The son of inspiring presidential candidate Jeb, he followed family tradition by becoming first a corporate lawyer, then seeking some — any — political office, finally settling on GLO commissioner. (The GLO is primarily responsible for managing mining rights on public land in Texas, about the most Bush-y job a Bush could do.)
With staunch conservative credentials and some Hispanic heritage on his mother’s side, Bush is considered quite the rising star in Texas politics.
What was Bush’s Alamo boo-boo? What got anyone upset about a brand-new Alamo spending plan? Bush proudly boasted that the plan would involve a “reimagining” of the Alamo site.
Now, this is simply the kind of thing any politician will say when announcing a major urban spending project, be it a new convention center or sports stadium or whatever. It means “more money will mean more tourists will mean more money for us all.”
But, with “historical revisionism” a dirty word among Alamo traditionalists, some saw “reimagining” as the reddest of red flags. Bush had said the reimagined Alamo “can be a centerpiece for taking on the controversial issue of the past.” Guess how fast he’d walk even that mild statement back? Hint: he’s got every bit the spine of his political relatives!
Outraged traditionalists claimed that Bush was in the pocket of revisionists (no). That Bush wanted to rename the site Misión San Antonio de Valero (no, although that was its original name). And that, horror of horrors, Bush wanted to move a cheesy sentimental 1940 statue from the site and replace it with one of Santa Ana (no).
(Oh, and that statue, by the way? It’s the statue Ozzy pissed on.)
Jumping into the fray was Dan Patrick. A former far-right talk-show host who currently serves as Texas’s Lieutenant Governor, he has long been a favorite on the goose-loony circuit. Texas Monthly called him a bully and ideologue and the worst state senator back in 2013 when he was just considering a lieutenant governor run. He’s only gotten worse.
In the spirit of such Texas luminaries as Ted Cruz, Patrick’s a total fraud posing as a staunch super-Christian in order to win faithful support from the easily-duped.
Patrick, correctly, sensed that Bush was a fellow empty suit with boundless political ambition, and decided to use the Alamo “reimagining” line to assault him from the right.
Bush responded by immediately swerving to the right himself (becoming, naturally, an outspoken Trump supporter). Bush survived re-election to GLO commissioner. Patrick remains the lieutenant governor. And no doubt the future sparks will fly. Somebody’s got to be the Holy Christian Emperor of a future one-party American theocracy!
And gee, all this because a nice (2) soft-rock English singer tried to donate his beloved Alamo collection to Texas.
Oh, and it turns out there’s just one more problem with that…
Much Of The Collins Collection May Be Fake As Hell
The authors of Forget The Alamo are careful to call themselves historiographers, not historians. They’re summarizing the work done by other historians, and adding some bits widely reported in the Texas press and elsewhere (such as the criticism’s of Bush and the GLO). But here they did some original research of their own.
They read Collins’s massive coffee-table book about his prized collection. They talked to the antiquities dealers who sold Collins most of his collection. And the dealers’ description of how they “found” so many Alamo items belonging to legendary figures seemed a bit sketchy. One repeatedly described using a little degreaser on antiques to discover the initials of famed Alamo dead on swords, knives, etc.
When the collection was donated to the GLO, so were some of the “proofs” of their authenticity. Through a lawsuit, the authors were able to get a look at those proofs. Some were incredibly strange, such as a forensic psychic who said of a knife supposedly belonging to James Bowie that “there is an overwhelming sadness associated with the knife.”
Other collectors in the field and Alamo antiquities buffs seemed to agree that many of the most high-profile items (you know, the ones most likely to get a prominent museum display) have dodgy authentication at best. Some could have been at the Alamo — yet likely, weren’t. Others appear improbable to have been even from the same period at all. A few outlier critics claim a majority of the collection is fake.
Not that Collins (who, after all, is donating this stuff for free) is knowingly pawning off bogus goods as real. Nor even, that the dealers who sold them to him were knowingly duping a rich hobbyist. What does seem likely is that at least a few people in that acquisition chain weren’t exactly diligent about establishing authenticity beyond a reasonable doubt. And Collins, who is in poor health, doesn’t want to talk about it. (His polite email to the authors mentions “personal stuff” keeping him busy. You don’t get much more “personal stuff” than aging-related medical maladies).
All of this, as well as the political debates surrounding the Alamo renovation itself, has put the project on hold past the start date Collins requested as a condition for his donation. Not to mention the 2020 police murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, which inspired strong worldwide pushback against monuments to former slaveholders. San Antonio is less than 30% Anglo; and less so every year.
The Whole Story Will Go On
Of course, many of the issues mentioned here are nowhere near resolution. The authors have an update on some of them (and some of the criticism of their work). In the book’s epilogue of sorts, they write:
It’s said that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, but there are plenty who remember the Heroic Anglo Narrative and want to endlessly repeat this version of history, seeing themselves under siege by tyrannical rule to take away their guns or commit any number of cultural atrocities …
What must change is the story we tell about the Alamo. To learn the real lessons of the Texas Revolt, we need to learn the truth about Bowie, Travis, and Crockett… all three men did believe in liberty and self-determination, and Travis was one hell of a letter writer. They fought for freedom, just not everybody’s freedom … If we shift the frame just a little bit, the whole story of the Alamo is transformed. And, frankly, a lot more interesting.
If this essay seems long to you, go read Twitter! But seriously, it’s only as long as it is because I can’t recommend this book enough. I’ve summed up some of the major points, yet there’s so much more. More detail, more horror, more humor. Tales of enough greed, corruption, cruelty, and stupidity to fill a long fiction novel (or the current Texas state legislature).
I can imagine Jim Hightower laughing his ass off at it — and Molly Ivins too, in the Texas afterlife, sipping a Lone Star. Get it from your library — heck, all three copies in the San Antonio library are currently checked in, so you won’t even have to wait if you live there!
(1) One of these, billionaire Red McCombs, is well-remembered by Minnesota sports fans for his tenure as owner of the NFL Vikings team. McCombs repeatedly threatened to move the team, possibly to San Antonio, if he were not given a new stadium. After a preseason game played in San Antonio drew approximately zero ticket-buying interest, McCombs sold the Vikings to a New Jersey real-estate developer who promptly got the new stadium. You can read about that process here!
(2) One time, Aimee Mann joked at a concert that her potential Oscar speech for the Magnolia film score would be “Phil Collins sucks.” Newsweek tried to make it a big deal. In this 2000 interview, Mann says “I sent him a fax that said I was just joking, and that Newsweek is a bunch of morons. So I ran into him backstage, and he was really nice. They had a little meeting — him and his people — and decided I was joking.”