Remembering the Alamo(s)

As dawn broke on March 6th, 1836, a Mexican army led by President Antonio Lòpez de Santa Anna stormed the Alamo, a small compound defended by several hundred Texan revolutionaries. Although nearly all of the defenders died in the battle, the Alamo would become a symbol of Texan courage and independence.

Despite the fame of the battle, the building itself decayed for sixty years after the battle, until a restoration project brought new attention to the Alamo. Since then, artists have produced countless depictions of the battle, and turned it into one of the most iconic moments in American history. The irony is that these images reveal very little about the Battle of the Alamo itself. Instead, they tell us how subsequent generations have remembered the battle.

Robert Onderdonk, The Fall of the Alamo, 1903

Onderdonk’s The Fall of the Alamo is probably the most famous artistic portrayal of the Alamo. The painting created many of the artistic tropes surrounding the battle. The main figure, Davy Crocket, stands front and center in a heroic pose, wearing (ahistorically) his trademark buckskin clothes. While Onderdonk emphasizes the ragtag frontiersmen character of the Alamo’s defenders, he also racializes the Mexican attackers. It doesn’t take an art history expert to see that all the Mexicans are dark-skinned, while the defenders are white.

Commentators have racialized the Battle of the Alamo ever since the fortress fell . One contemporary New York newspaper described the Texas Revolution as “Anglo Saxon blood, contending against the mixed races of Mexico.” The large time gap between the actual conflict and most artistic depictions of it, however, means that the artists often imposed their own perspectives of the battle onto their supposedly accurate representation.

The stark dividing line Onderdonk imagines simply did not exist during the real battle. Although the three leaders of the Texans, William Travis, Jim Bowie, and Davy Crockett, were all of Anglo-Saxon extraction, many of the defenders were not. According to Dr. Paul Lack, about 22% of the defenders of the Alamo were not born in the United States at all.

In fact, the population that participated at the highest rate during the Texas Revolution were the Tejanos, Spanish-speaking inhabitants of Texas. By some counts, one in three adult male Tejanos fought in the Texan revolution, as opposed to Texian immigrants, whose military participation rate was only about 5%. In fact, only about a fifth of the Texan army at the Alamo consisted of Texan settlers from the United States. The rest of the army was American volunteers and Tejanos. Tejanos played an important role in every battle of the Texan revolution, including the Alamo.

The Mexicans, too, were not nearly so homogenous as Onderdonk suggests. Like all of Latin America, Mexico had a diverse and intermingled population Spanish, Indigenous, and African extraction.

The next two paintings are nearly as famous as Onderdonk’s, and are both displayed at the Texas Capitol Building in Austin.

Henry Arthur McArdle, Dawn at the Alamo,1905

McArdle’s Dawn at the Alamo takes considerable artistic license to depict the brutality and scope of the fall of the Alamo. Unlike Onderdonk’s work, there is no clear distinction between sides. Amusingly, William Travis, depicted on the right wall, appears roughly ten feet tall in McArdle’s otherwise realistic painting.

Lajos Markos’ work is the second of the two Alamo paintings at the Texan Capitol.

Lajos Markos, The Siege of the Alamo, 1977-1980

Markos puts aside the chaos and mayhem of McArdle and instead paints a kind of Texan Helm’s Deep. The figure of Willam Travis, standing heroically atop the wall and backlit by the fire, looks straight out of the golden age of Romantic paintings.

All of these paintings, but particularly Markos’, show the Mexican soldiers wearing a mix of regular uniforms and everyday garb, including sombreros. The use of the sombrero is particularly interesting. In Spanish, ‘sombrero’ simply means ‘wide brimmed hat’ and during the 1830s, there was nothing about the design of the Mexican sombrero that made it distinct from the wide hats endemic to the American frontier. So while many Mexican soldiers undoubtedly wore sombreros, so too would many of the defenders. Noah Smithwick, an early participant and historian of the Texas Revolution, wrote that the Texan revolutionaries wore sombreros as part of their standard gear. Yet McArdle and Markos both avoid depicting defenders with hats that resemble the sombreros of the Mexican attackers.

Why do the artists shy away from painting their protagonists wearing sombreros? By the early 1900s, the Sombrero had already taken on a stereotype of the lazy Mexican, and had become distinct in the public imagination from the ‘cowboy hat’ (which actually evolved from the sombrero).

To put it bluntly, the fighters on both sides at the Alamo would have looked very similar.

Frank Mechau, The Battle of the Alamo,1938

Frank Mechau created a more unorthodox portrayal of the battle in 1938. Mechau’s painting lacks any of the flags or symbolism characterizing other Alamo artworks. By turning both sides into vague mannequins, Mechau avoids the cultural and racial baggage of previous depictions of the battle. The problem is that when you strip away all the various meanings, you are left with very little. One viewer of Mechau’s painting said, “This artist thinks in terms of beauty and that is something.” The problem is, the beauty is all that the painting has to offer. When you remove the political bite of the work, all you are left with is aesthetics.

Notably, none of the above painters are of Mexican or Hispanic descent, a sensitive point since most of the battle’s participants, including some defenders, were Hispanic. Felipe Reyes tried to correct that gap in his 1971 reinterpretation of the Alamo’s imagery.

Filipe Reyes, Sacred Conflict, 1971

The flag Reyes painted over the Alamo is that of United Farm Workers, a largely hispanic labor union fighting against unfair treatment workers in Texas and the rest of the American south. Reyes painting attempts, in the words of the piece’s curator, to contextualize “Anglo aggression instead of Mexican tyranny or cruelty” in the story of the Alamo.

The Alamo remains one of the most iconic moments in American history. Americans have used the Alamo to redefine all sorts of issues. John Wayne, for example, reinterpreted the Alamo as a Cold War allegory in his 1960 film about the battle. Yet the ways we remember the Alamo have shifted constantly, and will doubtless continue to change as we modify our views of ourselves and of our history.

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