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‘Remember the Alamo!’

The story lives on

Created date

January 24th, 2012

Amidst the modern high-rise buildings of bustling downtown San Antonio stands an 18th-century chapel, its humble and weather-beaten adobe a vestige of the Texas frontier. Catholic missionaries and their Native American converts once called it the Mission San Antonio de Valero, but most know it as the Alamo. It was here in February 1836 that 189 men, fighting for Texan independence from Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, defended the city of San Antonio against a force of 2,500 soldiers. The outnumbered and outgunned revolutionaries managed to stave off Santa Anna s troops for an astounding two weeks and went out with a blaze of glory. Every one of the Alamo s defenders died, among them frontiersman and U.S. Congressman David Crockett and famed knife fighter James Bowie. Almost instantly, the battle and the story of the men who lost their lives fighting it became the stuff of legend, likened to the last stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Throughout the 19th century, books chronicling the adventures of Crockett and Bowie, along with poetry, music, and dime novels, elevated the Alamo to a mythic status that endures today. The small chapel (itself not much bigger than a basketball court) is one of the most visited historic sites in the state of Texas. Each year over two million people make the pilgrimage for guided tours and strolls around the neatly manicured grounds, posing for photos in front of the Alamo s familiar tombstone-shaped facade. Some visit out of curiosity, others to feed a passion for history. Whatever their reasons may be, people continue to come. According to Bruce Winders, curator and historian at the Alamo, the site receives upwards of 1,200 school children on any given day. Still, the question remains: why does our fascination with this unassuming building persist after 176 years? To start with, says Winders, people who haven t heard of the Alamo in some capacity are few and far between. In fact, some might argue that the siege is more famous than the actual building. Tales of the defenders heroic last stand here attract people the world over, thanks especially to popular culture. The gun smoke had barely lifted when publishers set to work on books about the key defenders. Just months after the battle, a New York firm released Col. Crockett s Exploits and Adventures in Texas to great acclaim. A few years later, a Boston publisher followed with The Crockett Almanac: Containing Sprees and Scrapes in the West, Life and Manners in the Backwoods, and Exploits and Adventures on the Prairies, issued as a series through the mid 1850s. The volumes piled up as the years progressed, with the advent of film only adding to the glut of existing ephemera. In 1915, producer D.W. Griffith made the first feature-length movie about the siege called Martyrs of the Alamo. But nothing compared to the mass media craze that erupted with the 1955 release of Walt Disney s Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Millions of children sat spellbound wearing coon-skin caps as they watched a musket-toting Fess Parker duke it out with Santa Anna s army.

The Alamo Society

One of them was William Chemerka, whose life-long obsession with the makeshift fort and its defenders led him to start the Alamo Society, an international organization for enthusiasts of the subject. There is definitely a modern cultural side to the Alamo because pop culture influences how we interpret the past, says Chemerka, who one writer dubbed the Google of Alamo buffs. I think it s mainly our attraction to the tragic romance of the few dying in a fight against the many. Of course, there are other exciting moments in American history, such as Custer s last stand, but the difference is they weren t involved in a tense, 13-day siege. And while the Disney films as well as John Wayne s 1960 classic doubtless used artistic license in their portrayals, the suicidal odds that the Alamo s defenders faced make the reality just as sensational. Scholars like Winders and Chemerka have spent decades uncovering the facts behind the battle at the Alamo. In addition to his numerous books on the subject, Chemerka edits a quarterly journal for Alamo Society members, who include singer/musician Phil Collins and film director David Zucker. After all these years, there is still so much that we have to learn, Chemerka says. People are reinvestigating the architecture of the Alamo and the use of weaponry and tactics during the battle. We ll probably never know everything about those 13 days in 1836, and I think that lends a mystique to an already heroic tale, he adds. That s what makes the Alamo special. michael.williams@erickson.com

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