Thinking and Writing About the Alamo

by Gray Cargill on July 30, 2014

Post image for Thinking and Writing About the Alamo

There is a simple truth about my writing: Some blog posts practically write themselves. Others are a struggle. Some topics never see the light of day because no matter how many drafts I write, I’m not happy with any of them.

Some writers approach an experience having already decided what their angle is. I’d rather see what happens when I interact with a place, what feelings bubble up in me, what happens while I’m there, and then, later, as I reflect on it, I figure out how to write the post. Sometimes, this approach fails me.

Last year, I wrote about going on a tour of the Spanish Mission Trail in San Antonio. At the time, I deliberately left out the Alamo—which is the most famous of San Antonio’s missions —because, as I said:

“The Alamo is worthy of its own post, so I’ll save that for another day. “

18 months later, I still hadn’t dedicated a blog post to the Alamo. How embarrassing. Last fall, I sat down to write about it. I went through three drafts and wasn’t happy with any of them. That’s when I realized why I hadn’t yet written about it. What could I say about the Alamo that hasn’t been said a million times before?

Tribute at the Alamo

A stone honoring 32 men from Gonzales who were among the very few who came to Travis’s aid.

If you’ve studied U.S. History, you know what happened there, and its importance in shaping the country. You don’t need me to regurgitate historical facts and figures to you. If you haven’t studied U.S. History, I’m sure there are better sources of information about the Battle of the Alamo than me.

If I hadn’t already written about the importance of remembering the sacrifices soldiers have made for us (two posts, actually, which you can read here and here), nothing would be more appropriate than the Alamo for that message.

If I’d taken some spectacular photos there I could have just put together a photo post about it. But my photos of the Alamo aren’t all that spectacular, to be honest.

I might have waxed poetic about how I preferred visiting the Alamo at night, and why–except I’d already noted that before, in another post.

The Alamo at Night

The Alamo at Night

I briefly considered an article along the lines of my Pompeii post, wherein I would note “5 Things That Surprised Me About the Alamo”–except the only thing that I found surprising was how small the shrine was. One surprise does not a blog post make.

If I’d had any interactions with people there and could tell an interesting story about my personal visit to the Alamo, I would. But the Alamo encourages thought and introspection, not socializing.

As I was perusing the Alamo’s own website trying to find some inspiration, I ran across a page they call “Fun Facts about the Alamo”. Cringe. God forbid I ever write a post called “Fun Facts“ about the site of a massacre.

And so I feel I have failed the most significant site in the city of San Antonio and the state of Texas, because I have nothing to say about it that does justice to it. But I’ll offer this anyway:

The Alamo

You can almost imagine some soldiers sitting here in the evening, enjoying a starry night, before all hell broke loose

To refresh my memory of its history, I watched the IMAX movie “The Alamo: The Price of Freedom” down the street before visiting the Alamo. During the movie, I felt this overwhelming sense of sadness that this tragedy could have been avoided if William Barret Travis had simply done the math, seen how outnumbered they were, and ordered his men to retreat. “Live to fight another day” and all that, you know? Still. . .once the decision was made to stand and fight, they carried it through to the end, courageously.

At some point, they must have known they wouldn’t survive the fight. But maybe they thought they could hold out long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Or long enough to slow down General Santa Anna so the Texas Army could gather enough men to stop him. Maybe they thought all they needed to do was live long enough for that.

They were grossly outnumbered, around 10 to 1. For thirteen days, they accomplished what was seemingly impossible: They held off the enemy. For thirteen days. It probably felt like thirteen hundred. Eventually, of course, the Mexican Army overran the Alamo and killed all of them.

So maybe staying and fighting wasn’t the smart thing to do, but they felt it was the right thing to do. And their sacrifice wasn’t meaningless. The massacre inspired others to rush to join the fight against Santa Anna, and Texas won its freedom from Mexico.

The Alamo oak tree

The Alamo oak tree

There is an old oak tree in the inner courtyard of the Alamo, where the Long Barracks is. It is massive. The limbs are sprawling, thick and heavy, dipping low over the walkways. They’re supported by cable wires in several places–so there’s no chance they can fall and crush someone to death.

This tree was transplanted to the Alamo in 1912 when it was 40 years old by Walther Whall who thought it would be a nice tribute to the men who sacrificed their lives there. According to the audio guide I listened to while touring the Alamo, common wisdom back then said there was no way to transplant a tree that old and have it survive. It just couldn’t be done, everyone told him.

Here it is, 102 years later, not just thriving, but dominating the courtyard. I can’t think of a better symbol for the human spirit, or the spirit of the Alamo, than that.

Maria Falvey August 1, 2014 at 3:03 am

Ah! San Antonio (or San Antone as some locals call it) is a wonderful town.
Beautiful light on the Alamo at night – I recall the first time I visited, shocked to see what a war was fought over but small as it is, it packs a big punch impression. So glad you saw it. I’ll never forget it. 😀

Gray Cargill August 1, 2014 at 7:56 pm

I never will, either, Maria.

Priscilla July 30, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Well I am not surprised one bit that you had a hard time writing about this Alamo. Like you, the only thing that I was shocked about was how small it was. I found it unremarkable and quite a disappointment, but then again I am from Boston where history and bravery are etched into almost every corner of the city. I should not be so hard on my adopted state or its important landmarks.
I am glad to hear about the tree, it was a new fact for me and something that does seem worthy of writing about.
Great job with a difficult subject to write about and make new and interesting. Pat yourself on the back!

Gray Cargill July 31, 2014 at 5:11 am

Thank you, Priscilla. I can’t say I was disappointed in it. Knowing that happened there, even if it were just a big empty field, I think it still would have felt significant to me. But I am glad I watched the movie first; I think that put the poignancy fresh in my mind.

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