- An Altar for Their Sons: The Alamo and the Texas Revolution in Contemporary Newspaper Accounts
The joke was that William Tell and his family were avid bowlers but all the Swiss league records were destroyed in a fire, and now we will never know for whom the Tells bowled. Alamo scholars and aficionados do not suffer a comparable dearth of "league records"; veins of primary material lie scattered among collections across the United States and Mexico. Altar for Their Sons gathers from various archives "history's first draft," that is, newspaper articles reflecting contemporary attitudes and reactions: exaggerations, jingoism, patriotism along with fragmentary reports of campaigns and combat. In twelve chapters and one special illustrated essay, the author describes the turmoil in what was then northern Mexico and the warfare and the Texas republic that followed. Interest in Texas grew during and after the revolution. Texas became a touchstone in the Manifest Destiny debate. The New York Sun and the Republican Monitor each opposed U.S. expansion on ethical and [End Page 330] anti-slavery grounds. If Zaboly's survey of extant coverage is indicative, they were in the minority.
Texas's neighbors followed events there through coverage in the Arkansas Gazette or the New Orleans Bee. News out of Mexico's frontier appeared in the New York Herald, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Washington's Daily National Intelligencer, and the Richmond Enquirer. As reports broke of the fall of the Alamo, newspapers printed conflicting and fragmented accounts. Davy Crockett died in a score of different print scenarios. The Memphis Enquirer boasted the loss of 1,600 attackers, an "imperishable monument" to 187 Texians but official army battle reports published in the Mexican press listed Alamo losses at 600 "foreigners" and Mexican army losses of 70 killed and 300 wounded.
Convinced that the Texas revolt sprung from a U.S. scheme enabled by waves of settlers, editors in El Cosmopolita, El Mosquito Mexicano, as well as Diario del Gobierno de la República decried the villainy and depredations of the Americano filibusters. "[M]ost Mexican newspapers utilized prose . . . no less purple and jingoistic than that of U.S. presses to express their country's euphoria over the victory at the Alamo" (7), Zaboly observes. Mexican news accounts (published here in English) romanticized Santa Anna's wielding a "noble sword" to free Mexico, while his brave soldados won accolades for their victories over "vile and mean foreigners" (7).
Short explanatory paragraphs and commentaries intersperse the original news articles. Complementing Altar are thirty pen and ink illustrations by Zaboly, each accompanied by a short essay serving as a caption for the well-researched drawing. Zaboly's full-color image of the entire Alamo stronghold opens a special essay describing the layout, structures, and condition of the fort during the siege. Mexican army engineers depicted a different view of the embattled citadel, "before," as artist and folklorist Eric Von Schmidt commented, "some U.S. Army engineers Taco-Belled it." Based on archival sketches and narrative descriptions as well as archaeological evidence, a new understanding of the defenses emerges. Although several walls needed constant shoring up under unrelenting bombardment, they still afforded sufficient cover that soldados rarely saw the defenders until the final assault. From the new evidence there emerges something more than "a kind of broken-down, armed hacienda with its defenders walking the flat roofs" (S7). Postwar travelers' sketches of dilapidated ruins bore little reality to "Fort Alamo." As Altar reveals, neither would the print media fully capture the reality of revolution.
Like reading Chaucer in the original "olde English," a colleague remarked, extant letters, diaries, and documents infuse a vibrancy to history otherwise blandly nestled in textbooks. An Altar for Their Sons is the "olde English" of Alamo lore, indispensable in understanding the Alamo, Texas, Mexico, and the ties that have bound or entangled them.