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Wednesday, September 23, 2015 : San Antonio, The Alamo


This morning, weather is really gorgeous in San Antonio, with fall here being much warmer than summer in Paris. After breakfast and the ritual Skype with my mom, Marie repacks our bags and we leave to visit the Alamo. I made an arrangement with the hotel staff, we can leave the car on their parking lot.


Marie could feel her sciatic quite acutely again for part of the night. So, though the Alamo is not that far, we do not want to walk too much and, following the hotel receptionnist's recommendation, we hop on the tourist bus downtown.


The front of the church, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

The front of the church, The Alamo


Although frequently used, especially in France, the name Fort Alamo is semantically incorrect. This place was never designed to be turned into a fort. It was originally Spanish mission San Antonio de Valero, later giving the city its name. Circumstances gave the mission the military and historical role it became famous for.


The Alamo is part of the group of five missions that make up San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, like Mesa Verde.


The mission was established by Spanish government in 1716, to evangelize local populations. At the time, in highly Catholic Spain, there was no notion of separation of Church and State, and a single entity assumed both roles. After Mexican independence in 1821, Texas found itself isolated at the northeasternmost edge of the country, from which it was separated by Rio Grande. Mexican goverment, willing to permanently put down constant Comanche attacks against a sparsely populated and ill-protected territory, opened Texas to colonization by settlers originating from places other that Mexico or Spain. Rapidly, a flow of migrants coming from the United States or Europe settled, openly flouting Mexican law. Logically, tensions between Mexico and the new settlers quickly became insuperable.


Mexico did not stay idle with no reaction. As soon as the end of 1835, all of Texas was in a virtual state of insurgency, and Mexican government mandated General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to restore order, were it by force. Repression was particularly bloody, and Santa Anna made a name for himself with his ruthless cruelty. Texians (that's how non-Hispanic settlers were called, at the time of the insurgency) were defeated in a series of battles along the coastline, culminating in the slaughter of prisonners at Goliad on March 27, 1836. Santa Anna himself besieged the insurgents here, at the Alamo, for 13 days in February-March 1836. In the wee hours of March 6, 1836, the remaining defenders were massacred during a merciless assault. Among the combatants, only one single survivor was spared, and let go to tell his story.


Meanwhile, Texas unilaterally declared Independence on March 2, 1836, becoming the Republic of Texas, a denomination still widely used as of the present day.


Texian troops, led by Sam Houston, gradually retook the upper hand, and eventually defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, as short as it was intense. War ended up in a very humiliating way for Santa Anna, who was forced to sign the Treaties of Velasco, highly defavorable to Mexico but with a crushing advantage for Texas. It is here that Sam Houston permanently acquired his status of hero of the young Republic.


Among the victors, two trends began to oppose : the Nationalists, who favored permanent independence for Texas, westward expansion and pure and simple deportation of Native populations, and the Federalists, whose true aim was annexation by the United States. After a period of uncertainty and internal discord, the Federalists prevailed, and the Republic of Texas joined the Union on December 29, 1845, becoming the 28th State of the United States.


Wrought in the powder of insurrection, the iron of battle and the blood of victims, Texan identity has stood the test ot time, coming to us unscathed. It largely echoes the birth of American identity during the Revolutionary War between 1775 and 1783. It makes a widespread usage of those two slogans :


  • Remember the Alamo : reference to the events of February-March 1836,
  • Remember Goliad : reference to the massacre of prisoners.

Plaque celebrating the heroes of 1836, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

Plaque celebrating the heroes of 1836


As a welcome surprise, a French audioguide is available to visit the Alamo. Marie enjoys it.


By the way, do you know where the name Alamo comes from ? It is basically unofficial, since the mission, as we already told, was called San Antonio de Valero. It is simply owed to a grove of cottonwood, or poplar, trees, called álamos in Spanish, pretty close to the mission.


The visit begins on the plaza in front of the Alamo, onto which the church opens. It is where Marie took the previous picture.


On  the left wall, we can see two plaques. The right one celebrates the birth of free-masonry in Western Texas in 1848, while the left one honors the memory of five of the heroes of 1836, including James Bowie, who gave his name to the famous knife (long later, British rock star David Jones borrowed the name to become David Bowie), William B. Travis, who commanded Texian troops during the siege, and world-famous frontiersman David Crockett, commonly spelled Davy.


The visit proceeds into the church. During the siege of February-March 1836, it became the last stronghold of resistance. The last 11 victims were the gun crews manning two pieces of artillery that had been setup in the middle of the main nave. Cannon shots in a church ? Just this gives an idea of the fierceness of Texian insurgents' resistance.


We have to imagine that the cannons were not installed at ground level, but had been placed on a inclined path. At the deeper end of the nave, they gave their crews the advantage of altitude. Unfortunately, a cannon takes a while to reload, and in this respect Mexican assailants' bayonets held an obvious advantage. The last 11 defenders of the Alamo were literally hacked to death by General Santa Anna's soldiers.


Let's remember that, for 13 days, the defenders of the Alamo kept on fighting while outnumbered one to ten.


The souvenir shop, a former church, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

The souvenir shop, a former church

The visit of the church ends and we exit on the left, yard side or, should I say, garden side. Facing us, an old chapel, which was not part of the original mission, has been turned into a souvenir shop. We make a brief visit. We fly back to France in two days, and we still have a few postcards to write.


The gardens of the Alamo, San Antinio, TX

The gardens of the Alamo

Indeed, a small park of trees has now taken the place of the former yard of the Alamo, on which most mission buildings used to open.


We are at the end of the season and yet, there are still plenty of visitors in this park. I try to imagine the crowd populating this place, let's say, a busy mid-August weekend.


The weather is bright and warm. The shade of large, centuries-old trees is welcome.


Headstone dedicated to the 32 men from Gonzales, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

Headstone dedicated to the 32 men from Gonzales


In the park, a headstone reminds of the sacrifice of the 32 men from Gonzales. Answering Commander Travis', already besieged in the Alamo by Santa Anna's troops, rescue call, 32 farmers from the village of Gonzales took arms, crossed Mexican lines and joined the Texian troops. Fulfilling the ultimate sacrifice, they never exited the Alamo again.


Inside the Long Barrack, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

Inside the Long Barrack


On the Western edge of the Alamo is the Long Barrack, a long and narrow two-story building which was used as a warehouse, barracks for soldiers and housing for priests. It is this building that was first attacked by Santa Anna's troops at the dawn of March 6, 1836, and where most combats happened.


Today, the Long Barrack is a very detailed museum about the history of the mission, with a luxury of details about the fighting of those fateful 13 days. We spend quite a moment there. The visit showcases many artifacts : uniforms, guns, but also daily life objects. Displays show the role the Long Barrack played later, partly becoming a warehouse used by local farmers.


Cannon in the gardens of the Alamo, San Antonio, TX

Cannon in the gardens of the Alamo

Back in the park, we make a stop in front of a twelve-pound cannon, similar to the two artillery pieces which took part in the very last defensive action, during the assault of the church. Cannons at the time could not be breech-reloaded, only muzzle-reloaded. The time to attempt anything, the last defenders of the Alamo had already been overwhelmed. It was the end.


The Alamo in 1836, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

The Alamo in 1836

Still in the park, the picture on this sign shows the Alamo as it was in 1836. As we can see, the field (these days, we would most likely call it the campus) used by the mission occupied a relatively large space, away from what was still a very small town.


Tourist bus in downtown San Antonio, TX

Tourist bus in downtown San Antonio


Our visit is now over. We leave the Alamo through its northern exit, on Houston Street. Right before our eyes, this bus is identical to the one we took to come from the hotel to the city center, and which we will soon be riding again on our way back.


While I walk to the post office just across the street to buy stamps and mail our last postcards, Marie takes a few pictures. I did not expect a very simple purchase to take such a long time, but the post office is inside a Federal building, which, as everyone knows, have been the subject of draconian security measures since 9/11 attacks. The time to pass metal detectors, explain the security person what I am doing here, and let him search my backpack, Marie grows impatient. The actual stamp purchase takes me less than 30 seconds.


Monument for the dead of 1836, The Alamo, San Antonio, TX

Monument for the dead of 1836, The Alamo


Back on Alamo Plaza, on the western side of the Alamo, we walk around the Cenotaph, the monument that was erected to commemorate the centennial of 1836 combats. This monument bears the names of the 187 defenders who sacrificed their lives on the Texian side. Its base is made of light pink Texas granite, while the monument itself is made of white Georgia marble. On the front side, an epitaph reminds of the sacrifice of the heroes of the independence of Texas.


We then hop on our little red bus and ride back to the hotel to take the Camaro again. It is now time to leave San Antonio to Dallas, about 270 miles away.


We are at the very beginning of the afternoon, and Interstate 35 ramp and San Antonio exits are kind of jammed. I assume that people must be driving home for lunch, to create such a rush at such a time.


The Capitol, downtown Austin, TX

The Capitol, downtown Austin

We drive close by Austin, the capital of Texas, without stopping. This is yet another choice. We know perfectly well we cannot see everything.


Here too, traffic is heavy, and Marie has ample time to take pictures, including this one, showing Texas State Capitol.


Arrival in Dallas in the traffic, Dallas, TX

Arrival in Dallas in the traffic

After an absolutely eventless drive, we make it to Dallas by the end of the afternoon, stuck in traffic again for a few minutes. Well, let's face it honestly, though Dallas is a first-order metropolis, its road congestion is far from catastrophic, and I would gladly swap it with what I routinely experience in Paris.


Downtown Dallas, TX

Downtown Dallas

We remember that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The attack occurred between the two red brick buildings behind the row of trees in the foreground of the picture. Before flying back to Paris, we have all morning tomorrow to devote to this last visit.


Our hotel is a Best Western a few miles from the city center. I go to the pool for one very last swim, and we then have dinner almost across the street from the hotel, in a neighborhood restaurant, not bad but quite noisy.

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