March is Texas History Month -- So Let's Remember the Alamo Through a New Lens
John Willingham is a regular contributor to HNN. He has an MA in American social/intellectual history from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.
March is Texas History Month, so now is as good a time as any to reassess famous battle of the Alamo through a different lens. Far from being simply a pivotal moment in Texas and American history, allow me to suggest that the Alamo was one of the defining moments of the Age of Romanticism, a period which valued emotion and individualism over the rationalism of the preceding Age of Enlightenment.
Romantics such as the English poet Lord Byron sought to sacrifice themselves to the great cause of freedom, in his case the cause of Greece against the Ottoman Turks. Men across America saw the fight in Texas as a chance to share in the glory of their forefathers, who had fought in the Revolution or the War of 1812. Whether motivated in part by greed or a desire for adventure, many also saw themselves as chivalrous warriors, knights in the cause of freedom, disdainful of risks and the prospects for defeat.
Most of the men who fought in the Texas Revolution were from the South, and theirs was a particular strain of Romanticism, one that took hold in the American South during the first half of the nineteenth century (it's not for nothing that Mark Twain once suggested that English Romantic writer Walter Scott bore responsibility for the Civil War).
That Southern Romanticism was (and still is, in some ways) characterized by the noble and, to use a word of those times, chivalrous devotion to heroic achievement, to fame and glory, to an ideal of women, to an idealized past, and to an intense sense of personal honor and pride that would brook no insult or challenge. Even a mild affront could turn into a duel. The few paces between the dueling parties constituted the only middle ground there was, with life on one side and death on the other.
The influence of this Southern Romanticism on the people and events of the Texas Revolution has not been studied or appreciated as it should, although this article is heavily indebted to the work of historians Bertram Wyatt-Brown, emeritus at the University of Florida, and the late Rollin G. Osterweis of Yale, both of whom wrote more generally of the South.
The term code of honor is one possible description for the manly version of Southern Romanticism (Wyatt-Brown uses “rule of honor”). Within that code there is the cult of chivalry, the glorification of military valor, the adoration of the hero, and the idealization of Southern women.
Why was the South receptive to this code of honor? For one thing, the South was and probably still is a more physical culture than the rest of the nation. To be sure, nineteenth-century Northerners were no strangers to sometimes brutal working conditions that required great physical effort, but as often in factories and mills as on farms.
But in the South, so much of life was centered on the outside world—planting, harvesting, hunting, fishing; racing horses; forming militias to fight the Creeks or the Cherokees, and to capture runaway slaves; or, most urgently of all, to put down slave rebellions. And so there was an enduring martial spirit, beginning before the American Revolution, drawing strength from it, and carrying forward because of the still-violent frontier, and the need to keep slaves in check.
And of course it was heroic military action, above all, that brought fame, glory, and the most fulfilling form of honor. Not to mention that in a plantation society, a military vocation was often the best honorable alternative to being a great planter or a firebrand politician.
As the issue of slavery became more of a wedge between North and South, Southerners found ways to justify slavery, calling it a positive good. A major apologist for slavery argued that not only was it a positive good for slaves, who after all, were incapable of independent living; it was, he believed, also the key to honoring Southern women.
In the words of the Rev. Thomas R. Dew of the College of William & Mary: “We behold the marked effects of slavery on the conditions of women—we find her at once elevated, clothed with all her charms, mingling with and directing the society to which she belongs, no longer the slave but now the equal and idol of man.”
Thus did slavery emancipate the Southern woman—according to the Reverend Dew. Of course, most white Southern women did not belong to households that owned slaves. In fact, women -- who were most decidedly not the equals of men -- were idols mostly when men needed something to fight over, and were expected to use their real or imagined leisure to instill in their sons the very code of honor that men cherished.
Sir Walter Scott was already well-known when his book Ivanhoe appeared in 1820. It's the book that conquered the South.
The novel had it all: the honor of chivalrous knights loyal to virtuous women under duress; the noble heroism, the glory of combat, and a convenient story line that could easily be translated to the American South: just as the Norman knights were far superior to the Saxon knaves, so were honorable Southerners superior to the narrow, grasping Northerners who now criticized the Southern way of life.
One aspect of the code of honor, however, was that it was too often dependent on external validation. If it was thought that your wife had been slighted, you were honor-bound to retaliate, often violently, even if the slight was trivial or non-existent. Everything depended on appearances. No insult could be borne, compromise was unmanly, the middle way un-heroic. Logic and reason counted for little when honor was a stake. This was the burden of Southern Romanticism.
So after wandering through the groves of Southern intellectual history, what, one might ask, does all of this have to do with the Alamo?
“Victory or Death,” William B. Travis’s famous words from the Alamo, declared not only the determination to die, honorably, for a noble cause, but also declared, in the spirit of the age, that nothing mattered but the code—fighting another day be damned; joining a force that might actually attain victory, be damned as well. Reality, the certainty of annihilation—no consequence was too grave.
There were only the bare, powerful, absolute words of the code: “Victory or Death.” As in a duel, the honor of the Texans had to be preserved; they could not run away, no matter the cost, no matter the odds.
But however noble the sacrifice Travis and the others made at the Alamo, Texas independence was not won through defeats. Sam Houston, the architect of independent Texas, was also a Romantic, but of a different sort than Travis. A Virginian by birth, Sam was nineteen when the War of 1812 broke out. Mostly self-educated and absolutely devoted to Homer’s Iliad and its vivid story of the Trojan War, Sam no longer wanted to read about larger-than-life men making their mark in history’s tablet—he wanted to be one of those men.
So he informed his mother of his plans to fight in the war. Later, he spoke often of her response: Handing him a musket, she said, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I would rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn back to save his life.”
She then gave her son a plain gold ring. Engraved inside the ring was one word: “Honor.” You may know the rest of the story: Houston fought at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, under the eye of Andrew Jackson. Young Sam took a Creek arrow in his upper thigh, then rejoined the fight, leading a charge over breastworks, where musket balls smashed into his shoulder and arm. These were not the last wounds Houston would receive, but they cost him the most: some believe that his first wife, Eliza, who left him soon after they were married, did so in part because of the hideousness of his injuries.
Houston remained fascinated by the Iliad throughout his life. The first two lines read thusly:
Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’s son Achilles
The accursed rage that brought great suffering to the [Greeks].
For it was the rage of Achilles that led to even more killing, of his own people, of the Trojans, of Hector, and then to the terrible destruction of Troy -- and all because Achilles felt that Agamemnon had violated his honor. The noble Achilles, instead of placing the needs of his people first, nursed a personal hatred, and thereby lost his true honor. Honor owes its first allegiance to something beyond the self; there is no real glory for the hero without this higher purpose.
So it was that Sam Houston, grown to early middle age, did not surrender to rage, or pride, or follow his personal siren song into more extended seclusion, but instead endured insults and hints at his lack of courage to fight another day after the Runaway Scrape -- the campaign that ultimately culiminated in San Jacinto; and on that day in April, he beat the Mexican army in less than twenty minutes. Houston was a man who cared less for appearances than he did for his country. A Romantic, yes; but a Romantic with the wisdom of the ancients fixed in his brain, a Romantic who knew not only the greatness that individuals may achieve, but their finitude, and their very real, very human limitations.
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