The 185-year-old Battle that Still Dominates Texas Politics
And so it is with one of American history’s landmarks, a pint-sized tourist experience where the history is gauzy and the surroundings are gaudy—a gauntlet of two Ripley’s museums, a wax museum, a tacky string of t-shirt and souvenir shops. Despite its shortcomings, 3 million visitors troop through every year to connect with Texas’ blood-soaked founding myth.
“Visitors to the Alamo today are impressed mostly by how unimpressed they are,” author Stephen Harrigan wrote in his sweeping 2019 history of Texas, Big Wonderful Thing.
Six years ago, George P. Bush—the son of a governor, the grandson and nephew of presidents—took charge of the Texas General Land Office, an obscure, largely clerical position that historically has been seen as a stepping stone in state politics. Handsome, Hispanic and youthful, the new Bush promised a new generation of kinder, gentler Republican.
He chose the Alamo as the place to make his mark. At a cost of $450 million, he would elevate the Alamo from a wanting tourist experience to a national historical treasure. Busy streets would be sealed off to give pedestrian visitors a sense of the true breadth of the old mission. Markers would provide insight into details like the burial ground of Native Americans who had converted to Catholicism. A 130,000- square-foot museum would tell the story not just of the battle of 185 years ago but the construction of the mission in 1719, the mix of Spanish colonialism, Native Americans, Christianity and agriculture in a rugged land. The Hispanic story would come to the fore alongside that of the Anglo battle against Mexico. And the Anglo-dominated, racistly tinged half-truths and outright lies that have come to define the Alamo story, embodied in a massive 60-foot-high monument in front of the site, would necessarily recede.
It did not go as planned.
What was supposed to be Bush’s crowning achievement—and even a symbol of a more diverse Republican party—has turned into a political siege nearly six years long. But Bush stirred up powerful opposition—, from the self-appointed gatekeepers of Texas history, to his own political party to the nativist rightwing that objected to what they called politically correct history. The dispute has grown so bitter and entrenched that the state’s most powerful politician, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, falsely accused Bush, the son of a Mexican-born mother, of wanting to erect a statue of a Mexican general and dictator at the Alamo.
Few things are more precious in Texas than the stories Texans tell about themselves. And the story of the Alamo—how an outmatched band of white heroes fought to the last against an implacable and vicious foreign enemy—has become so enmeshed in the culture that any attempt to tinker with it is met with outrage. Like the debates over removing Confederate statues and renaming military bases that bear the names of defeated generals, the story of the Alamo has acquired the sheen of a noble “lost cause” and that has proven remarkably powerful as a political message in conservative circles.
And now that fallout from the embattled project is shaping the landscape of next year’s election cycle.
Bush, who declined to comment for this story, now says he is “seriously considering” a run against the indicted attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton. It’s Bush’s only way up in Texas politics—and ultimately on to national politics. He could also set his sights considerably lower and run for a third term as Land Commissioner. Yet either way he must contend with opposition from Patrick, who has outmaneuvered Bush at nearly every pass, denying him a much-needed win to promote on the campaign trail. Patrick has his own ambitions, including a possible run for governor, and the fight over the Alamo, with its anti-Mexican overtones, resonates loudly inside a GOP with a strong nationalist bent.
“The Alamo is a battleground. But it’s a lot of things. It’s colonial Spain, Mexico, Native Americans, and the civil rights movement,” Harrigan told me. “My feeling is that this whole episode, however, has been unnecessarily politicized like everything else in our country. It became just another culture war.”
Few subjects of Texas history have proved as contentious as what happened in early 1836 in a town then known as Béxar de San Antonio. But it started with a revolt.
After pledging to become loyal Mexicans and devout Catholics, the American immigrants to Texas realized it was a hardscrabble place where the only cash crops were sugarcane and cotton; they wanted slaves for those fields. “Texas,” wrote Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, “shall be a slave nation!”
Yet slavery was illegal in Mexico. The American immigrants rebelled, driving the Mexican Army out of San Antonio in the fall of 1835. Mexico City faced multiple revolts and couldn’t afford for the nation to simply break apart so soon after independence. Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna, nicknamed the “Napoleon of the West” in the English-speaking world and “the Eagle” in Mexico, marched north to put down the rebellion.
Even at the time, the Alamo’s military importance was dubious. Sam Houston, the other father of Texas, wanted it destroyed and the position abandoned altogether. But in a foolhardy bit of gallantry, he was ignored, and the siege began. A young commander inside the Alamo tried to surrender, but with conditions; Santa Anna rejected the offer. Thirteen days of siege and bombardment later, and after a relatively brief three hours of hand-to-hand combat, the 1,500-man Mexican force had wiped out the remnant of about 200 Texas rebels. The seven survivors were executed on Santa Anna’s orders.
On the basic chronology, there is little disagreement. But the executions were another matter. In time, as Texas continued its fight for independence, the men became more than insurrectionists who had defied orders to retreat. They became martyrs whose sacrifice was deemed essential to the ultimately successful breakaway.
That interpretation—Anglo heroism in the face of Mexican oppression—got a major boost in the early 20th century when what was left of the Alamo site came under the management of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. Akin to the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the American Revolution, the group drew from San Antonio society. But even among such an elite group there were ethnic and ideological rifts.
In 1909, Adina Emilia De Zavala, a wealthy Hispanic woman, wanted the mission preserved as a whole, including the convent which became a barracks during the 1836 battle. A wealthy Anglo woman, Clara Driscoll, wanted that part destroyed, mistakenly believing it was added after the 1836 battle. Court battles ensued and De Zavala even barricaded herself inside the Alamo. Finally, both women agreed to keep the building intact while emphasizing the battle over the site’s previous uses.
“Time has proved that Adina De Zavala was correct in most of her historical contentions concerning the mission,” according to the Texas State Historical Association. But decades would go by in which the Anglo history received further buttressing.
The period was rife with racist revisionism. In 1905, “Dawn at the Alamo,” a giant, mural-sized painting by Henry Arthur McArdle, was hung in the chamber of the Texas Senate. The painting depicts one of the leaders of the rebellion, 27-year-old William B. Travis, bathed in sunlight, stalked atop a parapet by a sinister Mexican soldier seemingly about to shoot him in the back. The work hangs there to this day.
D.W. Griffith, producer of the infamously racist “Birth of a Nation,” made “Martyrs of the Alamo” in 1915. The Klan was rising again. So was sympathy for lost causes, namely the Confederacy.
In 1936, a hundred years after the battle, the Alamo as “lost cause” became memorialized in thousands of pounds of gray Georgia marble and pink Texas granite. The Cenotaph monument, built at the behest of the state, was the creation of a talented and deeply racist Italian sculptor, Pompeo Coppini, who had established a thriving business sculpting Confederate heroes. Formally known as “The Spirit of Sacrifice,” the Cenotaph features a romantic carving of the Anglo heroes—and only the Anglo heroes—perched atop its pedestal.
But beginning in the 1950s, with the advent of the civil rights era, Hispanic and other scholars began to draw a connection between the disparaging treatment of Hispanic fighters in the Alamo narrative and downstream political consequences, including the lack of representation of San Antonio’s Mexican population on the city council.
“Mexicans in San Antonio weren’t erased,” said Raúl A. Ramos, a history professor at the University of Houston and author of his own book on the Alamo. “But they were marginalized.”
“There’s a significant distance between mythology and reality,” Harrigan, the historian, told me Santa Anna was not a drooling murderer. His professional officers were divided over executing rebels. And Travis never drew his famous line in the sand, asking willing defenders to cross over.
Chris Tomlinson, co-author of a forthcoming book on the subject. Entitled Forget the Alamo, it will be the 600th book on the subject, according to the Library of Congress. He is withering in his recasting of the narrative. “Everything about the Alamo is a lie.”
Among Tomlinson’s rebuttals: Slavery fueled not a revolution but a land grab. The Alamo was a blunder; it was supposed to be destroyed and abandoned. Travis was an amateur. Davy Crockett’s legendary toughness crumbled like a facade; he begged for his life when he was captured. The battle didn’t slow the Mexican march east. And ultimately, it was U.S. Army artillery, secretly deployed from Louisiana, that finally won Texas its independence at the battle of San Jacinto.
“We call it a revolt, not a revolution,” said Tomlinson, a former U.S. Army officer-turned-journalist. “They weren’t defenders or heroes.”
Bush discussed none of this fraught history during his exceedingly cautious campaign for land commissioner in 2014.
“He was very careful, bordering on timid, staying in the rural areas,” recalls Cal Jilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I thought he was just careful up front and he would step out. This was the next generation of Bushes, after all.”
Entering office in 2015 at the age of 39, he was the youngest statewide elected official here at the time. There is nearly zero public land in Texas but the office does process the royalty checks for oil and gas leases. In search of wider relevance, occupants of the office have often identified a cause beyond writing checks to broaden their constituency.
At first, that cause for Bush seemed entirely focused on the interior workings of his office, slashing budgets and letting veteran bureaucrats go. He talked about “asymmetric threats” both within and without. All of it was a downer, as Texas Monthly reported. The Alamo refurbishment seemed like a perfect change of subject.
Quickly, he locked horns with the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which had managed the site for more than a century. In Bush’s view, however, they had mismanaged the history. The limestone walls were filling with moisture, threatening decay and a nearby warehouse, for example, was stacked to the rafters with various bits of donated memorabilia. Bush even padlocked the warehouse, known as the library, locking out the daughters and employees.
“To meet the ever-increasing operational needs of the Alamo, the GLO (General Land Office) has determined to change its day- to- day management from the DRT and move in a new direction,” Bush pronounced. “Together we will create a bigger, brighter future for this Texas shrine.”
The Daughters immediately sued and, embarrassingly, Bush was forced to settle in 2016. Relinquishing its claim to the archives, the land office also had to shell out $200,000 in legal fees, The Dallas Morning News reported at the time. But Bush wasn’t done trying to implement his vision.
He enlisted an experienced design firm, Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia, to give his vision shape. Because the surviving parts of the old mission are few, the architects proposed a design a plexiglass wall surrounding the entire plaza that would allow visitors to appreciate the original boundaries of the mission and its uses. For instance, directly in front of the entrance to the chapel, many layers down, is a cemetery for Native Americans who had converted to Catholicism.
Hiring a firm not from Texas was infuriating enough but it paled in comparison to the proposal to move the Cenotaph. Bush maintained it was falling apart and needed to be moved to save it. The truth had just as much to do with the longstanding complaints about it: the he roster of the rebels at the Alamo is incomplete; there’s no mention of the Hispanic fighters; some names are misspelled; and the structure is probably 125 feet away from where Mexican troops allegedly burned the rebels’ bodies.
“The Alamo is iconic in Texas politics. The decision to revamp the grounds and the Cenotaph was a big deal,” continued Jilson, “And that required a degree of sophistication and nuance. And George P. needed back-up.”
Just like the reinforcements that never arrived in 1836, Bush didn’t get any back-up either. Instead, opposition mounted. In May 2016, in an hour-long call with irate members of his own party, Bush was on the defensive, according to The San Antonio Report. State Sen. J.T. Edwards, a Galveston Republican state senate committeeman, objected during a public meeting, calling the Cenotaph “near and dear to our grassroots.” Maggie Wright, a Republican activist in Burleson, said slain rebels were the “first veterans of Texas, and we need to leave our headstone right where it is.”
By the time of his 2018 reelection campaign, the Alamo was no longer a legacy-building talking point but a besieged defensive position. Facing three GOP opponents, Bush ducked town halls. And their criticism was all about one thing. Texas Monthly labeled it “George P. Bush’s Last Stand at the Alamo.”
“Texas history is the Alamo,” proclaimed Bush’s Land Office predecessor, Republican Jerry Patterson, who jumped in the race to defeat Bush. The trio of opponents even appeared jointly to attack Bush. Patterson said he didn’t care which of them won, according to the Texas Tribune— as long as it wasn’t Bush. Another opponent, Rick Range, said: “The Alamo plan was going to take the focus totally off the battle, remove the Cenotaph with the defenders’ names on it several blocks away, completely off the property, and make it into a politically correct theme park in essence.” Republican Davey Edwards added: “As Texans, we have to defend our Alamo.”
He did wind up winning re-election, though not with the kind of convincing margin the future of the Bush political dynasty might hope for. And the victory did not settle the Alamo feud. If anything, it got nastier.
In December 2019, his former challenger Rick Range posted on Facebook that Bush planned to erect a statue of General Santa Anna on the Alamo grounds. It wasn’t true. But it worked brilliantly.
Bush called Range’s fabrication “flat-out racist.” Into the fray jumped Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick who claimed that by calling Range a racist Bush was in fact the racist: “There is never an excuse for anyone to threaten or issue a racist attack.”
Meanwhile, Bush became simply a non-entity in Austin, said Scott Braddock, the editor of the influential insider newsletter, The Quorum Report: “His name doesn’t even come up in the legislature.”
In September, the plan to move the Cenotaph was rejected by the Texas Historical Commission, dealing Bush a serious setback. After over a year of shelling, Bush emerged to announce a truce with Patrick, saying the lieutenant governor was on board with next steps.
“He has zero charisma and a talent for putting his foot in his mouth. Also, he’s got no constituency,” Tomlinson, the historian and journalist, said of Bush. Tomlinson moderated a rare public appearance for Bush, a panel hosted by the Texas Tribune. He said Bush’s staff set extraordinary pre-conditions, including pre-written, pre-approved questions. “I think of him as an empty suit. It’s a very well-designed, Gucci suit. But in the end, it’s still empty.”
On the blustery spring day I visited, the inside of the old chapel was dank, dark and reverential. Plaques list the names of the men who died during the fight. Still more visitors emerge after their tour.
“For people who don’t have a lot of history knowledge, it was a good overview of everything,” said Bea Crossen, 66, visiting from California. When told about the Cenotaph controversy, she added: “I think there’s something to be said for things being historically correct.”
There is indeed something to be said for historical accuracy but these days fewer people are saying it. In March, Bush found himself abandoned on his left flank as well when San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg removed a vocal proponent of moving the statue, city councilman Robert Trevino, from the redesign committee altogether.
The next steps appear now to be drastically less visionary, or accurate, and designed just in time to keep rock ’n’ roll great, and unlikely Alamo aficionado, Phil Collins, from withdrawing his large collection of Alamo artifacts.
“There are layers upon layers of history to the Alamo,” said prominent lawyer Neel Lane, a descendant of the influential Maverick family, which once owned part of the Alamo site. “But the Alamo now is just a missed opportunity. People have been fighting over the least important layers. So, we’re going to wind up with another half-assed plan for the next 100 years.”