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Mythic Lines at the Alamo October 19, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

***Dedicated to Paul Caspar/ Paul Kaspar of Santiago de Compostela and Austin Fame***

The Battle or more accurately the Siege of the Alamo took place in 1836, as a small band of irregulars, English- and Spanish-speaking, resisted a Mexican attempt to re-impose the Supreme Government’s rule in the territory that was to become Texas. Of course, the Alamo was not the central event of the war, a war which climaxed with the remarkable Texan victory at the Battle of San Jacinto in April of that year: and yet the Alamo is far more famous today because of the way it ended. On at least three occasions the Texan garrison, hopelessly outnumbered, attempted to negotiate surrender – a fact frequently overlooked in Texan textbooks – but Santa Anna the Mexican commander demanded unconditional surrender, something that the garrison perhaps sensibly refused. Thus far we have history, with good sources. What follows may or may not be legend.

As it became clear that no quarter would be given and that no reinforcements were on their way the garrison’s joint commander Travis talked to his men about the impossibility of their situation. In one account we learn that Travis, at the end of a long speech said:

‘My determination is taken; but I leave every man to his choice. Mine is to stay this fort, and to die fighting for my country. This will I do, if left alone.’ Colonel Travis then drew his sword, and with its point traced a line upon the ground from right to left. Then, resuming his position in front, he said, ‘I now call upon every man who is determined to stay here and die with me to come across this line. Who will be first? March!’

With predictable alacrity all the men crossed over, even Jim Bowie on his sick bed asked to be carried to the other side. One man alone, Moses Rose, ‘a native of France’ refused to hop the line. He, instead, bounded over the wall and somehow eluded the Mexican army becoming the one survivor of that bloody siege.

This story is perhaps the single most famous episode from the drama of the Alamo: there is today a brass line at the fort so modern Texans can themselves cross into courage and have their own Masada moment. And yet did Travis run his sword through the sand? For one, Moses Rose was not the only survivor of the siege: several non-combatants got out of the fortifications alive and yet no other account of the line in the sand exists.

Then the story was, itself, recorded late: in 1873 the writer William Zuber (obit 1913) recorded this tale, almost forty years after the blood of the Alamo had dried. It was based on his father’s conversations with Moses Rose, who died not that long after his escape (1850?); and it is not impossible that Zuber himself met Rose. Zuber had served in the army that fought at San Jacinto though aged only fifteen. He was, in fact, the last veteran of that battle in 1909 when the State of Texas celebrated his life.

There is even doubt as to whether Rose was at the Alamo. A man named Rose was included in the list of the dead. But this appears to refer to one James Rose, another man entirely. Some historians have suggested that Moses Rose had attempted to get to the Alamo, had failed, but that he wanted to be included in that glorious occasion in the tales he told his neighbour. If that is, indeed, the case, then Moses made a catastrophic mistake because he became, for ever after, a symbol of cowardice.

In the best case scenario here we have a third-hand account about an unlikely escape from a doubtful source recalled a generation later by a Texan patriot who dedicated much of his adult life to celebrating (and sometimes embellishing) the deeds of his father’s generation. Other views: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Of course, many modern Texans know or have vaguely heard that the line might not be all that they were taught at school. But in the wonderfully ott words of J. Frank Dobie:

It is a line that nor all the piety nor wit of research will ever blot out. It is a Grand Canyon cut into the bedrock of human emotions and heroical impulses. It may be expurgated from histories, but it can no more be expunged from popular imagination than the damned spots on Lady Macbeth’s hands. Teachers of children dramatize it in school rooms; orators on holidays silver and gild it; the tellers of historical anecdotes – and there are many of them in Texas – sitting around hotel lobbies speculate on it and say, ‘Well, we’ll believe it whether it’s true or not’.

One of the curses of sluttish old Cassiope is that the events in history that least need myths – and the bare facts of the Alamo are heroic enough – are those that most inevitably attract them.