One hundred and eighty-two years ago next week, on March 6th, a group of men looked out from a sprawling collection of crumbling old buildings at a massive army that pretty much filled up the entire horizon.
The structures, having been built over a century before to be a mission and a church, offered little in the way of a fortress. And the men must surely have known from the start that they would either have to surrender or die there.
Which meant, to those men in that place, that they would die there.
They probably even knew, after being under siege for almost two weeks, that it would happen that very day. The enemy’s bugler had already played the eerie, ominous “Deguello”, which meant there would be no mercy shown, no quarter given.
It was a quiet morning probably. The men had done all of the talking to each other they’d needed to do, and those that were given to praying had prayed. Many of them couldn’t write, and those that could might have scribbled something down. But there was no way to send out a letter. One or two very optimistic fellows might have written a page or two and addressed it to a wife or parent or son or daughter back home. In Tennessee or up east or even in England or Scotland – they’d come from all over – or maybe right over there in San Antonio de Bexar, a few hundred yards away. But the chances of one of the fifteen hundred soldiers surrounding the place later finding a letter or mailing it were equally unlikely.
What the men in the makeshift garrison were doing there was simple enough. They were buying precious time for General Sam Houston to pull his ragtag army into some sort of fighting unit that could stand any sort of chance against this huge force commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the famous “Napoleon of the West”, who was bound and determined to obliterate anyone and everyone seeking independence from Mexico.
The two armies that faced off on that long-ago morning have long since found their way into myth and legend. But back then they were, on both sides, just soldiers waiting for the shooting to start. Some were young, some old, and many were in between. I’m betting most of them were thinking of wives or sweethearts, of children or parents. And I’m betting a good many of them were frightened, and trying hard not to show it to the men around them who were probably just as frightened.
On that morning the defenders of the Alamo weren’t heroes. Not yet. Their last names weren’t the names of counties or cities or streets. All of that would come later. On that morning they were still just men. Who believed strongly enough in a thing – call it freedom, or independence, or stubbornness, or maybe just “Texas” – to stand up and fight for it.
In the long decades after the battle the old mission was used as an army depot, a feed store, a hay barn, was almost torn down (twice), and finally was designated as a shrine to the patriots who bought and paid for liberty with their lives.
There’s a fine line in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, a novel which has not one thing to do with the Alamo, that goes like this: “There are some people in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us.” The author, Harper Lee, could have been describing the men who all died one hundred and eighty-two years ago next Wednesday.
There shouldn’t be a parade that day, or a celebration of any sort, like there will likely be on April 21st. That’s when Sam Houston, who had made the best of the time given him by the defenders of the Alamo, led his brave, exhausted army against Santa Anna’s and won Texas’ independence.
On the Alamo’s front door there’s a brass plaque, not a very big one. In fact it’s so small that it’s usually overlooked. Its inscription is short and to the point. “Be silent, friend,” it says, “here heroes died.”
Next Wednesday won’t be a day for celebrations or parades. It will be a day for gratitude, and for remembering.
It will be a day for being silent.