“Forget the Alamo” divides neatly in half. The first half recounts the events leading up to and through the fiasco at the Alamo, and often reads like a boy’s story of action and adventure, although there is an absence of heroes in the factual version of the tale. For example, Jim Bowie, the knife-wielding pioneer of legend, is revealed to be a slave trader, a swindler and a murderer; William Barret “Buck” Travis is a racist syphilitic who writes in his diary that he has bedded 56 women; the coonskin-capped Davy Crockett emerges as a former U.S. congressman and self-promoter in thrall to his own large ego. Their defense of the fort is not just foolhardy, it’s weirdly suicidal. “They can no longer be the holy trinity of Texas, nor can the Alamo be the Shrine of Texas Liberty,” the authors proclaim with complete justification, drawing their own Travis-like line in the sand.
The book’s second half is a more discursive examination of the ways various groups have exploited the myth of the Alamo, weaponizing it as propaganda, as Sam Houston did when he cried out to his troops to remember the Alamo, or invoking the myth in defense of white supremacy, as was the case with “Texas History Movies,” which was in fact a popular racist comic strip that ran in The Dallas Morning News in the late 1920s; it was later published in book form and for decades distributed free to all Texas seventh graders. Shockingly little serious academic study of this touchy subject occurred until the 1980s.
Predictably, Hollywood played a villainous role in spreading the false narrative of the old fort, notably through John Wayne, who used the subject to indulge in his own hypermasculine version of nationalism. In 1960 Wayne produced, directed and starred in a nearly three-hour $12 million epic called, fittingly, “The Alamo,” in which he played Davy Crockett. The result was, in Texas parlance, horse pucky — and a bomb at the box office. The book ends with an amusing account of the state’s farcical effort to build a $450 million museum to house a collection of Alamo antiquities compiled by the British pop star Phil Collins that includes an ammo pouch once used by Crockett to load “Old Betsy” and a Bowie knife, allegedly bought for $1.5 million. The authors make a convincing case that the most important items are of dubious, if not fraudulent, provenance.
In “A Single Star and Bloody Knuckles,” Bill Minutaglio, a Texas journalist with a saddlebag of books to his name, takes a decade-by-decade look at Texas politics, placing particular emphasis on events at the Statehouse and its succession of unlikely governors, but digressing to include other key players in the story like Sam Rayburn and Barbara Jordan. He begins with General Order No. 3, announcing Emancipation in Galveston at the end of the Civil War, and moves through to the present. Smoothly tackling this near-herculean research task, he keeps the sweat stains from showing and writes in prose as cool as a trout stream.
Texas, from its earliest days, championed a form of swashbuckling free enterprise that minimized the regulatory touch of government. Even today, the Legislature convenes for only a maximum of 140 days every other year. Business oversight and federal interference have been anathema from the outset. In the immediate post-Civil War years, plantation owners pivoted toward sharecropping and a patrón system that turned freed slaves into impoverished indentured servants with no ability to vote. Further crimes against humanity appeared later in the form of the cruel convict-leasing system that was used to build the roads and railroads across the state’s vast interior. And then big oil gurgles up into the story: “A maze of miles of pipes, a metallic Oz of roaring tanks, flares, hoses, storage tanks and train tracks, was growing on the shallow bays and marshes that a few decades earlier had been mostly devoid of human presence, except for the crab collectors and oyster men pushing their flat-bottomed boats past the great blue herons.”