26. September 2008 · Comments Off on An Old Mission Church Half Tumbled Down · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, History, Military, Old West, World

That is just what it was, when the building which is the premier landmark in San Antonio – and perhaps all of the rest of Texas – first achieved fame immortal, in the short and bloody space of an hour and a half, just before sunrise on a chill spring morning in 1836. People who come to visit today, with an image in their mind from the movies about it – from John Wayne’s version, and the more recent 2004 movie, or from sketch-maps in books about the desperate, fourteen-day siege are usually taken back to discover that it is so small. So I know, because I thought so the first time I visited it as an AF trainee on town-pass in 1978. And it is small – one of those Spanish colonial era buildings, in limestone weathered to the color of old ivory. That chapel is only a remnant of a sprawling complex of buildings. Itself and the so-called ‘Long Barracks’ are the only things remaining of what was once called the Mission San Antonio de Valero, given it’s better known appellation by a company of Spanish cavalry stationed there in the early 19th century – they called it after the cottonwood trees around their previous station of Alamo de Parras, in Coahuila. It was the northernmost of a linked chain of five mission complexes, threaded like baroque pearls on a green ribbon, and originally established to tend to the spiritual needs and the protection of local Christianized Indian tribes. The missions were secularized at the end of the 18th century, the lands around distributed to the people who had lived there. Their chapels became local parish churches – while the oldest of them all became a garrison.

There is in existence a birds-eye view map of San Antonio in 1873, a quarter century after the last stand of Travis and Bowie’s company that shows a grove of trees in rows behind the apse of the old chapel building. In the year that the map was made, the chapel and the remaining buildings were still a garrison of sorts – an Army supply depot, and the plaza in front of it a marshalling yard. One wonders if any of the supply sergeants of that time or any of the laborers unloading the wagons bringing military supplies up from the coast and designated for the garrisons of the Western frontier forts gave a thought to the building they worked in. Did they think the place was haunted, perhaps? Did they hear whispers and groans in the dark, think anything of odd stains on the floors and walls, of regular depressions in the floor where defensive trenches had been dug at the last? What did they think, piling up crates, barrels and boxes, in the place that the final handful of survivors had made their last stand, against the tide of Santa Anna’s soldiers flooding over the crumbling walls?

Probably not much– whitewash covers a lot. And a useful, sturdy building is just that – useful. By the 1870s, those Regular Army NCOs working in there were veterans of the Civil War, and perhaps haunted enough by their own war, just lately over. The growing city had spread beyond those limits that William Travis, David Crocket and James Bowie would have seen, looking down from those very same walls.

In 1836 that cluster of buildings, and the old church with it’s ornate niches and columns twisted like lengths of barley sugar sat a little distance from the outskirts of the best established provincial town in that part of Spanish and Mexican Texas, out in the meadows by a loop of clear, narrow river fringed by rushes and willows. San Antonio de Bexar, mostly shortened then to simply “Bexar”, was then just a close clustered huddle of adobe brick buildings around two plazas and the stumpy spire of the church of San Fernando. It is a challenge to picture it, in the minds eye, to take away the tall glass buildings all around, the lawns and carefully tended flowering shrubs, to ignore the sounds of traffic, the SATrans busses belching exhaust, and see it as it might have appeared, a hundred and sixty years ago. I think there would have been cottonwood trees, close by. Thirsty trees, they plant themselves across the west, wherever there is water in plenty, their leaves trembling incessantly in the slightest breeze. There might have also have been some fruit orchards planted nearby – the 1873 map certainly shows them. But otherwise, it would have been open country, rolling meadows star-scattered with trees, and striped across by two roads; the Camino Real, the King’s road, towards Nacogdoches in the east, and the road towards the south, towards the Rio Grande. In the distance to the north, a long blue-green rise of hills marks the edge of what today is called the Balcones Escarpment. It is the demarcation between a mostly flat and fertile plain which stretches to the Gulf Coast, and the high and windswept plains of the Llano, haunted by fierce and war-loving Indians.

This is the place where three very different men came to, in that fateful year that the Texians rebelled against the rule of the dictatorship of what the knowledgeable settlers of Texas called the “Centralistas” – the dictatorship of the central government in Mexico City.

(More to follow)

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