Alamo myth: Many men of the divided Texan garrison at the Alamo didn't care much for regular army commander Lt. Col. William B. Travis
Published: April 18, 2012
"True," says military historian Wayne R. Austerman. But the volunteers' distrust of the regular army wasn't the only factor. It was culture-clash over booze. "Bowie was an alcoholic," says Austerman. "Travis was a teetotaler as best we can tell. The volunteers at the Alamo were typical 19th century Americans, young men predominately from the southeast of the country. Drinking alcohol was imbedded in their culture. People those days drank, and they drank a lot."
Austerman, historian at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School at Fort Sam Houston, is writing a monograph on medical issues during the Texas Revolution. The first installment, "Aguardiente at the Alamo: Alcohol Abuse and the Texas War for Independence, 1835-1836," was published in 2010 in the U.S. Army Medical Department Journal.
The Alamo garrison was manned mostly by volunteers, who elected the charismatic Jim Bowie as their colonel. Travis, who shared a joint command with Bowie, was in charge of the much smaller Texan regular army. But Travis would have been at a disadvantage even if he and Bowie had shared the same rank and affiliation. As a non-drinker, Travis was most likely thought prudish and stuck-up by the men. Alcohol was a means of entertainment, and an indispensable form of social bonding.
"At the end of the duty-day, most of the garrison went to the cantinas and got lubricated," says Austerman. "On one occasion, Bowie forcibly freed some of his men from the jail where the alcalde, the mayor, had put them on charges of drunkenness."
Travis's rancor towards Bowie's toleration of alcoholic excess led to extreme, and foolish, action. "At one point Travis took his regulars and marched down the river several miles and set up camp," says Austerman. "This was at a time when Santa Anna's army was already over the Rio Grande and headed for SA, and you have the garrison physically divided over the issue of alcohol abuse."
"I'm pro-Texan, I get misty-eyed over the Alamo, but I am a former soldier, a former Army officer, and have some insight into the way human beings act, and I am a historian." Says Austerman, "The truth is the master I serve."
He stresses that the combatants were not "plaster saints." They got sick, they abused alcohol, they abused drugs. "They were no different than we are today," says Austerman. "It's not subversive, it's not anti-Texan to point out the fact that Bowie had a drinking problem, that Houston had a drinking problem and a drug abuse problem [he used laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol]. It's not subversive to point out that Travis had venereal disease."
Santa Anna also suffered from VD. At the time, the treatment for gonorrhea and syphilis was mercury, which, before causing death, causes severe mental impairment. With all the booze, heavy drugs, and heavy metal, it's not surprising that leadership on both sides of the war often showed poor judgement.
Bowie and Travis had been ordered to destroy the Alamo and fall back. But caught in a childish grudge-match, they ignored orders. (One can imagine the bickering. "Get out of here you drunk!" "No, you leave, mama's boy!") Though Austerman studies and analyzes medical factors effecting military performance, he doesn't allow excuses. But he is understanding of human limits.
"When Napoleon fought the Battle of Waterloo, he was suffering from a bad attack of hemorrhoids, and you can't tell me that didn't have an impact on his generalship that day. One of his opponents at Waterloo that day, General von Blücher, who commanded the Prussian army, was in his 70s. He was an alcoholic and he was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's. At the time they fought the battle he believed that he was pregnant by a French soldier with a baby elephant. And despite that fact, he fought a good battle. But he was a human being subject to all the frailties of a human being."
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