Saturday, November 30, 2019

Heroes of the Texas Revolution: My Review of Brian Kilmeade's Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers

On July 26, 1863, an ailing, 70-year old man lay stricken with pneumonia in the sweltering parlor of his home in Huntsville, Texas. Surrounded by his wife and children, the veteran and exiled politician coughed away his last breaths. His final words, reportedly addressed to his wife, were: "Texas, Margaret, Texas." That man was Sam Houston.

Houston's death occurred in the midst of the American Civil War -- the same month that Union forces secured the Mississippi River by capturing Vicksburg and that Confederate General Robert E. Lee suffered a devastating loss at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. With the nation's attention locked on the Civil War, few took notice of Houston's death. And his funeral, held at his home, was lightly attended. Indeed, Houston himself was not as highly regarded as he once had been. As governor of Texas, he opposed his state's secession from the United States in 1861. And for this, he was deposed from office -- forced into retirement. The exiled leader of the state to which he had given so much could only watch as the United States tore itself apart and, as he had predicted, the war's fortunes turned against the South.

Whatever the attendance at his funeral, the impact of Sam Houston on the history of not only Texas, but the United States overall can hardly be disputed. In Exiled: The Last Days of Sam Houston, biographer Ron Rozelle declares: "His stamp is on every inch of the western United States. And his almost unbelievable résumé — commanding general of an army of liberation, twice the president of a republic, U.S. senator, governor of two states — is unparalleled by anyone in American history."

It was indeed a legacy difficult for Americans to ignore, and in the decades following the American Civil War, Sam Houston's reputation enjoyed a resurgence. A symbol of that resurgence was the replacement of the humble marker on his grave with a majestic, marble gravestone scuplted by Pompeo Coppini in 1936 as part of Texas' Centennial celebration. An inscription on the new stone read: "“The World Will Take Care of Houston’s Fame." It's a quote attributed to Houston's longtime friend and mentor, Andrew Jackson.

And yet...

Much of the world today - or at least much of America today - has not done well in preserving Sam Houston's legacy.

In recent years, revisionist history driven by identity politics and social justice progressivism has savaged the legacy and reputation of many traditional American heroes. Textbooks have been revised, statues to numerous figures of the past have been removed (or vandalized), scores of schools have been renamed, and narratives of guilt and shame have increasingly replaced those of heroism and achievement.

In fairness, it is appropriate to periodically revisit historical legacies and narratives as new information comes to light. It's also commendable to shine a light on previously ignored or marginalized people. But this writer can't help but conclude that the movements of historical revisionism and social justice have gone much further than warranted. Today, it often feels that many people would rather condemn or erase history than learn from it. What's more, complex figures such as Houston are increasingly lost in a binary insistence on agenda-driven or identity-driven categorizations and the drive for political correctness. 

This culture tug-of-war, and its impact on how America remembers its past, is what drives Brian Kilmeade to write his page-turning stories from history. His books bring to life the characters and events of the past in a way that appeals to average Americans, including those who may have been bored in history class! Readers of this blog will recall my recent review of another Kilmeade title: Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans. Kilmeade has also written The New York Times bestsellers George Washington's Secret Six and Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.

In Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers: The Texas Victory That Changed American History, Kilmeade brings to life the birth of the Lone Star State -- specifically its fight for independence from Mexico. Kilmeade's book reveals how Mexico at first welcomed American settlers into Texas, then a territory of Mexico. But, soon, the cruel policies and imperious appetites of Mexico's dictator changed everything. Growing frustrations on the part of not only American settlers, but Tejano residents as well, led to political resistance, then resentment, and finally rebellion on the part of Texas. The villain in Kilmeade's book is of course the Mexican dictator: General Antonio de López de Santa Anna (full name: Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón).

In 1836, the Mexican army led by General Santa Anna savagely massacred Texians at the Alamo (including those who tried to flee and some, reportedly including Davy Crockett, who were taken prisoner) and then Goliad (after they had surrendered). It defies the imagination for anyone to see such actions in a positive light or to explain such barbarism away. These atrocities galvanized rage on the part of the surviving Texians. And soon thereafter, General Sam Houston would lead his tiny army of rag-tag settlers to a stunning, dramatic victory at the Battle of San Jacinto. The victory took only 18 minutes! A captured, and disgraced, Santa Anna agreed to grant Texas its independence.

In 21st century America, it is fashionable (at least among those on the left and those who don't know any better) to cast the Texas Revolution and the subsequent US-Mexican War as nothing more than American imperialism and a white supremacist oppression of a weaker neighbor. It is difficult for Americans today, particularly in the Age of Trump, to divorce the past from the present. Your view of the 1836 Texas Revolution is likely deeply influenced by how you view US-Mexico relations and border politics today.

This is unfortunate.

The people of 1836 deserve to have their lives and times viewed and understood in an 1836 context. And this is what Brian Kilmeade strives to achieve.

The facts are that Mexico, still unstable itself after only recently gaining independence from Spain, was under the brutal grasp of an opportunistic, manipulative, and charismatic despot. The Texians, in spite of their flaws, were justified to resist such oppression. To view Santa Anna (and those who willingly supported him) as victims is an epic distortion of history.

That said, it's not my claim (or Kilmeade's) that the Texians were all righteous angels always on the side of good. Kilmeade acknowledges the revenge-fueled bloodlust that overtook Houston's army at San Jacinto, making it impossible for Houston and his officers to restrain their men from murdering many Mexicans who surrendered. What's more, Texas was most certainly not in the right with respect to slavery. Mexico abolished slavery in 1829 (though an exception for Texas remained in effect until the following year). Many slaves were granted freedom by the Mexican army, including the slave of William Barrett Travis, the commander of the Alamo. A sad and terrible legacy of the Texas Revolution is that slavery was made legal again in 1836 when Texas ratified its new constitution. Its legality was reaffirmed when Texas was annexed by the United States as a slave state in 1845. Kilmeade does not spend much time in his book talking about the history of slavery in Texas, but he doesn't ignore it either. He acknowledges that many heroes of the Texas Revolution were slave owners. And he explains how the politics of slavery in the United States, particularly the balance of slave states versus free states with respect to representation in the U.S. House of Representatives, is what stalled Texas' annexation into the U.S.

The reprehensive nature of slavery and the tragic impact it had on so many people should not be ignored. Yet this does not change the fact that Santa Anna was an evil dictator who drove Texas to rebellion and revolution, nor does it erase the courage or heroism (though it may admittedly diminish it some) of those on the Texian side who fought for independence.

We in American society today must come to a place where we can celebrate the good of history while acknowledging, mourning, and learning from the bad. We mustn't go all one way or all the other. We must find the right balance. Only then can we move forward together and constructively as a nation. And in that balance, I believe we can regard men like Sam Houston, Stephen Austin, Davy Crockett, William Travis, and Jim Bowie as heroes. Perfect? Hardly. Flawed? Definitely. But heroes nonetheless.

Some may scoff at a Fox News personality writing on history. Those in the proverbial ivory towers of academia lead such scoffing. After all, only credentialed, peer-reviewed scholars are qualified to write on history. At least that's what many smugly claim. It's certainly not my intention to disparage academic credentials. I support higher education and chafe at how too many Americans casually dismiss intellectual pursuits. At the same time, earning an advanced degree does not give one a monopoly on truth. And Brian Kilmeade shows himself not only capable of accessing the facts of history, but also weaving those facts together in a way that reads like a page-turning novel. For this, he should be appreciated. And his books should be read.