Alamo Iconography: Painting the Battle of the Alamo, by Eric von Schmidt

Webmaster's Note: This paper was presented at the Texas State Historical Association's annual meeting at Ft. Worth, Texas on March 2, 1985.

Due to continuing research by a wide variety of experts, it is now possible to represent pictorially events that occurred over a century ago with accuracy and understanding that could not have been achieved within fifty or even five years of the event itself. Unfortunately, this exciting possibility is happening at a time when the practice of truly serious historical painting corresponds roughly with attempts to revive the golden days of cat-gut manufacture and the all-ukulele orchestra.

History painting, once the very pinnacle of the pictorial arts, is now seldom wrought, never taught, and hardly ever bought. Indeed, it is regarded by present day art critics as a rare deformity. One seeks solace where one can find it. Barbara Tuchman's In Search of History is one such source. Her quotations from Leopold von Ranke are like a tonic: as when he found "the truth more interesting and beautiful than the romance," and said that the job of the historian is to find out "how it really was." And Tuchman's own advice, that if there is some question, "the least we can do is stay within the evidence."

I will begin by discussing what I consider the three major depictions of the battle -- those by Gentilz, Onderdonk, and McArdle. As students of Texas history, I'm sure you all are familiar with these icons. While the subject is the same, what they say and how they say it is different in each case. As I began my own quest, the first of these three works I encountered was Theodore Gentilz's The Battle of the Alamo. The date given on the reproduction was 1844. On the basis of that date, I used his depiction of the south end of the Long Barracks and the wall connecting it to the chapel for my earliest sketches.

By this time, I was reading everything I could lay my hands on and soon found that his painting had been completed a full half-century after the battle. While based on his own sketches made much earlier, drawings by other people that predated his show these structures differently. My preliminary compositions suffered somewhat from this revelation.


The Battle of the Alamo  --  courtesy Texas State Legislature


All the same, I'm quite partial to Gentilz's painting. In his bird's eye view, the Alamo does not serve as background for the fighting, but is the subject itself. His soldiers are so far away, so martially stylized; they look as though they should be on little lead stands. Yet there is a bold sweep of sky (nearly half the canvas) that gives the panorama a touch of life, a hint of reality to animate these obedient toys. After viewing Gentilz's inept handling of figures on a larger scale, one is thankful that here he kept these at a distance.

As I got further and deeper into all of this, it was not Gentllz's painting that kept popping up in articles and textbooks, it was Robert Jenkins Onderdonk's Fall of the Alamo. This painting seemed to have achieved a "quasi-official" status. Completed In 1903, there is nothing detached about Onderdonk's 5 x 7 feet canvas. A stolid forthrightness here: the combatants are front and center. In fact, if one didn't know better, it would seem almost as though the Mexicans were getting whipped.

Onderdonk's biography states that the painting was a commission from a Dallas businessman, James T. DeShields, and that the original title was to have been David Crockett's Last Stand. With this in mind, I find the pose of Col. Crockett most intriguing. In 1895, the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association began to swamp the country with their wildly popular and delightfully inaccurate lithography called Custer's last Fight. If you reverse the mythically potent Custer over the Crockett figure, you have a near perfect fit. Both are complete with legendary yellow-tinted buckskins, legendary red bandanas, and even their legendary trademarks at full brandish: George's saber; Davy's long rifle.

The Fall of the Alamo is entirely unlike anything else in Onderdonk's work, before or after. While it is possible he picked up the pose subconsciously, it is more likely that DeShields not only commissioned the work, but also suggested the "Last Stand" title and wanted something along the lines of the lithograph. Fortunately, except for the Custer/Crockett figure, he didn't quite get it. He got something better. Onderdonk came up with a stately and well-organized composition, not Anton Becker's tumbling freize of tangled bodies, so well suited to the blear of serious boozing.


The Fall of the Alamo  -- courtesy, Governor's Mansion, Austin, Texas


Indeed, I find there is a tone of religiosity in Onderdonk's Fall of the Alamo. As in most works of this nature, it is not difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. His clean-cut, almost dapper Texans possess an uncanny knack for fighting and even dying with a shining, protestant grace. Their Mexican foes, blessed less fortunately, thrash about and expire in messy heaps.

The third major depiction, also commissioned by DeSheilds, Is Henry McArdle's Dawn at the Alamo. In very general terms, Gentilz, the pedant, gives us information; Onderdonk, the underdog, gives us mythology; McArdle, the dreamer, gives us a vision. And what a vision it is! Hieronymous Bosch would have approved of this demonic swarm; Max Ernst would have applauded its surreal overtones. Only McArdle's painting captures the message of the red flag hung from the belfry of San Fernando -- the blood-choked notes of the "Deguello."

The 7 x 12 feet Dawn at the Alamo is certainly full of death. The wonderfully lurid sky represents that natural occurrence and the dawn of Texas liberty as well. Henry loved his symbolism; the painting is drenched in it. And while he captured the spirit of the battle magnificently, it is also a mine­ field of misinformation. His placement of the main characters in a location where none of them actually fought works nicely as a narrative device, but is poor history. The location of the "dead-gun position," shows that he was equally inclined to rearrange inanimate objects for the sake of a dramatic composition. Nonetheless, McArdle's dark, hellish vision, completed around 1905, is a remarkable work.



Dawn at the Alamo -- courtesy Archives Division, Texas State Library


There is no doubt that each of these artists considered his painting a major effort and approached it as such. Yet, it is not these bold statements that are important to me on this quest. For my own purposes there are several primary depictions of particular interest. They are all of a modest or utilitarian nature, and it is doubtful that they would have been known to the painters discussed here.

Very briefly, while Seth Eastman's drawings of 1848 are sometimes hard to interpret, they are quite useful. Lieut. J. Edmund Blake's rough sketch, made in 1845, is especially interesting in that it shows the Long Barracks and part of the wall connecting it to the church, prior to Gentilz's drawings. This earlier version is substantiated in the watercolor done by Mary Maverick in 1839. The young artist was obviously struggling with the twin demons of scale and perspective, but the result is direct and informative.

The last of these guideposts, and the earliest, is not a drawing at all. It is a map dated March 1836. The "La Bastida Map," drawn for General Vincente Filisola prior to the battle, looks at first glance almost too good to be true. It is everything that the crude depictions of Blake and Maverick are not. Elegant in its execution, it employs tasteful watercolor washes to indicate terrain and methods of construction, with graceful calligraphy employed in the legend and additional information. All in all, it just doesn't look as if it could possibly connect to reality.


La Bastida Map -- courtesy Barker Texas History Center, University of Texas, Austin


But it does. While the "Sanchez Navarro" map, completed after the battle, is a useful adjunct, La Bastida's is my touchstone. It even shows the opening in the low wall where Mary Maverick was to draw it three years later. Recent excavations show La Bastida's map to have been far more than an elegant exercise in cartography. In fact, the working motto for my painting-in-progress comes from one of the archaeologists involved in the 1977 dig. Jake Ivey put it pretty well when he said, "Mythology doesn't help me when I dig a hole."

The goal of my depiction is to get it right: "how it really was." To this end, I've narrowed the research for the painting into four specific areas, each of them combining two interrelated elements: concept and viewpoint; architecture and terrain; clothing and weaponry; time and weather conditions. The first and probably most important of these couplets is "concept and viewpoint," as when Gentilz chose to fly like a bird; Onderdonk to join the heroes; McArdle to go down swinging, it may sound simple, but it is not. A leap of faith is involved here.

"Concept" for me usually comes from a gut feeling and the attempt to translate it into formal expression. What struck me first was the chaos: the incredible noise and confusion that must have existed in the plaza. Then the bayonets.  What must it all have looked like, from slightly lower than eye level? Goya's giants grappling against the sky. As an ex-jock, I found myself immediately on ground level. So the germ of form, the pictorial frame of reference was already there.

"The Viewpoint," or "POV" as they call it in screenwriting, was reached more intellectually. I wanted to show two things: 1) part of the Chapel Facade, the south end of the long Barracks, and the wall connecting them, because they are still there, and 2) a partial view of the main plaza, because it is necessary to give scope to the battle. This put the POV along the palisade: Crockett's position.

At this stage, I started making sketches, mostly the overall composition, but also figure grouping, and studies of individuals. While doing these a major problem became obvious. If the POV is slightly lower than ground level, how are you going to see any of the fighting in the main plaza, over that damn low wall? Never having been to the Alamo, I knew it was time to hang up the GTT sign and get gone.

In San Antonio, I learned from Alamo buffs, Mike Waters and Bryan Headly, that two contemporary manuals on fortification advised a cannon platform, under conditions similar to those that existed along the southeast palisade. If this were the case, it would give me both the slightly lower than "eye level" position of my "concept" and a "viewpoint" that would allow an angle of vision into the main plaza.

I've gone with such a position: a platform of up to three feet, although it is not on the La Bastida map. The raised positions shown on his map are all roughly 10 to 12 feet high, and it is my guess that the relatively slight elevation would have been beneath the graphic scale of importance.

The second set of dual considerations, "architecture and terrain," is less problematical. Much of what I show still exists, and if one digs deep enough, a fairly complete image of the entire structure emerges. My POV, however, presents some difficulties. The 45-degree angle that connected the Palisade to the Low Barracks on the west and the Church on the east creates some unusual perspective problems that are compounded by the raised line of vision. In order to cope with this "dread angle," my daughter Caitlin and I built two scale models: a very simple one of the entire Alamo complex, and another in more detail of the oddly­ shaped area that comprises the foreground of my painting.

Using what I learned from these models, as they related to the last of my preliminary sketches, I drew the buildings of the Alamo on a 7 x 19 feet canvas. After several months of work, I realized that in relation to the foreground figures to come, the damned canvas was too small. Fortunately, New York Central Supply carried canvas 10 feet high. The painting is now, and will remain, 10 x 23 feet, nearly twice the size of my Custer painting.

Getting back to the "terrain" in the area portrayed, there will be the dried up acequia toward the West Wall; ditches dug to provide fill for the ramps and platform; flora would be meager; dry grasses trampled in and along the acequia, some still standing near walls; a scattering of agaves, prickly pear, and yucca. Outside the compound, the top of the pecan tree will be visible to the northwest.

Now, my third consideration is a duo in which I believe I have a distinct edge on the previous Icon builders. That is the area of "clothing and weaponry." Fortunately, over the last forty years, a good deal of research has been done on Mexican uniforms of that period. New information and refinements on the old are surfacing all the time. I fully expect to be changing insignia and shako plates right up until they come and take the painting away from me.

Presently I'm going with the idea that the first troops to have encountered the men at Crockett's southeast gun position would have been those of the Fourth Column under Colonels Morales and Minon. These would be the scouting companies of the Permanente Battalions, "Matamoros" and "Jimenez," and the Activo Battalion, "San Luis." Special attention will be given to these units, who would probably be wearing the model 1833 uniform. Santa Anna's General Orders stated that “...all shako chin-straps will be correctly worn - these the Commanders will watch closely." How closely they could have been watching, in the darkness when all hell was breaking loose, is open to debate.

The musket commonly used by the Mexican Infantry at the time was a British export, the Third Model Brown Bess, only slightly improved since earlier designs had played their part in losing the American Revolution. A more unusual weapon carried by some Mexican units in the attack was the Baker rifle. Another British development, it was shorter, lighter, and more accurate at long range. The English first used it on the North American Continent in another memorable disappointment for the Crown: the Battle of New Orleans. Now we enter that sacred realm, much abused by filmmakers, illustrators, and comic book artists. The question of the arms and clothing of the defenders. What did they really look like; what did they fight with? Their weapons are perhaps easiest to discuss, as they must have consisted of damn near everything. Each man, given the possibility, would have brought his personal arms into the Alamo: certainly muskets, rifles, shotguns, pistols, knives, hatchets, and swords; possibly tomahawks, bows and arrows.

I do not, however, subscribe to the popular notion of every man carrying into the Alamo his very own Pennsylvania-made "Kentucky" long rifle. There is a classic example of this long-barreled, small bore "squirrel gun" presently on display at the rear of the Church. It is a fine piece of work, and it was especially effective in its native habitat: the eastern frontier. One thing is certain about the men at the Alamo; they didn’t walk there. Those who started from the East with long rifles may have found it was "difficult to load, clumsy to handle when in the saddle, or on rough trails, and in its original design was too small of caliber for big game -- or hostile Indians."

Certainly there were some of these rifles there, and men like Crockett who knew how to use them. Used as covering fire, or in picking off hapless artillery crews, these old "widowmakers" must have been thoroughly demoralizing. Still, it seems quite possible that the main weapon used in the final defense of the Alamo was the same one carried by its attackers: the Third Model Brown Bess.

Part of General Cos’ legacy to the "pirates," who prompted his temporary departure from Texas in mid-December of 1835, was a considerable store of supplies, arms, and ammunition. La Mega puts it at "21 pieces of artillery and 500 rifles." Surely not "rifles;" they were muskets. While these stores were drastically reduced by the Matamoros Expedition, it is unlikely that many of the muskets would have been taken along. It is worth noting that Col. Odell, in his letter of January 28, asked specifically for "rifles." De La Pena, speaking of the disorder and confusion of the troops attempting to climb the wall at the northwest corner, says, "The first to climb were thrown down by bayonets already waiting for them behind the parapets..." Those bayonets were certainly not attached to Pennsylvania long rifles. As for the defender's small arms, De La Pena mentions pistols. No doubt a few Bowie knives, or similar large knives, were used in the last fighting, but it was probably the smaller, prosaic, butcher-type knife that predominated. Indeed, it wasn't until after the fall of Alamo that "the English cutlery industry engaged in making the famous weapon for the American trade."

As I've mentioned, there is much uncertainty regarding the foreground section of the area I have chosen to depict. Sanchez Navarro states in the legend on his map that this was the weakest part of the Alamo's defenses. Yet, in the final assault, the Fourth Column, under Morales, seems to have skirted it and concentrated their attack more towards the western section of the Low Barracks. One thing is certain: All the Mexican maps and accounts indicate that there was only one embrasure along the palisade, that it was in the middle, and that there was a single cannon in position. That is where I'm showing it.

The clothes worn by men in the Alamo, no matter what the medium in which they are portrayed, seem to lean heavily in the direction of the "cowboy-cum­ mountain-man" look. Yet it might be somewhat misleading to base the general dress of these men on the sometimes-exotic Anglo/Indian garb of a Crockett or a Houston. Men with an understanding of and an affinity for Native American culture were in the distinct minority. As to the legendary headgear worn by Crockett, we should remember that Susannah Dickinson identified his body by his "peculiar" cap, meaning only that there weren't very many others like it. Judging from sketches of the period, it seems likely that the dress of most of these men was the ordinary dress of the time, stained, dirty, and reduced to a threadbare condition.

It was a period when the manner of dress was tottering awkwardly from the romantic grace of the Revolution to the pompous austerity of the Civil War. Dress of contemporary males of all stations looks to us rather sporty, exuber­ant, even dandified. On-the-spot drawings are the most reliable of all, and one cannot help but be struck by the preponderance of top hats. The clothing is quite similar: flyless pants, reaching to just below the ribcage; coats, tight in the shoulder and waist, with high rolled-collars. If it all looks faintly ridiculous to us, it did not to them. And as far as I'm concerned, the "them" of it is what this is all about.

There is much more research to be done on this, as well as on the long­ neglected five Mexican "Texians" who died fighting the troops of centralist Mexico. One final comment on the validity of the Cowboy/Mountain Man fashion: the "cowboy" wouldn't be invented for several decades, and the mountain man of the 1820s and 30s had a distinct inclination to make a right turn when he got to the Missouri River.

Which brings us to the last main consideration. The two factors that are so much more important to the painter than to the writer: "time and weather conditions." It is not only crucial to painting the battle; it is the area where the painters under discussion, in their various ways, have floundered. So, let me be more specific about my depiction, and why "time and weather" are so important to me.

I have chosen the moment when, 1) Mexican troops have swarmed into the com­pound and have captured the cannon to the southwest, the west, the northwest corner, and Travis' position on the North Wall; 2) fighting is raging along most of the buildings fronting the main plaza; 3) a vanguard of Mexican troops has penetrated the "graveyard" area in front of the Church; 4) the capture of the New Orleans Grey's flag is in progress on the Long Barracks roof. Since this desperate fighting could last only for another 15 to 20 minutes, to place this moment in the proper timeframe, it is imperative to determine when the battle actually ended.

With the single exception of Walter Lord, all the major writers: Tinkle, Meyers, and Fehrenbach, settle on 9:00 o'clock. Most other writers sidestep the question entirely. Personally, I admire Lord for choosing to take the word of those who were in the best position to know. De La Pena, Sanchez Navarro, Almonte, and the "unidentified officer” clearly state that the battle was over, at the latest, between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. Considering the grisly aftermath, it is not surprising that Santa Anna didn't dictate his victory message for an hour or so.


How much light would there have been between 6:00 and 6:30 on the morning of the battle? Obviously for me, a question of great importance. Bryan Headly and I arranged to take my camper down to Brackettville to see for ourselves. It seemed only fitting that John Wayne, who filmed the battle almost as if it took place at high noon, should play a part in setting the record straight. Keeping in mind that the “Wayneamo” faces east instead of west, I wandered around in the moonlight taking notes with a big felt tip pen. It wasn’t until 6:30 a.m. that I realized I was writing in red, not black.

De La Pena mentioned that during the deployment of the troops, "The moon was up, but the density of the clouds that covered it allowed only an opaque light in our direction, seeming thus to contribute to our designs." This question as to the phase of the moon was interesting; some months later, Bryan found it had been determined, as it turned out, "The date was four days after the full moon...during the period between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Central Standard Time; the phase of the moon was 88% full..." The writer goes on to speculate that Santa Anna may well have delayed his original plan to launch the attack at 4:00 in the morning for up to an hour or more because of this unwanted illumination.

On that morning at the "Wayneamo," the sun did not actually touch the horizon, as it seems to be doing in McArdle's Dawn, until 7:15; thus, any illumination between 6:00 and 6:30 would have been a combination of moonlight and pre-dawn glow, affected by clouds or the lack of them. The light would have a most eerie and illusive quality; strangely peaceful. Another factor to consider would be the dust and clouds of smoke rising amidst the dreadful carnage; a sulfurous hell roaring against the cool heavenly light.

The last element, "weather," has been totally overlooked in every depic­tion I've seen. According to Almonte, the temperature soared to 68 degrees at noon on the day preceding the battle. According to the "Unknown Mexican Soldier," prone on the field, without benefit of overcoat or blanket in the pre-dawn hours of the 6th, it was cold as hell. There is really no contradiction. On my very first morning in San Antonio, March 6, 1983, I rose to see the stars and little plumes of breath on a day that would later get up in the eighties.

It is not hard to connect with the men on either side of those walls. The Mexicans chilled to the bone; both praying for and dreading the sound of the bugle. The men inside lulled by silence, sunk in sleep. Then, finally, the assault; the storming of the Alamo.

In the chilling stillness before dawn, standing in the empty field, the painter struggles to come to grips with the fact that this happened. This all really happened. And the reality of it settles into that little exhalation of breath, pumping from deep inside. No one has ever put that in. If the intention is to paint it "as it realty was," this frail, feathery, banner of life is the place to start.

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