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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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