Alamo book offers new view

Travis Drew a Line in the Sand

By Steve Bennett
San Antonio Express-News
May 20, 2012

Do we really need another book on the Alamo?

Of course. Aside from the heroism displayed on both sides of the little fort's walls, the mystery — we will never truly know everything that happened — is what continues to make the Alamo so captivating.

Dallas author James Donovan's “The Blood of Heroes” is not without controversy — yes, William Barret Travis drew a line in the sand; no, Davy Crockett didn't survive the battle to be executed afterward — but its most exciting attribute is it's one of the best one-stop overviews of the entire campaign, from the 1835 siege of Bexar by the Texans to Sam Houston's victory at San Jacinto.

“I took this project on with a few goals in mind,” says Donovan, who took on another famous last stand in his previous book “A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn.” “One, I hoped I might be able to scrape away some of the myth and legend that have encrusted the Alamo story over the years. Two, I thought the Mexican side of the story had not been told properly, and believed I might be able to do that more extensively, as I did the Indian side in ‘A Terrible Glory.' Three, I hoped that I might uncover some new material. I truly believe that you can always find something new if you dig enough. Too many writers of history don't research thoroughly — they rely too much on secondary sources, such as books on the subject, and don't spend the hundreds of hours in archives and collections necessary to do it right. Fortunately, I love that part of the job.”

Donovan, who will be in San Antonio on Tuesday to discuss and sign “The Blood of Heroes,” recently spoke with the Express-News.

Q. What ignited your interest in the Alamo?

A. I've lived in Texas for 36 years, so I've been aware of the dramatic power of the Alamo story for a long time. My previous book, ‘A Terrible Glory,' was about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. When that was published in 2008, I suggested the Titanic as the topic for my next book. My editor declined, and suggested something Western-oriented as a more logical foll-owup. The Alamo battle jumped out of my mouth almost without thinking — I had always wondered about all the myths and legends that had grown up around it, and thought I might be able to get to the root of some of them as I had with the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In retrospect it was the perfect subject.

Q. You come down on the traditional side on the line in the sand and Crockett's death in battle. Are you confident that you're right about these incidents?

A. I discovered some new sources that support the line in the sand, and incorporated them into a 24-page afterword that examines and analyzes all the evidence concerning the line. Yes, I think there is now enough reliable evidence to write it as acceptable, factual history. As far as Crockett's death in battle, the several Mexican accounts (five or six officers and one sergeant) that are used to support his execution are, upon close inspection, highly suspect for many reasons — second- and third-hand hearsay accounts that just don't hold water, and none of the high-ranking officers who were there, including Santa Anna himself, ever mention it. Some Alamo defenders were executed after the battle, but it's highly doubtful that Crockett was one of them. My discussion of the execution theory is the longest endnote in my book, and I invite anyone interested in the controversy to read that, and the sources I cite, and make up their own minds.

Q. What was the most challenging thing about researching and writing the book?

A. When you're researching a fight-to-the-death battle like the Alamo, there's a serious shortage of primary sources on one side of the struggle, since they all die. And in this case, the only accounts we have on the defenders side is from noncombatants like Susanna Dickinson, who was hiding in the church during the entire battle, and from Joe, Travis's slave, who saw Travis die on the north wall very early and then retreated into a room for the remainder of the struggle. The Mexican accounts are complicated by the fact that there are few of them extant — a few officers' terse after-action reports, and plenty of other accounts over the next 70 years that vary wildly in reliability. And don't forget that it was dark for most of the battle, and none of the participating Mexican soldiers or officers knew any of their opponents by sight, so we have little knowledge of who did what on the defenders' side. That makes it tougher to write a narrative, since there isn't an abundance of personal details that bring a story alive.

Greed, slavery and Davy Crockett: The truth about Texas history


Special Contributor
The Dallas Morning News
Published: 17 May 2012 02:42 PM

Dallas author James Donovan’s new book, The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo — and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation, was released last week to critical acclaim. To mark its arrival, we asked Donovan to tell us what he learned about the myths and facts of Texas history while immersing himself in the story of its birth.

Everyone knows that Davy Crockett was executed after the battle of the Alamo by Santa Anna.

Except he wasn’t.

Although many historians have written of Crockett’s execution as if it were a proven and accepted fact, it’s unlikely. Proponents of this claim often cite as evidence the accounts of five or six Mexican officers and one sergeant, which sounds convincing on the face of it. But a close look at these accounts reveals a collection of second- and third-hand hearsay stories that run from the highly questionable at best to the patently preposterous.

Among the many arguments against the Crockett execution theory is the fact that several high-ranking members of the Mexican army who were there (including Santa Anna himself) never mentioned the event in their accounts, diaries or after-action reports — and that two men, William Barret Travis’ slave Joe and the acting alcalde of San Antonio de Béxar — were asked by Santa Anna to identify Crockett’s body, and did. Clearly, he would not have needed it identified if he had just ordered him executed, and the two men described the location in a manner that makes it extremely difficult to accept his death as being the result of a post-battle execution.

All we can say with any certainty is that Crockett died at the Alamo — in a battle that lasted (contrary to claims of a quick 15-minute rout) at least 45 minutes and probably more than an hour, as the small garrison put up a fierce fight early on, one that forced Santa Anna to send in his reserves; even when his brave soldados had forced their way over and through the walls, they had to laboriously clear out the last pockets of resistance in the convento and the church.

Crockett’s death, and the duration of the Alamo battle, are two examples of how historical events often become encrusted with myth, legend and error, deliberate or not. Particularly before the invention of electronic recording devices around the turn of the 20th century, history was more pliable, especially for those with an agenda — or simply to make a good story even better.

False issues

Texas history, and particularly its early days, has seen more than its share of distortion, which seems to have increased in the last decade or two. Recently I heard a caller on a radio talk show state matter-of-factly that Sam Houston stole Texas from Mexico, and a recent book on the Alamo characterized the men who died there (and by extension virtually everyone who took part in the Texas Revolution) as greedy, land-grabbing slaveholders — and those without slaves as yearning to own them.

It is true that most of the Texas colonists at the time were from the nearby southern states of the U.S., and some of them owned slaves. (Though slavery was illegal in Mexico and its territories, including the province of Texas, immigrating slave owners could declare their chattels as indentured servants, and the Mexican authorities looked the other way once they were settled.) At the outbreak of the revolution in the fall of 1835, the plantation system was in the early stages of development. There were only 2,000 to 3,000 slaves in Texas, and the issue was not a major factor in the rebellion. (On the eve of the Civil War 15 years later, this repellent institution would comprise 183,000 bondsmen in Texas alone, and 3.5 million in the seceding states.)

As for greedy and land-grabbing, Texas colonists were no greedier than most people in search of a better life. It’s important to remember that the ownership of land at that time was essential to the concept of liberty, and its importance went beyond the desire for riches. Suffrage in the United States was initially confined to property owners; land meant power. While that requirement had been eliminated in all but a few states, the mind-set remained. In a world and time based on an agrarian way of life, in which 8 of 10 men worked the land, a man without land was nobody. Land at the time was expensive in the states, so when empresarios working under the auspices of the Mexican government promised generous grants at a nominal fee, thousands of men and their families from the United States and other countries began streaming into the untamed wilderness known as Texas.

Land and freedom

Few of these men were saints. Though some of them were not hardy backwoodsmen but former merchants and professionals (at least a half-dozen were attorneys, and a similar number were medical men), most were men of the land and they became de facto frontiersmen. And though aspiring colonists were required by Mexican law to supply proof of responsibility and good citizenship, and did, a good number of illegal immigrants entered Texas without permission, and some of these had G.T.T. (Gone To Texas) intent on shady pursuits, or were fugitives from the law, or from creditors, or family responsibilities.

Though most were southerners who, like their revolutionary ancestors, had reconciled slavery with their own freedom, all were fighting for what they saw as similar reasons: lack of proper political representation; the threat of military occupation; the demand to deliver up their arms; and the absence of basic rights such as trial by jury and habeas corpus. All these issues and more added up to a flagrant denial of liberty to men who still considered democracy a fresh and wonderful thing.
I have read dozens of letters written during that time by men fighting for the Texas cause, and though a few mention the fear that slavery would be eliminated, the overwhelming majority cite the ideals of their American Revolution forefathers. They sound almost like evangelicals for a new religion. Travis’ letter closing of “Liberty or Death!” echoed Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” — clearly a deliberate stratagem by the well-read Travis.

Let’s not forget that this was not just a rebellion by Anglo settlers. Ironically, when Santa Anna was elected president in April 1833 on a platform of peace, prosperity and “an end to all hatreds,” he was hailed as a republican hero throughout the country, Texas included. Only when the church, the army and the landed gentry, unhappy with recent egalitarian reforms that limited their power, convinced him to change his politics did Santa Anna dissolve the Mexican Congress and begin canceling democratic laws and exercising the powers of a dictator. Uprisings occurred in at least half of the Mexican states, and armed resistance broke out in a few. Santa Anna repressed them all, some of them brutally, then raised a 6,000-man army and marched north. Texas was next.

Until that point, most of the Texas colonists were against a move toward independence and would have been satisfied with statehood and some guarantees of their rights. Although most of the province’s 35,000 inhabitants were Anglo colonists, hundreds of Mexican-born Tejanos (as they later came to be called) supported the cause and fought for it.

Truth matters

Were their reasons, and their revolt, justified? They thought so, and so did the overwhelming majority of observers around the world. If Mexicans could rebel against the yoke of Spanish tyranny, could Texans not do the same against a Mexican despot?

Every generation attempts, consciously or unconsciously, and with varying degrees of success, to reinterpret history according to their own beliefs. There are inherent dangers in this lack of objectivity — laws, programs and policies are made based upon such fallacies.

History, like life, may be messy, awkward and embarrassing on occasion, but that’s because it’s about people, and none of us is perfect. Without respect for historical truth, we compromise our ability to grow and improve both as individuals and as a society.

More on The Blood of Heroes

For a review of Donovan’s book, visit