BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Blood of Heroes’

THE BLOOD OF HEROES: THE 13-DAY STRUGGLE FOR THE ALAMO AND THE SACRIFICE THAT FORGED A NATION
By James Donovan
Little, Brown and Co., $29.95
500 pages

The bravery of the men who died defending the Alamo in 1836 was drummed into my head on an annual basis beginning in the third grade at Van Zandt Elementary School in Marshall, Texas. To me, the Alamo was a continuation of the American Revolution, with the Texians — as they were called in that era, and I will use the term, as does author James Donovan — fighting for freedom as an independent nation.

Mr. Donovan’s gripping book is history at its best — exactingly sourced and written with a vividness that challenges you to put it down. Even those familiar with an oft-told story will delight in the richness of his detail. And in my view, he demolishes contentions by revisionists that the defenders were frontier roughnecks trying to seize land that properly belonged to Mexico, which had just cast off Spanish domination.

To be sure, in the early 19th century, much of North America west of the original 13 Colonies was up for grabs. President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 transferred a vast swath of the continent from the cash-strapped Emperor Napoleon of France into U.S. possession. Jefferson thought at the time that Texas was included. But Spain exerted old treaty rights to the territory, and Jefferson reluctantly yielded, lamenting later, “The province of Techas [sic] will be the richest state of our Union, without any exception.”

Alas, after Spain, Mexico fell under even worse governance, that of Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who wielded dictatorial powers and dissolved the country’s nascent congress. He declared, “A hundred years from now my people will not be fit for liberty despotism is the proper government for them.

Meanwhile, thousands of English-speaking settlers spilled out of Southern states into Mexico, some as squatters, others with land grants from the Mexican government. Despite the richness of the vast territory, the Mexicans, oddly, paid meager attention to permanent settlement. The Spaniards’ chief interest had been gold (they found none) and converting Indians to Catholicism.

Nonetheless, the influx of settlers, and their insistence on creating their own government, rattled Santa Anna, who dispatched ragtag troops to occupy an old mission complex named the Alamo, the present site of downtown San Antonio.

The Alamo was not a fort. Dominated by a 100-year-old church with thick, crumbling walls, its compound covered about 3 acres, with stone houses in the interior. It was built to resist Indian attacks, not modern cannon, and it lacked features such as parapets atop the walls or banquettes to protect riflemen.

In 1835, the Texians responded by sending their own force — what Donovan terms “little more than a well-intentioned mob” — to seize the Alamo and expel the Mexicans. After harsh fighting, the Mexican occupiers surrendered on terms that enabled them to keep their arms. Mexicans and Texians joined in a friendly fandango.

Enraged, Santa Anna dispatched a stronger army that outmanned the 200-odd Texians 6-1. The Mexican columns flew a red flag, signaling no quarter would be given and commenced a ferocious cannon barrage. The Texians’ 26-year-old commander, William B. Travis, dispatched a communique “To the People of Texas and all Americans in the world” vowing, “I will never surrender or retreat. Victory or Death,” with the last words underlined three times.

Travis had brave if disparate company. Davy Crockett had fought the Indians with fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson, farmed, served three terms in Congress and earned an outsized national reputation as a plain-hewn frontiersman. James Bowie was renowned as a duelist, a savage knife fighter, a sometime slave trader.

The barrage lasted almost two weeks. Pleas for reinforcements went unanswered, and the defenders sickened. As the inevitable end neared, Travis drew a line in the sand and said each man could make his own decision, but he hoped that all who would stay with him and die would step over the line. The wounded Bowie had his cot carried across the line. Only one person left the Alamo.

Carnage followed, with the Mexicans bayoneting or shooting even those who tried to surrender. Days earlier, when the Texians heated cannon balls before firing in order to ignite inflammable targets such as powder magazines, a Mexican colonel stormed the hot shots, violating “the rights of man and war.” When the Mexicans entered the Alamo, they found 15 wounded Texians in bed in a darkened room. “A group hauled a cannon close to the front door, loaded a double charge of grapeshot and canister, and fired twice. They entered to find all dead.” Donovan puts the death toll at near 200. No one escaped.

An even worse atrocity came several weeks later, when about 400 Texians who had been led to believe they would be paroled after surrendering at Goliad were gunned and chopped down. News of the massacre enraged people throughout the South. Sam Houston mustered a Texian army that finally defeated Santa Anna in April — with many of the Mexicans pleading, “me no Alamo, me no Goliad.” They were spared. Texas was now an independent republic, with Houston as president.

What motivated such bravery? As Mr. Donovan writes, “At least fifty of the defenders [at the Alamo] proudly claimed fathers or grandfathers who had participated in the Revolutionary War. — [T]hese men had come to Texas to fight for liberty, and also to gain the land that would make them truly free men [and] provide a better life for themselves and their families. And they thought these things were worth fighting for.”

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