A Review and Historical Overview of the THE ALAMO

I had the opportunity to see the new Alamo movie this past weekend and felt a review and commentary was in order. With one glaring flaw that I will get to later, the movie has to be the most researched and properly presented version of the Alamo siege to be put on film. One probable source of information was the fine book Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis by William C. Davis. This book explored the lives of the three famous Alamo defenders; David Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Barret Travis. The book did a nice job of exposing the strengths and weaknesses of these three men as their lives journey led them on to their final end at the Alamo. The movie seems to pick these characterizations, warts and all right from the book giving us the most honest movie made on the subject. The only fault I found with the set was that the chapel seemed to be too close in line with the long barracks making the courtyard too small.
Unfortunately the glaring flaw, the death of David Crockett, ruins an otherwise fine film. None of the men who defended the Alamo lived to tell the tale and the wife of one of the defenders and the one slave who survived never spoke about how any of the leaders died. We must remember that there was no TV, radio or movies in this time period so none of the Mexicans who fought at the battle would know what David Crockett looked like. Shortly after the battle it was rumored that Crockett had been put to the sword. As there was no person that could have known this it is thought that this was a ruse by the Texian leadership to win sympathy with the American people where Crockett had enjoyed what may have been the first "pop star" status. Certainly Santa Anna was known for putting prisoners to death so that if one or more Alamo defenders did surrender then it was probable they would have indeed been put to the sword. If one had survived he might have claimed to be Crockett in hopes that it would save his life. In later years Mexicans showed that they could fling dirt in politics as good as those here in the US by claiming Santa Anna had executed the brave Crockett. Later yet other Mexicans would say Crockett was executed to tweak the nose of US citizens.
In 1975 Carmen Perry published an English translation of a "diary" allegedly written by a Mexican officer who had been at the battle of the Alamo. This book A Personal Narrative of the Revolution by Jose Enrique de la Pena included a paragraph describing how seven men including Crockett had surrendered and then were put to death upon Santa Anna's orders. This "De La Pena" diary then started a new war between historians that continues to this day. Many other books written in the 1800s about the Alamo have added to the fuel to the fire as almost none of the books agree on anything (such as the number of combatants and casualties). The new movie correctly does not depict the famous "drawing a line in the sand" by Travis as it can not be proven to have happened. As it can also not be proven how David Crockett died it is very sad that his legend is tarnished by the "execution scene" included in this movie.
A good source of information on all of the pros and cons of Crockett's death is Defense of a Legend Crockett and the de la Pena Diary by Bill Groneman. In his book Mr. Groneman confronts the various accounts of Crockett's death and does a nice job showing how most were probably made up. In the collecting field provenance is everything. Fakes abound in all realms of antique and collectible markets and you need to be able to prove something is real in order to satisfy the knowledgeable collector. When the oil boom hit Texas there were suddenly many new millionaires all of whom were proud of being Texans. These people then provided a ready market for antique Texas documents and relics. This led to a cottage industry of making high quality forgeries and fakes. In Mr. Groneman's book he uses a nice example in that although in 1970 only five copies of the the 1836 printing of the Texas Declaration of Independence were known to have survived , by 1987 twenty copies were floating around. One dealer who seemed to have a number of these forgeries pass through his hands was the man who brought the De La Pena diary to light. This "diary" then became the Holy Grail to those who supported the notion that Crockett had surrendered and was then executed. When all other sources were proven to be wrong or suspect the pro-execution crowd always fell back upon the De La Pena diary as proof. Finally in 2004 a scientific look at the De La Pena was televised by the History Channel. Testing results showed that in all likelihood the second half of the diary, which contains the Crockett execution scene, was probably a fake. As a collector I would not touch any part of the De La Pena diary with a ten foot pole. In collecting, if part of an object is fake it contaminates the entire object. Using the De La Pena diary as a source for any article on the Alamo then makes that article suspect.
Of course the pro-execution historian crowd has simply changed wagons. After all of this has given them lots of "face time" on a variety of television specials and certain notoriety in their field. The latest "proof" that Crockett was executed is the "George M. Dolsen Account". Mr. Dolsen was a guard at the Galveston Island prison camp where Mexican prisoners were held after the battle of San Jacinto. Although Santa Anna and his important officers were kept prisoner on a ship, somehow Mr. Dolsen was supposedly able to interview a member of Santa Anna's staff, Colonel Almonte who told him Crockett was executed along with five other Alamo defenders.
Mr. Groneman's research shows that Colonel Almonte's ship had moved on by the time the alleged interview by Mr. Dolsen had taken place making it impossible. Furthermore the commander of the prison camp, Colonel James Morgan does not mention any meeting in his papers which have survived. So it seems a never ending chase to ferret out the truth. One thing is probable, if Crockett did surrender and was then executed it was not likely to have been as theatrical as seen in the new Alamo movie. Based upon what I have read it seems unlikely that any credible account exists that can prove how and where any of the Alamo defenders died.
We don't even really know where Crockett was stationed in the Alamo compound. William B. Travis in one of his letters commends Crockett for animating the men at all points in the compound. All we can say is that David Crockett died at the Alamo and unless the DVD release of the movie has an option to delete or skip the execution scene I may not buy a copy which would be a shame as otherwise the movie was superb.

Kent Sprecher