Part 2: What About Davy Crockett?
Sam Houston didn't want a battle, believing San Antonio de Bexar was too isolated from the other Texian settlements and the Alamo indefensible with the small force at hand; the strategy of the commander of the Texian army was to lure Santa Anna deep into Texas, away from his supply lines buying him time to train and create a disciplined Texian army. In January 1836 he sent James Bowie (b. 1796) to remove the cannon from the Alamo and bring them back to his growing army though he gave Bowie some discretion to act as he saw fit.
(Santa Anna from San Jacinto Museum)
With the exception of Santa Anna, none of the senior Mexican officers wanted a battle at the Alamo, believing that their advance should be along the Gulf coast of Texas and that the inland town of San Antonio was a strategic dead end. Unfortunately, only Santa Anna's opinion counted. And then having arrived in San Antonio, they believed Santa Anna's decision to attack an isolated position held by a small number of rebels instead of either leaving it under siege with a small force and proceeding with the bulk of the army deeper into Texas or, in the alternative, waiting a couple of days until their heavy artillery reached San Antonio, artillery which could knock down the walls of the Alamo and force the garrison to surrender, was an unjustified waste of the lives of their soldiers.
Bowie was returning to the town he'd first settled in when he came to Texas in 1830 having left Louisiana in the wake of a huge land fraud in which he played a leading role in, a fraud which triggered decades of property disputes in what became the state of Arkansas. Bowie had achieved regional notoriety in 1827, after the bloody Sandbar Fight outside of Natchez, Mississippi in which he'd been badly wounded while killing another man with his famed Bowie knife.
On February 3, Bowie was joi,ned in San Antonio by William Barret Travis (b. 1809), a lieutenant colonel in the new Texas army who brought eighteen soldiers with him. Travis arrived in Texas in 1831, abandoning a wife, young child and failing law practice back in Alabama. Unlike Bowie, he was an early and fervent advocate for Texas independence and his impetuous actions at the coastal town of Anhuac nearly triggered the revolution in 1832 before cooler heads prevailed.
Travis and Bowie agreed they should defend the Alamo, but quarreled over command eventually arriving at a tenuous agreement to share it. The delicate nature of the arrangement was demonstrated when Bowie tried to parley with the Mexicans upon their arrival in San Antonio, a meeting disrupted by a cannon shot ordered by Travis.
Bowie, Travis and David Crockett (b. 1786) ascended into legend with their deaths at the Alamo (for a good combined biography of the three read Three Roads To The Alamo by William C Davis). We have a pretty good idea how the first two perished. Bowie, immobilized and delirious, likely with typhoid fever, was killed in his bed while Travis was shot in the head early in the fight while directing fire from the cannon on the north wall. But what about Crockett, who in 1836 was the only nationally known figure at the Alamo?
(David Crockett; Wikipedia)
When David Crockett (he called himself David, not Davy) rode into San Antonio on February 8, he was a former three term U.S. Congressman from Tennessee, who after being defeated in the last election declared "You can all go to Hell, I'm going to Texas" and set out to establish a new life. On his ride to Texas he was joined by about 30 friends and adventurers. Arriving after the revolution started he found that land grants were available for those joining the rebel forces. He and his compatriots quickly signed up.
Crockett though, was more than just a former Congressman. He was the first popular folk character from America's west, and its most nationally known figure, other than Andrew Jackson. David Crockett, born poor, a frontiersman, hunter and scout went into politics, initially as an ally of Andrew Jackson, and later as his fierce opponent over the issues of the distribution of federal lands and on the removal of the Indian tribes from the southeast, a policy Crockett opposed, being the only Congressman in the southeast to vote against the removal, about which he wrote, "I believe it was a wicked, unjust measure".
The character Davy Crockett, after arriving in Washington in 1827, quickly became known for his entertaining storytelling and anecdotes and was converted into a figure of popular entertainment around whom myths and legends grew. Many plays were staged with Davy or a thinly disguised version of him as the centerpiece, the most popular of which, Lion Of The West, premiered in New York City. From 1835 through 1841 Davy Crockett's Almanack was published and in 1834 Crockett added to his renown with the publication of A Narrative Of The Life Of David Crockett, Written By Himself which became a best seller and sparked a nationwide speaking tour (Crockett was particularly popular in New England).(From NY Historical Society)
Of Crockett's actions during the siege, which began on February 23, we have little information; on the 25th Travis wrote in a message carried to Houston "The Hon. David Crockett was seen at all points,
animating the men to do their duty", and Susannah Dickinson (of whom, more below) remembered Crockett playing his fiddle to entertain the garrison. Did Crockett, who by rank was only a private, play a significant role in planning the defense and leading the men during the siege? It is impossible to know but the very limited evidence is suggestive, given that after the first two days Bowie was incapacitated with fever and Crockett was a famous and popular figure two decades older than Travis.
Our best information, from early in the siege, is that Crockett and his men were stationed behind a hastily erected wooden palisade fence that ran at an angle from the southwest corner of the Alamo mission church to the start of the south wall, making it a particularly vulnerable spot if attacked. In the darkness of early morning on March 6, the Mexican assault breached the north and south walls first and then swept across the open plaza as some of the surviving Texians retreated into the Long Barracks. The last rebels left out in the open would likely have been Crockett and his men near the church. Did they die fighting by the palisade? Did some try to seek refuge in the church? Had they moved their post by then? Did Crockett move from the palisade and towards the north wall when Travis was killed early in the fight? Or were Crockett and some of his men among the up to 60 Texians who may have tried to escape by going over the walls near the palisade only to be cut down on the open prairie by the mounted Mexican lancers waiting for them?
(Mark Churms painting giving good idea of relative placement of wooden palisade and Alamo church)
What are our sources for the end of the Alamo? There are several Mexican ones, of which more below. We also have accounts of various riders sent out with messages from the Alamo before March 3 and the stories of the few civilian survivors spared by Santa Ana, the most prominent of which were Joe, William Travis' slave, and Susannah Dickinson, wife of one of the defenders. Joe's account was that he was with Travis until he was killed at which time he went into the church, joining Dickinson. Both Joe and Dickinson reported that as they were being escorted out after the fighting ended they saw Crockett's body near the church, surrounded by dead Mexican soldiers. It remains unclear how long after the fighting ended they left the church and observed the carnage outside, but their observations are consistent both with Crockett dying in combat or being executed at the end of the battle.
After that it gets murkier. The best account THC found is Sleuthing The Alamo by James E Crisp, a professor of history at North Carolina State University, from which the summary below is drawn except as noted otherwise. As a side note, Sleuthing The Alamo is an outstanding way to learn about how historians do their job. Crisp takes the controversy around Crockett's death along with an alleged racist speech by Sam Houston and brings you along for the ride as he traces the origins of various stories and documents, going back to the primary sources to get to the truth. It's a short, but very illuminating book written in an engaging personal and non-academic style.
Within a short time of the fall of the Alamo various stories were in circulation about the fate of Crockett with some newspapers reporting he went down fighting, others that he was captured and executed and a couple even reporting his escape!
Before we review those accounts there are two other events to give some context.
- On March 27 the Mexican army massacred about 350 Texians at the coastal town of Goliad. These soldiers had surrendered a few days earlier under a promise of clemency. The local Mexican commander, General Urrea, protested vigorously against the execution order from Santa Anna, who sent an officer from Bexar to oversee the killing.
- At San Jacinto on April 21, 1836 Sam Houston defeated a detachment of the Mexican army capturing several hundred men, including Santa Anna and other senior commanders, most of whom were imprisoned on Galveston Island until their return to Mexico.
The June 9, 1836 edition of the New York Courier and Enquirer carried a letter from a correspondent in Galveston Bay who purported to convey an account from an eye witness:
After the Mexicans had got possession of the Alamo, the fighting had ceased, and it was clear day light, six Americans were discovered near the wall yet unconquered, and who were instantly surrounded and ordered by General Castrillon [a senior Mexican commander] to surrender, and who did so under a promise of his protection, finding resistance any longer in vain - indeed, perfect madness - Castrillon was brave and not cruel, and disposed to save them. He marched them up to that part of the fort where stood "his Excellency" [Santa Anna] . . . David Crockett was one of the six. The steady fearless step and undaunted tread, together with the bold demeanor of this hardy veteran -"his firmness and noble bearing", to give the words of the narrator, had a most powerful effect on himself and Castrillon . . . Castrillon addressed "his Excellency" - "Sir, here are six prisoners I have taken alive; how shall I dispose of them?" Santa Anna looked at Castrillon fiercely, flew into a most violent rage, and replied "Have I not told you before how to dispose of them? Why do you bring them to me?" At the same time his brave officers drew and plunged their swords into the bosoms of their defenceless prisoners!!Sergeant George Dolson served as an interpreter with the Texian army on Galveston Island. On July 18, his superior officer asked him to attend the deposition of an unnamed Mexican officer. The next day he wrote a letter to his brother in Michigan in which he described what happened; a letter published by the Detroit Democratic Free Press in September (though no written record of the deposition has been found). Dolson wrote of the Mexican officer:
He states that on the morning the Alamo was captured, between the hours of five and six o'clock, General Castrillon, who fell at the battle of San Jacinto, entered the back room of the Alamo, and there found Crockett and five other Americans, who had defended it until defence was useless. They appeared very much agitated when the Mexican soldiers undertook to rush in after their General, but the humane General ordered his men to keep out, and, placing his hand on one breast, said "here is a hand and a heart to protect you; come with me to the General-in-Chief, and you shall be saved." . . . The brave but unfortunate men were marched to the tent of Santa Anna. Colonel Crockett was in the rear, had his arms folded, and appeared bold as the lion as he passed my informant. Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett, and said to my informant, "the one behind is the famous Crockett". When brought in the presence of Santa Anna, Castrillon said to him, "Santa Anna, the august, I deliver up to you six brave prisoners of war." Santa Anna replied, "who has given you orders to take prisoners, I do not want to see those men living - shoot them." As the monster uttered these words each officer turned his face the other way, and the hellhounds of the tyrant dispatched the six in his presence, and within six feet of his person.These stories of survivors being executed after the battle are also consistent with an account published in Mexico City in 1837 by Ramon Martinez Caro, Santa Anna's personal secretary during the Texas campaign (though it does not mention Crockett):
Among the 183 killed there were five who were discovered by General Castrillon hiding after the assault. He took them immediately to the presence of His Excellency who had come up by this time. When he presented the prisoners he was severely reprimanded for not having killed them on the spot, after which [Santa Anna] turned his back upon Castrillon while the soldiers stepped out of their ranks and set upon the prisoners until they were killed . . . We all witnessed this outrage which humanity condemns but which was committed as described. This is a cruel truth, but I cannot omit it.Caro had been imprisoned at Galveston. Could he have been the source for the Dolson letter?
Throughout the rest of the century and into the middle of the 20th there continued to be parallel stories of Crockett going down fighting, along with those of his being executed. The giant 1905 painting in the Texas Capital showed him swinging a musket as the Mexican soldiers closed in. At nearly the same time Teddy Roosevelt described Crockett's last minutes in his 1895 book, Hero Tales From American History (as quoted in Crisp's book):
. . . the last man stood at bay. It was old Davy Crockett. Wounded in a dozen places, he faced his foes with his back to the wall, ringed around by the bodies of the men he had slain. So desperate was the fight he waged, that the Mexicans who thronged round him were beaten back for the moment, and no one dared to run in upon him. Accordingly . . . the musketeers loaded their carbines and shot him down. Santa Anna declined to give him mercy. Some say that when Crockett fell from his wounds, he was taken alive, and was then shot by Santa Anna's order; but his fate cannot be told with certainty, for not a single American was left alive.And as Crisp points out, as late as 1934 the frontispiece of the popular book The Adventures of Davy Crockett was a painting of a bound Crockett being brought to Santa Anna (below).
The first was the broadcast of Walt Disney's three part series, Davy Crockett: King Of The Wild Frontier which transfixed the American public, including 4-year old THC. The series ended with Davy fighting to the end against the Mexican attackers (we'll have more on the Disney show in Part 3 of this series). Disney established a contemporary image in our minds of an heroic Davy who would never surrender, and it was an image we liked.
The second was the publication in Mexico City of the diary of Jose Enrique de la Pena by Jesus Sanchez Garza. De la Pena (1807-40), a Colonel in the Mexican army, was present at the Alamo. How the diary (or more properly an account based upon diary entries) came into Garza's hands has never been determined. The publication received little notice in the United States at the time, but controversy about it exploded in 1975 when an English translation by Carmen Perry was published. THC recently read a 1997 edition of the translation with an introduction by Professor Crisp, published as With Santa Anna In Texas.
Let's see what de la Pena wrote about Crockett and then we'll talk about the context, which is extremely important in understanding his document. On second thought, let's first note another Mexican memoir that was first published in 1966. Lieutenant Colonel Jose Juan Sanchez Navarro briefly mentions the attack: "by six-thirty in the morning not a single enemy existed . . . some cruelties horrified me among them the death of an oldster whom they called Cocran". While there was a defender named Robert Cochran he was only twenty six years old. Could Navarro have been referring to Crockett who would have turned 50 that year and was one of the oldest Texians in the Alamo?(Briscoe Center for American History, U of Texas)
And what does de la Pena say?
Some seven men had survived the general carnage and, under the protection of General Castrillon, they were brought before Santa Ana. Among them was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, in whose face there was the imprint of adversity, but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor. He was the naturalist David Croket, well known in North America for his unusual adventures, who had undertaken to explore the country and who finding himself in Bejar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected. Santa Anna answered Castrillon's intervention with a gesture of indignation and, addressing himself to the sappers, the troops closest to him, ordered that they shoot them. The commanders and officers were outraged at this action and did not support the order, hoping that once the fury of the moment had blown over these men would be spared; but several officers who were around the president and who, perhaps, had not been present during the moment of danger, became noteworthy by an infamous deed, surpassing the soldiers in cruelty. They thrust themselves forward, in order to flatter their commander, and with swords in hand, fell upon these unfortunate, defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey. Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers. It was rumored that General Sesma was one of them; I will not bear witness to this, for though present, I turned away horrified in order not to witness such a barbarous scene. . . I confess that the very memory of it makes me tremble and that my ear can still hear the penetrating, doleful sound of the victims.(Section of the de la Pena manuscript mentioning "Croket" in fifth line)
The 1975 publication found fertile ground in the turmoil of that decade in America, and set off heated debate between those, including revisionist historians, who delightedly took it as proof that the beloved American hero was a sniveling coward and used the diary's claims as part of a more general attack on American values and traditions, and those who insisted that an American hero like Crockett would have fought to the death rather than surrender and that de la Pena's claims must therefore be fraudulent and his supporters, by definition, anti-American. In fact, a debate over the legitimacy of the diary and of de la Pena's writings about Crockett continues to this day, though it probably peaked in the 1990s.
Taking the account on its face, why would de la Pena, who by 1837 was in prison, write it? His purpose was not to write an account of Crockett or even of the Alamo. The edition THC read is about 190 pages of which less than one page contains the Crockett account and the entire attack is covered in just twelve pages. De la Pena's account is intended as a denunciation of Santa Anna and some of his senior commanders who, in his view, neglected the welfare of their soldiers and conducted a strategically foolish campaign resulting in the loss of Texas. The very reason he was in jail was for participating in a failed rebellion against Santa Anna's government.
His introduction reveals to us an angry and anguished young man:
. . . the accumulation of lies told to falsify the events, . . . the ignorance, stupidity, and cruelty displayed by the ministry and the commander in chief in this war . . . the honor and self-esteem of every military man who participated, so deeply hurt by the great inaccuracies in official records as to dates, deeds and places; and above all the honor of the country, deeply compromised by its leaders and no less by the truth and the atrocity of its crimes - these are the principal causes which compelled me to publish the diary . . .De la Pena is scathing about the lack of preparation for the march into Texas and Santa Anna's strategy of dividing his army instead of concentrating it for an advance up the coast, but his anger reaches a fever pitch when writing of what he, and other officers, believed was a completely unnecessary attack on the Alamo (he writes of the Mexican commanders having information that Travis would have surrendered if no relief came from Houston's army within the next two days), leaving many soldiers dead and hundreds wounded who suffered terribly without any medical treatment because of Santa Anna's failure to bring doctors and medical supplies with the army. Above all, he was horrified by the killing of the Alamo survivors and the massacre at Goliad, a horror shared by many other officers. De la Pena believed it was a criminal act that dishonored the army and was also counterproductive, since it incited even more resistance by the Texian rebels who knew their only alternatives were to win or die. He was a Mexican patriot who condemned the Texas rebellion and believed it could have been defeated while still referring frequently to the bravery of the rebels and of their fair and honorable treatment of Mexican prisoners. From his perspective the purpose of telling the tale of the death of Crockett and his fellow survivors was to show how despicable Santa Anna was, and his description of their deaths is followed with this lament:
The infamies that have occurred in this campaign, infamies that must have horrified the civilized world and whose memory will continue to provoke pain for many years hence, should not remain hidden. In referring to them, I shall thrust aside my personal feelings, and my friends will cease to be friends from the moment that I publish the evils committed against my country and the deeps perpetrated against humanity.
To whom was this sacrifice useful and what advantage was derived by increasing the number of victims? It was paid for dearly, though it could have been otherwise had these men been required to walk across the floor carpeted with the bodies over which we stepped, had they been rehabilitated generously and required to communicate to their comrades the fate that awaited them if they did not desist from their unjust cause. They could have informed their comrades of the force and resources that the enemy had.
As just one example of the objections of the Mexican commanders to Santa Anna's death decrees, we have the consistent account of the actions of General Manuel Fernandez Castrillon, who protested not only the killing of the survivors at the Alamo but also the order to massacre the Goliad prisoners. Castrillon, once a close ally of Santa Anna, grew disenchanted with him and was killed at San Jacinto where many of the Texians remarked on his bravery. Castrillon was buried nearby at the plantation of his friend Lorenzo de Zavala, the tejano Vice-President of the newly proclaimed Texas Republic,
Jose Enrique de la Pena died in 1840 at the age of 33 before he could publish his broadside about the loss of Texas. Santa Anna (1794-1876) was president of Mexico eleven different times from 1833 through 1855 during which he lost not only Texas ,but the entire northern territory of his country to the United States during the Mexican War (1846-8). In one of his many periods of exile from Mexico he lived on Staten Island, New York for several years.
Some of those who have contested the authenticity of the de la Pena papers have raised valid points, which have triggered further fascinating research (you can get a sense of the back and forth by reading this). One of the most instructive lessons for THC has been about the limitations of relying on translations of materials originally written in other languages. It turns out that several points of apparent contradiction in the English version of de la Pena's work disappear when one goes back to the original Spanish, and that a previously unknown document written by de la Pena and located at Yale University in 1994 provides additional corroboration for his story. While THC does not think the question has been resolved 100% (for instance, de la Pena's account of the death of Travis is inconsistent with other evidence) his judgement is that, on balance, the evidence favors the authenticity of the diary and of his account of the Alamo. While we will never know for certain the exact circumstances it is likely that David Crockett was among those executed at the end of the battle, though Davy Crockett seems to live on.
NEXT: PART 3 The Alamo In TV And Movies