- The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice that Forged a Nation by James Donovan
There is much to admire in James Donovan’s well-written and impressively researched new telling of the Alamo story. There are large and excellently rendered maps of revolutionary Texas and San Antonio de Béxar, a fine drawing of the 1836 Alamo, and numerous portraits of the major and minor players in the drama. Donovan has been especially adept in ferreting out new information on the Alamo’s defenders from obscure and little-used archival collections, including the research notes of many early Texan historians.
The author has also nicely incorporated much of the work of latter-day Alamo historians, though with some interesting lapses, such as his neglect of the reissue of Dan Kilgore’s How Did Davy Die? And Why Do We Care So Much? (2010). As Kilgore and other Alamo researchers have found, there are countless contradictions in the historical records and recollections of the battle, and one of Donovan’s strongest points is his careful review within his extensive endnotes of this confusing literature. In most of these cases, Donovan makes convincing arguments for the chosen conclusions that are to be found in his text.
An exception to the author’s usually precise and reliable analysis of controversial sources, however, comes in his explanation for his rejection of the alleged eyewitness reports of the execution of David Crockett in the moments immediately [End Page 97] following the battle. Despite Donovan’s recent claim in Texas Monthly (July 2012) that he consulted the Spanish original of José Enrique de la Peña’s controversial memoir, neither this manuscript nor the published Spanish edition of the memoir is cited in the extensive bibliography of Blood of Heroes. Moreover, Donovan’s analysis of this Mexican officer’s report of Santa Anna’s execution order makes it quite clear that Donovan has used Carmen Perry’s mistranslation of the order as published in With Santa Anna in Texas (1975 and 1997), rather than the original’s language: “mandó que los fusilaran” (La Rebelión de Texas, 70). The problem is that Perry’s translation implies incorrectly that Santa Anna knew the identity of the men whose death he had ordered—the original language contains no such implication. This error taints Donovan’s discussion of Santa Anna’s alleged request that both Béxar alcalde Francisco Ruiz and William Barret Travis’s slave Joe identify Crockett’s body. Donovan also suggests that Joe placed the location of Crockett’s body in the same western-wall fortification as did Ruiz, though Joe’s testimony actually contains no such assertion.
Despite the excellent judgment that Donovan exhibits in such areas as his assessment of slavery’s secondary role as a cause of the revolution and his discussions of each side’s military strategies (though he never explains why two hundred men holed up in a fortified mission should halt the advance of a Mexican force many times as large), Donovan seems to this reviewer to hold a bit too tightly to the general public’s two fondest myths of the Alamo: Crockett’s heroic death in combat and Colonel Travis’s sword-drawn line in the sand.
Donovan admits in his afterword that he has relied on hearsay, circumstantial evidence, and journalist-embellished interviews in order to defend Travis’s famous line. This is quite true, and yet in rejecting eyewitness accounts of Crockett’s execution, Donovan has cursorily dismissed such important contemporary documents as Sergeant George M. Dolson’s interview with a Mexican prisoner who described in detail in the summer of 1836 the same Alamo execution scene that appeared the following year in the published memoir of Santa Anna’s personal secretary, Ramón Martínez Caro.
Donovan steadfastly defends, in other words, the contentions of early Texan historians William Physick Zuber concerning Travis...