Siege Mentality

A hardy band of guys who saw Disney's Davy Crocket as kids have strong opinions about the Alamo—and will defend them to the death.

March 2004By Comments

THE CRISIS HIT, NOT IN THE southern part of Texas in the town of San Antone but on U.S. 83 somewhere between Abilene and Childress. My siblings and I were driving along a few years back, belting out the “Ballad of the Alamo” at the top of our lungs, when our vocalizing suddenly came to a screeching halt: None of us could think of the lines that follow “Travis answered with a shell/And a rousing rebel yell.” We had to la-la-la our way through the rest of the verse before resuming the song and intoning the last line in appropriately dirgelike fashion (“To the thirteen days of glory at the siege of Al-a-mo-o-o“).

As a kid I had listened over and over again to Marty Robbins’s version of the song popularized in John Wayne’s The Alamo. No decent Anglo Texan of my generation should forget those lyrics, right? Fortunately, I knew the perfect person to ask when I got home: William Chemerka, the Google of Alamo buffs, who obligingly e-mailed me the complete lyrics. The missing lines? “Santa Anna turned scarlet/’Play “Degüello,”‘ he roared./’I will show them no quarter/Every one will be put to the sword.'”

Chemerka, you see, is a Serious Alamo Guy—one of a small, tight group of amateur and professional historians who are Bowie-knife-sharp on the subject of the Alamo. Most of them are male, bearded, Anglo, and fifty-plus. Most have written extensively about the Alamo, and all have strong opinions about what did or did not happen there. Depending on doctrinal stance, they either defend or attack their peers, even to the point of name-calling (“troll” and “curmudgeon” are two of the printable epithets I’ve heard). And they are shaping the way Texans and Americans—of today and tomorrow—interpret that climactic event.

With the hoopla surrounding the upcoming movie that stars Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett, the Serious Alamo Guys are fixing to bask in at least thirteen days of reflected glory. A new paperback edition of The Gates of the Alamo, the ambitious 2000 novel by Austin’s Stephen Harrigan, has been published in advance of the movie’s April opening. Fellow Austinite Jack Jackson, an artist, a cartographer, and a historian, is bound to sell some copies of his latest Texas supercomic, The Alamo: An Epic Told From Both Sides. And the film’s historical advisers—authors Stephen Hardin, of Victoria, and Alan Huffines, of Katy—will surely rack up a few sales too.

Many non-Texans also claim the fort as their forte. Frank Thompson, a television writer in Los Angeles, is the author of several Alamo books, including an addictive treatise on Alamo movies; fittingly, he landed a bit part in the new cinematic epic. Historian Paul Hutton lives in Albuquerque and is an expert on Crockett B.A. (Before Alamo); he is a regular talking head on documentaries about the Alamo and the American West. James Crisp, an exuberant revisionist, teaches at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. And the Yankee contingent proves that the Alamo is as American as the Statue of Liberty. Bill Groneman, the primary spokesman of the Like Hell They Surrendered school, is a retired New York City fire captain who was at ground zero on 9/11 and who now lives in Kerrville. Chemerka, founder of the Alamo Society, publisher of the Alamo Journal, and king of the wild minutiae, is from—New Jersey! Not all of the Serious Alamo Guys are writers, though. Brian Huberman, a Rice University professor who was raised in England, has produced three Alamo-related documentaries.

They’re amazing men—and they make me crazy. Once upon a time I fancied myself pretty darn smart about the Texas Revolution, but I have long since surrendered. I’ve learned that I don’t have a historian’s dedication (those who do, obsess; those who don’t, dabble). I remember, some fifteen years back, challenging my colleague Steve Harrigan to recite William Barret Travis’s famous letter. He rendered it eloquently on the spot. And whenever he and I talk Alamo, our conversation goes something like this:

Me: What are the odds that in the new movie Billy Bob goes down swingin’ Ol’ Betsy?

Steve: Ol’ Betsy wasn’t at the Alamo.

Like most native Texans, Steve and I were suckled on Alamo myth. And like most baby boomers, we were weaned on Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The TV show starring Fort Worth native Fess Parker debuted in December 1954, and America went Davy crazy. It made a hero out of a largely forgotten frontiersman and spun a blend of fiction and fact that bedevils Alamo scholars to this day. The show was the Harry Potter of its day. “It influenced my entire life,” says the 58-year-old Chemerka, who went on to teach high school history for thirty years. Crockett thrilled kids because he could, among other skills, shoot, wrestle, ride, fight, and track. “And,” Chemerka adds, “he didn’t lie. I’m sure young Bill Clinton missed viewing Davy Crockett.” In 1960 John Wayne’s full-length movie further blurred the line between the historical event and the embroidered legend. But both screen versions, notes Harrigan, were “an irresistible intoxicant for impressionable young nerds.”

To me, Davy Crockett will always have Fess Parker’s face. But I was equally affected by one of the many children’s fables about early Texas, 1958’s We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo. I read and reread it, pretending I was twelve-year-old Billy Campbell (back in the fifties, boys had all the fun). I loaded Crockett’s pistols and helped hoist James Bowie’s cot over the line in the sand. Though the book boasted Walter Prescott Webb as “historical consultant,” the author, Margaret Cousins, of Munday, really schmaltzed it up. Consider her glamorization of Susanna Dickinson, the wife of a Texian captain and the only Anglo woman to survive the battle: “Her light gold hair curled up naturally, and her eyes were violet blue.” As a brunette tomboy, I thought, bleah.

But Walter Lord’s A Time to Stand dispensed with the fluff. The 1961 best-seller was the first to depict the Alamo struggle as an American milestone, not solely a Texan one. Lord took the classic romantic view but undergirded his story with solid research. He even cited José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican lieutenant colonel who declared in his 1836 diary that “some seven” defenders survived the fall of the fort, including “the naturalist David Crockett.” But Lord added that “in some circles it remains dangerous even to question the matter” of Davy’s death. That became clear in 1975, when de la Peña’s diary was published in English for the first time—and pandemonium ensued. In general, academic types, such as Hutton, accepted the diary as legit. But traditionalists, such as Groneman, were dubious at best: They not only thought that de la Peña’s champions were implicitly calling Crockett a coward but also that the diary might be a fake.

There are many other hot Alamo topics. Did Travis really draw a line in the sand? (Nope.) Did that so-called hero regularly cheat on his wife? (Yep.) Do Hispanic Texans have mixed feelings about the Alamo? (How could they not?) But the authenticity of the de la Peña memoir remains the single most fiercely debated subject in Alamology. In 2002 a panel of all-stars discussed Davy Crockett at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, in Austin, and authors Hutton and Groneman traded barbs about the diary, which was, at that very moment, on display one floor below. Hutton noted that “the page from the de la Peña diary clearly illuminates, for anyone with eyes to see, exactly how Colonel Crockett died.” Groneman then said to the audience, “Please, don’t get too close [to the diary]. Paul kowtows in front of it. Keep a little space.” Although I have to respect the revisionists’ point of view, I confess a fondness for the unassuming Groneman. It’s hard not to see him as an underdog defender outnumbered by an arrogant academic army.

The book that has most recently galvanized the Serious Alamo Guys is Alamo Traces, which includes a punctilious analysis of the de la Peña diary. Its author is Thomas Ricks Lindley, of Austin, a former U.S. Army military policeman and criminal investigator who spent fifteen years working on it. He pored over every document in the Texas State Archives that relates to the Texas Revolution—tens of thousands of pages of letters, ledgers, muster rolls, memoirs, newspapers, and more. “I like the chase,” he says. The result is possibly the most meticulously researched book in the history of Alamania. With financial underwriting from friends and supporters, he even hired an independent handwriting analyst, who concluded that the diary had a different writer than earlier documents known to have been penned by de la Peña. Lindley has also invited roasting for his savage criticism of Sam Houston, who has traditionally been depicted as a demigod in the rough. His possible successors as Alamo author of the moment include Aggie prof H. W. Brands, whose latest book is Lone Star Nation, and Virginia Tech’s William C. Davis, whose new megatome is Lone Star Rising (see “Nation State,” page 100).

Inevitably, there are “Did not!” “Did too!” overtones to the Alamo arguments, since the men who are firing broadsides are the little boys of yesterday who brandished toy Ol’ Betsys. But however much they argue, they are obviously having fun. Chemerka, for example, appeared at the Crockett panel wearing a custom-made shirt of vintage cotton printed with a Davy design. Frank Thompson, in his novelization of the new movie’s screenplay, gave minor characters the names of some of the Serious Alamo Guys. And Hutton owns several thousand items of Crockett memorabilia, from boys’ briefs to a full-size bedstead. Last year he lent hundreds of them to the Bob Bullock museum for its extensive Crockett exhibit. When I saw him there, I joked, “You have everything but a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Crockett.” Hutton politely stifled a snort before leading me to an action figure of one of the green cartoon characters in plastic buckskin.

I myself favor not Crockett kitsch but Alamo crapola, especially old postcards of the mission in glowing colors such as light gold and violet-blue (as in Susanna Dickinson) and deep pink (as in rose-colored glasses). I’m trying to reconcile the gilded Alamo of my youth with the crumbling fortress of my middle age. But it isn’t easy breaking away from tradition and myth. Besides, when it comes to the Battle of the Alamo, any hope for ultimate clarity is doomed. We’ll never know for sure what happened when Santa Anna’s soldiers overran the Texian defenders 168 years ago. And that’s a fact.

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