The Alamo Revisited
Sleuthing the Alamo
Review by Christopher Dow
Few calls to arms are more memorable or rousing than this simple sentence, and for good reason. It recalls ultimate sacrifice and heralds triumph pulled from the depths of defeat. Indeed, the Alamo is such an indelibly etched icon of American history that it—and its defenders—have attained near-mythic proportions.
James Crisp has heeded that call to arms as few have in the 170 years since the Alamo’s fall. A historian on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Raleigh, he has spent much of his career attempting to regain the core truths that lie behind the mythos of the Texas Revolution. The search has led to some startling conclusions, a bit of acrimonious debate, and at least one relatively humorous threat of physical violence by a blue-haired member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. But through it all, Crisp has defended his position with a resolve that would have made William Travis, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie proud. He does so again in Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Sleuthing the Alamo is, in Crisp’s own words, “a distillation of my scholarly work in all its facets over more than a decade,” but the story takes root in his confessional prologue, which recounts the distortions regarding the Alamo that were doled out to him and other Texas grade school students in the 1950s. In fact, as Crisp hints in the prologue, his long search for the truth about the Alamo and the Texas Revolution may be as much personal penance as an attempt to clarify a century and a half of misinformation. Certainly, as Crisp grew older and became more aware of the darker side of Texas—and by extension, American—history, he also had to deal with the darker consequences of his own upbringing in rural Southern culture, even as that culture was facing the imperative of desegregation.
The chapters that follow delve into several much-debated elements of the Texas Revolution, including speeches purportedly delivered by Sam Houston but that are uncharacteristic of the Texas commander-in-chief and the diary of José Enrique de la Peña, which baldly states that Davy Crockett did not die during the Battle of the Alamo but was executed afterward. A later chapter delivers an analysis of the various paintings that celebrate the Alamo defenders’ last stand, as well as other battles of the Texas Revolution.
Some of the material in Sleuthing the Alamo was covered in Crisp’s article “Texas History, Texas Mystery,” which appeared in the February–March 1995 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University, but here it is given greater depth and benefits from an additional decade of research. The result is an interesting, nonacademic, and alternate view not only of several decisive moments in Texas history but of the ways history can be distorted—as often from carelessness or cultural bias as from deliberate misrepresentation.
This review originally appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of Sallyport: The Magazine of Rice University.