As Walter Lord noted in 1961 in "A Time to Stand," the epic of the Alamo caught America's imagination almost from the day the mission fortress fell. "And the end," he noted, "is not yet in sight."
More than a half a century since Lord's classic, our fascination with the Alamo is stronger than ever. Alamo literature fills small libraries, so it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the best book on the battle has just been published. James Donovan's "The Blood of Heroes" is the most comprehensive account of events leading up to the siege, what likely happened during the battle, and the Alamo's place in both the struggle for Texas independence and American history and culture.
Little, Brown ($29.99).
Mr. Donovan, author of a superb account of Custer and the Little Big Horn, "A Terrible Glory," has a splendid sense of historical narrative. In the mid-1830s the term Manifest Destiny had yet to be coined, but "its doctrine of God-approved expansion had already taken hold." Thousands of English-speaking colonists poured into Texas, most from Southern states who claimed Scotland and Ireland as their hereditary birthplaces; they quickly found that the initial threats to peace weren't their Mexican overlords but Comanche Indians, "the finest horsemen on the continent."
The motives of the new settlers were mixed. Some, writes Mr. Donovan, "were for independence [from Mexico]; some for the constitution of 1824; and some for anything, just so it was a row."
At least the third group got their wish. The early Texas army was "little more than a well-intentioned mob"; still, they managed to capture the Mexican garrison at San Antonio de Bexar with relatively little bloodletting. (In nice novelistic style, Mr. Donovan relates that after the surrender of the Alamo "soldiers of both armies were mingling, some playing cards together.")
Faster than any of the Texans had calculated, faster even than rebel leader Sam Houston could train an army of resistance, Mexican dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna force-marched an army of several thousand soldados, many raw recruits -- "Indians, peasants, vagabonds, prisoners, and the poor of the larger cities and towns" -- to San Antonio to take back the Alamo.
The Alamo's defenders, eight of whom were native-born Tejanos, quickly retreated into the compound and began fortifying it; the women of San Antonio wept and cried "You will all be killed; what shall we do?"
With the skill of a historical detective, Mr. Donovan pieces together the most plausible account of what happened over the next 13 days, from Feb. 23 to March 6, 1836, when the Mexican army finally stormed the walls in an all-out assault in the pre-dawn darkness, rockets and cannon fire illuminating the cold Texas night. His conclusions will intrigue many longtime students of the campaign and anger others, but Mr. Donovan backs his assertions with solid research.
For instance, he contends that given the circumstances of the rebellion and the conditions the battle was fought under, "the death of every defender at the Alamo [probably around 200 men], and the execution of a few prisoners, was defensible." But the massacre by Santa Anna of some 400 Texans who had surrendered near Goliad was not.
Mexican casualties were far lower than has always been assumed -- "Total casualties likely comprised about 75 killed during the battle and approximately 300 wounded," and according to the best evidence, David Crockett did indeed die fighting. Best of all for the true romantic, Colonel William Travis' "line in the sand" and legendary speech did in fact occur.
"The Blood of Heroes" belongs on the shelf of any enthusiast along with William C. Davis' monumental triple biography of Crockett, Travis and James Bowie, "Three Roads to the Alamo," and Stephen Harrington's great novel, "The Gates of the Alamo." Those making their entrance into Alamo lore for the first time are well advised to begin with "The Blood of Heroes."
Allen Barra writes for True West and American History magazines. His next book is "Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age," due out this fall from Crown.