The Death of David Crockett

Article excerpt

When the author wrote a modern epic poem about the Alamo, he stumbled into one of the bloodier skirmishes of the academic culture wars.

Before sunrise on March 6, 1836, the most famous siege in American history came to an end. More than a thousand troops under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the military dictator of Mexico, stormed the Alamo fortress in San Antonio, where Texan rebels against Mexican authority - Anglo-American settiers, Tejano natives, and soldiers of fortune from the United Stales and Europe - had been waiting for reinforcements that never came. All of the defenders-roughly 180 or more - were killed in battle or executed soon afterward.

News of the fall of the Alamo sent shock waves far beyond war-torn Texas, where secessionists had just declared the independence of their republic. Among the fallen defenders were two celebrities from the United States. The knifefighter James Bowie was one. But his renown was over-shadowed by that of David Crockett, the "congressman from the canebrake" of Tennessee who had replaced Daniel Boone as a symbol of the American frontiersman. After being defeated in a race for Congress, Crockett - whom the Whig party had once considered as a possible presidential candidate - had made his way to insurgent Texas to make a fresh start. A fellow graduate of Tennessee politics, Sam Houston, commander of the weak and disorganized Texan army, had assigned Crockett to the garrison at San Antonio. There, with Bowie and less known figures such as the garrison's young commander, William Barret Travis, Crockett met his death.

In the legend that grew up around Crockett, he died fighting in the last-ditch defense of the Alamo. Recent scholarship, however, has suggested another possibility: that Crockett was executed by Santa Anna along with several others after the battle was over. I discovered just how controversial this question remains when I published The Alamo, a narrative poem about the Texas Revolution. In my first draft, I followed some recent historical accounts of the Texas Revolution that treat Crockett's execution at the hands of Santa Anna as all established fact. As I researched the subject further, however, I concluded that the story of Crockett's execution, like the equally well-known story of the line Travis drew in the dust at the Alamo, was folklore. In the final version of the poem, Travis does not draw that litre, and Crockett, a minor character in the story I tell, falls in battle. In a vituperative attack on The Alamo in the New York Times, the journalist Garry Wills accused me (along with Wills's bete noire, the late John Wayne, in his movie The Alamo) of purveying patriotic "hokum" to the American public by showing Crockett being killed in battle. The ensuing debate has involved several exchanges in print between Wills and my fellow Texan, CBS news anchor Dan Rather.

What this unexpected controversy revealed is that the death of Colonel David Crockett - or "Davy Crockett," as he became known in 19th-century almanacs and 20th-century pop culture - is a contested front in the late-20th-century American culture war. To understand why, we have to go back to the 1950s, when Wait Disney's TV series starring Fess Parker elevated "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" into the American hero. Crockett's mythic status was enhanced even further when John Wayne portrayed him in The Alamo (1960).

Generational politics explains the controversy surrounding a purported 1836 memoir by a Mexican officer present at the battle, Jose Enrique de la Pena. (Because the memoir incorporates material that de la Pena could only have acquired later, it must have been completed after 1836.) In 1955 a Mexican antiquarian and book-seller named Jesus Sanchez Garza published La Rebelion de Texas in Mexico City. The manuscript was acquired by a Texas philanthropist, John Peace, for his John Peace Memorial Library, at the University of Texas at San Antonio. …