‘Three Roads to the Alamo,’ by William C. Davis

In Library and Information Science, there’s a popular concept called “faceting.” Faceting means describing a resource in more than one way, as more than one thing. The idea is that faceting makes it possible to describe an object more fully, in a way that’s more useful to more people.

William C. Davis’ Three Roads to the Alamo is a faceted historical work. Instead of a single narrative, the author takes us along with the Alamo’s three most famous defenders, Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, on their lives’ journeys, providing us not only a fuller description of each of them, but a more three-dimensional picture of America (at least the American south and southwest) during the early 19th Century.

The first subject we meet is the oldest and most famous – even in his own time – Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee. Indeed, as Davis reminds us, Crockett was the very first American media celebrity – the first American to see the newspapers and magazines create for him a separate persona, not entirely unlike him, but exaggerated and oversimplified. It must have been a bizarre life for him – in the east he dined in the finest restaurants, was feted by the rich and powerful, and spoke from the same platforms with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. When he went home, it was to a dirt-floored cabin and a mountain of debts that never seemed to diminish. He finally solved the debt problem – to a degree – by figuring out how to monetize his celebrity. He wrote his autobiography (which I reviewed here), and it became a bestseller.

Crockett is by far the most appealing of the trio. Bowie, the next oldest, is a lot harder to like. Though known (Davis tells us) as honest in his private dealing, Bowie had no shame about committing fraud on a grand scale. Stealing from the government, one assumes, just didn’t count as a sin in his world. He first smuggled slaves, and then embarked on a career in forgery, creating bogus Spanish land grants which he tried to claim on his own or sold to others. He wasn’t actually very good at it – he often misspelled names on signatures and never bothered to disguise his handwriting – but he did manage to complicate the whole process of the settlement of Louisiana Purchase lands. In the course of this he dispossessed a number of poor squatters, the very class of people Crockett spent his legislative career trying to get relief for. He was not, however, in Davis’s eyes, the man of violence we’ve been told he was. Davis accepts his brother Rezin’s statement that James was only in one knife fight in his life – the famous Sand Bar Fight in Natchez – and that the knife he used that day was not the later knife associated with his name.

Finally, there’s William Barret Travis. He comes into the story later, being much younger (only 26 when he died). Davis describes him more than once as a “prig,” though noting that many of his sins were youthful ones, and he seemed to have steadied as he matured. A devout Baptist, he nevertheless fled his Alabama home to avoid mountains of debt (debt is a recurring theme with all three men), abandoning his wife and children. He also kept a sort of tally of his fornications in his journal.

Then all three converge in Texas. Texas seems like a good place for them all, especially Bowie and Travis. Bowie is enabled to speculate in land by somewhat less felonious means, and shows himself courageous and an effective leader. Travis finds the professional success he never achieved at home, and seems to gain in substance. Crockett is already fully his own man, and in any case is in Texas only a short time before arriving at the Alamo.

Davis drops some bombshells in his account of the siege and massacre. He has located, in Mexican archives, details of the fighting never published before. But the real shocker is his assessment of Sam Houston’s conduct.

All my life I’ve read the “received” view of the strategic situation. All the books say that Houston had a long-term plan of strategic retreat, and ordered Travis and Bowie to evacuate and destroy the old mission, an order they refused for some reason.

Davis calls this bunk. He charges Houston with drunkenness and incompetence, and lays the blame for the defenders’ deaths squarely at his doorstep.

Three Roads to the Alamo is a fascinating (though lengthy) read, and copiously researched (fully 40% of the book is endnotes). I enjoyed it immensely and felt I’d gotten a real education when I finished it. Recommended.

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