By William C. Davis
Everyone has heard about the Alamo.
Everyone has heard about David Crockett and Jim Bowie, and perhaps William
Travis. These men are forever enshrined in glory and legend, thanks to the
tragic event of March 6, 1836, the day the Alamo fell to Santa Anna’s
HarperCollins, 791 pp, 1998
While Crockett was a legend, or at least
a celebrity (perhaps the first true American celebrity) before the Alamo,
Bowie and Travis were not well-known. Their lives were a rough mix of
fact, exaggerations, and legend. William C. Davis fixes that.
In Three Roads to the Alamo: The
lives and fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret
Travis, Davis traces the lives of each man, from birth to the Alamo.
It’s a fascinating tale.
Of the three, Crockett is by far the
most likeable. Always poor, he used his extraordinary wit and good humor
to win three terms in the House of Representatives. As good as he was on
the stump, though, he was a lousy politician. His major goal, a land bill
making it easier for poor farmers to buy land, failed, due to his
incompetent management of it. He was naïve about the political situation
of his times. For example, he backed Andrew Jackson, yet feuded with the
Democratic members of his own Tennessee delegation.
Despite his failures in Congress, he
grew very popular all over the country. Several books and plays were made
with his character as the model. The Whigs even thought about running him
for president against Martin Van Buren.
But Crockett’s early support of
Jackson turned to opposition. He became obsessed with Jackson, railing and
ranting against him from the House floor, while producing no legislation
for his district. In the end, it cost him a fourth term and his chance at
However clumsy his political efforts, he
stayed true to his convictions. Although he played up his backwoodsman
image, he strived to be a gentleman, and largely succeeded.
After losing his final run for Congress,
he went to Texas, mostly on a whim, to hunt for game and land. He toured
several cities before ending up in San Antonio and the Alamo, at the worst
James Bowie is a fascinating figure.
Brave, loyal to his friends, and a natural leader, he was a dishonest land
speculator in Louisiana. He forged several Spanish land grants that showed
him as the owner of several thousand acres of prime land. He hoped to then
sell “his” property for huge profits, but it never worked. The
government slowly got wise to his scheme, so he went to Texas to search
for more land.
Travis fled to Texas to escape crushing
debt. He also abandoned a failed law practice, newspaper, wife and two
young children. Young, hot-blooded and impetuous, Travis tried again at
practicing law and succeeded.
Of the three, Bowie was the first at the
Alamo in late January 1836, sent to relieve and reinforce the garrison
already there. It was a shambles, poorly equipped with little money. A
survivor of some prominent battles, in which he was outnumbered, he was
already a hero to Texans, and his arrival boosted morale.
Travis showed with a small contingent of
cavalry just a few days later, and Crockett shortly after that.
Shortly after Santa Anna’s two to
three thousand soldiers showed up, Travis sent several urgent requests for
aid. Sam Houston, who led all armed forces in Texas, thought that Travis
was making everything up and trying to co-opt his command. So he did
The provisional government published
Travis’ letters to attract recruits, but few volunteered. In essence,
Texas abandoned the Alamo.
When the battle finally occurred, Travis
died right away, defending the north wall, with a bullet in the forehead.
Bowie, weak and delirious with typhoid, was bayoneted while lying on a
cot. To make sure, the soldiers shot him in the head, splattering his
brains against the wall (the stain would be visible for over a year).
A final disgrace. All the bodies were burned, and the ashes and bone lay
scattered on the ground for another year, until finally they were gathered
into a coffin and buried. However, no one marked the burial spot, and it
has now been lost. So no one knows where the heroes of the Alamo lie.
As you may suspect, I enjoyed this
lengthy book (it actually ends on page 587 – the remaining pages are
notes). Davis, author of 35 other books, is a fine writer. Any Crockett,
Bowie, Travis, or Alamo buff will love it.