The revisionist historians are at it again, this time taking on the Alamo—a perfect target because of its position in the hearts of those horrible Texans.  Many historians are merely would-be journalists who choose as their playground past eras because, by the time honest historians can expose the new misconceptions and biases, the revisionists already have their Pulitzers.  Joe Ellis, author of several popular books on the Founding Fathers, proved this when he released the untrue story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings, in Nature.  Ellis twists not only the nation’s past but his own, announcing for years his service in Vietnam in the 101st Airborne, though he never even left the United States.  After he was exposed by the Boston Globe and this writer’s prior article in Chronicles, Ellis had to apologize publicly, and there was talk of revoking his Pulitzer.  That never happened.  The public, knowing little of history, still accepts his word in his books on the Founding Fathers as Holy Writ.

The heart of the attack on the Alamo is the allegation that Davy Crockett and several other defenders surrendered and were executed, rather than fight to the death.  This claim first surfaced in the 1970’s, based on a single paragraph in a book entitled With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution, by José Enrique de la Peña.  It is commonly referred to as the De la Peña Diary, as he called the Spanish version, though he wrote it from scratch two years after the Texas Revolution, while he was in prison for participating in another rebellion against Santa Anna.

The only trustworthy recent book (1994) refuting Lieutenant De la Peña’s account is Bill Groneman’s Defense of a Legend: Crockett and the De la Peña Diary.  (This writer owes much of this article to the evidence Groneman provides, along with sources.)  Groneman never received much publicity; the literary world preferred slandering Crockett.

Since the 1970’s, every version of the Alamo, even in film, accepts De la Peña’s account or obfuscates the subject.  The origin of the revision lies in the 1950’s, when a little-known book was published in Mexico, claiming to be De la Peña’s diary.  This happened to be at the height of Davy Crockett’s popularity, thanks to Disney’s TV series about the hero.  The book was first translated into English by Carmen Perry, in 1974.  Unfortunately, the translation appeared just after Watergate, which fostered a love of muckraking.  It was a hit.

Lieutenant De la Peña started his career as a Mexican naval cadet and, within two short years, was made 2nd lieutenant.  He spent his entire naval career writing, under pseudonyms, articles about naval incompetence and, on occasion, simply refusing to report at several ships to which he was assigned.  He flooded the Mexican naval department with complaints about the slowness of his promotions.  He transferred to the army and took his duties there with equal nonchalance, adding complaints about his commanders and demanding assignment to European legations.  He became convinced that Santa Anna was thwarting his rise.  He managed to avoid the entire war in Texas, except for holding a staff position at the Alamo and helping with the Mexican retreat from San Jacinto, across the Rio Grande.  He was not alone in his hatred of Santa Anna.  The Battle of San Jacinto would not have been as short and decisive as it was without the Mexican mass desertions and surrenders that occurred.

Why would a patriotic Texan object to a Mexican writer, however inaccurate, who shares Texan disgust with Santa Anna?  Because De la Peña, however unintentionally, manages a complete misrepresentation of Davy Crockett.

Lieutenant De la Peña’s book is full of inaccuracies and self-glorification, along with passages showing his contempt for Santa Anna.  As far as can be determined he spent the siege and battle in the rear with the Mexican staff, except for stints as a messenger boy and as an involuntary aide to a general who was soon wounded, allowing De la Peña’s retreat to the rear.  This is unintentionally indicated by his use of the first-person pronoun everywhere except where the fighting was, when he reverts to third person.  By employing this device he can be everywhere at once.

In Mexican military circles the execution of brave but unarmed prisoners was considered thoroughly dishonorable.  De la Peña could not advance his cause against Santa Anna by saying that all the Alamo defenders were killed in action.  De la Peña’s one mention of Crockett’s execution included the words that it

was looked upon as base murder . . . [A]mong [the prisoners] was one of great stature, well proportioned, with regular features, . . . but in whom one also noticed a degree of resignation and nobility that did him honor.  He was the naturalist[?] David Crockett, . . . who, finding himself in Bejar at the very moment of surprise, had taken refuge in the Alamo, fearing that his status as a foreigner might not be respected.  Santa Anna . . . ordered his execution.  The [direct] commander and officers were outraged at this action and did not support the order, hoping that once the fury of the moment had blown over, these men would be spared; but several officers became noteworthy by an infamous deed, surpassing the soldiers in cruelty.  [They] fell upon these unfortunate defenseless men just as a tiger leaps upon his prey.  Though tortured before they were killed, these unfortunates died without complaining and without humiliating themselves before their torturers. . . . I turned away horrified in order not to witness such a barbarous scene. . . . [A]re your resolute hearts [he is speaking here to other Mexican soldiers] not stirred and still full of indignation against those who ignobly dishonored their swords with blood?  As for me, I confess that the very memory of it makes me tremble and that my ear can still hear the penetrating doleful sound of the victims.

The other eyewitnesses, including Captain Dickinson’s wife, Susanna, contradict De la Peña’s account in full.

The truth is that Crockett arrived in San Antonio only three days before the Mexican army and spent the entire occupation of San Antonio within the walls of the Alamo.  De la Peña could not have seen him or recognized him later.  Crockett publicly announced that he had come as an immigrant.  He had previously been given a military commission by Sam Houston and, rather than seeking refuge at the Alamo for fear, was a leader of the Texas army before and throughout the siege and battle.

Despite the absence of any supporting evidence, the entire American professoriate leapt to embrace this paragraph, and they have cited one another for support ever since.  Even the Sons of the Republic of Texas, of which I am a member, gave the translator one of its highest awards.  De la Peña’s reputation has become that of a great man, with encomiums added regularly, as Crockett’s has declined in glory.

Bill Groneman spends 200 pages refuting, with citations, every error in De la Peña’s “diary,” and a modern student of Texas history would do well to read Groneman’s book, however ignored it is in Texas as well as nationally.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  In this case, the legend is closer to the truth than some histories.