The Blood of Heroes: The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo—and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation, by James Donovan, Little, Brown and Co., New York, 2012, $29.99
Texas literary agent and author James Donovan strikes again, and nobody can accuse him of aiming low. Not fearing to tread over popular, well-worn Western ground, Donovan develops the same kind of excellent read for Alamo aficionados that he earlier did for Custer/Little Bighorn fans. His 2008 book A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn—the Last Great Battle of the American West drew rave reviews and won awards, even though he was dealing with the most written-about subject on the Western frontier. As for the Alamo (fought 176 years ago at what was even then an old mission near San Antonio), everyone remembers it, and it no doubt ranks as the second most written-about Western frontier subject. But Alamo fans certainly have no reason to complain about another addition to their favorite weighty bookshelf, as Donovan’s vivid prose makes the old 1836 siege seem fresh. No reason for general readers to be up in arms either; Donovan’s compelling book figures to be one of the top choices for anyone who wants to get the complete Alamo picture in one volume (in this case a book of close to 500 pages).
The first chapter presents William Barret Travis, who thought of Texas as his “country” and followed in the footsteps of two grandfathers who had fought in the American Revolution 60 years earlier. Donovan provides a chapter of background on Texas and then focuses on James Bowie, who was “courteous to strangers, loyal to friends and chivalrous to women” but showed at the 1827 Sandbar Fight he was “unforgiving of any man who became an enemy.” Not until Chapter 9, “The Backwoodsman” (after a chapter on Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna), do we hear about the Alamo’s most famous participant. Donovan’s summary of David Crockett—the man and his career—is on the mark, though perhaps too concise for some Crockett fans. In early 1836 Crockett wrote to a daughter that from what he had seen of Texas, “it is the garden spot of the world.” Whether or not his opinion changed while he was under siege at the Alamo is not known.
Donovan handles the 13-day siege, the final deadly March 6, 1836, assault and its aftermath in fine fashion. He writes in his main narrative that Crockett died “in the open air, as he wished.” He reserves consideration of the controversy of how Crockett fell (fighting in battle or executed after surrendering) to his “Notes,” concluding that the frontiersman “may have been executed after the battle, but until stronger evidence is presented, let history show that he died fighting with his comrades.” Far more interesting to the author, as he writes in his “Afterword,” is the question of whether Travis really did draw a line in the sand, asking those willing to stay and fight with him to cross it. Others have already shattered—or at least dented—many Alamo myths and legends, but in this instance Donovan feels there is enough “acceptable, factual history” to support the legend. Neither does he seek to shatter other legends. He supports, for instance, the view that the sacrifice at the Alamo bought valuable time for General Sam Houston and the fledgling Texian government. Donovan’s book is not only highly readable but also safe for Texas schoolchildren.