The Mexican and U.S. Fight for the Alamo

By Jeff Long

Morrow. 431 pages. $22.95

Central to Texas history, the 1836 siege of the Alamo continues to provoke fascination and controversy. Following in the footsteps of Amelia Williams ("A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo," 1934), Lon Tinkle ("13 Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo," 1958) and Walter Lord ("A Time to Stand," 1961), Jeff Long proves himself worthy of the above distinguished company. While the author's writing style in "Duel of Eagles" is florid in places, his tale is based on solid historical research. Also, Long's bibliography indicates that he has mined all available sources, on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The author correctly ascribes land hunger and escape from indebtedness as the principal reasons for migration to Texas. This conforms with the general pattern of the westward movement in American history. What set Texas apart and created a unique situation was the presence of Mexican overlords. Cultural conflict between Anglo colonists and their Latin masters was endemic from the very beginning. American antipathy toward Mexican society and values existed, but the unrelieved tale of brutality by Anglos against Tejanos described here is overdrawn. It takes the author away from the time frame of his work and diverts attention from the Alamo campaign.

The internal dilemma facing the colonists should have been more fully addressed. Was the sentiment for Mexican statehood and loyalty to the 1824 Republic Constitution stronger than the desire for independence and annexation to the United States?

Once the Alamo campaign begins, the tempo of this work steps up. Using eyewitness Mexican sources, Long accurately describes conditions within Santa Anna's army. He shows that the majority of the Mexican troops were illegally conscripted and that many of the Indian soldiers could not understand the commands of their officers. Doctors and medical supplies were virtually nonexistent and Santa Anna himself sold food to his men at great personal profit. There is a good explanation of the decision to take no prisoners in Texas. In the 1810-1821 struggle for Mexican independence, neither Spanish nor Mexican rebel commanders spared prisoners. As a loyal Spanish officer before his conversion to independence, Santa Anna learned that lesson well.

Again relying on memoirs and the few primary accounts that survive, Long describes conditions inside the doomed fortress. He stresses Gen. Sam Houston's preference for abandoning the Alamo and making a final stand near the Sabine River. However, not all would agree that Houston and President Andrew Jackson hoped to lure Santa Anna across the border, thus sanctioning American intervention.

Long is in the mainstream of Alamo scholarship in depicting the command dispute between Jim Bowie and William Travis, settled by the latter's death on the day before the final assault. On another controversial point, he believes that Davy Crockett survived the massacre, pleaded for his life and was executed by order of Santa Anna.

Long insists that the defense of the Alamo made sense only if the 185 defenders of the garrison could be reinforced. James W. Fannin's unwillingness to march to their relief sealed their fate. In truth, Fannin's muddled tactics led only to his subsequent unconditional surrender at Goliad.

The disasters at the Alamo and Goliad inspired the glorious victory at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. "Remember the Alamo, Remember Goliad" were the only words Sam Houston required to inspire his troops. Long is astute in noting that in contrast to Santa Anna, Houston proved a benign conqueror. Mexican prisoners were released and, despite the clamor of the Texas army, Santa Anna was paroled on condition that he recognize the independence of Texas. After returning to Vera Cruz, he disavowed his pledge and fought with zeal against the United States in the Mexican War. As Long maintains, that conflict surely grew out of the annexation of Texas and her admission into the federal union.

On balance, this book will appeal to the Texas specialist as well as the general reader. It is well written and carefully researched. Long succeeds in bringing the Alamo saga to life once again.

The reviewer, who teaches Texas history at the University of Houston, is the author of "Mirabeau B. Lamar: The Poet President of Texas."