Part 1 of the Crockett Debates"In most cases, actual events of the past have an inherent logic and structure. This means that the alteration of a single fact, whether by conscious fraud or unconscious error, creates countless anomalies that are there for us to see if only we open our eyes to them. Unfortunately, we do not always see these anomalies, because our images of the past are often shaped more by error than by evidence, more by myth-making than by research."Dr. James E. Crisp1
In his October 1994Southwestern Historical Quarterlyarticle that reviews and attacks Bill Groneman's Defense of a Legend: Crockett and the de la Peña Diary, Dr. James E. Crisp uses one authentic Alamo execution account and one hearsay execution report to buttress his argument that the alleged José Enrique de la Peña execution narrative found in the Mexican officer's alleged diary is authentic and correct. The hearsay evidence is found in a letter written in the summer of 1836 by George M. Dolson, a Texian Army sergeant stationed at Camp Travis on Galveston Island. The authentic commentary was written by Ramon Martinez Caro, who served as Gen. Santa Anna's secretary during the Texas campaign.2
Crisp wrote:"On this and other occasions in Defense of a Legend, Groneman has employed considerable imagination (not to say credulity) in stretching thin and resistant evidence to fit his twin theses that the diary is a forgery and that David Crockett died in combat. When it comes to his examination of material that tends to corroborate de la Peña and his less heroic version of Crockett's last minutes, however, Groneman's historical imagination is quite lacking, and he tends to be abruptly dismissive of evidence that deserves much more careful consideration.
"One extended example of this unwillingness to pursue the possibilities of such evidence will have to suffice. It concerns what is probably the best single piece of corroboration to de la Peña's account of Crockett's death."3
Crisp, however, does admit that the Dolson account is not entirely what others have claimed. According to Crisp: Paul Andrew Hutton may have exaggerated slightly when he said that the detailed account related by Sergeant Dolson agrees perfectly with that of Lieutenant Colonel de la Peña (there are, after all, six prisoners in one scene and seven in the other), but the similarity of the two independent accounts is remarkable. Crisp is right on the money when he says the evidence "deserves much more careful consideration." What he should have done was present the reports in their entirety. Then he should have separated the narratives into their component elements and compared them for similarity. Only in this manner can one obtain a clear picture of the accounts' similarity.4
The Ramon Martinez Caro Account5
The enemy died to a man and its loss may be said to have been 183 men, the sum total of their force. Six women who were captured were set at liberty. Among the 183 killed there were five who were discovered by General Castrillon hiding after the assault. He took them immediately to the presence of His Excellency who had come up by this time. When he presented the prisoners, he was severely reprimanded for not having killed them on the spot, after which he turned his back upon Castrillon while the soldiers stepped out of their ranks and set upon the prisoners until they were all killed.
The George M. Dolson Account6
Galaveston [sic] Island, Camp Trevos [sic] July 19, 1836.
In my last letter, dated in May, I gave you some account of the battle of Jacinto, which took place on the 21st of April, since which time [a] few things of importance transpired here; few as they are, however, they are worth relating, and I will therefore endeavor [sic] to sketch the principal movements. It appears from what I can learn, that there was a stipulation or treaty made between the Cabinet, or General Houston, and Santa Anna by which the latter was to be set at liberty; and for that purpose he was embarked on board the Texian war schooner Invincible, Capt. Jervis [Jeremiah] Brown, then lying at the port of Velasco [sic], now the seat of government of our new republic, with the intention of taking him to Vera Cruz, where the treaty was to be ratified. But previous to the tyrant's leaving our shores, which he so much stained with the blood of unarmed prisoners of war, the news reached the army like an electric shock. The whole, with one voice as it were, said bring him ashore, in irons, and inform the Cabinet that we respect them; but that it should become necessary, the same rifles that poured such a deadly fire on the enemy, are in readiness to treat a domestic foe in the same manner. The prisoner was accordingly remanded to shore, when, I am told by the officers of the schooner, he swallowed a large quantity of opium for drowning his feelings of remorse, cried like a child, and acted in every manner as though his last ray of hope had descrted [sic] him. Conduct ill-becoming as great a man as he is represented to be; but a true index of what he really is a cold- blooded murderer, and worthy only of the sympathy of cowards and scorn of great men. His conduct on the following occasion justifies me in branding him with the opprobrious epithet of murderer.
I am employed a considerable part of my time in interpreting Spanish for Colonel James Morgan, commander of this station. He sent for me yesterday and told me there was a communication of importance from one of Santa Anna's officers, which he wished me to interpret; accordingly the officer of the day was dispatched for the Mexican officer, who came in in [repeat] a few minutes, and the Colonel's quarters were vacated of all, save us three. The Mexican was then requested to proceed with the statement according to promise; and he said he would give a true and correct account of proceedings of Santa Anna towards the prisoners who remained alive at the taking of the Alamo. This shows the fate of Colonel Crocket [sic] and his five brave companions - there have been many tales told, and many suggestions made, as to the fate of these patriotic men; but the following may be relied on, being from an individual who was an eyewitness to the whole proceedings. The Colonel has taken the whole in writing, with the officer's name attached to it, which he observed to him, if he had the least delicacy, he might omit, but he said he had not and was willing to be qualified to it in the presence of his God, and General Santa Anna, too, if necessary. He states that on the mornng the Alamo was captured, between the hours of five and six o'clock, General Castrillion [sic], who fell at the battle of St. Jacinto, entered the back room of the Alamo, and there found Crockett and five other Americans, who had defended it until defence [sic] was useless; they appeared very much agitated when the Mexican soldiers overtook to rush in after their General, but the humane General ordered his men to keep out, and, placing his hand on his breast, said, "here is a hand and a heart to protect you; come with me to the General-in-Chief, and you shall be saved." Such redeeming traits, while they enoble [sic] in our estimation this worthy officer, yet serve to show in a more hedious [sic] light the damning atrocities of the chief. The brave but unfortunate men were marched to the tent of Santa Anna. Colonel Crockett was in the rear, had his arms folded, and appeared bold as the lion as he passed my informant (Almonte.) Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett and said to my informant, the one behind is the famous Crockett. When brought in the presence of Santa Anna, Castrillon said to him, "Santa Anna, the august, I deliver up to you six brave prisoners of war." Santa Anna replied," who has given you orders to take prisoners, I do not want to see those men living - shoot them." As the monster uttered these words each officer turned his face the other way, and the hell-hounds of the tyrant dispatched the six in his presence, and within six feet of his person. Such an act I consider murder of the blackest kind. Do you think that he can be released?
No - exhaust all the mines of Mexico, but it will not release him. The one half, nor two thirds, nor even the whole of the republic, would not begin to ransom him. The combined powers of Europe cannot release him, for before they can come to his release, Texas will have released him of his existence; but I coincide with the secretary of war, as to the disposal to be made of him, that is, to try him as a felon. Strict justice demands it and reason sanctions it.
I shall have land enough when the war is over, if we gain independence and if I am not killed or otherwise disposed of, and if I am you must be sure to see into my claim, for the laws of Texas entitle the soldier, for service during the war, to 1280 acres of land, dead or alive. So if I happen to get popped off, I want my name sake to have it, and you to see that he gets it. The enlistment roll of Capt. A. B. Tweetzer's [sic] company of volunteers, from Cineinnatti [sic], will always show that George M. Dolson is orderly sergeant of that company.
Tell all who wish to come out here there is every thing to hope for and not much to dread, to come ahead and not look back. Give my respects to mother, and tell her, when we shall have flogged them Mexicans genteelly, I may take a notion and come to see you all again, as the distance appears very short to me now.
The Alleged José Enrique de la Peña Account7
The general then addressed his crippled battalions, lauding their courage and thanking them in the name of their country. But one hardly noticed in his words the magic that Napoleon expresses in his, which, Count Segur assures us, was impossible to resist. The vivas were seconded icily, and silence would hardly have been broken if I, seized by one of those impulses triggered by enthusiasm or one formed to avoid reflection, which conceals the feelings, had not addressed myself to the valiant chasseurs of Aldama, hailing the republic and them, an act which, carried out in the presence of the commander on whom so much unmerited honor had been bestowed, proved that I never flatter those in power.
Shortly before Santa Anna's speech, an unpleasant episode had taken place, which, since it occurred after the end of the skirmish, was looked upon as base murder and which contributed greatly to the coolness that was noted.
Some seven men survived the general massacre and guided by General Castrillon, who protected them, were presented to Santa Anna. Among them was one of great stature, well-formed and with regular features, in whose face was stamped the pain of adversity, but naturalist David Croket [sic], very well known in North America for his novel adventures, who had come to examine the country and who, happening to be in Bejar in the moments of surprise, had confined himself in the Alamo, fearful of not being respected in his capacity as a foreigner. Santa Anna answered the intervention of Castrillon as a gesture of indignation, and addressing himself immediately to the sappers, which was the soldiery he had nearest, ordered that they shoot them. The junior and senior officers became indignant at this action and did not repeat the command, hoping that with the passing of the first moment of fury, those men would be saved; but different officers who were around the President and who perhaps had not been there in the moment of danger, made themselves conspicuous by a despicable act; surpassing the soldiers cruelty, they pushed themselves forward to them, in order to flatter the [cruelty] of their commander, and sword in hand they threw themselves on those unhappy defenseless men, in the same way that a tiger leaps upon its prey. They tortured them before they killed them, and these miserable ones died moaning, but without humbling themselves before their executioners. It is said that General Ramirez y Sesma was one of them: I do not testify to it, because although I was present, I averted my gaze with horror, so as not to see such a barbarous scene.
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.
To whom was this sacrifice useful and what advantage was derived by increasing the number of victims? It was paid for dearly, though it could have been otherwise had these men been required to walk across the floor carpeted with the bodies over which we stepped, had they been rehabilitated generously and required to communicate to their comrades the fate that awaited them if they did not desist from their unjust cause. They could have informed their comrades of the force and resources that the enemy had.
Comparison of the Caro, Dolson and de la Peña Execution Reports
1. General Time of the Executions Caro: "After the assault." Dolson: Between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. de la Peña: Shortly after 6:00 a.m. after the end of the skirmish, "between Santa Anna's arrival on the scene and his speech to the assembled soldiers. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 2. Time of Execution By The Clock Caro: Not given. Dolson: Between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.
(which means the executions occurred during the assault).
de la Peña: Not given. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña agree" because of the lack of data. Dolson and Caro disagree.
3. Location Where Defenders Found Caro: Not given. Dolson: Back room of the Alamo. de la Peña: Not given. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña agree" because both lack the data.
Dolson and Caro disagree.
4. Number of Defenders Caro: Five men Dolson: Six men. de la Peña: Seven men. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 5. Crockett Identified Caro: Crockett not identified Dolson: Crockett identified. de la Peña: Crockett identified. Dolson and de la Peña agree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 6. Manner In Which Crockett Identified8 Caro: Not identified. Dolson: Identified by Santa Anna's interpreter. de la Peña: Identified by author, but how the identification was determined is not given. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 7. Person Who Found The Defenders Caro: General Castrillon Dolson: General Castrillon. de la Peña: General Castrillon. Dolson and de la Peña agree. Caro and de la Peña agree. Dolson and Caro agree. 8. Circumstance of Discovery Caro: Hiding after the assault. Dolson: "Six Americans, who had defend edit until defence [sic] was useless; they had appeared very much agitated when the Mexican soldiers undertook to rush in after their General ." de la Peña: "Some seven men had survived the general massacre. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 9. Statement Made To The Defenders Caro: None. Dolson: "The humane General ordered his men to keep out, and, placing his hand on one breast, said, 'here is a hand and a heart to protect you; come with me to the General-in-Chief, and you shall be saved.' de la Peña: None. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña "agree" because both fail to include such a statement. Dolson and Caro disagree. 10. Person To Whom Defenders Were Taken Caro: General Santa Anna. Dolson: General Santa Anna. de la Peña: General Santa Anna. Dolson and de la Peña agree. Caro and de la Peña agree. Dolson and Caro agree. 11. Location Where Defenders Taken Caro: Presence of Santa Anna, near where the soldiers stood in ranks. Dolson: "Marched to the tent of Santa Anna." de la Peña: Brought before Santa Anna and a few officers who had not participated in the pre dawn assault and near members of the Sapper units where located with their junior and senior officers. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña agree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 12. Location of Crockett in Group Caro: Crockett not identified as a captured defender. Dolson: Crockett in the rear of the group. de la Peña: "Among them [the defenders." Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 13. Intervention by Castrillon Caro: No intervention reported. Dolson: Castrillon allegedly said: "Santa Anna, the august, I deliver up to you six brave prisoners of war." de la Peña: "Santa Anna answered the intervention of Castrillon." Dolson and de la Peña agree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 14. Manner of Presentation Caro: Only that the "prisoners were presented to him. Dolson: "Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett, and said to my informant, 'the one behind is the famous Crockett.' Castrillon said: Santa Anna, the august, I deliver up to you Six brave prisoners of war. de la Peña: Not specified. Only mentions intervention of Castrillon." Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña agree' because of the lack of data. Dolson and Caro disagree. 15. Description of Crockett Caro: Crockett not identified as a captured defender. Dolson: "Had his arms folded, and appeared bold as the lion as he passed my informant (Almonte.) de la Peña: "One of great stature, well-formed and with regular features, in whose face was stamped the pain of adversity, but in which could be observed a certain resignation and dignity which spoke well of him. He was the naturalist David Crocket [sic], very well known in North America for his novel adventures, who had come to examine the country and who, happening to be in Bejar in the moments of surprise, had confined himself in the Alamo, fearful of not being respected in his capacity as a foreigner." Dolson and de la Peña disagree, Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree.
16. Santa Anna's Reaction Caro: Defenders should not have been taken prisoner. Dolson: Questioned who had given order to take prisoners de la Peña: Silence. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro agree. 17. Santa Anna's Expression of Reaction Caro: Severely reprimanded Castrillon for not having killed the prisoners on the spot, turned his back on Castrillon while soldiers killed the Texians. Dolson: Santa Anna replied: "Who has given you orders to take prisoners, I do not want to see those men living." de la Peña: "Santa Anna answered the intervention of Castrillon with a gesture of indignation." Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 18. Execution Order Caro: None mentioned. Dolson: "Shoot them." de la Peña: Santa Anna ordered soldiers from the sapper battalion to shoot the defenders. Dolson and de la Peña agree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 19. Reaction to Execution Order Caro: "Soldiers stepped out of their ranks and set up upon the prisoners until they were all killed." Dolson: "The hell-hounds of the tyrant dispatched the six in his presence, and within six feet of his person." de la Peña: Soldiers from the sapper battalion refused to obey Santa Anna's order because their "junior and senior officers became indignant at the order and refused to repeat Santa Anna's order to the sappers. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro agree. 20. Method of Execution Caro: Not specific. Killers "set upon the prisoners until they were all killed," which suggests bayonets because soldiers who stepped from the ranks. Dolson: Not given, but suggests they were shot. de la Peña: Tortured and killed with swords. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 21. Identity of Executioners Caro: Soldiers from the ranks. Suggests enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. Dolson: Only identified as "hell-hounds of the tyrant." de la Peña: Several officers around Santa Anna who had not taken part in attack plus General Sesma. Suggests officers from Santa Anna's headquarters staff. Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro disagree. 22. Reaction of Defenders Caro: Not given. Dolson: Not given. de la Peña: Unhappy defenseless men, miserable ones died moaning, but without humbling themselves before their executioners." Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro "agree" because of a lack of data. 23. Reaction of Mexicans Caro: None given.10 Dolson: None given. de la Peña: The act "was looked upon as base murder and which contributed greatly to the coolness that was noted." de la Peña suggested that this was the feeling of all the soldiers in formation---"The vivas were seconded icily." de la Peña wrote that he was "horrified." Dolson and de la Peña disagree. Caro and de la Peña disagree. Dolson and Caro "agree- because of the Back of data. Observations
The Caro and de la Peña accounts agree on three items:#7 (Castrillon found the defenders; #10 (Castrillon brought them to Santa Anna; and #11 (the defenders were taken to a location were soldiers were in ranks). They also "agree" on elements #2, #3, and #9, but that is because both reports lack the specified data. The accounts disagree on the remaining 17 items.
Furthermore, Caro and de la Peña disagree on the extremely significant item of who killed the Alamo prisoners. Caro identified the killers as soldiers" who "stepped out of their ranks," which suggests enlisted men and sergeants. de la Peña, however, claimed the killers were "officers who were around the President and who perhaps had not been there in the moment of danger. Did Crisp fail to notice this major difference or did he ignore it because the variance damages his case?
The Dolson and Caro narratives agree on four items: #7 (Castrillon found the defenders), #10 (Castrillon took the defenders to Santa Anna, #16 (Santa Anna did not want prisoners taken; and #19 (unknown Mexican soldiers immediately killed the defenders in response to Santa Anna's orders). Also, they agree on items #21 and #23, but that is because both stories lack the specific data. The reports disagree on the remaining 17 items.
Crisp, however, claims that Caro and Dolson," two completely independent sources agree on all essentials save the number of prisoners (five for Caro, six for Dolson)." Crisp, who accuses Groneman of being technically correct" with a certain statement, but "profoundly misleading," does a little misdirecting of his own in failing to identify all essentials." In this case Crisp is not even technically correct." Surely, identification of Crockett as one of the men executed is an essential element. Caro does not identify Crockett. A second needed feature that Caro does not mention is an intervention on the behalf of the defenders by General Castrillon. The argument is not over the belief that a number of defenders surrendered following the attack and were quickly killed after being taken to Santa Anna by General Castrillon.
The Caro report clearly substantiates the report of executions that was given at Gonzales on March 11, 1836 by Anselmo Bergara. The debate, however, is over the identification of Crockett as one of the executed defenders, and Caro offers no evidence to support that allegation.11
Other than agreement that a number of the defenders were executed after the fall of the Alamo, the careful analysis shows that the Dolson account, Dr. Crisp's best single piece of corroboration to de la Peña's account of Crockett's death" only agrees with the the de la Peña account on five items: #5 (Crockett was one of the defenders), #7 (Castrillon found the defenders), #10 (Castrillon brought the defenders to Santa Anna), #13 (Castrillon intervened on the behalf of the defenders) and #18 (Santa Anna ordered the defenders shot). The two reports disagree on the remaining 18 items. In sum, the similarity of the two reports is hardly "remarkable" since they only agree on 5 of the 23 items.
Additionally, Crisp, who accuses Groneman of ignoring evidence that does not support his thesis, fails to acknowledge that de la Peña and Dolson conflict on items that many individuals would define as "essential." Dolson says that Crockett was "bold as the lion." De La Peña reports that the ex-Congressman was "Well-formed and with regular features, in whose face was stamped the pain of adversity, but in which could be observed a certain resignation and dignity...who, happening to be in Bejar in the moments of surprise, had confined himself in the Alamo, fearful of not being respected in his capacity as a foreigner, a description that more than one writer has taken to mean that Crockett was groveling before Santa Anna in order to save his life.
De La Peña says that the executions occurred "after the end of the skirmish." Dolson says that the murders occurred "between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., which would have placed the actions during the assault. In regard to Santa Anna's specific response to the presentation of the defenders, Dolson says the general simply questioned who had ordered the taking of prisoners. De la Peña says Santa Anna responded to the intervention "with a gesture of indignation." A verbal question and a manual sign are totally different forms of communication. Dolson gives the impression that the men were shot. De la Peña says the men were killed with swords. In total, the Dolson and de la Peña accounts are extremely different.
This article, in expanded form with a limited critical analysis of the alleged de la Peña narrative, will be a chapter in Lindley's forthcoming book from Eakin Press,The Alamo and Other Texas Tall Tales, scheduled for release sometime during the winter of 1995-96. The Dolson account contains several anomalies that render it unreliable and suggest it might be a false report although Dr. Crisp offered explanations to eliminate those flaws. Part II ofKilling Crockettwill present a rebuttal of Dr. Crisp's arguments that speak to the Dolson deficiencies and offer a new and reasonable explanation of what the Dolson letter might be if it is not a true report.
E N D N O T E S
- James E. Crisp, Texas History,Texas Mystery,Sallyport(The Magazine of Rice University), February/March, 1995, 14.
- James E. Crisp, "The Little Book That Wasn't There: The Myth and Mystery of the de la Peña Diary,"Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XCVIII:260-296.
- Ibid., 287.
- Ibid., 289.
- Ramon Martinez Caro,A True Account of the First Texas Campaign, in Carlos E. Castañeda (trans.), The Mexican Side of the Texas Revolution (1928 reprint, Austin and Dallas: Graphic Ideas Incorporated, 1970), 105-106.
- Democratic Free Press (Detroit), Sept. 7, 1836.
- José Enrique de la Peña,With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution by José Enrique de la Peña, ed. and trans. Carmen Perry (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 197s), 52-54; Crisp, The Little Book That Wasn't There," 288-289. For this presentation I have used a combination of the Perry translation and the translation found in Crisp's article. The Crisp version is underlined. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of either translation.
- In a presentation to the Alamo Battlefield Association on March 4,1995, in San Antonio, Crisp argued that an identification of Crockett was not made when Castrillon presented the defenders to Santa Anna. If his translation of the de la Peña description is correct, that would seem to be the case. The Dolson letter, which Crisp accepts as authentic and true, however, has Santa Anna's interpreter identifying Crockett to Col. Juan Almonte. Dolson says: Santa Anna's interpreter knew Colonel Crockett, "which is quite different from saying the individual had the ability to recognize Crockett. The statement alleges that the person had met Crockett face to face previous to that fatal moment. If the account is true, it is hard to believe that Santa Anna would not have heard the identification. But, perhaps the interpreter whispered it in Almonte's ear because he would have been afraid to inform Santa Anna that he was about to kill an ex-Congressman from the United States.
It is especially significant that Caro reports no Castrillon intervention on the behalf of the captured defenders. And why would Castrillon have attempted to save their lives? The decision to execute such rebels had been made by the Mexican government before its army even entered the province.
- Caro, in 1837, when he was not in Santa Anna's favor, was critical of the executions. His opinion was: We all witnessed this outrage which humanity condemns but which was committed as described. This a cruel truth, but I cannot omit it." Caro's feelings, however, were expressed as his own, not the disposition of the Mexican soldiers as is the case with de la Peña.
- Crisp,The Little Book That Wasn't There," 293, 290.
Orginally Appearing in the Alamo Journal, Issue #96, May 1995
Reprinted with permission
©1995 The Alamo Journal