Left Field

Interview: Alamo Defender Defender


Last fall, one battle of the Alamo diary ended peacefully: in late November, anonymous buyers spent almost $400,000 to ensure that the military memoirs of Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña, an officer of Santa Anna’s army, remained in Texas. The diary had been on loan to U.T.-San Antonio for more than two decades, until its owners decided to auction it off last year. The purchasers — eventually revealed to be Dallas bazillionaire investment partners Charles Tate and Tom Hicks — donated the manuscript to the Center for American History at U.T.-Austin, allaying fears that a private collector (or worse, a Yankee interloper from Yale) would make off with the diary.

Yet long before the diary was offered for sale, one brief passage in the 680-page manuscript set off a dispute that shows no sign of abating. When an English translation of de la Peña’s memoir was first published in 1975, its claim that Davy Crockett was captured and executed at the Alamo (rather than killed in combat) angered Crockett fans — and Texas Monthly, which gave the diary a “bum steer” award. Taking into account the de la Peña manuscript and other Mexican reports of Crockett’s execution, academic historians now favor that version of events. (Moreover, tests performed on the manuscript before it was auctioned confirmed that the paper and ink used in composition are of types that were sold in Mexico City in the early nineteenth century.) Nonetheless certain Alamo buffs continue to contest the authenticity of the diary. One is Bill Groneman, a Queens native who has served with the New York City Fire Department for twenty-one years. His books include Roll Call at the Alamo, Alamo Defenders, Defense of a Legend, and Battlefields of Texas. He is currently technical editor of the fire department’s magazine, With New York Firefighters.

How did you get interested in the Battle of the Alamo?

It’s an interest in the Alamo, it’s like a childhood interest with me, and it’s stayed with me, as I got older I started collecting books and everything, and I became fascinated by all the different books. The accounts of the battle of the Alamo were always a little different. That kind of sparked my interest in it. De la Peña itself, it was back in 1975…. Carmen Perry who translated it, she was doing a book signing. I met her, and I just got interested in the narrative itself. Now it never made any sense to me how a Mexican officer, fresh from Mexico, would be able to identify Crockett, having never seen him before, with no evidence that he had ever heard of him before, yet historians treat it as a positive identification.

What else leads you to doubt the de la Peña diary?

I’ve been investigating it for a few years now…. There’s no record of this thing before 1955.

There’s other indications. It has all the signs of being derivative of other accounts. Tom Lindley [another researcher] is finding more and more comparisons where it’s almost word for word from the accounts of this General Filasola, who was Santa Anna’s second in command, and General Urrea. It’s apparent that whoever wrote de la Peña was going to these accounts and taking passages out almost word for word. Now, handwriting expert Charles Hamilton, the late Charles Hamilton, he looked at some photocopies of the handwriting in de la Peña, and he identified it as the work of one John Laflin, who had done a number of historical forgeries, one of which was the journal of Jean Laffite the pirate. Now, looking at the published version of Laffite’s journal, I found about a half a dozen passages, which are very similar to those in de la Peña. There’s another forgery, of [Alamo defender] Isaac Millsaps’ letter, attributed to this guy Laflin. In it, he spells the name of Colonel Fannin, he spells it Fanning, i-n-g in this letter. Now de la Peña on one page has Fannin spelled the exact same way, three times, and the handwriting is very similar to the Millsaps letter.

How many times have you been to the Alamo?

At least twenty times.

Which accounts of the battle do you rely on?

It’s hard to say which one particular account you can rely on the most. I did a book called Eyewitness to the Alamo which contains maybe eighty different accounts, different parts of the battle, and they’re all wildly divergent, even ones that were given by the same person at different times, so it’s really hard to say.

Did you ever consider moving to Texas?

No, it’s too hot down there. I wouldn’t be able to take it in the summer.

University of California—Tijuana

ecember loomed unpleasantly for former U.T.-Austin President Robert Berdahl — now serving as Chancellor at the University of California-Berkeley. On December 1, graduate students at all eight schools in the University of California system began a highly-publicized strike, refusing to teach, grade, or advise. They sought, and eventually won, recognition of a graduate student union — but not before Berdahl favored them with a little labor theory, Texas style.

According to an article in the internet magazine Salon, Berdahl warned a closed-door group of students that the trend of striking graduate students would cause schools to “shift resources” toward adjuncts and other alternative sources of inexpensive teaching labor. He further opined that unionization efforts “utterly destroy hope … of collective conversations on either side of the table.” Ultimately, Berdahl advised students, “Unions have not prevented downsizing.”

After all, the University of California could always shift operations to Mexico.