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Dan Rather and the Texas truth
by Gene Owens

It wasn't pleasant watching Dan Rather eat crow in public after going off half-cocked in his reportage on George W. Bush's Alabama military record.

But it wasn't the TV news anchor's first venture into the examination of a Texan's military exploits. I have received a thoroughly authenticated account of the Dan Rather who defended the military honor of one Davy Crockett, hero of the Alamo. This time he was on the other side of the authentication issue.

The background:

As every right-thinking Texan and most Americans know, Davy Crockett died swinging his rifle, "Ol' Betsy," at the savage Mexicans who overran the Alamo and massacred its brave defenders.

That's what we were always taught, and "what we were always taught" eventually becomes inerrant gospel, especially once it has been authenticated by John Wayne in an epic movie.

But sometimes, meddling scholars go looking into history and surmise that what we were all taught may be a little off at the margins. Such scholars are inevitably branded as "revisionist" -- people who would rewrite the Ten Commandments if they knew how to chisel stone.

Well, some modern scholars have concluded that Davy Crockett did not go down swinging Ol' Betsy, but was captured by the Mexicans. Furthermore, the man who "kilt him a b'ar when he was only 3" is reputed to have bargained for his life before being brutally executed.

Texans, of course, will fight you right quick if you suggest that Davy didn't go down swinging.

Not so James Crisp, who got his Ph.D. from Yale and now teaches Texas history at North Carolina State University.

Crisp has written a book, Sleuthing the Alamo, in which he cites the diary of Jose Enrique de la Pena, a Mexican officer who was there when it all happened. Pena wrote that he witnessed the capture of the American defenders and Crockett's attempt to talk the Mexicans out of killing him. Crisp's book seeks to authenticate Pena's account.

Pena's version of the Alamo outcome has been vilified and defended time and again since his diary surfaced during the 1950s. Even I had heard about it before my friend, James Lutzweiler, archivist and rare book collector for Southeastern Baptist Seminary at Wake Forest, N. C., called my attention to Rather's role in the controversy. Lutz vouched for James Crisp.

"Crisp would cross an ocean to verify a comma," he told me.

How did Crisp cross words with Dan Rather?

Well, it seems that some years back a writer named Michael Lind wrote a 274-page poem titled "The Alamo: An Epic." Lind accepted the John Wayne version of the story. About the same time, Crisp wrote a piece for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly," in which he defended the Pena account.

Garry Wills, historian and critic, sided with Wills and picked apart the Lind version in an article for the New York Times Book Review. He faulted Lind for accepting uncritically too many of the Alamo myths and for buying into one true believer's "desperate claims" that the Pena diary was forged, though that claim "has been definitively refuted by James Crisp in the pages of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly."

That was too much for Dan Rather, a Texan by birth. He submitted a letter to the editor of The New York Times Book Review. It read, in part:

"Mr. Wills latches on to any account that contradicts the poem. He relies secondhand on eyewitness testimony from a Mexican Army officer who, of all people, would have had most to gain by discrediting the defenders of the Alamo."

Wills responded:

"Texans are rarely sane on the subject of the Alamo, as newscaster Dan Rather recently proved in a letter to the New York Times."

Wills noted: "Rather says that the account was written by one of Santa Anna's officers, so one should not take the word of an enemy. But that officer 'was critical of Santa Anna, and he admired the stoic conduct of Crockett once his appeal for life had been rejected.'"

What this suggests is that Dan Rather is perfectly capable of defending the military record of an adoptive Texan, though he has become less skeptical about the authenticity of historical materials.

"I couldn't help recalling," Crisp writes in his book, "what de la Pena himself had said in 1837 when he decided to intervene in the flurry of finger-pointing among the Mexican generals who were blaming each other for losing Texas: 'I am a pygmy who is going into combat against giants; but, having reason on my side, I expect to come out victorious . . .' "

I once asked Don E. Carleton, director of the Center of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, to give me the true story of the Alamo -- Pena diary and all.

"I don't know that there is a true story," he said. "The fog of battle is pretty thick when it comes to the Alamo."

[Crisp's 224-page book was published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.]


Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers last year named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.

Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Insulation reduces mouse mortality rate
Flocking South with the snowbirds
Juicy Fruit will gum up the mole works

Write Gene Owens at 1004 Cobbs Glen Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at genepegg@bellsouth.net

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