≡ Menu

A Line in the Bland

Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers: The Texas Victory That Changed American History.
By Brian Kilmeade.
(New York:
Sentinel, 2019. Pp. 288. Table of contents, prologue, illustrations, maps, acknowledgements, for further reading, notes, image credits, index.)

“The devil,” an old idiom professes, “is in the detail.” And it is in the details that this volume falls short. Given the author’s day job, this should come as no surprise. He is a television and radio presenter on the Fox News network. On weekdays, he co-hosts Fox’s morning show, Fox & Friends, and also hosts the Fox News Radio program, The Brian Kilmeade Show. The author of six books, four are historical in nature: George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (2016)—now described as an “historical novel based on facts;” Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed American History (2017); Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny (2018). These three he co-authored with experienced writer Don Yaeger. His most recent effort, Sam Houston and the Alamo Avengers: The Texas Victory That Changed American History (2019) he wrote entirely on his own, and it shows. Remarkably, Kilmeade has no—zilch, zip, nada—training as a historian. Yet, this need not be an impediment if one has name recognition, a shameless publisher, and a gullible public.

Hawking this title, the folks at Sentinel (an imprint of Penguin House LLC) tout Mr. Kilmeade’s “now-trademark style.” How to describe it? Well, it is unabashedly narrative history (and kudos for that) hurling along at a breakneck pace and stripped of highfalutin words, analysis, or complexity. One fan lauded his, “flowing style that makes the reading a pleasure.” No argument there. This book is a breeze to read. It is a bit like scarfing a Krispy Kreme jellied donut: long on gratification, short on nutritional value. Indeed, the author appears to have concocted most of his sentences more for their rhetorical effect than their historical precision.

Kilmeade’s tone is far from measured. Cecil Lewis, the twentieth-century English writer observed, “words straining to catch emotion have a bursting point, they crack into heroics, platitudes.” Sadly, much of Kilmeade’s prose gallops far beyond Lewis’s “bursting point.” He means for it to be stirring but, more often than not, he is simply sensational and ends up resembling nothing more than a Chamber of Commerce booster.

Mr. Kilmeade did not aspire to supply new information; he never darkened the door of an archival repository. His “For Further Reading” section reveals that he based his “research” entirely upon secondary materials and printed primary sources. The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of a book, compiled from cuts of other books hastily pieced together. Not only did he sew his “creature” together, its stitches are obvious, jagged, and slipshod. He intones: “This book could not exist were it not for many earlier students of the war who assembled the secondary sources I’ve also consulted” (p. 235). Mr. Kilmeade’s admission that his book is almost entirely based on other secondary materials makes it no less shocking.

Kilmeade’s “For Further Reading” contains many troubling omissions. Conspicuously absent are Gregg Dimmick’s Sea of Mud: The Retreat of the Mexican Army after San Jacinto, An Archeological Investigation (2004); J. C. Edmondson’s The Alamo Story: From Early History to Current Conflicts (2000); Alan C. Huffines’s Blood of Noble Men: The Alamo Siege & Battle (1999); Thomas Ricks Lindley’s Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions (2003); and Gary Zaboly’s An Altar for Their Sons: The Alamo and the Texas Revolution in Contemporary Newspaper Accounts (2011). In the interest of full disclosure, four of this reviewer’s works appear in the “For Further Reading” section, for which he is grateful. A person who has neglected to read these essential volumes cannot claim to be an expert on the Texas Revolution. Mr. Kilmeade might have prevented error and embarrassment had he done so.

And, sad to say, there is error and embarrassment aplenty. Many of Mr. Kilmeade’s assertions are glaringly wrong. A few examples will suffice.

• “As recently as a dozen years before [1820], the [Texas] territory had been home to few beyond the fierce, nomadic Comanche, other Native Americans, and wild animals” (p. 190). Err, what about the Tejanos?

• “The linkage to Coahuila felt alien; while Texas was strongly Anglo, the province to the south and west was predominantly Tejano” (p. 23). Not to put too fine a point to it, but Tejanos lived in Tejas, not Coahuila.

• Some of Kilmeade’s gaffes are actually pretty amusing. “Despite the long, two-day ride from San Antonio, the [Mexican] cavalrymen made an impressive appearance astride their horses and dressed in red uniform jackets. They carried nine-foot lances. Sabers and pistols hung from their belts and muskets jutted from their saddlebags” (p. 34). The Mexican troopers who participated in the “Come-and-Take-It” fight on October 2, 1835, were not permanente dragoons (who did sport “red uniform jackets”) but presidial dragoons of the Flying Company of Alamo de Parras, who wore dark blue jackets with red facings. This mistake was wholly avoidable as this reviewer included a Gary Zaboly illustration of one of these soldiers in Texian Iliad (1994). The notion that they carried their carbines in saddle bags is laughable. Such saddle bags must have been muy grande! No, dragoons attached their carbines to shoulder straps that they wore on their person, as one can see in Zaboly’s depiction. Curiously, Kilmeade listed Texian Iliad in his “For Further Reading.” It is a pity that he did not read further.

• “His [George M. Collinsworth’s] objective was the nearby town of Goliad and its fortified mission building, La Bahía” (p. 41). Kilmeade appears not to know the difference between a presidio and a mission. The Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía was a military installation constructed to defend the Mission Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga, which was (and is) located on the opposite bank of the San Antonio River. Although, the Presidio La Bahía boasted a chapel inside its walls, it never functioned as a “mission.”

• “A sometime lawyer who had also founded a newspaper back in Alabama Territory, [William Barret] Travis had come west after his marriage collapsed; at twenty-one he left his son and cheating wife behind, becoming another of Texas’s second-chance men” (p. 65). Mr. Kilmeade repeated an unfounded rumor that did a tremendous disservice to Rosanna Cato Travis. In 1998, Travis biographer William C. Davis conclusively answered this question. After extensive research, he found no evidence to support the notion that Mrs. Travis had been unfaithful. Crushing debt—and that alone—drove Travis out of Claiborne, Alabama, and toward Mexican Texas. Davis discusses this issue at length in his magisterial tri-biography, Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barret Travis (1998), which Kilmeade cites in his “For Further Reading.” But did he actually read it? If he did, he learned little from it.

• “Travis was said to have blown up his promising law career when at age twenty-one he suspected his wife of infidelity and murdered the man he thought was her lover” (p. 93). Serious historians have long since discredited this piece of unsubstantiated tittle-tattle. That Kilmeade would repeat this canard suggests that he is more concerned with repeating gossip than writing history.

• “Back in early November [1835], a Tennessean in a coonskin cap headed for Texas. For the next three months, walking all the way, David Crockett got the lay of the land in rebellious Texas” (p. 97). Where does he get this stuff? Crockett did not walk “all the way” from Tennessee to Texas. Indeed, he was part of a unit called the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers. As Davis documented: “[Crockett] also allowed his tall chestnut horse and its equipment, plus the rifle he kept for himself, to be absorbed into the [Texas Provisional] government service, for another voucher for $240.00 to be collected thereafter.” (Three Roads to the Alamo, p. 416.) One may inspect the affidavit itself in the David Crockett File, Audited Military Claims, Texas State Library and Archives, Austin, Texas.

• “As the line of march snaked out from the low San Alazán Hills, the sun glinted off the Mexicans’ silver helmets and breastplates” (p. 104). While a Mexican cavalry regiment, the Tulancingo Cuirassiers, saw action during the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848, no units of Mexican horse in 1835-1836 wore cuirasses or, as Kilmeade calls them “breastplates.”  Dr. John Sutherland’s account (1936) described him seeing the sun glint off the Mexican cuirasses on February 23, 1836, but either his eyes or his memory failed him. No Mexican army documents verify the existence of cuirassiers in the Texas Campaign.

• Unbelievably, on the dust jacket and in his diagrams of the Alamo compound on pages 95 and 109, Kilmeade featured the Alamo church with the parapet (“hump”) and the two upper windows. This was a rookie mistake. Most seventh-grade Texas History students would have been aware that the parapet and the upper windows were not present during the 1836 battle. Not until 1849, when the U. S. Army employed the church as a warehouse, did workers add those architectural elements to the façade.

• “Bowie’s sister-in-law, Juana [Alsbury], cared for the fevered man in an upstairs room in the Alamo chapel” (p. 108). The Alamo church, what Kilmeade erroneously labels the “chapel,” did not have a second story in 1836. He might have been thinking about the infirmary that was housed on the second story of the Convento (long barracks), but no evidence suggested that Bowie spent any time there. Reliable accounts placed Bowie in his private quarters on the south wall just east of the main gate. In fact, Kilmeade’s own diagram on page 95 had “Bowie’s Quarters” at that location. So what is this poppycock about “an upstairs room” in the Alamo church?

• In the illustration section, Kilmeade includes an image that he claimed depicted the execution of Colonel James Fannin inside the Presidio La Bahía at Goliad. The caption reads: “Not long after the slaughter of his men, Goliad commander James Fannin faced a Mexican firing squad.” In reality, the image shows the execution of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who French Emperor Napoleon III installed as the Emperor of Mexico in 1864. Abandoned by the armies of Napoleon III, Maximilian refused to leave Mexico. Mexican nationalists loyal to Benito Juarez later captured him. Juarez ordered his execution and Maximilian was shot by a firing squad on June 19, 1867 in Santiago de Querétaro—which is the scene inaccurately appearing in Kilmeade’s book.

• Kilmeade is oddly inconsistent. On page 122, he declares: “The [Alamo] artillerymen had at least five hundred loads of canister and grapeshot.” Yet, on page 125 he insists: “In the absence of standard-issue canister and grapeshot, Almeron Dickinson and his fellow artillerymen had packed their cannon barrels with metal fragments, such as nails, horseshoe pieces, and chain links; the more jagged the scrap, the better.” Well, which is it? It cannot be both.

• Among his other inconsistencies, Kilmeade suffered an uneasy affiliation with Alamo myths. He accepted the consensus version of Colonel Crockett’s death:  “Not killed in battle, but murdered, Crockett was thus among the last to die at the Alamo” (p. 135). Yet, he fell for the biggest (and most undocumented) myth of them all: “Travis drew his sword. Using its tip, he scribed a line in the dirt in front of the men in formation. He invited all those who would stand with him, who would die with him, to step across the line” (pg. 122). Nowadays, professional historians regard the tale of Travis and the line as folklore—much in the same vein as George Washington and the cherry tree. Kilmeade’s “For Further Reading” section listed this reviewer’s article, “Line in the Sand; Lines on the Soul: The Battle of the Alamo in Myth, Memory, and History”—a piece that deconstructed the line-in-the-sand fable and explained why scholars have rejected it. Again one must wonder if Kilmeade read the article. If he did, the information in it appears to have been lost on him.

Some readers may find this review unduly harsh. “Come on, Steve,” they might say, “Kilmeade clearly did not intend this book for an academic audience. He pitched it to a general readership, not university professors.” Point taken. Yet, throughout this reviewer’s career, he has attempted to observe all the scholarly requirements while making his work accessible to non-academic readers. It can be done. Indeed, it is because he values lay readers that he finds this book so disappointing. Even general readers—especially general readers— deserve books that are not thrown together, dashed off, and phoned in.

McMurry University
Stephen L. Hardin

Next post:

Previous post: