My book Bowie Knife Fights, Fighters, and Fighting Techniques is available from Paladin Press. This blog contains additional information about the bowie knife, as well as the fighting knives of other nations.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Crockett Dies, Bowie Knife in Hand (?)

The Magazine of American History With Notes and Queries of December 1883 published Confederate general Marcus J. Wright's profile of Davy Crockett, which ends with this stirring account of his death:
The scene is at the Alamo. The Alamo is surrounded by the army of Santa Anna, and but six of the Texan garrison are left alive. The garrison has surrendered; Crockett stands alone in an angle of the fort, the barrel of his shattered rifle in his right hand, and in his left his huge bowie knife dripping blood. There is a frightful gash across his forehead, while around him is a complete barrier of about twenty Mexicans lying pell-mell, dead and dying. Crockett's look and step are as undaunted and defiant as ever. The word of death is given. A dozen swords are sheathed in that brave heart, and Crockett falls and expires without a groan, a frown on his brow, and a smile of scorn and defiance on his lips. A fitting end to his heroic life.
Reuben Potter (1802–1890)

This was too much for Reuben Marmaduke Potter, a Texan and a noted authority on the Battle of the Alamo, and he wrote a response that was published a few months later. I like the fact that Potter applies some simple logic to dispute the account--it's surprising how rarely that is done.
The closing paragraph of the sketch of Col. Crockett in the December Magazine does great injustice to the defenders of the Alamo, while it unwittingly, I have no doubt, associates Crockett with the only group of skulkers found in that heroic garrison. The passage begins as follows: "The scene is at the Alamo. The Alamo is surrounded by the army of Santa Anna, and but six of the garrison are left alive. The garrison has surrendered."

This assertion is all wrong. Not a man of that garrison surrendered, but each one, Crockett among the rest, fell fighting at his post, except the few skulkers referred to. Even they did not surrender; but were dragged from their hiding-place and executed. The writer goes on to say: "Crockett stands alone in an angle of the fort; the barrel of his shattered rifle in his right hand, and in his left a huge bowie-knife, dripping blood. There is a frightful gash across his forehead, while around him is a complete barrier of about twenty Mexicans lying pell-mell dead and dying."

The assailants of the Alamo were infantry troops, armed with musket and bayonet, and during the minute, or half minute, which it must have taken Crockett to fell his twenty foes, who had more than twenty at their backs, it is singular that no soldier was able to shoot or pierce him; for a man who wielded a rifle-barrel in one hand, and a big bowie-knife in the other, however robust, must have been an awkward fencer. The passage then continues thus: "Crockett's look and step are as undaunted and defiant as ever. The word of death is given. A dozen swords are sheathed in that brave heart, and Crockett falls and expires without a groan, a frown on his brow, and a smile of scorn and defiance on his lips -- a fitting end to his heroic life."

Now what prevented those twenty swords from doing their office before Crockett got through with striking down twenty of his assailants? A good story, whether true or not, ought to have a spice of probability. All that is known about Crockett's death is, that, like his companions, he fell fighting at his post. Santa Anna was not accompanied by a corps of ubiquitous, all-seeing reporters, who could describe the last blow and last look of every hero who fell. Crockett's body was found, not in an angle of the fort, but in a one-gun battery which overtopped the center of the west wall, where his remains were identified by Mr. Ruiz, a citizen of San Antonio, whom Santa Anna, immediately after the action, sent for and ordered to point out the slain leaders of the garrison. In regard to the six last survivors, of whom the writer to whom I refer says Crockett was one, the fact from which the story has apparently grown is, that about half an hour, I think it was, after the capture and massacre, four, five, or six men of the garrison were found in one of the rooms of the Alamo, concealed under bundles of forage or some such substance. The discovery was reported to Santa Anna, who ordered the men to be shot, which was at once done; but it is needless to say that Crockett was not one of them. He was already dead at his post when those men were found. The defence of the Alamo and the fall of its garrison form one of the most heroic incidents in our history; but the true recollection of it is almost buried under fictions, which, from reaction, are liable to throw doubt on the real heroism of the narrative. The name of Crockett has been a fruitful nucleus for those incredible yarns, one of which contradicted his heroic death by bringing him to life in the mines of Mexico. His name seems to have a charm which can secure belief for any romance about him. The author of the article in question gives a truthful account of Crockett's home life, but has evidently been misled by some extravagant story-teller concerning his death.
NOTE: The lurid verbiage--"huge bowie knife dripping blood," etc.-- about the deaths of Bowie and Crockett, found in the account mentioned here and in the previous post, was taken from an article published in the Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser on June 29, 1836. It was lifted verbatim and included in the 1837 edition of Davy Crockett's "autobiography," from whence it appears that later chroniclers borrowed it.

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