Duel of Eagles: The Mexican and U.S. Fight for the Alamo

I first encountered the writing of Jeff Long about 30 years ago. I am a climbing enthusiast and I read practically any mountaineering book I can get my hands on. Jeff had written a corker, "The Ascent", as well as the book that formed the basis of the movie Cliffhanger, "Angels of Light".

Imagine my surprise and pleasure, then, when browsing in an Austin Texas bookshop to find that this self-same writer of mountain lore was also the author of a couple of books on Texas history. The first, "Duel of Eagles" was written in 1990. The second, "Empire of Bones", was written as a follow up and covers the events leading up to the massacre that was the Battle of San Jacinto.

"Duel of Eagles" concerns itself with the Mexican-American fight for the Alamo in particular, but also Texas, more generally. It will not be on the recommended reading list of those who treasure the largely fictional accounts of "historical giants" as David Crockett, Sam Houston or William Travis.

It exposes an uncomfortable fact from the history of the United States. And that is that Texas was by and large stolen from Mexico. And it was stolen by a rag tag band of slavers, gun runners and petty criminals (many of whom acted with shocking depravity and cruelty) operating with the open encouragement of the American government. Say what you will about Mexico of the day, it had a constitution, it had a duly constituted government and it was a sovereign power. That didn't stop Andrew Jackson.

But in case you think this is a piece of pro-Mexican propaganda, guess again. Long is as harsh in his treatment of the Mexicans as he is of the Americans. The point here being that he is not afraid to tell the unvarnished truth. For too long Americans, and the rest of the world, have laboured under the impression that the Mexicans were the aggressors. They were not. But just because they were responding to a hostile attempt to steal a huge chunk of their land, does not mean they were any better than the people who were trying to steal their land from them (though the Mexicans had, at that point, abolished slavery - this was one of the grievances that the pro-slavery Texans harboured against the Mexican government).

Long's book is incisively written. He went straight to the primary sources -- journals, letters, articles, government documents and newsletters. The story that emerges is not pretty and is not flattering to the American government or people of the day.

For almost the first time Long tells the Mexican side of the story. For those of you familiar with the movie version of the Battle for the Alamo, it may come as a shock to know that the battle was over within 45 minutes; that Santa Anna brushed aside the token and futile resistance of the militia inside; and that far from the glorious and prolonged last stand depicted in the movies, it was a short, sharp and nasty melee. Virtually no Mexican soldiers died at the hands of the Americans. Hardly the American Rorke's Drift.

It is passingly strange that two of the most prominent incidents in American History that are cited for their heroic qualities are in fact largely devoid of any of the heroism with which they have been imbued by succeeding generations of hagiographers anxious to burnish the reputations of men who were in the best light charlatans and boors. These two incidents are the Alamo and the Last Stand at Little Big Horn. This is not to say that the soldiers who fought and died in those struggles did not exhibit great personal courage. What I do mean to say is that they fought for causes that were tinged if not polluted by coarse and venal motives.

This book is a page turner. It is a necessary anti-dote to the propaganda that disguises itself as the history of the founding of the State of Texas.