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'Gates of Alamo' demythologizes famous battle

THE GATES OF THE ALAMO by Stephen Harrigan (Knopf. $25. 581 pages)

We all know the story of the Alamo: A small band of plucky volunteers, led by William Barrett Travis, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, holed up in an old mission near San Antonio, Texas, and for two weeks held off the massed thousands of Mexican regulars under the ruthless dictator Santa Anna. Near the end of the siege, Travis drew a line in the sand with his sword, inviting any man who wanted to leave the doomed outpost to step across. No one did. In the final assault, every man died gloriously at his post in the cause of an independent Texas.But that's not the story Stephen Harrigan tells in this riveting historical novel. In these pages, Jim Bowie is a blustering drunk, too ill with typhoid to be of any practical use in the fighting but just lucid enough to do his best to subvert Travis' command.

Twenty-six-year-old Travis is "one of the most aggrieved men in Texas, always tensely in wait for any hint of injustice or tyranny." He's a volatile, slave-holding, womanizing boy-soldier with no actual experience in battle, which makes his men wary of following his orders.

And Davy Crockett is not John Wayne in a coonskin cap. He's a witty politician in a wool greatcoat who is not officially in command of anybody but who functions as the voice of wisdom and experience when the bickering younger hotheads -- including Travis and Bowie -- cannot settle their differences.

Santa Anna is, certainly, a ruthless despot, but he is also charming, erudite and extremely capable as a soldier and leader.

Harrigan brings them and a score of other characters, historical and fictional, to colorful life on the page. His account of the famous battle, a version that was eight years in the making, is based on meticulous research. He cites his most significant sources, but more convincing are the actions and talk of his characters in every line.

Through clean, evocative writing that recalls the hard and unsentimental precision of Cormac McCarthy, Harrigan transports the reader back to the spring of 1836. His main characters are Mary Mott, a widowed innkeeper, and her son Terrell, who was a teenager when he fought at the Alamo. Ninety-one years old when the book opens in 1911, Terrell is the only living survivor of the massacre -- "the lingering human vestige who had known Travis and Crockett and Bowie, who had stood within the walls of the Alamo during the siege, who had helped win Texas her freedom on the storied plain of San Jacinto."

In popular books and movies about the battle, the Mexicans are a faceless horde of barbarians. Not so in this novel. Harrigan's Mexican characters weave their stories throughout the narrative of the Motts and McGowan so convincingly that, come the battle, the reader finds himself -- if not rooting openly for the Mexicans -- at least hoping for the survival of characters he has come to know and admire.

When the final assault comes, the carnage on the Mexican side is equally gory -- troops who have been lying in the open on a cold night for five hours struggle to their feet at dawn, and as they rush toward walls too tall to scale, they are mowed down by canister shot from cannons and massed fire from the deadly Kentucky long rifles. At the foot of the walls, they huddle, most of them without ladders, trapped and dying in helpless terrified mobs.

When it's clear no help will come, Travis twice tries to surrender the Alamo -- once on his own and later with a letter from Jim Bowie asking only that the garrison be spared in return. In the end, the defenders fight the last battle because they have no choice.

The overall effect of demythologizing the Texans and humanizing the Mexicans is, ironically, to enhance the heroism of all who fought there.

The defenders of this Alamo are not suicidal zealots, too blinded by romantic delusions to be afraid, eager to die gloriously; instead they're brave and pragmatic men, many seasoned by earlier battles, who expect to be reinforced by Sam Houston's army but know they have a bloody fight ahead of them. They are under no illusions: They know many of their number will die, they are terrified of the Mexican bayonet, but they stand and fight anyway.

After a certain point, they don't flee the Alamo because they can't -- it's surrounded by thousands of troops, including the infamous lancers, expert horsemen who chase men and spear them as they run.

Had he been allowed by Santa Anna, Travis would have surrendered and led his garrison back to the U.S. border. Sam Houston's fragmented command would have had no rallying cry. Santa Anna would have returned south to his hacienda. Texas would likely still be in Mexican hands.

But such is history. Bad judgment, pride, mistaken notions of honor, genuine heroism and accident combine to create causes and bring down nations. In this novel, flesh-and-blood men and women endow history with a deeper glory than the simple Hollywood myths.