Monday, June 16, 2008

Two solid new books on early Texas

Every wordsmith interested in writing about the events of yesterday should print the following quotation, frame the words, and hang them in view of their computer:

“No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.”

Those words come from David McCullough, best-selling writer of books on important figures of the past, but I read them in the introduction to a good book by another fine writer-historian, Stephen Hardin.

Hardin’s book is “Texian Macabre: A Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Houston.” (Abilene: State House Press, 325 pages, $24.95.)

Hardin found McCullough’s quote useful in explaining what he hoped to accomplish with his new book: Use an interesting story to help readers better understand what Texas, particularly the nascent city of Houston, was like during its days as an independent republic.

The story focuses on David James Jones, a survivor of the Goliad massacre (see below) and obviously a committed participant in the Battle of San Jacinto, who went from war hero to convicted murderer in little over a-year-and-a-half.

Beyond that, “Texian Macabre” sheds light on the state of law enforcement back when Texans called themselves Texians. (Answer: Pretty lax until the movers and shakers got exercised over the conduct of “rowdy loafers” like Jones, who had the honor of being the guest of honor at one of Texas’ earlier legal hangings.)

Reading Hardin’s overview of the art and science of hanging, and its affect on the human body, will possibly break you of ever wearing a neck tie again if you are a man. No matter one’s gender, if hanging still were the official means of execution in Texas, Hardin’s description of it would surely serve as a crime deterrent.

The detailed pen-and-ink drawings of Gary S. Zaboly, who also illustrated Hardin’s excellent history of the Texas Revolution, “Texas Iliad,” further enhance Hardin’s quite readable story. Another plus is the reader-friendly design of the book – a reasonable-sized typeface with ample “leading” between lines.

While Hardin definitely tells a macabre story in this book, it’s a fun to read, thoroughly researched look at life in the Bayou City 171 years ago. Definitely, no harm has been done to history in the writing of this excellent book.

* * *

More formal in tone than Hardin’s book, but no less well-searched and presented, is Jay A. Stout’s “Slaughter at Goliad: The Mexican Massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers.”

Published by the prestigious Naval Institute Press, the 242-page book sells for $29.95.

Though not as well known as the fall of the Alamo or the Texas victory at San Jacinto, at Goliad on March 27, 1836 more Texians lost their lives than in any other engagement during the revolution that freed Texas from Mexico. In fact, as Stout points out, for a good while the massacre of most of Col. James Fannin’s men (and his subsequent brutal execution only two feet in front of a firing squad) stood as one of the largest one-day military losses in American history.

Stout is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, obviously schooled in military tactics and strategy. While the Texas Revolution did not involve the kind of warfare he participated in at supersonic speed, his background brings a lot to this book.

The author looks at the players on both sides, assessing what was in it for them and the quality (or lack) of leadership. In a particularly nice touch, the book is illustrated with black and white shots of modern-day re-enactors portraying the events covered in the book. Given that military re-enactors pride themselves on historical accuracy in terms of uniform and gear, it’s as if you’re look at vintage photographs even though photography did not exist back then. The book also features detailed maps.

Overall, “Slaughter at Goliad” is full of rich detail, including something not commonly known about Col. Fannin’s widow. In the summer of 1836, she tried to assassinate the captured Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at Velasco.

She did not succeed, I’m sure to the regret of many Texans at the time and not a few even today.


Anonymous said...

"No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read." How true. Three cases in point: T. R. Fehrenbach's Comanches: The Destruction of a People; Thad Sitton in The Texas Sheriff: Lord of the County Line, and Mike Cox with Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900.

Anonymous said...

Just finished Mike Cox's Texas Ranger book numero uno, Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821 - 1900. It's a smooth read, I finished it in three sittings. The authorial use of our language to synthesize a complex and often exaggerated historical perspective into a fuller and more lucid narrative marks Cox as a major league writer. Moreover, he is neither afraid to call a spade a spade, a gore-soaked Comanche a "hostile," nor a Indian an "Indian." What a refreshing change that is!

Glenn Willeford