San Jacinto, Texas, 21 April 1836. The ambush was brilliantly executed and devastatingly quick. It took just eighteen minutes from the first boom of the Texian cannon until the 1400-strong Mexican army turned and ran. They did not get far. Most of the 650 Mexicans who died that day were gunned down by Sam Houston’s blood-crazed riflemen as they desperately tried to cross the marsh to safety. ‘Remember the Alamo’ roared the riflemen, over and over again, as they pulled their triggers. ‘Me no Alamo’, the Mexicans pleaded, but to no avail.
A further 350 Mexicans were captured, including – a day later – the generalissimo, Santa Anna, president of the Republic of Mexico, who narrowly escaped execution. The battle of San Jacinto marked the end of Mexican control of the region and the birth of the Republic of Texas.
The Texan Revolution – including the legendary last stand at the Alamo – has always been an inherently American story. However, a new book, ‘The Alamo’s Forgotten Defenders – The Remarkable Story of the Irish during the Texan Revolution’, by the US historian Dr Philip Thomas Tucker, has turned the narrative on its head by bringing to light the considerable Irish influence upon not just the siege of the Alamo, in which 15 Irish-born soldiers died, but also on the shaping of Texas just before it became part of the USA. As Tucker reveals, at least 100 of the 910 men who served under General Sam Houston at San Jacinto were born in Ireland.
At the start of 1836, Texas was the northernmost province of the Mexican Republic, which had won independence from Spain in 1821. In order to combat the terrifying menace of Comanche raids in the region, Mexico had invited emigrants from the US and Europe to settle the land. By 1834, there were 37,800 people in Texas. Irish immigrants comprised the largest white ethnic group while many more were of Scots-Irish or Protestant Irish descent, such as Sam Houston whose grandfather was born in Ballybracken, near Ballymena, Co. Antrim.
In July 1835, the first call to establish Texas as an independent state was issued by Patrick Usher, an emigrant from County Cork, who later served at San Jacinto. Relations with the Mexican government rapidly deteriorated, not least when the newcomers, known as Texians, flouted the Mexican law against slavery.
The Texan revolution erupted on 2 October 1835 when Lt Col James Clinton Neill, a seasoned fighter of Scots-Irish ancestry, sent an artillery shell made of nails and cut-up horseshoes hurtling into a unit of Mexican dragoons, killing two. By Christmas the Texians had driven the Mexicans out of the region and were so confident of their triumph that they promptly about-turned to tend to their neglected farmsteads in east Texas and get on with the spring planting. A series of outposts were assigned to the new Texan Regular Army, including the Alamo, which was placed under Neill’s command.
The Alamo was a sprawling, 3-acre Franciscan mission, constructed of limestone and adobe. It had been converted into a military fort over 70 years earlier on the orders of Dublin-born Hugo O’Connor, governor of the then Spanish province. Aptly described by one defender as ‘old and grey and tumbling’, it had little military or strategic value. As Neill drily observed, ‘If there has ever been a dollar here I have no knowledge of it”.’ Neill did what he could to shore up the Alamo’s defences but his appeals to the dysfunctional Texan government for more supplies, clothing and, most pertinently, weaponry and munitions fell on deaf ears.
On 14 January, Neill warned Houston that his ever-weakening men were ‘almost naked’ while several thousand Mexican soldiers were now gathering on the near horizons.
Following the humiliating defeats of 1835, the Mexicans had united under Santa Anna, the self-styled ‘Napoleon of the West’, who vowed to reclaim Texas or lose Mexico. As his Secretary of War declared: ‘Our soldiers ever aspire to shed the blood of foreigners who seek to take away from us our rights and menace our independence. This war is righteous and should be without remorse.’
An attack was imminent but ‘we know not what day, or hour’, wrote Neill. The best Houston could do was to send in Colonel Jim Bowie, the iconic knife-fighter, with 25 men as a back up. Bowie was ordered to ‘blow up the Alamo’ if necessary but instead he formed a strong bond with Neill and the duo pledged to ‘die in these ditches’ rather than surrender the post. Neill mounted an 18-pounder, his solitary cannon of merit, on the mission roof facing the direction Santa Anna’s men and waited.
The original Alamo garrison comprised of eighty men and boys, mostly young volunteers who had arrived into Texas at the tail end of the revolution, eager to fight for a share of lush, bountiful Texan soil. At least fifteen were Irishmen, such as Derry-born Robert Evans, the Alamo’s 36-year-old Master of the Ordnance, and Stephen Dennison, a landless 24-year-old from Galway, who came directly from New Orleans, the closest major city, into which an estimated 20,000 Irish emigrants poured in 1836 alone. Other Irishmen included Samuel E. Burns, James McGee, James Rusk and Burke Tranmel.
Many others were the sons of Irish immigrants or of Scots-Irish or Anglo-Irish descent, with names such as O’Neill, Nowlan, Navan, Carey, Jameson and Ryan.
On 11 February Neill was obliged to leave the Alamo to attend to a family emergency. Command was assigned to William Barrett ‘Buck’ Travis, a charming, heavy-drinking, womanizing Alabaman attorney in his mid-20s.
The garrison was further reinforced by the arrival of Davy Crockett, the revered Tennessee frontiersmen, with 10 more men. Crockett’s father John was either born in Ireland or on board the ship that carried his mother to the US. Their ancestor Antoine de Crocketagne was a French Huguenot who emigrated to Bantry, Co. Cork, shortened his name to Crockett and operated as a commercial agent for French mercantile firms. Crockett’s wife Polly Finley was likewise the daughter of ‘an old Irish woman’ by name of Jean Kennedy Finley.
On 22 February Crockett played the fiddle as the garrison raucously celebrated George Washington’s birthday with hard liquor and dusky senoritas from nearby San Antonio.
The following morning Santa Anna’s army advanced towards ‘that mob of ungrateful adventurers’ and the siege began. Twelve long days would pass, during which Mexican cannons relentlessly pounded the Alamo. Travis penned a defiant letter addressed “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World” vowing, ‘I shall never surrender or retreat’.
Robert Evans did what he could to keep morale steady with his indefatigable humour but the only real cause for cheer came during the dark night of 1 March when 32 rangers slipped into fort, including Jesse McCoy, the sheriff of Gonzalez, and Andrew Duvalt, a 32-year-old plasterer who was born in Ireland.
As night fell on 5 March, the Mexican cannons stopped and an eerie silence prevailed along the rolling grassland prairie of the San Antonio valley. Travis may have interpreted this in a positive light but the reality was that Santa Anna had ordered the cannons to be rolled into closer proximity as he relocated his troops and moved in for the kill.
Just before the break of dawn on that ice-cold Sunday morning, the 5000-strong Mexican army – including the elite Zapadores Battalion – attacked the Alamo simultaneously from all four sides.
The entire garrison was wiped out, including Travis, Bowie and Crockett. Sergeant William B. Ward, the heavy-drinking Irishman who manned the artillery at the main gate, fell to the slashing bayonets while Robert Evans, the blue-eyed Derryman, was shot down as he tried to blow up the remaining gunpowder supplies in the Alamo’s chapel.
On Palm Sunday, three weeks after the Alamo fell, nearly 450 “Texan” prisoners were systematically executed on Santa Anna’s orders at Goliad. Many were Irishmen from the nearby Catholic colonies of San Patricio de Hibernia and Refugio, founded by such men as James Hewetson of Co. Kilkenny, John Power of Ballygarrett, Co. Wexford and John McGloin from Co. Sligo. A notable percentage hailed from Co. Wexford and it was perhaps telling that Power’s brother Pat was killed fighting alongside Fr John Murphy at Vinegar Hill in the 1798 Rebellion back in Ireland. All this explains why there is a restaurant called the Alamo in Enniscorthy.
In 1903 a plan to convert the Alamo into a hotel was halted when a wealthy Irish-American woman, Clara Driscoll, stepped in to buy it. Known as the “Saviour of the Alamo”, she was the granddaughter of Daniel O’Driscoll, a farmer from Cork who fought at San Jacinto. In 2015, the Alamo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The massacre at Goliad was subsequently overshadowed by the dramatic showdown at the Alamo but the two events galvanized the Texans to take action and paved the way for Houston’s decisive victory on the sun-baked plains of San Jacinto. Over 180 years on, the Texan Revolution is often billed as an all-American story of good, honest men seeking to tame the barren edges of civilization. Tucker’s book on the role played by the Irish will surely open the gates for much new and necessary study into the subject.
Dr Philip Thomas Tucker, ‘The Alamo’s Forgotten Defenders – The Remarkable Story of the Irish during the Texan Revolution’ (2016) is published by Savas Beattie, California.