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EVOLUTION OF A STATE


CHAPTER VII



Return to Texas; The gathering of the clans; First flag. March to San Antonio; Battle of Conception Mission.

Returning to Texas after an absence of four years, I landed at Matagorda in the fall of 1835, just at the time the growing dissension between Mexico and the colonists began to assume warlike proportions. There I met Dr. Fields, who was subsequently with Colonel Fannin at Goliad, and was only saved from sharing his fate by being a physician, his services being required for the wounded Mexicans. The doctor was preparing for a professional trip to Mexico and was in need of an interpreter. Having acquired some proficiency in the medical technique of the Spanish language during my attendance on "Dr." Webber, I undertook the office of interpreter for Dr. Fields. Packing our outfit on mules we struck out.

Arriving at Victoria, we found the whole place in commotion. A messenger had just arrived, bringing word that the government had ordered the disarming of the colonists, and that a detachment of soldiers was even then on the way to execute the order, thus leaving the defenseless families at the mercy of the Indians. Couriers were flying, committees of safety forming, volunteers enrolling, and the bustle of preparation for resistance resounding through the land. I came of a warlike race and all my life, like Norval, "had heard of battles." My father fought in the revolutionary war; one of his brothers fell in the battle of Cowpens, and there was a family tradition that my great-grandfather Bennet, when one hundred years old, knocked a man down for hallooing, "Hurrah for King George!" and when I, a little tot scarcely out of pinafores, saw my oldest brother march away to fight the British in 1812, I thought it was the grandest thing on earth and longed to be a man that I might don a bright new uniform and clanking sword and march away with flags flying, drums beating, and people cheering. My time had arrived, and I was destined to have more than enough of war, stripped, however, of all its magnificence. Ah! there was no glare and glitter in those life-and-death struggles of the Texas pioneers. It was useless to think of continuing our journey to Mexico, and rather preferring - at least I did - to kill Mexicans with bullets and powder than pills and powders, we laid off our packs and hurried on to Gonzales, the initial point of attack, to help repel the Mexicans, whose only ostensible purpose proved to be the recovery of an old cannon which the citizens had borrowed from the garrison at San Antonio some time before to defend the place against Indians, and which was practically useless, having been spiked and the spike driven out, leaving a touch-hole the size of a man's thumb. Its principal merit as a weapon of defense, therefore, lay in its presence and the noise it could make, the Indians being very much afraid of cannon. But it was the match that fired the mine, already primed and loaded. Before we reached Gonzales the Mexican soldiers arrived on the opposite side of the river, which they did not attempt to cross, and made a formal demand for the cannon. Useless as it was, the Texans not only refused to surrender it, but crossed over and put the Mexicans to flight.

It was our Lexington, though a bloodless one, save that a member of the "awkward squad" took a header from his horse, thereby bringing his nasal appendage into such intimate association with Mother Earth as to draw forth a copious stream of the sanguinary fluid. But the fight was on. Not a man among us thought of receding from the position in which this bold act had placed us.

We failed to get into the initial scrimmage, but arrived on the scene the day following. Col. John H. Moore with a company of LaGrange men, Fannin with the "Brazos Guards," Coleman with the Bastrup company and a small company from the Colorado under Capt. Thomas Alley were already on the ground. Travis was there simply as a recruit. John A. Wharton and W. H. Jack were also on hand, though not in a military capacity. I can not remember that there was any distinct understanding as to the position we were to assume toward Mexico. Some were for independence; some for the constitution of 1824; and some for anything, just so it was a row. But we were all ready to fight. So, while trusty messengers "sped the fiery cross" on through the interior, we were preparing for the campaign, which are intended should be quick, short and decisive. Our plan was to rush on to San Antonio, capture the garrison before it could get reinforcements, and then - on to Mexico and dictate terms of peace in the capital of the Montezumas. The Sowells had a blacksmith shop at Gonzales, and, being a gunsmith, I set to work to help put the arms in order. There was no coal, so some of the boys were set to burning charcoal.


The "Flying" Artillery (drawn by N. Donaldson)

We brushed the old cannon (an iron six-pounder), scoured it out, and mounted it on old wooden trucks - transverse sections of trees with holes in the centers, into which were inserted wooden axles - and christened it "the flying artillery," making merry over it as if it were some holiday sport we were planning for. We had no ammunition for our "artillery," so we cut slugs of bar iron and hammered them into balls; ugly looking missiles they were I assure you, but destined to "innocuous desuetude," as I shall relate in due course. We were going to do things in style, so we formed a company of lancers and converted all the old files about the place into lances, which we mounted on poles cut in the river bottom.

While some were busy with the arms and ammunition, others were devising a flag. I cannot say who designed it nor who executed the design, as that was not in my department, and history is silent on the subject. Hubert Bancroft devotes some space to the origin of the Lone Star flag. Had he consulted me, I could have given him a pointer, for to my certain knowledge the first Lone Star flag used in the revolution was gotten up at Gonzales for Austin's army and consisted of a breadth of white cotton cloth about six feet long, in the center of which was painted in black a picture of the old cannon, above it a lone star and beneath it the words, "Come and take it," a challenge which was lost on the Mexicans. It was not called the Lone Star, however, but the Old Cannon flag.


Old Cannon Flag, 1835 (drawn by N. Donaldson)

I doubt if there is another man living who rode out of Gonzales behind it that October morning near sixty-four years ago. What days those were! So full to the brim with busy preparation, excitement and eager anticipation, without one misgiving as to the outcome. Looking back on it now, from the snow crowned summit of my ninety-one years, it seems a piece of egregious foolhardiness, and I find it hard to identify myself with the hotheaded youth who entered into it with such ardor. Our whole available force could not have amounted to more than 250 men, while Mexico had an organized army of several thousand, and there were thousands of Indians eagerly watching for an opportunity to swoop down on us and wipe us from the face of the earth and thus regain their lost hunting grounds, which they had always been able to maintain against the Mexicans. That one old bushed cannon was our only artillery, and our only arms were Bowie knives and long single-barreled, muzzle-loading flintlock rifles, the same that our fathers won their independence with, and that the famous Kentucky brigade used with such telling effect in the battle of New Orleans; while all the powder in the colonies would scarce have sufficed to charge one of the big guns now in use. But the Mexican soldiers had not shown themselves brave; the army, indeed, being largely composed of peons and convicts - men who had no incentive to patriotism or bravery, and over whom it was necessary to keep a strong guard to prevent them from deserting. Then, too, the seat of war was a long way from the Mexican base of supplies; a weary waste of desert infested by hostile Indians intervening, and no means of communication except by courier. Perhaps, too, we unconsciously relied on the active sympathy of the United States, whose offspring we were; still, as a rule, I do not think we apprehended the remotest possibility of such assistance being necessary. It is needless at this date to discuss the rights or wrongs of that revolution. This much, however, I will say, that though I was opposed to the revolution, yet it is not in the nature of things for the superior race to long remain under the domination of the inferior, and as to Mexico's claim to the territory, it is doubtful if she ever could have maintained it against the Indians. The Spaniards overcame the effeminate Aztecs and the blended races subdued the California rabbit hunters, but the Texas Indians were of a different mold, and it was mainly because of Mexico's inability to hold the territory against them that it was thrown open to the Anglo-American. It was he who beat back the savage and converted the wilderness into civilized homes. Why then should he not control its destiny? Meanwhile the fortress of Goliad, containing valuable stores, had surrendered to a mere handful of Texans with scarcely a show of resistance. No prophet had arisen to warn us of disaster and experience had not yet taught us that a cowardly foe might also be a cruel foe when opportunity offered. Recruits were constantly arriving, singly and in squads, each squad being duly officered if there were men enough to go round, and we soon had more officers than men. When we came to organize companies, however, there were few jealousies or murmurings among the officers who were necessarily reduced to the ranks; realizing, as we did, that in that army military titles were empty honors. Capt. Alley's company - there was no alphabetical order - was the first company organized; his company absorbing that of Capt. John Hensley who, by way of compensation was made first lieutenant. An election for second lieutenant, in which Dick Woodard and myself were the contestants, resulted in victory for me.

What, with burning coal, brushing cannon, repairing rifles, molding bullets and making flags, lances and cannon balls, there was little time for military tactics, but it was necessary that we learn to act in concert, the most important maneuver being to fire by platoons and fall back to reload. We had neither swords nor bayonets and few of us had pistols, and we knew that, if we all fired at once, the Mexican cavalry would be upon us with sword and lance before we could reload, and then our only resource would be to club our rifles, a very effective mode, however, as was demonstrated in the battle of San Jacinto. By the way of variety we went out one day to do up a band of Comanche braves who, scenting trouble, had already begun to hover round like vultures. They showed fight, but seeing our force, they scattered and fired from hiding. At last they all left but one, who proved to be a white boy some eighteen years old. He could not or would not speak a word of English; but, in common with all Texas Indians, had learned some Spanish, the only visible effect of the old Spanish missionaries' labor. He said he was very small when taken and remembered nothing of the circumstances and the Indians would tell nothing. He evinced no disposition to leave, and we were quite disposed to lionize him, but one morning he was missing, and so were several of the best horses in camp. A thorough Indian to all intents and purposes, he had rejoined the tribe, and no doubt joined in many a massacre of his own race and dangled their reeking scalps from his belt. Soon Austin, accompanied by Moses Austin Bryan, arrived and at once addressed himself to the work of unifying the volunteers and stimulating them to adhere to the course to which they had committed themselves. To this end he made a speech in which he said: "Retreat is now impossible; we must go forward to victory or die the death of traitors." And, referring to the enfeebled condition in which his long imprisonment and suffering had left him, he said "I will wear myself out by inches rather than submit to Santa Anna's arbitrary rule." In his efforts Austin was ably seconded by Wm. H. Jack, who also made a speech, well calculated to arouse us to enthusiasm. The same sentiment pervaded both addresses, but the one was a calm statesmanlike review of the situation, the other a fervid appeal to passion and chivalry.

Colonel Milam joined us at Gonzales after having assisted in the capture of Goliad. The Colonel cut rather an un-military figure. Having recently escaped from a Mexican prison his clothing was in tatters when he reached Goliad, where he replenished his wardrobe from the stores taken from the Mexicans. Milam's stature being near six feet, the pantaloons thus acquired were at least six inches too short and his sleeves ditto. We rushed our preparations with all possible dispatch and in about ten days were ready to take the field with about 600 men.

There were a number of aspirants for the office of commander, among them Col. J. W. E. Wallace, lately United States Consul at San Felipe. There was, however, little active opposition to Austin whose claim was generally conceded, though I do not think he had any personal desire for the position. John A. Wharton was especially active in his advocacy of Austin, on the ground of expediency. Said he: "Austin can come nearer uniting the people than any other man, and, furthermore, it will give us better standing abroad." So Austin was elected by acclamation. Captain Dickenson, who fell in the Alamo, and whose wife and infant daughter were the sole American survivors of that awful massacre, commanded the "artillery."

Major Bennet presided over the commissary department, but his duties were not arduous. When we ran out of meat we went out and drove in as many beef cattle as we wanted. The harvest was abundant and from the adjacent fields we gathered corn, grinding it on steel mills or pounding it in mortars. Wharton and Jack returned to San Felipe to attend the pending convention, and, having completed our organization, we broke camp on the morning of the 13th of October, with the understanding that we were to proceed direct to San Antonio de Bexar.

Words are inadequate to convey an impression of the appearance of the first Texas army as it formed in marching order. Nothing short of ocular demonstration could do it justice. It certainly bore little resemblance to the army of my childhood dreams. Buckskin breeches were the nearest approach to uniform, and there was wide diversity even there, some being new and soft and yellow, while others, from long familiarity with rain and grease and dirt, had become hard and black and shiny. Some, from having passed through the process of wetting and drying on the wearer while he sat on the ground or a chunk before the camp fire, with his knees elevated at an angle of eighty-five degrees, had assumed an advanced position at the knee, followed by a corresponding shortening of the lower front length, exposing shins as guiltless of socks as a - Kansas Senator's. Boots being an unknown quantity; some wore shoes and some moccasins. Here a broad-brimmed sombrero overshadowed the military cap at its side; there a tall "beegum" rode familiarly beside a coonskin cap, with the tail hanging down behind, as all well regulated tails should do. Here a big American horse loomed up above the pliable Spanish pony ranged beside him; there a half-broken mustang pranced beside a sober, methodical mule. Here a bulky roll of bed quilts jostled a pair of "store" blankets; there the shaggy brown buffalo robe contrasted with a gaily checkered counterpane on which the manufacturer had lavished all the skill of dye and weave known to the art - mayhap it was part of the dowery a wife brought her husband on her wedding day, and surely the day-dreams she wove into its ample folds held in them no shadow of a presentiment that it might be his winding sheet.

In lieu of a canteen, each man carried a Spanish gourd, a curious specimen of the gourd family, having two round bowls, each holding near a quart, connected by a short neck, apparently designed for adjusting a strap about. A fantastic military array to a casual observer, but the one great purpose animating every heart clothed us in a uniform more perfect in our eyes than was ever donned by regulars on dress parade. So, with the Old Cannon flag flying at the head, and the "artillery" flying at the heels of two yokes of long-horned Texas steers occupying the post of honor in the center, we filed out of Gonzales and took up the line of march for San Antonio. Our pride in our artillery soon began to wane. We had to take turns riding in its rear, and the slow pace of the oxen ill accorded with our impatient zeal. Sometimes, when the forward column opened a rather wide gap, we prodded up the oxen with our lances (the only use that was ever made of them) until they broke into a trot and the old trucks bumped and screeched along at a lively gait till the gap was closed. But rapid locomotion was not congenial to them; they protested by groans and shrieks and at length began to smoke; we poured on water, but our way lay across a high prairie where no water was obtainable and our supply was limited to the contents of our gourds, a quantity totally inadequate to quench their insatiable thirst. We tried tallow, the only lubricator at hand, but that failed of relief, and finally, after all the trouble we had brought upon ourselves in its defense, the old cannon was abandoned in disgrace at Sandy Creek before we got half way to San Antonio, and the Mexicans might have taken it with impunity. It had played its part, that of inaugurating the revolution. I never saw nor heard of it again, and am unable to ascertain what became of it, though I scarcely think it was destroyed, and I herewith call the attention of the Texas Historical Society to the desirability of gaining possession of it. The old cannon having thus been thrown out, the flag lost its significance; but whether it accompanied the march or was left to keep the "artillery" company, I cannot say.

At the Cibolo, Sam Houston came up with us. It was my first sight of the man who more than all others was destined to win enduring fame from the struggle we were inaugurating. I have a vivid picture of him before my mind's eye as he rode into our camp alone, mounted on a little yellow Spanish stallion so diminutive that old Sam's long legs, encased in the conventional buckskin, almost touched the ground. He made a speech to us, urging the necessity of concerted action among the colonists: arguing that it should be for independence, otherwise we could expect no assistance from other powers. He also advocated the enlistment of the Cherokees as allies, and, owing to his great influence with them, he could no doubt have used them to advantage. They were Uncle Sam's wards, however, and he said "no." Houston immediately returned to San Felipe to take part in the convention. While camped on the Cibolo our scouts brought word that a strong picket force was stationed at the crossing of the Salado. A squad of twenty-five men was dispatched under cover of night to dislodge then. We crossed the creek some distance below the ford, and, dismounting, crept along under the bank on foot. Occasionally a dry twig would snap with a report seemingly as loud as a pistol shot, and we would pause and hold our breath to listen; but we heard no other sound save the rustling of the fallen leaves, with now and then the dismal hoot of an owl, or long, hungry howl of a wolf - uncanny sounds at any time, and certainly not calculated to cheer us in our critical situation. We knew not how many of the enemy there were, but we knew there were just twenty-five of us and no reinforcements at hand. At length, when we were nearing the site of the supposed camp, one fellow began to weaken. "Boys," he said in a shaky whisper, "I don't like this. Ef thar's a big force of 'em they'll whop us." Thereupon Conrad Rohrer, a big Pennsylvania Dutchman who never realized the meaning of the word fear, hissed half under breath: "Shet up; don't say they'll weep us; you're weeped already!" The logical inference, so forcibly expressed, provoked a smothered laugh despite the peril in which we stood. A careful reconnaissance failed to discover any enemy, so with lighter hearts - if somewhat heavier steps - we returned to our horses, mounted and galloped back to camp. Among the small parties joining us at Cibolo was Jim Bowie, who, accompanied by Joseph Hamm, ---- Donahue and several other Louisianians, all spoiling for a fight, had posted on at the first intimation of trouble. Bowie's prowess as a fighter made him doubly welcome, and Austin at once placed him on his staff. Without further incident worthy of mention we reached the San Antonio river at the old San Jose Mission, eight miles below Bexar. Here the main body halted while Col. Bowie with the companies of Fannin and Coleman went on up to reconnoitre and select a position from which to direct operations against the garrison.

Being a personal friend of Bowie's, the writer was permitted to accompany the expedition. The only opposition we encountered was from a party of Mexican soldiers who came up and fired on us at long range. We returned the compliment and they retired, leaving the road clear. We went on up, made our observations, and camped in a bend of the river on the east side, about a quarter of a mile above the old mission of Concepcion and distant some two miles from San Antonio, expecting the main army to follow right on, but for some reason Colonel Austin did not do so. Just about sundown we were startled by a dull boom and, ere we had time to frame a question as to its import, a cannon ball, shot from a gun mounted in the church tower two miles away, shrieked through the air overhead and buried itself in the earth a few rods beyond our camp. With a horrible hiss that no language can describe, another, and another followed, to the number of half a dozen; then, all was still. At dawn we were roused by the discharge of musketry, and directly our pickets came running in. One man had his powder horn shot away. Another fell as soon as we got into camp, and we thought he was killed; but, on examination, found that his only injury consisted in a sick stomach caused by a bullet striking and breaking a large Bowie knife which he carried stuck under the waistband of his pantaloons directly in front. The knife saved his life, but he was incapacitated from taking part in the fight. The dense fog masked the strength of the enemy. They crossed the river, which was very low, down at the mission and moved up on the open plain fronting our camp. We got our horses down out of range and, drawing close under the bank, which was five or six feet high, took up positions on both arms of the bend so as to get in a cross fire; Fannin's company occupying the lower arm and Coleman's the upper. When the fog lifted we found ourselves pretty well surrounded; though the bluff and heavy timber on the west side of the river secured us against attack in the rear. In front was a field piece flanked by several companies of infantry; and across the river, to cut off retreat, were two companies of cavalry - but retreat formed no part of our programme. The Mexicans now opened on us with cannon, but we lay low and their grape and canister crashed through the pecan trees overhead, raining a shower of ripe nuts down on us, and I saw men picking them up and eating them with as little apparent concern as if they were being shaken down by a norther. Bowie was a born leader, never needlessly spending a bullet or imperiling a life. His voice is still ringing in my deaf old ears as he repeatedly admonished us, "Keep under cover, boys, and reserve your fire; we haven't a man to spare;" and, had he been obeyed, not a man would we have lost. The Mexicans moved up till they came within range of Fannin's men, when, upon the Texans opening fire, they halted and begun forming for a charge. Seeing this, Bowie ordered Coleman to the support of Fannin, and, in executing the movement, the foolhardiness of some of our men caused the only casualty of the engagement. We scarcely waited, really, for orders, but broke for Fannin's position. Excited and eager to get a shot, some of the boys mounted the bank and cut across, exposed to the fire of the whole Mexican army. They got there before we did, who went around, but the first man I saw as I came around was Dick Andrews, lying as he had fallen, great drops of sweat already gathering on his white, drawn face, and the life blood gushing from a hole in the left side, just below the ribs. I ran to him and attempted to raise him. "Dick," I cried, "are you hurt?" "Yes, Smith," he replied, "I'm killed; lay me down." I laid him down and put something under his head. It was the last time I saw him alive. There was no time for sentiment. There was the enemy, outnumbering us four to one, charging our position, so I picked up my gun and joined my comrades.

"Fire!" rang out the steady voice of our leader, and we responded with a will. Our long rifles - and I thought I never heard rifles crack so keen, after the dull roar of the cannon - mowed down the Mexicans at a rate that might well have made braver hearts than those encased in their shriveled little bodies recoil. Three times they charged, but there was a platoon ready to receive them. Three times we picked off their gunners, the last one with a lighted match in his hand; then a panic seized them, and they broke. They jumped on the mules attached to the cannon, two or three on a mule, without even taking time to cut them loose, and struck out for the fort, leaving the loaded gun on the field. With a ringing cheer we mounted the bank and gave chase. We turned their cannon on them, adding wings to their flight. They dropped their muskets, and, splashing through the shallow water of the river, fled helter skelter as if pursued by all the furies.

Our pickets, who had been stationed at the old mission and cut off, now climbed upon the roof and gave them a parting volley as they ran past. I don't think it was ten minutes after we opened fire till the last Mexican who was able to run was across the river. The cavalry took no part in the fight, but joined the wild race for the fort, and, no doubt, came down the homestretch in the lead. They left about sixty killed and a number wounded, while our casualties were one mortally wounded and one slightly wounded; less than usually results from a bicycle race, or a football game.

Having no knowledge of civilized warfare, the poor wounded wretches thought they were to be summarily dispatched, and it was pitiful to hear them begging for the miserable lives that no one thought of taking. We had no means of relieving them, even if we had had an opportunity. We knew not what turn affairs at the fort might take, and where Austin was we had no idea. The utmost we could do was to give water to those who asked for it, which no one was brute enough to refuse. How our humanity was repaid, let Goliad and the Alamo testify. About an hour after it was all over, Austin came up with the main body. Had their arrival been a little more timely, our most sanguine expectations might have been more than realized; for the whole force of the garrison was out, and, being mostly infantry, while our men were all mounted, the enemy might have been cut off and well nigh annihilated. As it was, we who were in the fight were satisfied, but the other boys were loud and bitter in their denunciation of the course that had deprived them of a share in the glory. Soon the padre came out with a train of carts and attendants, and, after a parley with Austin, carted the dead and wounded Mexicans away to San Antonio, leaving us in undisputed possession of the field.

Poor Dick Andrews lived long enough to know that the fight was won. He recklessly, foolishly threw away his life, but his was the first freeman's life blood that wet the soil where the germ of the young republic was just bursting into life. We buried him at the foot of a pecan tree on the battlefield, where his bones were left to mingle with the silent dust,

"With not a stone to mark the spot."

The tree has no doubt long since gone to decay, the battlefield been converted into a cotton field, whose snowy fleece bears no trace of the crimson tide which that day soaked its sod. Thus the first gun, the first flag and the first martyr have all gone down to oblivion together.



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