Renowned Author James Michener once said "The Irish gave Texas it's basic character." If the Texas character can be surmised as one of determination, astounding bravery and a swashbuckling pioneering bravura, the celebrated scribe hit the nail right on the bloody head.
Irishmen and women have played pivotal roles in the Lone Star State right from the very 'git go' and their role in the quintessential American stand against tyranny at an obscure military garrison called 'The Alamo', has sadly slipped through the cracks of history.
Every St. Patrick's Day, the Harp and Shamrock Society of San Antonio lay a wreath at the old mission chapel as a Marine Corps bugler plays taps and the Irish Tricolor flies proudly above the 17th century shrine. Why the high regard for the men and women from a tiny Island in the North Atlantic thousands of miles from the heart of the Lone Star State!
Irish men and women not only gave the ultimate sacrifice during the siege in 1836, they also played a role in the founding of the first Spanish Presidios whilst fighting off Commanche and Apache natives. A colorful Irishman was also the first 'Anglo' to map the second biggest state in the Union. Texas might still be a part of Mexico were it not for the Irish blood spilled on its soil.
First to play a pivotal role was Dubliner Hugh O'Connor. He was born in the Irish capital city in 1734. An accomplished horse thief, he ran afoul of the English gentry after 'collaring' a bevy of their finest steeds. O'Connor wisely fled to Spain to avoid hanging. He took to the Spanish culture with characteristic aplomb and soon even the King of Spain had fallen for this witty and daring Irishman. His name was changed to the more Hispanic sounding Hugo O'Connor. As a token of the esteem in which he was held by the Royals he was appointed as an Officer in the Volunteer Regiment of Aragon. O'Connor served in Cuba and finally was chosen as Governor of New Spain, (present day Mexico and large portions of the American Southwest) between 1767 and 1770. Texas fell under the Dubliner's jurisdiction. Such high office was a long way from his days of horse thievery in Ireland.
Horse thievery, murder and mayhem soon reared their ugly heads again though. Marauding bands of native Commanche and their Apache fellow warriors were bound and determined to rid their land of the Spanish colonists. Between 1748 and 1772 the Indians slaughtered more than 4,000 settlers. They were not going to go gently into the night.
O'Connor devised a system of 22 presidios and former Franciscan missions that stretched 1,500 miles all the way to California to serve as a defensive buffer against Indian war parties. This acted as an effective deterrent and most of his subjects no longer feared for their scalps. His link to the Alamo came when he laid the foundation stone of the church of the San Antonio Mission. San Antonio would be the site of the defining battle for Texas self-determination sixty years later. Hugh O'Connor soon moved on to become Governor of Yucatan and passed away at the age of 45.
Enter Belfast Native Philip Nolan. He proudly bore his Irish heritage and blazed a new and exciting path deep into the heart of Texas. A more interesting, pioneering and ballsy character would be hard to find in the annals of U.S History. Nolan is a Hollywood screen-writers dream. His headstone near Waco reads "Erected in memory of Philip Nolan. Born in Ireland. First came to Texas in 1791. Nolan's death aroused a wave of indignation that led to the Independence of Texas." Nolan spent his days drinking and womanizing in Louisiana before the adventure bug bit. Keen on making money and exploring the vast unexplored American Southwest, he hit upon a surefire way to do both. Rumor had it that herds of wild Mustangs roamed the plains
of present day Texas. Pre-petroleum and steam, horses were still the main source of transport and good mounts were always in high demand. The Governor of Louisiana, Baron de Carondelet, deemed it a profitable and legitimate enterprise and Nolan sallied forth with his blessing.
Sure enough, horses that had escaped their Spanish masters had gone wild and interbred. The vast feral herds raised clouds of dust as they thundered across the plains of Texas. Nolan became proficient at trapping and breaking them and was soon delivering thousands to Louisiana and throughout the United States. During his exploits, Nolan charmed the Native Commanche and Apache Braves and even learned to speak their respective languages. Rather than alienate them with the haughtiness of the Spanish Colonials he immersed himself in their freewheeling culture. Nolan and the natives were united by their fascination and love of horses and the challenge and adventure of their capture. Nolan was also a free spirited wild man and the warriors recognized and respected one of their own - a noble savage from Belfast.
Word of Nolan's fine horses went right to the top. Thomas Jefferson was intrigued by the swashbuckling linguist from Ireland. He wrote to a friend at the time, "We are not without hopes that Mr. Nolan may decide to try the Virginia Market with his horses. In that case my residence is the best route, I may have the pleasure of seeing him personally and perhaps of purchasing one of his fine animals for the saddle, which I am told are so remarkable for their singularity and beauty of their color and forms."
Nolan had befriended American General James Wilkinson before his venture as a horse dealer. Wilkinson was in charge of defending the Southern Borders between the U.S and New Spain. He wrote to the General. "I wandered among the Indians. I was a favorite with the Tawayes and Commanches. The freedom, the independence of the savage life was always congenial to my nature but I could not altogether Indianfy my heart."
Nolan had once served as Wilkinson's bookkeeper and was known for his prodigious strength. According to the American General he could lift a sack of $2,000 pieces of silver and hoist it over his head with one hand and then dance a jig around the room with the bag held aloft.
Wilkinson's friendship invited suspicion from the Spanish. They feared that Nolan was in cahoots with their powerful northern neighbor and that he was planning to incite a rebellion amongst the native Indians. Nolan had become a threat. Spanish Governor of New Spain Juan Bautista de Elguezabal ordered his arrest in 1800.
On the 21st March 1801 Nolan was tracked down and killed in a skirmish with Spanish soldiers near present day Waco. He met his maker when "killed with a ball to the forehead." Before his death he was offered a peaceful surrender courtesy of an Irish Interpreter called William Barr. When asked to give in peacefully, Nolan, full of piss and vinegar to the bitter end, told his fellow Irishman with colorful language that he'd rather die than surrender to the Spaniards. After he was shot, the Spanish Lieutenant, Muzquiz, granted that he be buried "After his ears be cut off in order to send to the Governor."
His murder and mutilation provoked a wave of indignation throughout the U.S. Resentment against the Spanish Dons who controlled neighboring New Spain was at an all time high. This resentment coupled with expansionist ambitions proved a combustible mix that would set the ball rolling towards a bloody showdown.
Meanwhile an ambitious young Officer had just finished 3rd in his graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Augustus Magee was born in Boston in 1789, the son of Irish parentage. Magee was described by U.S President James Monroe as very tall, robust, of handsome appearance and countenance, a commanding appearance as an officer and a prepossessing manner. He is one of the best informed officers of his age in the American army and amply qualified to add luster to the American name in the career he has chosen." Magee was aware of the murder of Philip Nolan. Providence would soon put him in the position to strike a blow for his fallen kinsman.
Magee was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he served under General Wilkinson. The same Wilkinson who had befriended Nolan now had another fiery and ambitious Irishman under his wing. A move to the "Neutral Ground" was recommended by the prominent American General. The Neutral Ground was one of the most dangerous Military assignments of the day. According to the savvy Wilkinson this would be Magee's best chance at promotion. The Neutral Ground was a fifty mile corridor that served as a buffer zone between the U.S and New Spain.
Policing of the area was a dangerous occupation. Neither army could officially send troops into the region. A den of corruption and violence was spawned and only the U.S had the guts to conduct occasional 'punitive raids' to keep the thieves, rapists and murderers from running completely amok. Young Lt. Augustus Magee was given the unenviable command.
Rather than shy away from the hazardous post, Magee tore into the task with fervor. His reputation as a hard man was enhanced by a saber duel with a Frenchman that caused the loss of Magee's pinky before the Gallic scoundrel was killed by a "heavy blow from the hand". Soon Magee had cleared the zone of most of the unsavory criminal element. General Willcinson recommended him for a promotion but Magee was 'passed over slight that is never forgiven in military circles. Prejudice against an Irish Catholic was a distinct possibility. Magee resigned his commission in disgust.
Whilst policing the Neutral Zone he had rubbed shoulders with one Bernardo Guttierez de Lara. In 1812, both men teamed up to recruit 'an army of the North'. The army was comprised of mercenaries, many of them Irish, who were itching for a fight. Recruits were paid 340 a month and the promise of land and title when Texas was seized from Spain. What became known as the Guttierez-Magee expedition soon marched boldly into Spanish Texas and seized the capital Nacogdoches where they proclaimed Texas free of Spanish Tyranny. The Presidio at Goliad was also captured. The Spaniards rallied and besieged Goliad. Magee turned up dead from an apparent suicide. The year was 1813. Many claim that he was actually murdered by a fellow combatant who wanted an Independent Mexico rather than a new U.S State. The uprising was finally crushed by GeneralJoaquin de Arredondo at the Battle of Medina. Texas was declared a province of Mexico which had now gained independence from the Spanish Crown.
The Magee Expedition was followed with great interest in the U.S. The Spanish had called Magee a "Filibustero". The term refers to an adventurer who engages in private military action against a foreign country. The actual origin of the word comes from the Dutch meaning someone who would steal anything that wasn't nailed down.
To the American public, Magee was a pioneering hero and the seeds for future rebellion were sewn in fertile ground. Soon the torch would be passed to another colorful cast of Irish warriors.
Twenty three years later the most important battle of Texas Independence, from what were now Mexican occupiers, took place. The scene of the tide-turning siege was a small former Franciscan Mission outside present day San Antonio. In 1803 the Mission was converted into a Military fort with the arrival of the secondompany of San Carlos De Parras from El Alamo in Coahuila, Mexico. This is considered by many to be the reason that the Mission became known as 'The Alamo'.
The Mexican army held the adjoining city of San Antonio de Bexar (present day San Antonio) under General Martin Perfecto Cos. The Texan rebel forces were comprised largely of volunteers Erord throughout America with a healthy proportion of Irish. In many homesteads around the country a sign was posted "Gone to Texas". The sacrifices of Nolan and Magee had fueled a fire. This was made clear by a comment made by an American politician of the day, "In the United States people followed Texas events with great interest. Some had kin folk there, others who did not, felt bound by a bond virtually as strong as blood, a love of freedom. A mark remained where the English yoke had chafed."
THE RIGHT FIGHT
Recent Irish Immigrant to Texas and Texan rebel David P. Cummings wrote to his relatives in Ireland; "I say come on. There is a fine field open to you all no matter how you are situated or what may be your circumstances. I believe no country offers such strong inducements to emmigration. Nothing could induce me from my determination of settling here."
Texas had become the 'right fight'. Idealistic young men were drawn to the cause. Amongst these were Davey Crockett, the so called 'King of the Wild Frontier'. Crockett came from Scotch Irish stock as did Jim Bowie and William Travis. Irishman George Childress was instrumental in Crockett's involvement. His impassioned speech in Crockett's home state of Tennessee spoke of "throwing off the yoke of Mexican oppression Bowie was renowned for his skill with the oversized knife that bears his name. These three became the prominent Alamo defenders. Many of the men under their command were Irish recruits. A large percentage had ridden from New Orleans with the 'New Orleans Grays', a regiment that was predominantly Irish.
The city of San Antonio was taken from the Mexicans during a particularly harsh winter. A freezing 'Norther' killed fifty of the Rebel armies oxen. The Rebel force, though enthusiastic, was ill equipped when compared with their Mexican counterparts. This didn't stop them from routing General Cos. The Grays, under Colonel William G. Cooke, the son of Irish parents, played a prominent role in the cities fall. His speech to the rag tag gathering of Texan rebels on the verge of desertion due to the freezing conditions reignited their passion. He then led them in the storming of the main plaza - a move that caused the Mexican surrender. Under Cooke fought men like Stephen Williams, a 75 year old whose father was Irish. He had fought in the revoludonary war against the British in 1812 and was now fully engaged against tyranny of a different stripe. As they ran into the Plaza he raised a bayoneted musket alongside his grandson, Andrew Jackson Youngblood. Also among the rebels was Thomas William Ward. Ward was a Dubliner. A cannonball blew his leg off during the siege. He had joined the fight because of his disdain for Mexican Military Commander General Santa Ana, also known as the 'Napoleon of the West'. Years afterwards he lost another arm and a leg whilst firing a ceremonial canon. The attack was also enjoyed by men named O'Connor, McAnally, McCafferty and Brennan.
Upon hearing of the brazen attack, Santa Anna was livid. He believed that the best way to deal with rebellion was to utterly destroy it without mercy. His countrymen nicknamed him 'Don Demonio' or 'Sir Devil'. General Santa Anna was supreme commander of the Army of the North and President of Mexico. He was particularly furious because General Cos was his brother in law so the taking of San Antonio was seen as a personal insult. Santa Anna's macho pride had been hurt and he was dead set on retaking the city for Mexico. He rounded up a force of 13,000 men and headed for San Antonio. His intentions were made dear in a letter, "Bexar (San Antonio, also known as San Antonio de Bexar) was held by our enemy and it was necessary to open the door to our future operations by taking it."
The first of the Texan rebels to hear of Santa Anna's approach was Colonel William Barrett Travis. Travis, whose Grandmother was Irish, was a cool character. A courier approached him during a fandango with a letter bearing the disturbing news. Travis said, "I could not stay to read letters as I was dancing with the most beautiful woman in San Antonio." Soon the nonchalant mood changed.
A watchman mounted the San Fernando Cathedral in the city. When the marching columns of Mexican cavalry, infantry and artillery came into view Travis weighed his odds and decided to 'hole up' in the Alamo. As the Rebel Columns marched towards the old Mission the young ladies of San Antonio prophetically cried "Poor fellows, you will all be killed."
Many deserted the city as the news spread. Only those with the stomach for bloody battle remained. On the 22nd of February 1836, Santa Anna took over the city. He rode into San Antonio at the head of a force of over 4,000 men. Before retreating to the relative safety of the Alamo, one of the Irish soldiers of the New Orleans Grays hoisted a flag to further gall Santa Anna. It was a tricolor with two stars which was meant to represent Coahuila and Texas. Santa Anna had just crushed a similar uprising in the state of Coahuila and was further enraged by the cheeky Irishman.
Travis, after repairing to the Alamo, sent the following letter to James Fannin urging for reinforcements. "We have removed all of the men to the Alamo where we make such resistance as is due our honor and that of the country. In this extremity, we hope that you can send us all the men you can spare promptly. We have one hundred and forty six men, who are determined never to retreat."
Unfortunately, the only men who answered the call were 32 Irishmen from the Irish settlement of Gonzalez. These were the only reinforcements to arrive before Santa Anna's ferocious onslaught began.
One of the Irishmen who served under Travis at Alamo, Joseph M. Hawkins wrote to Travis. "Be consoled, fight the good fight. Fight and we are with you to a man. Let the low, intriguing Mexican speculators know, that the sons of Washington and St. Patrick will not submit to delusion, rascality and usurpation. May God Bless you and prosper you is the sincere wish of an honest son of Erin and a friend to Texan Independence.
Santa Anna would soon hoist a flag of his own. He ordered a blood red flag with a skull and cross bones to be attached to the crucifur atop the San Fernando Cathedral. The banner could be dearly seen from the ramparts of the Alamo. In the words of Travis, "The flag signified that the war is one of vengeance against rebels. They were threatening to murder all prisoners and make Texas a waste desert." Its meaning was made even clearer by a Mexican soldier, "To march to Texas with a strong hand and to make the base colonist bite the dust. Until national honor, now outraged will be with sword and fire well avenged." Even more ominous and spine chilling for the Alamo defenders was the 'deguello'. This was a distinctive tune played by a trumpeter that meant that "no quarter was to be given". It had its origins from the Moors who had conquered Spain and meant to "slit the throat".
From the outset, the odds were heavily stacked against Bowie, Travis, Crockett and the assorted Irishmen within the Mission walls. Trenches were dug around the fort in an attempt to level the playing field as the defenders dug in and prepared for the worst. One last attempt at a peaceful resolution to the stand off was made by Irishman Green B. Jameson. Jameson was an engineer who was largely responsible for designing and reenforcing the Alamo's defenses. 29 year old Jameson rode from the fort bearing a white flag and a written message penned by James Bowie.'Santa Anna replied. "The Mexican Army cannot come to terms under any conditions with rebellious foreigners." Travis was enraged and said "I would rather die than surrender to the Mexicans.
Shortly thereafter, the Mexican bombardment began. Cannonballs pounded the fort from every direction. Five inch Howizers also laid heavy fire. This continued for three days but not one of the defenders lost their lives. Davey Crockett was the emotional leader during the initial onslaught. An eye witness reported "Crockett was everywhere. He could shoot from the wall or though portholes. Then he would run back and say something funny. During the siege he took up the violin and played rousing tunes to boost morale." Throughout the brutal 11 day siege Crockett was heard saying "I think we had better march out and die in the open air; I don't like to be all hemmed up."
After the first three days a viciously cold Norther blew in to southern Texas. Sharpshooters manned the Alamo ramparts and thirty Mexican soldiers were killed in the space of a few minutes. An amazing fact since Travis's men were armed with simple shot guns and muskets whilst their Mexican foes had all the finest hardware including British Baker Rifles. The Mexican 'cazadores' were elite light infantry troops and had the most effect on the Texans. They were excellent snipers to a man. According to Lt. Colonel Frank Johnson. 'Amongst the Texans there was scarcely a musket or bayonet in the army. The principle weapons were rifles and shotguns." This was hardly surprising considering that most of the defenders, the Irish included, were either farmers, pioneers or hunter/trappers. Most were armed with knives and some even had tomahawks. Along with the formidable 12 inch Bowie knives with stag horn handles, many Arkansas toothpicks,' were also brandished. These were throwing knives and were used to deadly effect when the fighting became more up close and personal.
After ten days of valiant defense no troops, apart from the gallant Irishmen from Gonzalez, had come to aid the small group of rebels who held the vastly superior Mexican force at bay. Their success at doing so was largely thanks to Jameson's cleverly designed trenches around the fort. The Irish engineer's strategy was working as continuous assaults were repulsed after large numbers of Santa Anna's men were picked off by Texan sharpshooters who lay protected in their muddy confines.
Despite the lack of reinforcements, morale within the fort remained high. Bowie was bed ridden but determined to fight and Crockett continued to play the fiddle and crack jokes as cannonball and howitzer whistled over his daring head. Travis was defiant when he wrote, "Their threats have had no influence on me or my men, but to make all fight with desperation, and that high souled courage which characterizes the patriot, who is willing to die in defense of his country's liberty and honor.
After 13 days of stalwart defense, Santa Anna mounted what would become the final assault on March 6th 1836. Four battalions advanced in unison intent on crushing the rebels. A Mexican woman had escaped from the fort the night before and informed Santa Anna of the ridiculous number of defenders. He was emboldened and decided to crush the "vile traitors" once and for all. He believed his cause to be right as a national Mexican law decreed 'death for armed foreign pirates'. On the night before the assault he sat eating a chicken leg and holding it aloft said. "What are the lives of soldiers but so many chickens! I tell you the Alamo must fall." Shortly after these words a force of over 4,500 Mexican soldiers set upon the fort amidst cries of "Viva Santa Anna and the blood curdling trumpet blasts of the 'Deguello'.
THE BATTLE'S END
As this went on Travis was seen drawing a line with his sword and uttered the immortal words "My soldiers, I am going to meet the fate that becomes me. Those who will stand by me, let them remain, bur those who desire to go, let them go- and who crosses the line...shall go." All did but two men. One shrieked and ned over the ramparts. The other was bedridden Jim Bowie. Sick with tuberculosis he cried out with tears in his eyes "Boys, won't none of you help me over there!" Crockett and a trio of defenders picked him from his cot and carried him over the line. The Spanish lady who witnessed this exchange, a Senora Candelaria said,'IAt this time we all knew that we were doomed, but no one was in favor of surrendering." The man that fled was named Rose and he was amazed at the scene of death he witnessed as he ran from the fort. The ground around the'Alamo was literally covered with slaughtered Mexicans. He slid through pools of blood and bellowed as he skittered away.
Eventually the fort was stormed and the defenses breached. Room to room fighting ensued. Most of it was fought with knife and bayonet. One of the surviving witnesses said "The screams of the crazy ewltant Mexicans increased every moment. I can only compare such screams to the yell of a mountain panther or lynx in desperate straits. It did not seem as if a mouse could live in a building so riddled and blood spattered as the Alamo was that morning." Travis soon fell as the melee ensued. As he lay wounded on the ground he ran General Esteban Mora through with his saber as Mora slashed him with his. Both men died on the spot. Travis was 26 years old.
The defenders fought like wild men. Bowie fired his pistol from his cot until he was cornered and bayoneted to death. Many of the valiant were impaled on multiple bayonets and hoisted into the air like bales of hay. According to a Mexican officer "Crockett fought like an infuriated lion...his last stand was in a small room and with his gun in hand he brained every Mexican that tried to enter the door. The Mexican Soldiers made a rush into the room with fixed bayonets, but drawing a large knife with his left hand, he rushed upon his assailants and, parrying their thrusts, killed several before he was finally slain." Legend has it that the last man to die in the fort was an Irishman - Major Robert T Evans, the ordnance officer. His last duty was to blow up the armory before it could be captured. There are conflicting reports about this but many claim that he succeeded and that a furious Santa Anna repeatedly stabbed his lifeless body.
Santa Anna sent a company of dragoons to gather firewood and the bodies of the defenders were unceremoniously burned. The stench of burning flesh filled the air for miles around. The bodies that couldn't be burned were thrown into the San Antonio River. They became so numerous that the river was congested and flocks of hungry vultures gathered to feast at the macabre scene.
182 Texans were killed, 13 of them were born in Ireland and countless others, Bowie, Travis and Crockett amongst them had Irish blood coursing through their veins. Santa Anna lost 1,600 of his finest troops. Lt Colonel Navarro commented. "It can be truly said that with another such victory as this we'll all go to the devil.
In 1874 Thomas Farmer wrote. "Hark young man when you approach that Holy Place. Take the shoes from your feet for it is Holy Ground. Ye lovers of liberty, you tread upon holy ground. The life blood of a Travis, a Bowie, a Crockett and a Dickson and many others were sown there to yield up a mighty nation.
Irish American actor John Wayne expressed a similar sentiment after making a movie about the battle, he became enamored with "the story of 18 men joined together in an immortal pact to give their lives that the spark of freedom might become a roaring flame." 'The Duke' went on to describe the defenders as "unbelievably gallant".
The spark lit at the Alamo did indeed become a roaring flame. Santa Anna was defeated by Sam Houston and hundreds of Irish Volunteers a month later at the battle of San Jacinto. Many of the Irish roared "Remember the Alamo" as they put countless Mexicans to the sword. The self styled 'Napoleon of the West' was captured at Vince's Bayou and sent Ěto Washington D.C. Texas was free and the border with Mexico was acknowledged as the Rio Grande.
The Irish born who fell were:
JOSEPH M. HAWKINS
WILLIAM D. JACKSON
JACKSON C. RUSK
WILLIAM B. WARD