African Americans and the fight for the Alamo

It was early March 1836; a sad little procession moved slowly down a south Texas road. A young mother rode a pony, holding her fifteen months old baby daughter, and a black man walked beside her, acting as escort. Just a few days earlier, this trio of weary travelers had witnessed the fall of the mission fortress, the Alamo. There, the Mexican forces of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna made the woman, Susannah Arabella Dickinson, a widow.

Suddenly, a man arose out of the tall prairie grass beside the road, frightening Mrs. Dickinson. She relaxed when she recognized the familiar features of Joe, the young black servant of Lieutenant Colonel William Barret Travis, the commander of the Texian garrison of the Alamo. Thus, two African Americans, both deeply involved with the drama of the Alamo siege and final assault, met on the road leading from the Alamo to Gonzales.

Ben, the black man escorting Susannah and her daughter, had watched the final moments of the Alamo battle from a house in San Antonio. He was in the town working as a cook for Gen. Santa Anna and Colonel Juan Nepomuceno Almonte. A free person, who worked as a steward on several ships sailing out of the east coast of the U.S., Ben met Colonel Almonte in New York. Impressed with Ben, Col. Almonte hired him as a cook. Almonte returned to Mexico and Ben accompanied him to Vera Cruz. When Santa Anna started his 1836 campaign to suppress the Texas Revolution, he assigned Col. Almonte to his staff. Almonte took Ben along.

On the evening of March 5, General Santa Anna ordered Ben to keep coffee and other refreshments ready all night. At 11 or 12 o’clock, Santa Anna and Almonte left, returning at 2 or 3 in the morning with other staff officers. At 4 am, they left again; shortly afterwards, Ben heard the sounds of cannon and musket fire. Looking from the window of the house, the flashes from the guns illuminated the walls of the Alamo, enabling him to see the Mexican assaulting columns. The firing ended before daylight; a little later, Santa Anna and his staff returned. Ben remembered a staff member “remarking that the victory had cost more than it was worth and that many such would ruin them.”

Ben had once seen David Crockett in Washington, DC. Therefore, at daylight, the Mexicans took him to the fort to identify Crockett’s body. few days after the battle, Santa Anna ordered Ben to escort Susannah Dickinson and her daughter to the Texian lines. After Ben fulfilled his mission, General Sam Houston hired him to serve as his cook. After the battle of San Jacinto, Ben fades from historical record.

Joe saw the assault on the Alamo from the much closer viewpoint of a participant. Joe had arrived at the Alamo in very different circumstances from Ben; he arrived as a slave. Twenty-three years old at the time of the battle, his master, a Mr. Mansfield, took him to Texas before 1833. On 13 February 1834, W. B. Travis purchased Joe for a body servant. A year later, Travis needed money and was considering selling him. However, they were still together in early February 1836, when Joe rode into San Antonio with Travis and the cavalry company of Captain John Hubbard Forsyth.

When the Mexican soldados attacked the Alamo in the early morning hours of March 6, 1836, Joe was with Travis in the headquarters of the fortress. When the alarm was given, they both hurried from their beds. Grabbing his rifle, Joe followed his master as he raced to the northwest gun platform. After shouting encouragement to his troops, Travis fired his shotgun into the massed ranks of the Mexican troops attempting to climb the walls. Almost immediately, he was struck in the forehead by an enemy musket ball and fell, one of the first defenders to die. Joe then took shelter in one of the rooms along the west wall.

Joe remained alone in his refuge, watching through a loophole, from where he saw the Texian defensive position along the north wall collapse. He fired several times at the Mexican troops flooding the plaza of the Alamo. After the battle, he heard an officer of the Mexican army asking, in English, if there were any Negroes present. Joe left his shelter, saying, “Yes, here’s one.” Two soldiers immediately attacked him, one shooting him in the side and the other striking him in the other side with a bayonet. Luckily, the bullet wound was slight and the bayonet thrust just scratched him. The Mexican officer was able to stop his soldados before they seriously injured Joe.

After the battle, General Santa Anna questioned Joe and asked him to identify the bodies of Travis, Crockett, and James Bowie. Later, in an effort to impress him with the size of the Mexican Army, Santa Anna invited Joe to witness a grand review. After being kept prisoner in San Antonio for several days, Joe escaped, meeting Ben and the Dickinsons on the road later.

After the Revolution, Joe was turned over to John Rice Jones as part of the settlement on Travis’ estate. On 21 April 1837, Joe escaped, along with a Mexican worker, taking two horses with them. Jones posted an advertisement that ran in the Telegraph and Texas Register for over three months. He offered $50.00 for the return of the two men and horses. The public notice described Joe as being “about twenty-five years of age, five feet ten or eleven inches high, very black and good countenance: had on when he left… a dark mixed satinet round jacket and new-white cotton pantaloons.”

Although Joe was with Travis for only two years, later circumstances indicate that they may have known each other earlier in Alabama, and their relationship may have been much deeper than one would expect between a master and his slave. After escaping from Jones, Joe did not make his way north, or south into Mexico, to gain his freedom as one would expect. Instead, there are stories that he made his way to Conecuh County, Alabama, the home of the Travis family. There, he delivered the first news they received of the Alamo and the death of Travis. It is hard to imagine the dangers an escaped slave must have faced, traveling through four southern states and crossing the Mississippi River en route. After fulfilling his duty to Travis, as he saw it, Joe remained in Alabama until his death.

Joe and Ben were not the first African Americans involved in the struggle for the Alamo. In December of 1835, the Texian Army besieged the Mexican garrison soldiers of General Martin Perfecto de Cos in Bexar and the Alamo. One of their chief scouts was a free Black man, Hendrick Arnold. Arnold was the son-in-law of the famous Deaf Smith, being married to the daughter of Smith’s wife by her first marriage.

Another Black Texian present in December was a free man named Greenbury B. Logan. Logan was a private in Captain John York’s Company of Volunteers. He was one of the brave Texians who accepted the challenge to “follow old Ben Milam into San Antonio,” and was a participant in the vicious street fighting from the 5th to the 10th.” The Texians divided the attacking force into two divisions, with York’s company being one of the six companies under the direct command of Colonel Benjamin Rush Milam. Private Logan was severely wounded during the battle and is on the casualty report prepared on the 17th by Samuel Stivers and Dr. Amos Pollard. Logan must have left Bexar some time before mid-January because he does not appear on the muster roll which Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill prepared at that time. After the revolution, Logan was issued a Donation Certificate for 640 acres of land for having taken part in the battle. He was still living in 1881.

Ironically, while G. B. Logan was still recovering from the effects of the wound he received in the cause of Texas liberty, Don Carlos Barret, of the committee on state and judiciary at the Council Hall in San Felipe, submitted a formal proposal barring free blacks from emigrating to Texas. His contention was that “the residence of such free Negroes and mulattos among us, would prove an evil difficult to be remedied should it once be tolerated… The infusion of dissatisfaction and disobedience into the brain of the honest and contented slave, by vagabond free Negroes who, denied the society of whites, from necessity or choice, associate with persons of their own color.”

For any free Negro already residing in Texas, Barret wanted it made “lawful for any citizen of Texas to apprehend said Negro or mulatto and take him or her before the judge or alcalde of the municipality in which he or she may be apprehended.” The state would sell the “apprehended” person at public auction. The proceeds of the sale would be split, one third going to the person who seized the free black and the remainder going to the state treasury.

There is a possibility that some of the Mexican soldados fighting against the Texians could have been African Americans. Although the authorities tolerated slavery in their Texas province, it was outlawed in the rest of Mexico, and some slaves escaped there. It is documented that there were Negroes in some of the Mexican battalions, including at least one first sergeant of a company in the Morelos Battalion.13 There is no way to know if any of the Black Mexican soldados were escaped slaves from Texas, but it is worthy of consideration.

In addition to the above well-documented African Americans in the struggle for the Alamo, other, more shadowy figures swirl through the historical record. In one of Joe’s accounts of the battle, he said that there were several other Negroes in the fort and, after the fight, he saw the body of a black woman lying between two cannons.

Many rosters of the Alamo dead list a John, with no last name. It is not certain who this man was, but he may have been the slave, a store clerk, of Captain Francis L. DeSauque. DeSauque was a member of the Alamo garrison before to the start of the siege. On 22 February, Travis sent him to deliver dispatches and obtain supplies, leaving John behind to die a hero’s death in the Alamo.

Some Alamo historians list a black servant of Colonel James Bowie, a slave or freedman who is said to have survived the battle. His name is variously given as Sam, Ham, or Ben, but there are no surviving interviews with him.16 Most modern researchers think that Sam did not exist.

According to a document filed by the father of Alamo defender William R. Carey, Carey’s body servant was present and died at the Alamo. There were other slave holders in the Alamo garrison and it is possible that any of them could have had servants who were present during the siege and battle.

Finally, there is an account of a black woman, a former slave named Bettie, who said she was a cook for Jim Bowie. Her story is usually dismissed as a fabrication, since it sounds like a comic burlesque, but early Texas historian John Salmon Ford believed it. Bettie said that she and a black man, Charlie, were in the kitchen of the Alamo during the final battle. The Alamo kitchen was in a small room attached to the low barracks, which is where Jim Bowie’s body was found after the battle, so this lends some credence to her tale.

Near the close of the battle, a group of Mexican soldados broke into the kitchen. Charlie tried to hide but was discovered and dragged out, one of the soldados trying to stab him with his bayonet. Charlie grabbed their officer, a small man, and, holding his body in front of him, backed into a corner. The soldado continued to try to bayonet Charlie, with Charlie keeping the unfortunate and helpless officer between them. This macabre dance lasted for several minutes until the officer called for a truce. Charlie freed his human shield who, in turn, promised to safeguard Charlie’s life.

What eventually happened to Charlie is unknown, but Bettie remained with the Mexican Army after the battle. After their defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto, she accompanied them during their retreat back to Mexico. William Neale, a Texan living near the mouth of the Rio Grande at that time, met her and she related the above story. Neale hired her and she stayed with him for a year or two. One day, Texan war ships appeared and, afraid that they might capture her and take her back into slavery, she fled south to Monterey, where she disappeared from history.

Only bare fragments of information are known about the African Americans involved in the Texas Revolution and the battle of the Alamo. Since they lived on the fringes of white society, white chroniclers of the time largely ignored them. All we have are a few short, superficial accounts, little more than anecdotes, about black men and women who lacked even last names. Throughout the entire siege, Joe stood at the right hand of the commander of the Alamo garrison. Ben was present at many staff meetings, of the highest level, presided over by the leader of the Mexican Army. Sadly, nobody at the time considered asking an African American for in-depth details of what occurred during the siege and battle. Today, Texas history is poorer because of those prevailing attitudes of the time.

Written by Robert L. Durham for the Sons of Dewitt Colony

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