J.C. Neill: The Forgotten Alamo Commander

An earlier draft of this expanded article was
published in THE ALAMO JOURNAL.
The men of the Alamo claim seats of honor in the hall of Texas heroes. If Texans respect the memory of Dickinson and Bonham, they revere those of Travis, Crockett, and Bowie. Indeed, the Alamo and its defenders have passed into American folklore, assuming the role of a cultural archetype. All who even remotely connected with the epic battle have basked in its glory.

All, it seems, except Lieutenant Colonel James Clinton Neill. When remembered at all, historians have tended to judge him harshly. A picture emerges of a commander overwhelmed by circumstance and events, a nobody dominated by giants, a nonentity more to be pitied than condemned. Jack Patton and John Rosenfield Jr.'s Texas History Movies has Neill asking to be relieved and shows his caricature proclaiming in disgust: "I'm leaving. We can't hold off the Mexicans with this outfit."

With smug condescension, popular writer Walter Lord labeled Neill, "conscientious but unimaginative" and a "good second-rater." Professor Ben Procter supported that view by simply parroting Lord. Travis biographer Martha Anne Turner, also citing Lord as her source, wrote "for all of his limitations" the Alamo defenders were sorry to see Neill leave the command to Travis. She fails to indicate, however, just what those limitations were. Historian Tom W. Gläser intoned that Neill felt "overshadowed," inferring that once Travis Crockett, and Bowie arrived on the scene, the weak and indifferent Neill invented an excuse to leave his command to "strong characters." Neill is thus depicted as an amateur of trifling importance and modest ability, who at the first opportunity surrendered his post to "abler, more imaginative leaders."

Contemporaries had a vastly different opinion of the man. D. C. Barrett, a neighbor, considered Neill "very suitable, and [in] every way qualified" for field rank in the Texian army. "He is a gentleman," he continued, "high in the esteem of his fellow citizens—brave and patriotic—He responded to the first call of his country, when danger & invasion threatened us." John  Holland Jenkins, a young soldier who served under him, testified that Neill's "bravery and experience won him a hearty welcome in our midst." Praising Neill's diversionary attack during the storming of Béxar, General Edward Burleson reported it had been "effected to my entire satisfaction." One of Neill's officers clearly valued his commander's praise. "Colo[.] Neill," he boasted to his family, "thinks a great deal of my judgment and consults me about a number of the proceedings before he issues an order." Obviously, if he had not admired Neill he would not have considered his approval noteworthy. Early Texas historians were also kinder. Henry Stuart Foote wrote of the "gallant Colonel Neill." When the views of modern historians and those who actually knew the man are at such variance, one is forced to reappraise his career.

Even before the shooting began, his associates considered Neill a community stalwart. In 1831 he had traveled from Alabama with his wife and three children, to sink his roots in the fertile soil of present Milam County. By 1833 his neighbors held him in sufficient esteem to elect him to the convention meeting in San Felipe called to discuss grievances against the Mexican government. By 1834 he had taken up residence in Mina (modern Bastrop), a rough-hewn frontier settlement on the banks of the Colorado River. He had seen extensive service against the Redstick faction of the Creek tribe during the War of 1812. He enlisted on September 20, 1814, and service records indicate he mustered out on April 10, 1815. During that period he commanded a company in Major William Woodfolk's Battalion of Tennessee Militia Infantry. John Henry Brown, Texas historian and fellow ranger, identified Neill as "a tired old soldier of the Indian wars of the United States." Jenkins asserted Neill "already bore the scars of wounds received in service under General [Andrew] Jackson in 1812—he was wounded in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend." Although he commanded a company of militia infantry, he apparently gained some understanding of cannon, for on September 28, 1835, Neill entered the Texian militia as an artillery captain.

When the centralist troops of Antonio López de Santa Anna entered the province in summer of 1835, Neill stood ready to oppose them. Conflict escalated to combat when a detachment of centralist dragoons attempted to retrieve an old Spanish six-pound cannon from the Anglo-Celtic settlers of Gonzales. Texians determined not to hand over the field piece and summoned help from the surrounding settlements. Local militiamen flocked to the aid of their beleaguered neighbors. Predictably, J. C. Neill was among them. On October 2, 1835, John H. Moore led a force of some 160 Texians in an attack on the dragoons. Lieutenant Francisco de Castañeda, the commander of the centralist contingent, withdrew to a nearby rise and requested a parley. Moore and Castañeda met between the lines, but it soon became apparent that the time for talk had passed. A make-shift rebel banner succinctly expressed prevailing sentiment: the contested cannon perched above a defiant challenge to "COME AND TAKE IT." As Moore returned to his lines, he shouted the command to fire.

Neill discharged the same cannon the dragoons had hoped to acquire. That shot ignited the Texas Revolution. At least two sources confirm that Neill personally touched off the "Come and Take It" cannon. "It is not recorded," stated John Holland Jenkins, "but it is nevertheless a fact the Colonel Neill fired the first gun for Texas at the beginning of the revolution—the famous little brass cannon at Gonzales." Extolling Neill's performance at Gonzales, D. C. Barrett wrote Sam Houston: "He was the first in camp whose experience was sufficient to mount & point a cannon at the enemies of Texas, and of liberty in our land."

Neill and the cannon joined General Stephen F. Austin's "Army of the People" on its march from Gonzales to San Antonio de Béxar. To position himself between the centralist garrison of General Martín Perfecto de Cos and reinforcements from the Mexican interior, Austin ordered a sweep south of the town. He then drove up the San Antonio River from his headquarters at Mission Espada. On October 28, 1835, a Texian reconnaissance led by James Bowie and James W. Fannin, Jr. defeated a superior enemy force near the Mission Concepción. After methodically picking off its gunners, Texians captured an isolated centralist field piece. Neill could now oversee a battery of two rebel cannon. Soon afterward, a detachment of New Orleans Grays arrived with two pieces of ordnance, which were placed in battery west of the old Alamo mission, which the centralists used for a cavalry post. Lack of ammunition was a constant frustration for Neill's gunners, but they retrieved the round shot the enemy fired at them, loaded it in their own artillery, and returned it with their compliments. Despite their efforts, the artillery fire accomplished "little more than the trouble and expense of making a great noise." Cannon alone could not root Cos's troops out of Béxar. That would require an infantry assault.

Neill realized that the Texians needed carefully planned artillery support to storm Béxar. But planning—careful or otherwise—was not a Texian trait. Confusion was. Edward Burleson had replaced General Austin, who had been recalled to serve as an agent to the United States. Burleson, a veteran frontiersman and Indian fighter, wished to assault the town, but was overruled by the unanimous vote of his officers. Nothing remained but to order a withdrawal. Colonel Ben Milam, disgusted with the decision to abandon the siege, appealed directly to the soldiers. "Who will go with old Ben Milam in to San Antonio?" he challenged. Some three hundred rebels responded. Milam understood that if his infantrymen were to achieve the necessary surprise, they would have to distract the centralists.

He called on Neill and his artillerymen. In the early morning darkness of December 5, 1835, Captain Neill took one gun and its crew across the San Antonio River. Just before dawn, the artillerymen opened fire on the Alamo. Columns under Milam and Colonel Frank Johnson huddled in the cold awaiting the sound of Neill's cannon—the signal to attack. One of those waiting was German-born Hermann Ehrenberg, who recalled that the noise of the cannon "encouraged us," since the "din and confusion" provided a "better chance of slipping into the city unnoticed." Ehrenberg continued:

The hollow roar of our cannon was followed by the brisk rattling of [the enemy's] drums and the shrill blast of the bugles. Summons, cries, the sudden trampling of feet, the metallic click of weapons mingled in the distance with the heavy rumbling of artillery. Our friends had done the trick.
Indeed they had. While the centralists focused their attention on the Alamo, rebel infantrymen stealthily slipped into Béxar. By taking a position west of the San Antonio River, however, Neill had dangerously exposed himself and his team. Had Cos hurled a squadron of cavalrymen against the lone artillery piece, they could have easily captured it and slaughtered its crew. No person was more aware of that than Neill. Consequently, once he knew that the assault force had successfully breached the town's defenses, he quickly led his men back to camp across the river. All agreed that casualties would have been far heavier but for Neill's initial diversion. In Burleson's official post-battle report he affirmed that Neill had executed his ruse to the general's "entire satisfaction."

Once inside Béxar, the Texian assault troops engaged in bitter house-to-house fighting. They pushed back Cos's stubborn defenders yard by painful yard. On the third day Milam fell, shot through the head. Running out of places to retreat, Cos implemented a daring plan to reduce the pressure on his crumbling defenses. With so many rebels committed to the assault, the Texian camp must be vulnerable. If a sortie could capture the Texian logistical base, Johnson's men would have no alternative but to abandon the town. The plan was a gamble, but the centralists had few alternatives left.

On the afternoon of December 8, day four of the assault, the centralists sallied out of Béxar with one column of cavalry and another of infantry. Burleson stood ready for such an attempt. The enemy horsemen approached from the west side of the river, the infantry from the east; apparently they planned to engulf the Texian camp in a pincer movement. With bugles blaring and pennants flying, the cavalrymen provided Burleson's men with a rare spectacle. Rebel Henry B. Dance was impressed:

It appeared we were to be swept of[f] by a general charge by the Cavilry [sic], infantry, and lancers, playing more music than I ever heard. They were in a great stir, Sallying and charging.
Neill and his gun crews, their ordnance packed with canister, watched the enemy's advance. When the combined force approached "within good cannon shot distance," the insurgent artillery unleashed a hailstorm of flying metal. "The enimy [sic]being surprised to find our encampment strong and protected by a park of artillery," reported William T. Austin, "declined making the intended attack & suddenly drew off & retired within his walls." Ehrenberg told much the same story:
About three o'clock in the afternoon we saw and heard for the first time the fanfare of a Mexican assault. A unit of the blue coats numbering about five hundred or six hundred came streaming forth from inside the walls of the Alamo.... After the enemy had paraded around a while in all his splendor, but at a respectable distance from us, and after he had taken a few loads from our cannons, he marched very quietly and without fanfare back into the Alamo. He saw that his ruse had not worked. [English translation courtesy of Louis E. Brister.]
Had the centralists been able to overwhelm the federalist camp, those storm troops inside Béxar would have had no choice but to abandon the assault. The steady behavior of Neill and his gunners was decisive. Quite simply, they saved the Texian army.

The fall of Béxar brought recognition for Neill and a windfall of centralist artillery. As chief of Texian ordnance, he found himself with an arsenal of more than twenty field pieces. With Cos and his army on the march to the Rio Grande, the thoughts of most Texians turned to hearth and home. General Burleson left Frank Johnson in command of a skeleton garrison, then departed himself. On December 17, 1835, Johnson sent the General Council a list of officers whom he considered deserving of commissions in the Texas regular army. The politicos in San Felipe accepted his recommendations. Commensurate with his new responsibilities, they commissioned Neill lieutenant colonel of artillery. At the same time the Council appointed Neill's staff: artillery captains Almeron Dickinson and T. K. Pearson, with W. R. Carey as first lieutenant. Béxar was the proper duty station for the fledgling ordnance service; it possessed the greatest concentration of cannon north of the Rio Grande and west of the Mississippi River.

With all centralist forces removed from Texas soil, the focus of the war effort shifted away from Béxar. Even before Cos surrendered, Scotsman James W. Grant had been agitating for an expedition against Matamoros. Following the fall of San Antonio most old settlers were content to let the centralistas leave in peace. The newly arrived volunteers from the United States, however, had come to Texas for high adventure and quick wealth. Having found little of either around Béxar, they fell easy prey to extravagant tales of plentiful pesos and brown-eyed beauties in Matamoros.

There were a few Texas leaders, however, that considered a thrust on the Mexican interior sheer madness. Over the objection of wiser heads, Johnson wrote the Council that he had "ordered an expedition against Matamoros of Five hundred and thirty men, Volunteers of Texas and from the United States—by whom I have been appointed to the command." In the same letter of January 3, 1836, he explained the arrangements he had made for the defense of Béxar:

I have left in garrison at Bexar 100 men under Command of Lieut Col Neill. This force I consider to be barely sufficient to hold the post and it will require at least Fifty additional troops to place it in a strong defensive position. I have ordered all the guns from the town into the alamo [sic] and the fortification in the town to be destroyed.
Johnson had placed Neill in an almost impossible position. What Cos had been unable to achieve with twelve hundred men, Johnson now expected him to accomplish with one hundred. The two Texian commanders were aware that such a meager compliment could not maintain both the fort and the town. Cos's attempt to hold both had in large measure been his undoing. The rebels, perforce, chose to concentrate the garrison behind the thick adobe walls of the Alamo.

The captured ordnance proved a mixed blessing. Cos had abandoned more than twenty cannon, but some were not mounted on carriages. Neill brought about twenty-one of the best guns into the fort, an impressive array by frontier standards. The actual number was irrelevant as long as the tight-fisted Council in San Felipe was unable to raise funds for gunpowder and ammunition. Neill, nevertheless, was the chief of artillery; he considered it his duty to remain with his guns.

Neill resolutely set about the task assigned to him, but labored under no illusions. On January 6 he wrote the Council praising his soldiers "who acted so gallantly in the ten week open-field campaign, and then won an unparalleled victory in the five days siege of this place." He complained that such men deserved better treatment from comrades-in-arms:

We have 104 men and two distinct fortresses to garrison, and about twenty-four pieces of artillery. You, doubtless have learned that we have no provisions or clothing since Johnson and Grant left. If there has ever been a dollar here, I have no knowledge of it. The clothing sent here by the aid and patriotic exertion of the honorable council was taken from us by the arbitrary measures of Johnson and Grant, taken from men who endured all the hardships of winter and who were not even sufficiently clad for summer, many of them having but one blanket and one shirt, and what was intended for them given away to men, some of whom had not been in the army more than four days, and many not exceeding two weeks. If a divide had been made of them, the most needy of my men could have been made comfortable by the stock of clothing and provisions taken from here.
Neill further explained that he needed at least three hundred men to repair and improve the Alamo's dilapidated defenses. Following that, the vast compound would require two hundred men just to man the perimeter.

In addition to these official responsibilities, Neill also acted as unofficial liaison between the Comanches and the ad hoc Texian government in San Felipe. On January 8 an "Embassdor [sic] from the Comache [sic] nation" informed Neill that his tribe was "in an attitude of hostilities" toward the Texians. The envoy suggested, however, the two peoples could avoid war if they drafted a "Treaty of Amity, Commerce & Limits." Neill deferred to the experience of bexareños Francisco Ruiz and Gaspar Flores, who were "familiar with the Camancha [sic] character, and have acted in the capacity of negociators [sic] to that nation." Extant records do not reveal the terms they offered, but the Comanches must have found them satisfactory, for there were no raids near Béxar that year. By their foresight and diplomacy, Neill, Ruiz, and Flores had averted what could have proved a nightmare scenario for Texas—a two front war against the centralistas and the Comanches.

That diplomatic achievement was but one of the fruits of a warm working relationship Neill enjoyed with the San Antonio community. He well understood that the garrison must rely upon the bexareños for sustenance and was careful to nurture their good will. A number of federalist tejanos had seen action during the siege and storming of Béxar; now they once again joined their Anglo-Celtic comrades in a common cause. "We can rely on great aid from the citizens of this town in case of an attack," Neill assured. "They have no money here, but Don Gasper [sic] Flores and Louisiano [sic] Navaro [sic] have offered us all their goods, Groceries, and Beeves, for the use and support of the army." Despite Neill's assertion that the local civilians had no cash, some evidence exists that the ayuntamiento approved a loan of five hundred pesos "to Col. Neill to pay for Texas troops."

The Alamo commander fired off constant letters requesting reinforcements, supplies, and pay for his men. For all of his impassioned pleas, no aid came from the disunited Council, because it had none to send and took no action to acquire any. Perhaps the commanding general would be more responsive. In a desperate but determined dispatch to Sam Houston, Neill explained his plight:

The men under my command have been in the field for the last four months. They are almost naked, and this day they were to have received pay for the first month of their last enlistment, and almost every one of them speaks of going home, and not less than twenty will leave tomorrow, and leave here only about eighty efficient men under my command.... We are in a torpid, defenseless condition, and have not and cannot get from the citizens here horses enough to send out a patrol or spy company.... I hope we will be reinforced in eight days, or we will be overrun by the enemy, but, if I have only 100 men, I will fight 1,000 as long as I can and then not surrender.
Moved by Neill's heartfelt appeal—and in an attempt to consolidate his own power base—General Houston made plans to evacuate the Alamo garrison, at which point it would fall under his direct command. On January 17 he informed Governor Henry Smith that he had dispatched James Bowie to blow up the Alamo and assist Neill's withdrawal. With that letter, Houston wrote the first page of what has become the most consistently misunderstood (and misrepresented) chapters of the Alamo story. Since this traditionally misconstrued incident bears directly on Neill's character, leadership, and the question of his (alleged) insubordination, it becomes necessary to examine it in some detail.

The canard has gained acceptance through sheer repetition: Houston wisely ordered the Alamo blown up; if the defenders had only obeyed his directive, they might have averted needless tragedy; through their obstinate insubordination, the Alamo commanders were the agents of their own destruction. This assessment made its way into several Texas history survey texts. In Texas: A History, for example, Professor Seymour V. Connor made this pronouncement: "[Houston] sent orders by Bowie to Colonel Neill in San Antonio to destroy the fortifications there and draw back to Gonzales with all the military supplies he could move." As Dr. Connor explained it:

Neill disobeyed the order to withdraw, and when he took a leave to visit his family, Bowie also refused to instigate the retreat. Governor Smith ordered William Barret Travis to San Antonio to take command, apparently intending the city's evacuation, but Travis too became enamored of the idea of defending the ancient capital "so dearly won," by the fighting in December.
One must admire Dr. Connor's consistency. Everything he has to say regarding Houston alleged orders to abandon the Alamo is wrong. As we shall see, Houston did not send "orders by Bowie to Colonel Neill to destroy the fortifications." Consequently, Neill could not have disobeyed the "order to withdraw." Finally, Smith did not order Travis to San Antonio "to take command."

Still, it would be unfair to single out Dr. Connor. Nearly everyone who has ever written on the Alamo has misrepresented this incident. Each authority provides his own reason for this willful disobedience. Lon Tinkle, for example, concluded: "It was Jim Bowie's extensive holdings in Texas land that caused him to disobey Sam Houston's order to blow up the Alamo—that and his essential independence." Writer Walter Lord took up the cant. In trying to answer the question why Bowie "couldn't bring himself to carry out Houston's wishes," he sounds more like a Freudian psychoanalyst than a historian:

Somehow he couldn't bring himself to carry out Houston's wishes. Was it the place—this dramatic outpost, standing alone between the colonists and the Mexicans? Was it the Alamo's twenty fine guns, probably the strongest collection between Mexico City and New Orleans? Was it the "frontier" in him—the pioneer's refusal to be shoved around? Bowie had plenty of that.
Professor Ben H. Procter seeks metaphysical explanations. "[T]he Alamo had an intangible, almost mystical effect upon the men, a definite transformation taking place once they were inside its walls." Colorado writer Jeff Long, also employs "psycho babble" to explain the insubordination of the "War Dogs" inside the Alamo:
[R]ather than ready the Alamo for demolition, Bowie added his voice to Neill's in calling for reinforcements, money, and food. One thing Bowie was not candid about was how a remote command, like the Alamo, meant both prestige and autonomy. Above all, the Alamo command meant limelight, for it was positioned upon the bowhead of the Anglo-American warship. It stood clean and separate from the hurly-burly.
As Long views it, the decision to hold the Alamo all came down to Bowie's hunger for attention. As in other questions regarding the Alamo, Mr. Long's understanding is imperfect. Bowie did not assume command upon his arrival in Béxar. The Alamo already had a commander and his name was J. C. Neill.

How curious this is. Most of the "authorities" based their conclusions upon their reading of character and personality, always an inexact methodology. In addition, most view Bowie as the key player and relegate Neill's role to that of a minor figure. Others, relying on inaccurate interpretations, fall into lock step and simply repeat earlier errors. Although it obviously is at times, history at its best is not determined by preconceived assumption nor "gut feelings." It is time to reexamine the source materials.

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