|J.C. Neill: Forgotten Alamo Commander
When one studies the primary documents (and grasps what they have to say), a far different picture emerges than the one offered by conventional wisdom. For example, in Houston's January 17 letter to Henry Smith the general's tone is as important as his message:
Alamo Commander Lt. Colonel James C. Neill
The letter divulges another inconsistency. Following the fall of the Alamo, Houston disingenuously maintained that he had urged the fort's abandonment because it was too far from the American settlements to be supplied. Note there is nothing of that in his letter of January 17. The only reason he cited then was that he thought it would "be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers"in other words, men who were not under his direct command.
On January 18 Bowie arrived in Béxar, where Neill received him "with great cordiality." Bowie made it clear that Houston wanted the Alamo evacuated and the garrison transferred to Gonzales or Copano Bay, but he also must have told Neill that the general was awaiting authorization from the council. Also Houston's formal instructions had allowed Bowie tremendous latitude: "Much is referred to your discretion." Houston trusted Bowie's judgment; it was his call. It was not, however, a call he wanted to make without consulting the commander on the ground. Neill made it clear he had no special attachment to Béxar. He stated as much in a January 23 letter to Governor Smith and the Council. He reported that a local priest, a "staunch Republican," had informed Bowie that Santa Anna intended to "attack Copano and Labahía [La Bahía] first." If the centralists really were driving up the coast, he wanted to be where he could fight them:
That there were no draft animals in San Antonio de Béxar, indicated the degree to which Johnson and Grant had ransacked the place in preparation for their ill-conceived Matamoros Expedition.
If teams could be obtained here by any means to remove the Cannon and Public Property I would immediately destroy the fortifications and abandon the place, taking the men I have under my command here, to join the Commander in chief at Copanoe [sic], of which I informed him last night "
There were other considerations as well. Bowie admired what Neill had done to fortify the crumbling mission; it had actually begun to take on the appearance of a military installation. Although conditions were as bad as Neill had said they were, the garrison's esprit de corps was remarkably high. On the same day Bowie arrived, Green B. Jameson, the chief engineer, wrote Houston crowing that the Béxar garrison could "whip 10 to 1 with our artillery." He further asserted that the men desired to serve out their full term of enlistment. "If the men here can get a reasonable supply of clothing, provisions and money they will remain the balance of 4 months," he assured, "and do duty and fight better than fresh men, [for] they have all been tried and have confidence in themselves." That Jameson could say that of troops who had gone unpaid for months and were practically naked was a testament to the high quality of Neill's leadership. Bowie began to reconsider his instructions to dismantle the Alamo.
Although Bowie worked closely with the garrison commander, Neill was clearly in command. On January 26 he called a meeting to consider the events in San Felipe and determine a course of action. Even with the redoubtable Bowie present, both "citizens and soldiers" elected Neill chairman. He had won the confidence not only of the garrison but of the local tejanos as well, quite an accomplishment considering that Bowie was by marriage a well-known member of San Antonio's influential Verimendi family.
The men of the Alamo had far more reason to place faith in their commandant than in the functionaries at San Felipe de Austin. Those responsible for the fate of Texas had disbanded in a childish fit of pique. Although the Council members had approved the ill-conceived Matamoros Expedition, they could not agree on a commander. Both James W. Fannin, Jr. and Frank Johnson claimed the honor, and the Council endorsed both. To complicate matters further, Governor Smith ordered Major General Houston to take charge of the expedition, even though the men had already rejected his leadership. Houston was, nevertheless, in command of all Texian forces, regulars and volunteerson paper at least. Finally the Council dismissed Smith, which it had no authority to do, and he retaliated by dissolving the Council, also an act of dubious legality. As Smith's replacement, the Council named James W. Robinson "acting governor." While a great schism separated the make-shift Texas government, Neill and his men awaited succor.
No one knew for certain who constituted the legal civil authority. Hedging his bets, Neill began writing to Smith and the Council. On January 27 an incensed Alamo commander chided the Council that he was "truly astonished to find your body in such a disorganized situation." That same day he wrote Smith: "We can not be fed and clothed on paper pledges. My men cannot, nor will not, stand this state of things much longer." Given the lack of critical support, perhaps it would be best to abandon Béxar and join Houston in his defense of the coast.
Problem was, the commander-in-chief had abandoned the army or, more accurately, it had abandoned him. He had toyed with the idea of fleeing to Béxar where the "Matamoros rage" was not so pervasive. At length, however, he rode to Refugio set on taking command of the Matamoros Expedition. On the night of January 20, however, Houston clashed with Frank Johnson, his rival for command. Johnson had an ace up his sleeve, new orders from the General Council (dated January 14) awarding Grant and himself command of the Matamoros volunteers. According to the Council's directive, Houston still retained command of the regular army, but that force existed only in the general's vivid imagination. Moreover, Johnson gleefully informed the general that since the Council had ousted his mentor, Governor Smith, Houston's opinion no longer mattered and the volunteers no longer required his attention. That was certainly true in Refugio, where independent volunteers were unwilling to accept the authority of any officer they had not electedmuch less a regular. It was a humiliating personal rejection for Sam Houston. His political enemies had undermined his support and now enjoyed control of the provisional government.
Since the volunteers at Refugio wanted no part of Houston, there was no reason for him to remain. He correctly believed that the Matamoros Expedition was a calamity waiting to happen. He also knew that if he lingered behind the "council would have had the pleasure of ascribing to me the evils which their own conduct and acts will, in all probability, produce." The actions of the Council and the utter contempt of the Matamoros volunteers had rendered Houston superfluous. He could think of only one place to go: back to Smith. Writing to the displaced governor, he explained:
Back in San Felipe, Smith doggedly clung to the title of "Governor, &c." and insisted on playing the role, although few but Houston really listened anymore. On January 28, he granted the "commander-in-chief" a furlough until March 1 to adjust his "private business" and "treat with the Indians." The furlough was a face-saving device. In reality, few Texians cared what the pair did.
So soon as I was made acquainted with the nature of [Johnson's] mission, and the powers granted to J. W. Fannin, jr., I could not remain mistaken as to the object of the council, or the wishes of individuals. I had but one course left for me to pursue (the report of your being deposed had also reached me), which was, to return, and report myself to you in person.
What of Neill and his troops in Béxar? With sardonic understatement, Walter Lord notes Houston was "strangely inactive during most of the siege." Following his rejection in Refugio, Houston appears to have given Neill's men little thought. In his letter to Smith on January 30, Houston lamented that the road from Refugio to San Felipe was the "one course left for me," but another road had continually been open to him. It lead to Béxar. Neill held a regular commission and certainly would have accorded Houston more respect than the rowdy Matamoros mob. True, Bowie's men were volunteers and seemingly had no more use for regulars than most Texian militiamen. Even so, Bowie was a close friend and political supporter and one of the dwindling few who still followed Houston's orders. Had he exerted his considerable personality, the famed adventurer probably could have influenced his men to obey the general. Only certifiable idiots or those with suicidal tendencies dared to cross Jim Bowie.
The fact is, Houston did not even try to make it to Béxar. He could have been at the head of his troops, instead he opted for a self-imposed exile. After his rebuff at Refugio, Houston returned to form. As he had before when life turned sour, he flung himself into a pit of self-indulgence. Brooding and melancholy marked the miles to San Felipe. Sounding more like a scorned adolescent suffering the first pangs of puppy-love than a commanding general, he confessed that he had considered leaving public life and devoting himself to "the solitude of nature." In short, Neill, Bowie, and the men of the Alamo would have to shift for themselves. After all, he was no longer officially accountable.
On February 2, Bowie wrote Smith that he and Neill had resolved to "die in these ditches" before they would surrender the post. The letter confirmed Smith's take on conditions. He had concluded that Béxar must not go undefended. Rejecting Houston's advice, Smith prepared to funnel additional troops and provisions to San Antonio. Indeed, it was shortly following the receipt of Bowie's February 2 letter that Smith dispatched William Barret Travis to the Alamo at the head of his "legion" of cavalry.
In the same letter Bowie praised Neill. "I cannot eulogize the conduct & character of Col Neill too highly," he wrote Smith; "no other man in the army could have kept men at this post, under the neglect they have experienced." A second-rater? Not in Jim Bowie's eyes.
So let students of Texas history finally dispense with the fiction that Houston sent "orders" to abandon the Alamo and that Neill ignored them. In brief, Houston had asked for permission to evacuate the post. Smith considered his request. The answer was no. Although Governor Smith and the Council could agree on little else, both directed Neill to hold Béxar. Neill did not disobey Houston's instructions to evacuate the fort because the general never received permission from the civilian authorities to issue such an order.
On January 28, Neill dispatched still another letter to the Council. More than any other, this message demonstrated his command of the written word. It read in part:
With good reason historians have lauded the Travis correspondence of February 24 addressed to "the People of Texas & all Americans in the World" as one of the nation's truly remarkable letters. Even so, as an expression of defiance and courage, as well as for the sheer power of its prose, it in no way surpasses Neill's message written nearly a month earlier.
Texas ought and must again rouse to action, another victory will secure us forever from the attack of Tyranny and our existence will no longer be doubtful but prosperous and glorious to attain so desirable an end. I am ready to sacrifice my all, and if, as I expect, every citizen in the country and our collaborators from the United States are animated by the same spirit, Destiny will be compelled to acknowledge us as her favorites. From the time of my taking the field in defense of Texas liberties up to the present moment, my labors and watchfulness have been unremitting and they shall continue to be so until I see the land of my adoption free.
The events of February 5 revealed that Neill remained firmly in command. That day he presided over a meeting to elect delegates to the Convention scheduled for early in March. He drafted the resolution that proclaimed: "Soldiers in the actual service of the country, are declared to be citizens, and raised to the right of suffrage." Accordingly, the Alamo garrison elected Dr. Samuel Maverick and Jesse B. Badgett as their representatives. Neill not only drew up the document but, as commandant of Béxar, was the first of its thirteen signatories. William B. Travis and James Bowie were the last. Not the slightest shred of evidence exists to support the allegation that either Travis or Bowie ever "overshadowed" Neill. Both they and the Alamo defenders had full confidence in their commander.
On or about February 8, confidence rose even higher with the arrival of Congressman David Crockett and the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers. In a speech to the garrison, the "Lion of the West" made his lack of military ambition known in no uncertain terms; he would serve only as a "high private."
It is odd, therefore, that in A Time To Stand Walter Lord has Crockett involved in a scheme to diminish Neill's influence. According to his scenario, based on Antonio Menchaca's Memoirs, on the night of February 10 a courier interrupted a fandango with word of the Mexican advance. Then, according to Lord, Bowie, Travis, and Crockett "huddled over the message together" before deciding there was no immediate danger. "But the huddle itself was significant," Lord surmised, "for Colonel Neill was not included. It was no particular mystery. He had simply suffered the fate of many a good second-rater when abler, more imaginative leaders appears on the scene of a crisis. He had been gently nudged aside."
The evidence simply does not support Lord's version. On or about February 8, Neill had received a gloomy letter informing him that illness had stricken his entire family; they desperately needed him back home in Bastrop. Although the dilemma between duty to country and duty to family must have been agonizing, there could be but one response. Another could command the Alamo, but no one else could care for his ailing family. Besides, conditions had never seemed more propitious for his temporary absence. At last reinforcements had begun to trickle in, and with Maverick and Badgett on the road to San Felipe, more would surely arrive. Engineer Green B. Jameson had improved the defenses substantially and the men were confident that they could hold out against a force many times their number. And with Bowie, Travis, and Crockett on hand, there was no shortage of available leadership. On February 10 he announced his decision to leave the following morning.
Of course, Neill was not at the fandango but (to borrow a phrase) it was "no particular mystery." Knowing he had a hard ride ahead of him the following day, the forty-six-year-old Neill understandably did not spend the night carousing with the garrison. He had already discussed his plans to go on furlough with Bowie and Travis. Realizing all that, they probably did not wish to disturb Neill with marginal information. Furthermore, there is nothing in Menchaca's account to support Lord's contention that Bowie and Travis "nudged" Neill aside. Indeed, there is no evidence that anyone ever sought to undermine Neill's authority.
It is all the more baffling, therefore, that Lord continued to draw an unflattering portrait of Neill as a nonentity overshadowed by "abler, more imaginative leaders." With more innuendo than evidence, Lord tells how:
In truth, extant documents reveal that Travis believed Neill would be back. In a dispatch written the day after Neill's departure, Travis explained:
Next morning [February 11] Neill left on "twenty day's leave." The explanations were varioussickness in the family, a special mission to raise defense funds. Colonel Travis, at least, sensed he wouldn't be back. Then again on February 14, Bowie and Travis pledged to co-sign all orders "until Col. Neill's return."
"In consequence of the sickness of his family, Lt. Col. Neill has left this post, to visit for a short time, and has requested me to take Command of the Post." [Emphasis added.]
Certainly the rank-and-file had no doubts why their commander had gone on leave, nor did they think he had left for good. On February 11, Green Jameson wrote Governor Smith that "Col. Neill left today for home on account of an express from his family informing him of their ill health. There was great regret at his departure by all the men though he promised to be with us in 20 days at the furthest." [Emphasis added.]
Since 1961, when Lord published A Time To Stand, most historians have tended to accept his negative portrayal of Neill without bothering to examine the primary materials. Thus do the careless and the lazy first foster and then perpetuate myths.
How could Mr. Lord's conclusions regarding Neill differ so radically from those supported by documentary evidence? Simple, he never looked at the documentary evidence or else ignored it if he did. Why did Lord paint such an unflattering picture of Neill? Readers may uncover the answer in the pages of Paul I. Wellman's 1951 novel, The Iron Mistress, his fictional take on the life of James Bowie. Wellman described Neill in the following terms:
The last three words of the above quotation are instructive. Recall Lord's characterization of Neill as "conscientious but unimaginative." It snaps credulity and scorns intelligence to assume that the similarity was mere coincidence.
Colonel Joseph [sic] C. Neill wore an untrimmed dark mustache which drooped heavily, hiding his mouth, and had a habit of standing with his feet apart, hands clasped behind his back. He was a Regular Army man, one of Houston's own choosing, unimaginative but conscientious. [Emphasis added.]
What of Lord's argument that Travis "sensed [Neill] wouldn't be back." Here again, a passage from The Iron Mistress is illuminating.
How remarkable this is. While in other respects his is a fine book, throughout A Time To Stand Lord misrepresents the character and motives of J. C. Neill. How could he have done otherwise? Wellman (who could not even bother to get Neill's name right), in his attempt to aggrandize his hero, thought it necessary to diminish Neill's role. One might forgive the practice of creative license in a novelist, but not in one who lays claim to the title of historian. The evidence is lamentable, but manifest. Lord, looking "as it were, over his shoulder," simply constructed his depiction of Neill around a tissue of invention and innuendo that Wellman proposed in a work of popular fiction.
It now appeared that though [Bowie] had given Colonel Neill full credit for sharing his decision to hold the Alamo at all costs, Neill was in reality none too enthusiastic about " dying in these trenches [sic]." His relief when Travis arrived was visible, and the following day, pleading there was a sickness in his family requiring his presence, he left Bexar. Going, he suggested, as it were over his shoulder, that Travis take command of the post.
Santa Anna arrived in Béxar before Neill could return. The fate of the Alamo defenders needs no retelling here. In the early morning gloom of March 6 the Mexicans assaulted the fort as the culmination of a thirteen-day siege; to a man the garrison perished amid frightful carnage. Travis, Bowie, and Crockett passed into glory. By being absent, J. C. Neill passed into undeserved obscurity.
Although Neill was unable to return to the Alamo, he never stopped working on behalf of his command. By March 6the day of the final assaultNeill had arrived in Gonzales where he organized relief efforts and signed a voucher for ninety dollars-worth of medical supplies for the Alamo garrison. Neill's relief column never marched to the Alamo, but it did become the nucleus of Sam Houston's San Jacinto army.
On March 13 he joined the withdrawal of the Texian army to Groce's Retreat on the Brazos River. Unable to transport the heavy artillery pieces, Houston ordered them dumped into the Guadalupe River before abandoning Gonzales. Neill found himself a cannoneer without cannon. That changed on April 11, when the "Twin Sisters," two matched six-pounders, reached the Texian camp. Since Neill was the ranking artillery officer, Houston awarded him command of the revived artillery corps.
On April 20 Neill commanded the Twin Sisters during the skirmish that preceded the battle of San Jacinto. It was during this fight that his artillery corps repulsed an enemy probe of the woods in which the main Texian army lay concealed. Neill, however, paid a high price for its success. A Mexican canister shot caught him in the fleshy portion of his hip. So, here again, Neill missed the battle the following day and, along with it, another chance for lasting fame. The location of his injury became the butt of much ribald humor in the Texian camp. It was, however, no laughing matter. The surgeon's report listed Neill among the "seriously wounded."
Despite his painful wound, Neill continued to serve Texas. In 1838 the republic granted him a league of land for his service during the revolution. The following year he ran for the position of major general of militia, but lost to Felix Huston. In 1842 he led a ranger expedition against hostile Indians along the upper Trinity River. In 1844 republic officials appointed him an Indian agent, in which capacity he traveled extensively. Finally, in 1845 the republic's congress granted him a pension of $200 a year for life as compensation for injuries received at San Jacinto. The old warrior, however, did not long enjoy the rewards of faithful service. Later that year Neill died at his home on Spring Creek in Navarro County. By the time of his death, he appears to have sunk into almost complete obscurity. I have been unable to locate a single obituary in any period newspaper.
Poor Neill. He always hovered on the periphery of fame. Frequently engaged in the pivotal events of early Texas history, he never emerged as a lead player. He did not make it back to the Alamo, did not make the supreme sacrifice. If he had, Texas and the World would now be singing the praises of Neill, Bowie, and Crockettand relegate Travis to the supporting role.
Posterity has been unkind to J. C. Neill. Yet despite the neglect of Houston and the Council, he held the Alamo garrison at that perilous outpost and maintained its morale, a remarkable feat. He worked tirelessly to transform the crumbling mission into a fort. By the time Travis arrived on the scene, Neill had already bolstered the fort's defenses and his soldiers' will to resist. This is not to denigrate Travis. Once in command, he performed with courage and skill. The point is rather, that had it not been for the equally courageous and skillful Neill there would have been no garrison for Travis to inherit, no fort to defend, no epic battle, and no entry into Texas legend. By any definition James Clinton Neill was an individual of distinguished valor. The fair-minded can no longer relate the story of the Alamo without acknowledging his contributions. We should allow him, at last, to take his rightful place among the pantheon of Texas heroes.
Stephen L. Hardin is the author of TEXIAN ILIAD: A MILITARY HISTORY OF THE TEXAS
REVOLUTION. He teaches at The Victoria College in Victoria, Texas.