All who are even remotely connected with the Alamo epic 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. With smug condescension, popular writer Walter Lord labelled Neill, ‘conscientious but unimaginative’ and a ‘good second rater’. Neill is thus depicted as an amateur of modest ability, who at the first opportunity surrendered his post to ‘abler, more imaginative leaders’. Since 1961, when Lord published his influential A Time To Stand, most historians have not bothered to examine the primary materials, choosing instead to parrot his disapproving depiction of Neill.
Nevertheless, contemporaries had a vastly different opinion of the man. D. C. Barrett, a neighbour, 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’. When the views of modern historians and those who actually knew the man are at such variance, propriety demands a reappraisal of his career.
When the centralist troops of Antonio López de Santa Anna entered Texas in the summer of 1835, Neill stood ready to oppose them. On 2 October he participated in the skirmish at Gonzales. A contingent of centralist dragoons had attempted to appropriate an old six-pound cannon belonging to the settlement. Texian rebels, however, hoisted a banner above the gun that challenged the dragoons to: ‘COME AND TAKE IT’. At least two sources confirm that Neill personally touched off the contested cannon. In brief, Neill did nothing less than fire the shot that commenced the war.
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 expected 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 28 October 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 infantry.
Neill realised that the Texians needed carefully planned artillery support to storm Béxar. 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 bellowed. Some 300 rebels responded. Milam understood that if his infantrymen were to achieve the necessary surprise, they would need to distract the centralists.
He called on Neill and his artillerymen. Just before dawn on 5 December, Captain Neill and his gun team opened fire on the Alamo. On the other side of town, columns under Milam and Colonel Frank Johnson awaited the sound of Neill’s cannon – the signal to attack. German-born Hermann Ehrenberg recalled that the noise of the cannon ‘encouraged us’, since the ‘din and confusion’ provided a ‘better chance of slipping into the city unnoticed’.
While the centralists focused their attention on Neill’s artillery, rebel infantrymen slipped into Béxar. 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 defences. With so many rebels committed to the assault, the Texian camp had to be vulnerable. If a sortie could capture the Texian logistical base, Johnson’s men would have no alternative but to abandon the town.
On the afternoon of 8 December, 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. With bugles blaring and pennants flying, the cavalrymen charged the Texian camp.
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.’ Had the centralists been able to overwhelm the Texian camp, those storm troops inside Béxar would have had no choice but to abandon the assault. The steady behaviour of Neill and his gunners had been decisive.
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 20 field pieces. General Burleson left Frank Johnson in command of a skeleton garrison, then departed himself. On 17 December 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. 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 Béxar 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, who considered a thrust on the Mexican interior sheer madness. Over the objection of wiser heads, Johnson wrote to 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 3 January 1836, he explained the arrangements he had made for the defence 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 1,200 men, Johnson now expected him to accomplish with 100. The two Texian commanders were aware that such a meagre compliment could not maintain both the fort and the town. Cos’s attempt to hold both had in large measure been his undoing.
Neill, therefore, wisely chose to concentrate his garrison behind the walls of the Alamo.
The captured ordnance proved a mixed blessing. Cos had abandoned more than 20 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 preserve his guns.
Neill resolutely set about the task assigned to him, but laboured under no illusions. On 6 January he wrote to the Council praising his soldiers. He complained that they deserved better treatment from their 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 honourable 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.
Neill further explained that he needed at least 300 men to repair and improve the Alamo’s dilapidated defences. Following that, the vast compound would require 200 men just to man the perimeter.
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. 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 to-morrow, 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 re-inforced in eight days, or we will be over-run 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 17 January 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 the incident bears directly on Neill’s character, leadership, and the question of his putative insubordination, it becomes necessary to examine it in detail.
The canard has gained acceptance through sheer repetition: Houston sensibly ordered the Alamo blown up; if the defenders had only obeyed his directive, they might have averted needless tragedy; as a result of their obstinate insubordination, the Alamo commanders were the agents of their own destruction. Yet, when one studies the primary documents, a far different picture emerges than the one offered by conventional
wisdom. For example, in Houston’s 17 January letter to Henry Smith the general’s tone is as important as
Colonel Bowie will leave here in a few hours for Bexar with a detachment of from thirty to fifty men. Capt. Patton’s Company, it is believed, are now there. I have ordered the fortifications in the town of Bexar to be demolished, and, if you should think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzales and Copano, blow up the Alamo and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the Station with volunteers, the sooner I can be authorized the better it will be for the country. [Emphasis added.]
There is little doubt that General Houston thought it best to blow up the Alamo and withdraw the garrison to Gonzales and Copano Bay. What is apparently less obvious to earlier writers is that he was requesting permission from Governor Smith to do so. Note the operative phrase, ‘if you think well of it.’ Houston was writing to seek authorisation from the Council. He made that apparent in the letter’s closing sentence: ‘Please send me frequent expresses and advise me of your pleasure.’ [Emphasis added.]
On 18 January 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 authorisation from the council. Also Houston’s formal instructions had allowed Bowie tremendous latitude: ‘Much is referred to your discretion.’ Houston trusted Bowie’s judgement; it was his call. It was not, however, a call Bowie 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 23 January 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 Labahia [sic] first’. If the centralists really were driving up the coast, he wanted to be where he could fight them:
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 …
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.
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 to 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.
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 fit of pique. The Council dismissed Smith; he retaliated by dissolving the Council. As Smith’s replacement the Council named James W. Robinson ‘acting governor’. Smith doggedly clung to the title of governor and insisted on playing the role. While a schism separated the makeshift Texas government, Neill and his men awaited succour. Neill, of course, could not know who constituted the legal civil authority. Hedging his bets, he began writing to Smith and the Council. On 27 January an incensed Alamo commander chided the Council that he was ‘truly astonished to find your body in such a disorganised situation’. That same day he wrote to Smith: ‘We can not be fed and clothed on paper pledges. My men cannot, nor will not, stand this state of things much longer.’
With the civil government in disarray, this could have been General Houston’s moment to shine. He might have exercised genuine leadership, but as Walter Lord noted, Houston was ‘strangely inactive during most of the siege’. The fact is, Houston never even considered going to Béxar. Indeed, he appears to have given Neill’s men little thought. The general could have been at the head of his troops, instead he opted for a furlough on 28 January. Neill, Bowie and the men of the Alamo would have to shift for themselves.
On 2 February Bowie wrote to Smith that he and Neill had resolved to ‘die in these ditches’ before they would surrender the post. Smith also agreed that Béxar could 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 2 February letter that Smith dispatched William Barret Travis to the Alamo at the head of 30 cavalrymen.
In the same letter Bowie praised Neill. ‘I cannot eulogise the conduct & character of Col. Neill too highly,’ he wrote to 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 historians finally dispense with the fiction that Houston sent ‘orders’ to abandon the Alamo and that Neill ignored them. Houston 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 edict to evacuate the fort because the general never received permission from the civilian authorities to issue such an order.
On or about 8 February, morale of the Alamo garrison received a boost 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 Walter Lord has Crockett involved in a scheme to diminish Neill’s influence. According to his scenario, on the night of 10 February 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 appear on the scene of a crisis. He had been gently nudged aside.’
The evidence simply does not support Lord’s version. On 8 February, 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 agonising, 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. Engineer Green B. Jameson had improved the defences 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 10 February 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. Realising all that, they probably did not wish to disturb Neill with marginal information. Not a shred of evidence exists to support Lord’s contention that Bowie, Travis and Crockett ‘nudged’ Neill aside.
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:
Next morning [11 February] Neill left on ‘20 day’s leave.’ The explanations were various – sickness in the family, a special mission to raise defence funds. Colonel Travis, at least, sensed he wouldn’t be back.
In truth, documents reveal that Travis believed Neill would be back. In a dispatch written the day after Neill’s departure, Travis explained: ‘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.’ Then again, on 14 February Bowie and Travis pledged to co-sign all orders ‘until Col. Neill’s return’. [Emphasis added.]
Certainly the rank-and-file had no doubts why their commander had gone on leave, nor did they believe he had left for good. On 11 February, Green Jameson wrote to 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.]
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 6 March 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 sank into undeserved obscurity.
Although Neill was unable to return to the Alamo, he never stopped working on behalf of his command. By 6 March – the day of the final assault – Neill had arrived in Gonzales, where he organised relief efforts. Neill’s relief column never marched to the Alamo, but it did become the nucleus of Sam Houston’s victorious San Jacinto army.
On 13 March 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 11 April, 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 20 April 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 round 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 humour in the Texian camp. Yet it was 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 travelled 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 lapsed into almost complete obscurity.
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. If he had, Texas and the world would now be singing the praises of Neill, Bowie and Crockett – and 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 defences 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 skilful 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 valour. 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.
by Stephen L. Hardin
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Hardin, Stephen L., ‘James Clinton Neill’ entry in The Handbook of Texas Online
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