Inside the roofless old Spanish chapel, the first rays of the early morning Texas sun were illuminating the room with a soft golden glow through the acrid air, clouded by black powder smoke. But what was being illuminated by that rising sun in the chapel of this mission called the Alamo could have been a sketch from Dante’s 7th Circle of Hell. The air was shattered by the sharp pop of muskets firing and the cries and moans of men being shot and bayoneted. Mixed in were the agonizing screams of Susanna Dickinson, whose dead husband, Almeron, lay nearby, and the wails of her infant daughter, Angelina, who was cradled in her arms.
The chapel was filling with Mexican soldiers of the Matamoros and Jimenez Battalions. They had already bayoneted Jim Bowie to death in one of the side rooms by the entrance to the chapel. Through her tears, Susana saw the badly wounded Major Robert Evans, limping slowly along the north wall with a torch in his hands.
(Left: The interior of the Chapel at the Alamo, with San Fernando Church in the background.)
The time for trying to hold the Alamo was gone; the battle was lost. Santa Anna had the “take no prisoners” red flag flying high over San Fernando Church in San Antonio. It was every man for himself now, but the Irishman had one last duty he was determined to carry out before he died. He was staggering toward the entrance of what had once been the sacristy but was now serving as the powder magazine for the Alamo’s defenders. If he could hurl that torch into the room, he could strike one last blow for the cause of Texas independence (though he didn’t realize he was fighting for that) by depriving Santa Anna’s Mexican army of those powder reserves and taking a few more Mexican soldiers with him as he died. As Evans dragged himself toward the door of the sacristy, his thoughts may have drifted back to the green hills and valleys of his native Derry.
Little is known of Evans' early life in Ireland other than his birth in County Derry. Robert was black-haired, blue-eyed, and nearly 6-feet tall. Like many Irishmen before and since, and God knows why, given their country’s history, he was said to be optimistic and always in good humor. He emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1827, aboard the “Atlantic.” His occupation was listed as “soldier.”
Evans enlisted in Co. B of the 4th U.S. Artillery Regiment in January 1827. It would seem probable that he came to the U.S. with that in mind. The 4th Artillery served in Alabama in the early 1830s, at a time when Irishmen James Power, Dr. James Hewetson, John McMullen and James McGloin had been granted lands in Texas by the Mexican government in return for finding Irish Catholics to settle there. The Mexicans, mistakenly, it turned out, believed Catholics in Texas brought in by these “Empresarios” would be more likely to be loyal to Catholic Mexico than Protestant Americans and be a buffer against the United States.
(Right: Dr. James Hewetson.)
Evans was said to have come to Texas through New Orleans, a route taken by thousands of the Irish natives who ended up in Texas at the time. When he left the U.S. Army and arrived in Texas is not known, but we do know he was in Texas by some time in 1835 at the latest. Given that the term of enlistment at the time was 5 years, and that he re-enlisted after his first term, it’s likely that he deserted to get to Texas unless he was discharged for some reason. The only records on him are his enlistment and re-enlistment. If he left the army while the 4th was in Alabama, it would have been a relatively short trip to New Orleans where he may have come learned of the Irish settlers' enthusiasm about Texas.
By 1835, Evans was living southeast of the town of San Antonio in Texas. Somewhere in the preceding nine years, he had taken a wife, marrying Eliza Porter. Now in his mid-30s and married after having spent his adult life as a soldier serving in the British army and then the U.S. Army, Evans must have been ready to spend the rest of his life farming and raising a family.
For Evans and other Irishmen Texas must have seemed the ideal place. Coming from a country where so many people barely subsisted on tiny plots of land, the huge tracts of free land being doled out by the “Empresarios” must have seemed too good to believe. And though the grants of land were real, there was a political storm on the horizon that would, indeed, make it “too good to believe” for Robert and Eliza Evans.
(Left: Ben Milam in the red shirt.)
A full retelling of the tensions between the "Texians," as they were called then, and the Mexican government is beyond the scope of this article, but by 1835, as Evans and his wife were trying to plan their new life as farmers, those tensions were fanning what became a violent revolution. With his military background probably known to his neighbors, it would have been nearly impossible for Evans to sit out the conflict. In addition, much of the early conflict occurred in and around San Antonio, which was almost literally in his back yard, making it even harder for him to avoid the simmering hostilities.
'Come and take It'
When Evans joined the Texian forces isn’t known, but his military experience got him an appointment as a major. At the siege of Bexar in December 1835, the ex-artilleryman served as master of ordnance of the Bexar garrison. In September, Mexican dictator General Antonio López de Santa Anna had sent his brother-in-law, General Martín Perfecto de Cos, with a small force to occupy San Antonio de Béxar. In early December, a force of Texians commanded by Edward Burleson attacked them. Ben Milam, who was killed, led a house-to-house fight to drive them from the town and a nearby mission known as the Alamo and forced their surrender. They were allowed to return to Mexico, freeing Texas of Mexican troops.
When the siege was over, the Texians thought that with the winter coming on they would be free from Mexican retaliation for several months. Many of those who participated in the fighting in San Antonio returned to their homes. A small garrison of around 100 men was left at the Alamo, with Evans continuing with that force as head of ordnance.
The man first put in charge of the Alamo was Lieutenant Colonel James Neill, who had served in the Tennessee militia and fought Indians with Andrew Jackson. Neill was the adjutant of the first Texas Ranger battalion. He had commanded the cannon that fired the famous “Come and Take It” artillery round at the Mexicans in Gonzales on October 2, 1835, considered the first shot of the revolution. In mid-January, with word coming that the Mexicans were marching north, General Sam Houston sent Jim Bowie to the Alamo with orders to assess the feasibility of defending it.
Though few other than Battle of Alamo buffs ever associate his name with the Alamo, no one would have ever heard of the Alamo if not for James Neill. With about 20 artillery pieces captured from the Mexicans (the exact number is uncertain) in San Antonio, Neill believed it could be defended against a considerable force. Had he known just how large a force Santa Anna would bring and that no further Texian assistance would be sent, he may have agreed with Houston’s suggestion of simply blowing it up.
Bowie was very impressed with Neill, who had managed to keep his men working at improving the fort in spite of getting no money or supplies from the newly formed Texan government, saying, “No other man in the army could have kept the men at this post under the neglect they have experienced.” Neill convinced Bowie to defend it. “Col. Neill and myself have come to the solemn resolution that we will rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy,” Bowie wrote to Governor Henry Smith.
And thus it was a descendant of the famous O’Neill clan of Ulster -- Irishmen who centuries earlier fought until the bitter end to defend Gaelic Ireland -- put in motion one of the most famous “forlorn hope” battles in history. Though he was its first commander and made the decision to defend it, the martyrdom of Alamo commanders William Travis and Bowie was not visited upon Neill. He had to leave before Santa Anna arrived due to a serious illness in his family and was returning to the Alamo as it fell. Neill would go on to be wounded while in command of Houston’s artillery at San Jacinto, where he helped avenge the deaths of the men who defended the Alamo.
The Irish connections to the military use of the old limestone and adobe Franciscan mission harked back to the early 1770s, when Dublin-born Hugo O’Connor, governor of the then-Spanish province converted it into a military fort. But the sprawling 3-acre mission required far more men to be adequately garrisoned than Travis and Bowie would ever have -- the mission was only envisioned as a shelter from rampaging Comanches, not a full-scale attack by a modern army.
(Right: Diagram of the Alamo showing locations of modern streets today.)
The walls had no parapets to protect soldiers manning them and no bastions to allow for enfilading fire on enemy soldiers at its walls. To defend it successfully against the force Santa Anna would eventually bring, Travis and Bowie would have needed several hundred more men than the 189 or so they would have when the final assault was made.
'I shall never surrender or retreat'
On February 23rd, after a very hard march through some cold weather that included a major snowstorm during what the Texians called a “Blue Norther,” Santa Anna’s troops began to arrive in San Antonio. All the Texian troops retired to the Alamo as the Mexican army began to arrive and gather around the town.
Though no one expected the Mexicans to give up Texas without a fight, and there had been rumors that a Mexican force was marching north for some time, Travis and Bowie did not believe Santa Anna would attempt a massive invasion until the winter was over. Santa Anna’s large force had achieved nearly total surprise.
Now Robert Evans and the other defenders of the Alamo stood on the walls and watched formation after formation of beautifully uniformed and equipped Mexican cavalry, infantry, and artillery units stream into San Antonio. When Santa Anna asked for their surrender, Travis answered with a round from his largest gun, an 18-pounder. He immediately sent out riders to Gonzales, Goliad, San Felipe, Nacogdoches and Washington-on-the-Brazos begging for reinforcements. His letter to Gonzales said, "I shall never surrender or retreat" and famously ended with the words “VICTORY OF DEATH.” (See the full letter in the comments, below) The only reinforcements they would receive were 32 brave men of the Gonzales Ranging Company, who made it through the Mexican forces on March 1st.
(Left: General Antonio López de Santa Anna)
By day's end, there were more than 1,000 Mexican troops in the town, already giving them five times the number in the Alamo, but more would arrive over the following days. The estimates of exactly how many soldiers Santa Anna eventually had at the Alamo vary wildly, from a low of 1,800 to a high of 6,000. No matter the exact total, when Evans and his comrades saw the “No quarter” red flag go up on the steeple of San Fernando Church and gazed at the gathering legion of enemy soldiers, they must have realized their odds of surviving the coming battle were indeed slim bar the arrival of a huge relief column.
(Below, the chapel of the Alamo as it appeared in 1854.)
The siege would last 13 days, as Santa Anna only had his lighter artillery that was incapable of destroying the Alamo’s thick walls. But it could be used to harass the garrison of the Alamo, keeping them up most of the night as each day passed and they watched vainly for any sign of a relief column from the east. There was little actual fighting for most of those 13 days until the end. On February 25th the Mexicans infiltrated through some thatched huts close to the southwest corner of the Alamo, and a few hundred attempted a coup de main that was beaten back by the Texians. That night, Travis sent a raiding party out to burn down those huts to eliminate the cover the structures provided, provoking another short skirmish. But from there the siege settled down to a one-sided artillery fight, with the Texians under fire while needing to save their own rounds. If no help arrived, the only two outcomes were an eventual, overwhelming assault or starvation forcing a surrender . . . if Santa Anna was willing to wait that long.
Keeping up morale under such circumstances would challenge any commanding officer, and just to make matters worse, the weather stayed unseasonably cold and what little firewood the garrison had was soon gone. The 36-year-old Evans was one of the officers of the Alamo best equipped to keep up his men's spirits. The aloof Travis was still in his late 20s and had limited military experience in militia units, and Bowie had taken to his sickbed the day after Santa Anna arrived. Evans had years of experience dealing with soldiers in two different armies and was said to be popular among the men, and at 36 was older than most of them.
And so it fell to men like popular folk hero, Davey Crockett, who also had some Irish ancestry, and Evans, with his lilting brogue and high spirited nature, to keep the garrison from falling into despair as the siege dragged on. Evans was said to have a ready wit and indefatigable humor that helped keep the men from dwelling on their dire circumstances every hour of the 13 days of the siege. Somehow, the men of the Alamo, with the help of men like Crockett and Evans, manage to maintain their dedication to their cause to the end.
(Left: Davy Crockett)
On February 27th, Travis sent out James Bonham to attempt to reach James Fannin and his force of over 400 men at Goliad. Bonham eluded the Mexican pickets to reach Fannin, but Fannin would not agree to the attempt. It was probably the correct decision at the time, but Fannin and nearly all his men would shortly all suffer the same fate as the men at the Alamo. Fannin tried to convince Bonham not to return to the Alamo, knowing he would be going to nearly certain death. But Bonham insisted on returning, saying that Travis, whom he had known since their childhood together in South Carolina, deserved to know that no one was coming to save them.
(Below: James Bonham)
Bonham managed to get back into the Alamo with the bad news from Fannin on March 3rd. He also had a letter from Robert M. Williamson on behalf of the new government urging Travis to hold out, vaguely promising help that Travis must have known would never arrive in time, if it was even sent. That same day the Alamo defenders watched another large contingent of Mexican troops arrive. Travis sent out one last rather petulant plea for help, the tone of which refutes the idea that he and his men were on any sort of suicide mission. "I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and may my bones reproach my country for her neglect,” he said.
Crossing the line
Legend has it that on March 5th Travis called his men together. Their ammunition was low, and they were on the verge of running out of supplies. All of them knew there was little chance of anyone arriving to save them for certain death at the hands of Santa Anna. And yet when Travis drew that line in the sand, somehow Robert Evans and all his comrades, save one, crossed the line to stay. Even if the line in the sand story is a myth, one has to marvel at the sort of courage that allowed these men to remain at their posts to the end, for none of them then could have doubted the final outcome.
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, Santa Anna began laying out his plan for a full assault on the morning of the 6th, even though he could have waited just a couple of days and brought to bear a pair of 12-pounder artillery pieces and demolished the Alamo, with the garrison also beginning to starve to death. A few of his generals did suggest taking down the red flag and offering the garrison mercy. Santa Anna would have none of it, however. Politically he needed a glorious victory in battle, not an uninspiring surrender.
The Texians had gone to war to try to force the Mexican government to honor the constitution of 1824. On March 2, the provisional government at Washington-on-the-Brazos had declared Texas independence. So the defenders of the Alamo were now fighting to establish a republic, though they went to their graves without that knowledge.
(Left: This may have been what the flag over the Alamo looked like, the idea being that they wanted the 1824 constitution enforced.)
The night of Saturday, March 5th was much warmer than previous nights, and Santa Anna had the harassing artillery fired halted at 10 p.m. For the exhausted defenders of the Alamo, the warmer air and lack of harassing artillery fire meant the first chance in a while for a deep sleep, just as Santa Anna hoped. His plan was to attack from all four sides of the fort in the predawn hours of Sunday. It was a good plan, giving him first the advantage of surprise, and taking away the defender’s ability to move reinforcements from one section of the walls to another.
As the Texians slept soundly in the early morning hours, Santa Anna’s soldiers moved into position for the assault. His cavalry, with horses muzzled to dampen their snorting, got ready to run down any Texians attempting to escape the assault the commander was certain would prevail. A warming wind was blowing from the northwest, from the heart of the Commancheria, but it was blowing no good for the men of the Alamo.
Given he was chief of ordnance, Evans may have been sleeping in the old, roofless chapel. It would have reminded him of many similar abandoned Catholic churches that lay in ruins, destroyed by the English, in his native Derry. He was thousands of miles from Derry now, and like so many Irishmen who had left their native home before and since, he was nearly certain that he would die in a place unimagined during his childhood.
(Right: Ruins of an ancient church at Dungiven, County Derry.)
In dawn's still darkness, as the first flecks of light came into the eastern sky, Santa Anna struck. Some of the Mexican soldados had crept within a mere 200 yards without being detected by the Texians. Now on all four sides of the Alamo, around 5 a.m., the cry went up, “ADELANTE!” and one of the most famous battles in American history began, though neither side in it was fighting for America. Most of the soldados were given only 4 rounds for their cheaply made version of the famous British "Brown Bess" musket (below). It was the 17-inch triangular bayonet on the end of them that he wanted them to use to slaughter the enemy.'If they spare you, save my child'
As the first shots were fired and the cry “THE MEXICANS ARE COMING” rang through the Alamo, Robert Evans and his exhausted comrades tried to rouse themselves from the soundest sleep they had enjoyed in 13 days. The surprise was complete, and the outcome was never in doubt from the onset. Travis raced from his quarters to the north wall and was killed in the opening minutes of the assault with a musket ball through his forehead.
(Left: Diagram showing where the Mexican attacks breached the Alamo walls.)
Soldados were massed up against the northern wall shortly after the attack began as more of the roused Texians reached their defensive positions on the walls on all four sides. Crockett and his Tennesseeans' accurate fire stopped the Mexican attack against the picket wall on the south side, forcing that attack to shift westward. And Almeron Dickinson’s 12-pounders on a platform above the chapel began to pour a deadly fire into the attackers, while his wife and child huddled below. But it was too little, too late.
The soldados were soon over the north wall, then over the southwest wall near the 18-pounder. As more and more streamed into the plaza of the Alamo, every surviving defender knew the battle was over. From his station above the chapel, Dickinson cried down to wife, Susanna, “Great God, Sue, the Mexicans are inside our walls! If they spare you, save my child.”
(Right: The elderly Susanna Dickinson. She was only 22 at the time of the battle.)
Robert Evans was likely with Crockett and his Tennesseeans near the chapel, helping hold back the wave of soldados coming across the plaza. There was a 4-foot high wall between the courtyard in front of the chapel and the plaza. The real battle was fought in this inner area of the Alamo, not on the outer walls.
Most of the surviving garrison retreated into the so-called “long barracks” north of the short wall Crockett’s men were defending. The walls of these buildings had been loop-holed to allow them to fire out into the plaza. The soldados turned Texians' artillery against them now to help clear the long barracks, blasting in doors and clearing the rooms with the bayonet. It was a brutal, face-to-face slaughter. As the last in the long barracks were killed, the soldados also overwhelmed the short wall in front of the chapel and pressed these last defenders into the chapel.
Crockett may have died there in the courtyard, or just inside the chapel in the doorway of the baptistry room. He may also have survived and been captured as were a handful of defenders and then executed. No one is sure. During these final moments of the battle, a few men attempted to flee over the flat ground to the east, but waiting for them were Santa Anna’s cavalry, easily running them down and killing them. No one could blame them for trying to save their lives at this point, but Robert Evans was not among those making the attempt.
(Left: "Crockett's Last Stand" by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk.)
Evans was with the men who retreated into the chapel, the final bastion of the men of the Alamo. We can only imagine what horrors he had seen already, with the soldados giving “no quarter” and bayoneting every wounded man encountered, but that would be all around him now in the chapel. The Mexicans blew in the door with captured Texian artillery. Bowie was bayoneted to death in his bed in the confessional room just to the left of the front door.
Soldados, many from the Matamoros Battalion, named for Father Mariano Matamoros, a military commander during Mexico’s revolution against Spain, streamed into the chapel. Their beautiful red-breasted blue tunics belied the hideous work they would do now. A closer look would have shown many were already flecked with blood. Susanna Dickinson was witness to this final carnage. With her daughter in her arms, she watched her own husband brutally killed, along with all the men who manned her husband’s three artillery pieces. With their blood lust up, they also bayoneted two screaming young boys.
(Right: A soldado of the Matamoros Battalion.)
The last act of heroism Susanna Dickinson would witness was a wounded Robert Evans, torch in hand, with the smokescreen of black powder giving him some cover, staggering toward the door of the sacristy in his attempt to destroy the magazine. One-hundred and twenty-four years later, a movie version of the battle would include Davy Crockett, portrayed by John Wayne, surviving just long enough to toss a torch into the room and blow up the magazine. In actuality, it was Evans, not Crockett, who made the attempt. Unlike the movie version, he failed in this final task. Dickinson was stopped by a Mexican musket ball a few feet short of the powder magazine. It was possibly the last act of resistance by the garrison of the Alamo. The battle had lasted less than two hours.
(Left: A diagram of the chapel with locations where Bowie, Crockett, and Evans may have died.)
Evans was yet another member of “The Wild Geese” who died thousands of miles from his Irish home, fighting for a cause that he knew little about until shortly before it cost him his life. His body would later be tossed onto a pile of bodies outside the chapel, probably the same pile that would have included Bowie, Crockett, and Dickinson, and burned by the Mexicans. The Alamo's defenders had inflicted perhaps 600 casualties on Santa Anna’s army and held them in place for two weeks. Sam Houston would destroy the Mexican army on April 21 at San Jacinto.
Legend has it that the ashes of some of the Alamo dead are in a sarcophagus in the San Fernando Cathedral, where Santa Anna raised his “No quarter” flag, but most were likely simply buried in locations no one will ever know. Wherever Major Robert Evans remains at rest, he died carrying out his duty as a soldier to his last breath. In one of the most famous battles fought by martyrs who fought to the “last man,” he may have actually been that last man fighting.
"The Alamo’s Forgotten Defenders: The Remarkable Story of the Irish During the Texas Revolution" by Phillip Thomas Tucker
“The Alamo And The Texas War For Independence” by Albert A. Nofi
Battle of the Alamo, Texas State Historical Association
The Illustrated Alamo 1836: Model based largely on the plans in Mark Lemon's, "The Illustrated Alamo 1836: A Photographic Journey."
Phil Collins (yes, that Phil Collins) Texas Historian - the full story