Thursday, February 26, 2015

Throw Back Thursday - Texas Style

I don't know who started the Throw Back Thursday trend, but it doesn't do much for me. I've spent large chunks of my life, along with large chunks of money, trying to forget certain aspects of my past. But be that as it may, I've decided to go along with the whole TBT movement, albeit with a slight twist. My (irregular) TBT posts will focus on history in general, not my own personal history.

To start things off, here's an essay on the Long Rifles of yesteryear. As an added bonus, the story also emphasizes the role that armed citizens played in winning independence for Texas.
The ragtag group that marched from Gonzales to San Antonio de Béxar in October 1835 was a bring-your-own-gun army. This volunteer force, led by Stephen F. Austin, called itself the Army of the People, and the people supplied their own weapons and equipment. When the call to arms came, the soldiers picked up whatever was handy and brought it with them.

Robert Hancock Hunter, who was living in what is now Fort Bend County when he joined the company, succinctly described the army’s weaponry in his memoirs, which he wrote in 1860 and in which he employed his own spelling style: “We had about 150 men, & our guns were no a count, little dobble barrels shot guns. Some men had rifels. I had a Harperferry yauger. The lock was tide on with a buck skin string & the stock & barrel was tide to geather with buckskin strings.” Some men may have had rifles, but others had no firearms at all. While the army was still assembling at Gonzales, Austin wrote, “Arms and ammunition are needed; we have more men than guns.”

Hunter’s “yauger” was a Jaeger (a German word for “hunter”) rifle, a gun with a 36-inch barrel manufactured at the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The “rifels” the rebels used were Pennsylvania long rifles, described by colonist and frontier blacksmith Noah Smithwick as “long, single-barreled, muzzle-loading flintlock rifles, the same that our fathers won their independence with and that the famous Kentucky brigade used with such telling effect at the battle of New Orleans.” Pennsylvania gunsmiths, mostly Germans, made these rifles from about 1725 to the early 1800’s. Their octagonal barrels were 40 to 48 inches long, and they fired .35- to .60-caliber balls. Their stocks were walnut or maple and were often heavily ornamented in brass, with boxes set into them that contained the patches used for loading. In the hands of a skilled marksman, they were accurate at more than two hundred yards.

The 300-man Army of the People left Gonzales on October 12 and reached the outskirts of San Antonio eight days later. For years San Antonio had been the capital of Spanish and Mexican Texas, and the rebels thought that if they could capture it, the revolution would be over. The town was defended by a garrison of 650 Mexican troops under the command of General Martín Perfecto de Cos. The Texas soldiers surrounded the town, blocking the roads leading into it to cut off the arrival of Mexican reinforcements.

Most of the Mexicans were armed with English-made Brown Bess muskets, smoothbore guns with a range of about seventy yards. In one of the opening skirmishes of the siege, at Mission Concepción, the Texans’ Pennsylvania rifles picked off the Mexican artillerymen, who were powerless to retaliate. One Texas veteran wrote, “We wondered to see that their balls often fell short of us.” Several Texans, he went on, were “struck by balls which were far too spent to break the skin, and only caused an unpleasant bruise.”

The siege of San Antonio dragged on until December 5, when Ben Milam and Frank Johnson led two columns into town. Four days of bloody house-to-house fighting followed. Creed Taylor, one of the participants, later remembered that the Pennsylvania rifles were particularly effective in that kind of fighting. “No sooner did a head appear above a wall,” he wrote, “than it was the target for a dozen hunting rifles, and there was always another dead Mexican.” On December 9 Cos surrendered and marched his army south, leaving the Texans in control of San Antonio. 
For those of you unfamiliar with Texas history, these events took place before the Battle of the Alamo. After the Texians captured San Antonio, the Army of the People disbanded and most of the volunteers returned home. A few stayed to garrison the town, setting up camp in an abandoned mission known then as Mission San Antonio de Valero. Today we know it as the Alamo.

So in December 1835 Texian forces occupied San Antonio. Sam Houston, commander of the Texas Army, ordered James Bowie to destroy the fort and withdraw. Bowie, however, decided to fortify the Alamo, in part because he didn't have enough oxen to haul away the fort's cannons. Just two months later, on February 23, 1836, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna arrived with a large army and laid siege to the Alamo. We all know what followed. Two weeks later the Alamo was in ruins and its defenders lay dead.
Though the Texans carried hundreds of weapons into the Alamo, few of those survived. A Mexican citizen of San Antonio, pressed into service by the Santa Anna soldiers to carry the bodies of the dead defenders to their funeral pyre, found a Pennsylvania long rifle in the ruins. He later gave it to Frank Johnson, who had not stayed behind to defend the Alamo. Johnson considered the gun a suitable gift for William Carr Lane, the mayor of St. Louis, Missouri, when he made a trip there in 1839. It changed hands several more times before coming into the possession of a retired Army colonel living in San Antonio named Walter Siegmund, who donated it to the Alamo in 1947, where it has been displayed ever since.

The gun is a fine example of the most effective weapon of the Texas revolution. It was made by Jacob Dickert, a master gunsmith of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The stock is curly maple, with an elaborately ornamented brass patch box set into it and eight oval German silver inlays under the octagonal barrel. The barrel itself is 45 inches long, with Dickert’s name stamped on the top. No one knows who carried this beautiful weapon into the Alamo, but it is on display in the shrine not far from where the defender must have fallen. 
Long Rifle from the Alamo
A beautiful relic with a valiant past. You shooters out there, take a look at the trigger. My, things certainly have changed over the last 200 years.


Bag Blog said...

Not being a great speller myself, I love that Robert Hancock Hunter wrote his memoirs. Just go for it!

Randy said...

Thanks for this, always love reading about Texians.

Old NFO said...

Great story, and the more things change, the more they remain the same... But that trigger... sigh Most of them were hair triggers! At least the two real ones I've shot were!!!

CenTexTim said...

BB - I'm with you. I'm such a bad speller that I had a hard time looking up words in the dictionary because I couldn't spell them close enough. Thank goodness for Spellcheck.

Randy - I love history too. Stay tuned...

NFO - Wow! I'm impressed that you got to shoot them. Good for you!

Bear said...

I knew my fair state had a rich tradition of crafting flinters, but I never really stopped to think about the role our guns played in Texas' independence. Thanks for the good read.