The cannon in its pre-restoration state. Photo provided by Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick.
The cannon in its pre-restoration state. Photo provided by Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick.

A bronze cannon believed to have seen service in the Alamo during the famous battle of 1836 moved a step closer to authentication with a dedication ceremony held in front of the Shrine of Texas Liberty on January 24 by the San Jacinto Battleground Conservancy (SJBC). The cannon has been on permanent loan to the Alamo from the conservancy since 2010. A lone bagpiper signaled the start of the event, which drew attendance of around 200.

SJBC board member David B. Singleton introduced special guests present who included members of the McRae, Maverick and Esparza families, which all had ties to the cannon’s history. Sue McRae Stover inherited the cannon from her father, the late John Alexander McRae, and donated it to SJBC, per her father’s wishes that it be returned to the Alamo. The cannon is believed to likely be one of 13 Alamo cannons dug up during construction work at Samuel Maverick’s nearby home in 1852.

McRae cannon inside the Alamo. Photo provided by Kameron Searle.
McRae cannon inside the Alamo. Photo provided by Kameron Searle.

Due to the cannon being a bronze “four pounder” (using 4-pound cannon balls), it could have been one of those used at the rear of the old mission church during the battle. One of those manning that station was Gregorio Esparza, the only Alamo defender to receive a proper burial following the battle, due to his brother’s service in General Santa Anna’s forces. (Later, at the ceremony’s conclusion, “The Ballad of Gregorio Esparza” was played by K.R. Woods and the Fathers of Texas in honor of the Esparzas, along with other songs recalling the Battle of the Alamo.)

Members of the Children of the Republic of Texas, Nicholas and Madeline DeVault, respectively led the pledge to the flags of the United States and Texas and the singing of the state song. Acknowledgement of donors who made restoration of the cannon possible was given by SJBC President Jan DeVault and SJBC board member George S. Gayle III, a descendent of both Alamo and San Jacinto battle participants.

“The cannon is stable right now because of the dollars that you put into it,” DeVault told donors, whose names were inscribed on a plaque beside the podium. “It should be good for another two or three hundred years.”

Alamo cannon expert and conservationist Rick Range, who was instrumental in the cannon’s recovery, presented official “Alamo Gun Crew” certificates to all who helped transport the nearly 400-pound cannon in its travels of recent years from North Texas to Houston to Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Laboratory and, finally, to San Antonio.

Historian Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick gave a detailed account of the cannon’s history. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic.
Historian Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick gave a detailed account of the cannon’s history. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic.

Speaking on the cannon’s history was historian Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick, a SJBC board member and author of “Sea of Mud: the Retreat of the Mexican Army after the Battle of San Jacinto: an Archaeological Investigation.” He began by noting bronze, brass and copper are interchangeable terms used in describing the cannon. Several years ago, he related, Rick Range had given him a call. Range had been searching for the Alamo cannons and had found an exciting clue as to the whereabouts of the last of the four bronze cannons dug up near the Alamo in the 1850s. Dimmick was a bit skeptical at first, he admitted, but further research turned up some promising leads. Old newspapers in the Alamo Library told of J.P. Bryan acquiring what was said to be a bronze/brass Alamo cannon in Pennsylvania and bringing it back to Texas, where it was sold in a fundraising auction for the Texas State Historical Association in the 1980s.

The 1986 article noted the cannon had originally been given to Howard B. French in Philadelphia as payment for a debt in 1880. A later news story stated there had been a ceremony in Austin commemorating its restoration and that McRae, the new owner, eventually planned to donate it to the Alamo. The director of the Alamo was said to be withholding comment pending further documentation.

Brass/bronze cannons are rarer than iron ones, Dimmick noted, and other factors also pointed to the mid-18th century cannon’s authenticity. It bore a Spanish coat of arms from Castile and León, but was not ornate in design so was likely cast in Mexico rather than Spain. Especially significant, it was not “spiked” (a plugging of the muzzle), which normally was done to disable a cannon. Instead, like other known Alamo cannons, it had been seriously damaged. Its trunnions (pivots enabling tilting or rotation), handles and cascabel (projection at the back) had been broken off, basically making the cannon unusable.

Pre-restoration photo shows where the cannon’s cascabel was broken off. Photo provided by Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick.
Pre-restoration photo shows where the cannon’s cascabel was broken off. Photo provided by Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick.

Doing research on Howard B. French, Dimmick learned he was from a pharmaceutical family that also made building supplies. With much construction going on in San Antonio at the time, there could possibly have been a San Antonio debt owed to French. A later news story mentioned the wedding of French’s granddaughter whom, it turned out, was still alive and Range was able to track her down. She recalled to him that as a child she had played on her grandfather’s country estate, Alderbrook, which had two cannons on the grounds. One, she had been told, was from the Alamo! An old picture of the estate showed the cannons, with one strongly resembling the McRae cannon. Still, this was not definite proof.

Further research pulled up that Samuel Gibbs French, a Confederate general and artillery officer, had been stationed in San Antonio with the U.S. Army. His brother, John Clark French, also lived in San Antonio and was a local mover and shaker, constructing the French Building and starting one of San Antonio’s first banks. He also, it turned out, served on the board of directors of the Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railroad with Samuel Maverick, on whose property adjacent to Alamo Plaza 13 buried cannons were discovered.

Rick Range, Alamo cannon expert and conservationist, recognizes descendants of Gregorio Esparza who were present. Seated next to podium is San Jacinto Battleground Conservancy president, Jan DeVault. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic.
Rick Range, Alamo cannon expert and conservationist, recognizes descendants of Gregorio Esparza who were present. Seated next to podium is San Jacinto Battleground Conservancy president, Jan DeVault. Photo by Carol Baass Sowa for Today’s Catholic.

“Everybody thinks that General Filisola ordered that the cannons be thrown into the river,” said Dimmick, referring to what became of the Alamo’s cannons following the battle, but the river had been searched over the years and none found. However, when he and Range went back to read the original Spanish document from General Vicente Filisola (Santa Anna’s replacement) to Juan José Andrade, commander in San Antonio at the time, they found an error in previous translations.

Dimmick proceeded to give their new translation of Filisola’s command: “As there are in the Alamo various pieces of artillery in bad condition and of irregular caliber, seized from the enemy, you will see that the commander of artillery disables them, doing the same with the small arms that cannot be used.” Filisola then says: “Take the odd caliber ammunitions and projectiles and throw them in the river at night or do as you see fit and will give the best results which is not unknown to you.”

This meant the cannons were never ordered to be dumped in the river but were likely disabled, like the McRae cannon, and buried in the trenches uncovered during the Maverick excavation. There is historical verification the four brass cannons were not reburied like the iron cannons found.

An important gap in the story, said Dimmick, is lack of documentation showing the cannon sent by Maverick to French. Some years back, the conservancy had offered a $500 reward to anyone turning up this verification. They were, he said chuckling, probably “still good for the $500.”

An added point of interest, he observed, is the intriguing possibility that the cannon dedicated that day could possibly be the “Come and Take It” cannon from the Battle of Gonzales in 1835. The defenders there, he related, had two cannons — a small cannon, which is likely the one now at the museum in Gonzales, and a larger, probably 4 or 6-pound brass one. “That’s the cannon the Mexicans wanted back,” he said. “They didn’t need a small signal cannon, but they didn’t want them (the Texians) to have that 4 or 6-pound brass cannon.”

Knowing this, it is not hard to conjecture the cannon’s having been brought to the Alamo and used during the siege. “If you consider how many brass cannons were in and out of the Alamo,” said Dimmick, “I’d say there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that this cannon was actually the ‘Come and Take It’ cannon. Ten percent’s not high, but it’s higher than most cannons.” 

Visitors view restored cannon at the Alamo. Photo provided by San Jacinto Battleground Conservancy – SJBC.
Visitors view restored cannon at the Alamo. Photo provided by San Jacinto Battleground Conservancy – SJBC.

This article has been republished with permission from Today’s Catholic.

 *Featured/top image: The cannon in its pre-restoration state. Photo provided by Dr. Gregg J. Dimmick.

Related Stories:

Carol Baass Sowa

Carol Baass Sowa is staff writer and photographer for Today’s Catholic newspaper, published by the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Born and raised in Victoria, Texas, her mother hailed from San Antonio,...