Remembering the Lawyers at the Alamo
I can still remember my first trip as a child to the Alamo. I was probably five years old, a tow-headed, crewcut kid, and it didn’t matter to me if it was broiling that summer day in San Antonio. My coonskin cap was not coming off my head regardless of my level of dehydration as the beads of perspiration rolled down my face.
This was where my heroes had fallen. There is no telling how many times by then I had watched Fess Parker or John Wayne in their roles as Davy Crockett. I had a gold-colored 45 record that I had just about worn out as I listened over and over again about “the thirteen days of glory at the siege of the Alamo.” My favorite toys were the plastic images of coonskin-topped soldiers.
I still remember standing there in front of the Alamo, looking up into the sky at the chapel. In a way, I was relieved by the sweat pouring down from under my cap, because it helped mask my tears.
Now, way past grown, I have to tell you I still get a little lump in my throat every time I see it. Years ago, on one of my annual sojourns to TCDLA’s Rusty Duncan conclave, I decided to spend a few hours there in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas library. My goal that day was to learn more about a specific group of Alamo defenders who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I wanted to learn more about the lawyers who died there.
Of course, I knew about Travis being a lawyer. But I did not know about the six others. Micajah Autrey, Peter James Bailey, James Butler Bonham, Daniel William Cloud, John M. Hays, and Green Berry Jameson all practiced law before dying together in the Alamo in the predawn hours of March 6, 1836.
Once I explained what I was looking for, the folks there were an immense help. They even had a file on the subject that they brought out for me. Among the papers there was a well-documented article published in the November/December 1999 edition of The Houston Lawyers, written by Gretchen Allen and Brad Allen. I learned from their article the stories of Travis and the others and leaned heavily on their information as a base for further research.
My curiosity was further stoked a couple of years ago when I read William Davis’ terrific book Three Roads to the Alamo, an excellent treatment of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis and how they all arrived at their common appointment with fate. The detail of the research by Davis into each of the “Big 3” amazed me. I was particularly happy to learn more about Travis, whose star in history has in my opinion been both unfortunately and unfairly outshone by the popularity and marketing of Crockett and Bowie. Travis was certainly not just window dressing for the other two.
William Barret Travis
Travis, who was born in South Carolina, first started training in the law after moving to Claiborne, Alabama, at the feet of James Dellet, a giant in the Alabama legal community. In February 1829, Travis was admitted to the bar. But times were tough for him. Facing mounting debts, and perhaps a rocky marriage, he decided to leave his family behind and head for Texas.
Travis told his wife that he would send for her, his son, and their unborn daughter after he got settled in Texas. The son later came, but his wife and daughter remained in Alabama. Travis established his practice in Anahuac, eventually moving to San Felipe.
Travis proved to be a thorn in the side of Mexican authorities and was ultimately incarcerated for over 50 days. In 1835, he led a group of twenty-something men in a successful raid against an outpost of Mexican soldiers in Anahuac.
As events unfurled leading the Texans toward the road to independence, he continued to ply his trade as a lawyer. From his office in San Felipe, his legal practice grew. He handled maritime law, probate issues, and debt collection, defended civil cases, and also did some criminal defense work. He even handled a matter for James Bowie.
As Travis’ legal practice blossomed, his rather tenuous marriage fell apart completely. After inquiries from a lawyer representing his wife back in Alabama, Travis responded that he had no desire to reunite with his wife, and that all he wanted was his son and his freedom.
In October 1835, the “Come and Take It” battle occurred in Gonzales igniting the revolution. Travis and others formed a local company of men in San Felipe, and Travis was named as their lieutenant. About a week later, the San Felipe group arrived in Gonzales. Stephen F. Austin then assumed command of the 300 or so men who had rallied to Gonzales and led them on to San Antonio.
As the Texans grew frustrated with Austin’s mishandling of the “army,” there was a growing realization that they should organize themselves in a more professional manner. It was early during this process that Travis was approached about taking a commission with the artillery, but he declined the position. He was later appointed as a lieutenant colonel of the cavalry.
Travis was ordered to head to the Alamo to reinforce Colonel James Neill. Shortly after Travis’ return to San Antonio, on February 12, 1836, Neill took an emergency family leave of 20 days, which left Travis in charge of the 50 or so army “regulars” at the Alamo. He uneasily shared the overall command with Bowie, who led the 100 or so “volunteers” there.
Although Sam Houston wanted to withdraw the Texas forces and blow up the Alamo, the garrison received direct orders from Governor Smith and the ruling council to stay put. Travis set about improving their defensive position and began a constant process of sending dispatches for reinforcements, the most famous being his “Victory or Death” message penned on February 24th. Travis’ eloquent pleas for assistance and his very public unwavering commitment to hold on as long as possible stirred hearts all over the county to respond and assist in the struggle.
But, they would not be able to relieve the besieged Travis. On the morning of the final assault by the Mexican army, Travis was among the first to fall as he manned his post.
Autry was born to a Quaker family. After serving in the War of 1812, he took up teaching and later began the study of law. He was admitted to the bar in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1828. In 1835, Autry headed for Texas.
His wife stayed behind and he wrote her a series of letters about his journey. In a letter dated December 7th, he told her: “I feel more energy than I ever did on anything I have undertaken. I am determined to provide for you a home or perish.”
Later from Nacogdoches, he wrote her that he had fallen in “with a small company of select men, four of them lawyers.” He went on to tell her: “I go whole hog in the cause of Texas. I expect to help them gain their independence and also form their civil government, for it is worth risking many lives for.”
He asked her to relay a message to his brother. “Tell brother Jack to think of nothing but coming here with us. Tell him to study law as this will be the greatest country for the profession, as soon as we have a government, that was ever known. . . .”
Autry enlisted in Nacogdoches and soon left in the company of Crockett, Bailey, Cloud, and others as they continued their trek to the Alamo.
Peter James Bailey III
Born in Kentucky in 1812, Bailey is the only lawyer of the group who had a formal law degree, which he received from Transylvania University in 1834. He traveled to Texas from Kentucky with his close friend, Daniel Cloud, looking for a place to establish a law practice. Enlisting in Nacogdoches, he was with the group who left there with Crockett and others to head to the Alamo.
John M. Hays
Hays is a recent addition to this list. For a long time, it was generally accepted that there were only six lawyers who died at the Alamo.
Apparently, there had been unsubstantiated claims through the years that Hays had practiced in Tennessee before coming to Texas. Corroboration of Hays being admitted to the bar in Tennessee was eventually unearthed by the State Bar of Texas History and Preservations Committee.
While serving in the Alamo, the detachment of men there elected two representatives to leave and travel to the constitutional convention at Washington on the Brazos. Hays apparently threw his hat in the ring for one of the spots, as did James Bonham. Hays and Bonham lost in their respective bids for election to Jesse Badgett and another lawyer and famous Texan, Sam Maverick. As Maverick and Badgett left just ahead of the Mexican Army to head for Washington, Hays and Bonham remained inside the Alamo.
James Butler Bonham
A childhood acquaintance of Travis in South Carolina, Bonham developed a reputation for his temper. He was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1830. Once, while representing a widow in a hearing, Bonham physically beat his opposing counsel after that lawyer failed to show Bonham’s client the proper respect that Bonham felt she was due. During the beating, when the presiding judge attempted to intervene, Bonham, already upset with the judge for failing to take a stand against the opponent’s earlier improper remarks, threatened that if the judge got off the bench, Bonham would rearrange his nose as well. Bonham was held in contempt and wound up spending 90 days in jail for his actions.
After moving to Alabama to practice law, Bonham raised a group called the Mobile Grays to come to assist Texas. Bonham arrived here in November 1835 and briefly opened a law practice in Brazoria. He sent a personal message to Sam Houston that he was volunteering his services for the cause of Texas, and that he was willing to serve without any form of compensation.
While stationed at the Alamo, Bonham acted as a courier for Travis on multiple occasions, carrying Travis’ pleas for reinforcement. During the desperate defense of the mission, Travis sent out 15 to 20 couriers. Of them, only Bonham and a couple of others ever returned. Somewhat distantly related to Bowie by marriage, Bonham on one occasion used Bowie’s horse to carry him through the Mexican lines.
Bonham returned from his last ride for help on March 3rd. He carried a message from Three-Legged Willie Williamson exhorting Travis to hold on, claiming that 600 to 700 reinforcements would be arriving soon. They never came. Bonham never left the Alamo again.
Green Berry Jameson
Jameson was among the first of this lawyer group to come to Texas. Arriving in 1828, he opened a law office in San Felipe.
Jameson enlisted in the Texas army in Gonzalez and participated in the Siege of Bexar in December 1835. He remained at the Alamo under the command of first Neil, and later Travis and Bowie. Jameson was appointed engineer of the Alamo defenses. As such, Jameson was in charge of bolstering the walls and the placement of the mission’s cannons. He had an unenviable task of trying to prepare defense works over such a large area with not enough assets.
Once the Mexican army began to arrive in San Antonio, Bowie chose Jameson to deliver a message to the Mexicans. Over Travis’ furious objections, Bowie sent Jameson out under a white flag to meet and discuss whether a parley had been called for by the Mexicans. As he rode out, Jameson carried a note signed by Bowie which curtly asked, “I want to know if a parley has really been called.”
Jameson met with his Mexican counterparts on the bridge spanning the river. Shortly into the meeting, Jameson wheeled his horse and returned with the written Mexican response that they refused to parley “with rebellious foreigners to whom there is no recourse left, but if they wish to save their lives, then to place themselves immediately at the disposal of the Supreme Government.”
Travis, still infuriated that Bowie had sent Jameson out, interpreted the response as a demand for unconditional surrender. Jameson supposedly tried to convince Travis that some on Santa Ana’s staff had discussed the possibility of the hope for “some honorable conditions.” But, the window for negotiations soon closed and Travis ultimately responded to the Mexicans with a cannon shot.
Jameson spent his final days attempting in vain to shore up and repair the mounting damage from the Mexican cannon barrages as best he could. On the morning of the 6th, Jameson fell within his inadequate but valiantly attempted efforts of fortification.
Daniel William Cloud
Daniel Cloud was the good friend and prospective law partner of Peter Bailey. From Natchitoches, Louisiana, as the pair were on the doorstep of Texas, Cloud sent a letter to his brother detailing their journey through several states looking for a fertile place to open their law office.
He talked about their passage through Illinois. While he was impressed with the land, they kept moving because “law dockets were not large, fees low, and Yankee lawyers numerous.”
He had little positive to say about Missouri, lamenting that “there is less litigation in this State than any other state in the union.”
Cloud went on to say that had they stayed in Arkansas, they would have done well with “dockets and funds being large.”
But, he told his brother that they were called to Texas by something more than just the prospect of a thriving law practice. They were being drawn to Texas for additional reasons. He said: “Ever since Texas had unfurled her banner of freedom, and commenced warfare for liberty or death, our hearts have been enlisted in her behalf . . . [W]e have resolved to embark in the vessel which contains the flag of Liberty and sink or swim in its defense.
“If we succeed, the Country is ours. It is immense in extent, and fertile in its soil, and will amply reward our toil. If we fail, death in the cause of liberty and humanity is not cause for shuddering. Our rifles are by our side, and choice guns they are, we know what awaits us, and we are prepared to meet it.”
So, yeah, I still get a little lump in my throat. I am privileged to be able to honor these lawyers in this small way, and I am very proud to be a member of our profession that they so valiantly represented inside those mission walls almost 200 years ago. As I pass by the Alamo now, I get that emotional stirring, but it is not based upon some fantasized made-for-TV characterization of those who died there. Instead, I think of men, of lawyers who were real people just like us, who believed so strongly in the concept of liberty that they were willing to die for it. Makes me wonder what price we would be willing to pay today.