Robert W Cunningham: The Alamo
by Terry Prall
Robert W. Cunningham¹ was born on 18 Oct 1804 in New Berlin, Chenango Co., New York.² He died killed defending the Alamo on 6 Mar 1836 at the age of 31 in The Alamo, San Antonio de Bexar, Republic of Texas.²
Robert W. Cunningham was the eldest of the children of David Cunningham and Anna Jennison, born in Chenango Co., New York in 1804. He made the move west with his family as they settled in Jeffersonville, Clark Co., Indiana during the 1820s.
Robert opted for a life on the river, common to his Cunningham, Jennison and Simmons kin. Members of the family lived along the Ohio river towns in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio throughout the 1800s. Cunningham spent time in Kentucky and Arkansas before working on the Mississippi River cargo flatboats that took him to New Orleans. In 1832 Robert wrote his family back in Jeffersonville that he was going to settle in New Orleans. That decision was soon to change.
By 4 March 1833 Robert had moved to Texas where he received title to a league of land on Skull Creek [present-day Colorado Co.] in Austin's burgeoning colony. [His name appeared on the tax index list of 1833 in "Austin County."]
Moses Austin laid the foundation for an American settlement in Mexico's northern-most state, Texas, in 1820-21. He was granted land on which to settle 300 families by Governor Martinez. Moses died in June of 1821 and his son, Stephen F. Austin, reluctantly took over the Texas Grant. The new "Empressario" met with the governor's representative in San Antonio and laid out an acceptable plan for settlement. He then returned to New Orleans to advertise for colonists. Austin led the first families into Texas in 1822 and soon had to go to Mexico City to confirm the grant.
During his return to the colony, the Mexican government fell to revolution. The new Constitution of 1824 was loosely patterned after that of the US. There were serious differences - no trial by jury, Roman Catholicism was the state religion, Congress had the final say in interpreting the constitution, the president had the right to command the army in person and the rights of the states were not clearly defined. Slavery had been all but outlawed in Mexico, but there were some allowances. Coahuila and Texas, the northern-most states, were combined into a single state. Distribution of land favored native Mexicans over colonists. Colonists had to swear to follow the constitution, including following the Catholic faith. Other colonies sprang up in Texas over the next few years. Austin's was by far the most successful and continued to grow. Changes were on the horizon with another revolution in 1829 and one of its leaders, a hero of the previous war, was Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. The U.S. was making noise about annexing Texas. Slavery was outlawed. Vice-president Bustamente declared himself president in 1830 and forbade further colonization of Texas. Juan Matin Verimendi was elected vice-governor of Coahuila y Texas and into the picture came Verimendi's son-in-law, James Bowie. Among new government officials in Texas was Col. Juan Bradburn, in charge of Anahuac. He instituted martial law, conficated colonists' property, citizens were arrested, Mexican soldiers robbed and stole and went unpunished. In 1831, enraged citizens arrested one of Bradburn's soldiers. They were in turn arrested by Bradburn. One of them was a young attorney named William Barrett Travis.
The prisoners were eventually released and Bradburn sent to New Orleans, from where he promptly retuned to Mexico. As Santa Anna continued to lead the revolt, Sam Houston arrived in Texas in 1832. Santa Anna was elected president in 1833. It was shortly before Santa Anna took office that 29 year-old Robert Cunningham arrived in Texas. Santa Anna was soon dictator of Mexico, the Constitution of 1824 was abolished and the rights of Mexicans and colonists alike were revoked. The Texans tried reason before rebellion and sent Austin to Mexico City with their grievances in 1834. He was promptly arrested and imprisoned. Austin was released later in the year.
1835: The state of Zacatecas was opposed to the new dictator and prepared to defend itself from the encroaching Mexican Army led by El Presidente himself. Of 5000 Zacatecas defenders, 2000 were killed and 2700 were taken prisoner. For two days, Santa Anna's army butchered citizens and plundered the state capital. Meanwhile, General Cos, the dictator's brother-in-law, was dispatched to Coahuila y Texas to shut down the legislature and establish martial law. The mood among Texas colonists was quickly shifting to one of independence. Travis led a force to take Anahuac. Austin returned in September, now ready to support the rebels and a Committee of Safety was formed at San Felipe. The town of Gonzalez had been given a cannon for protection against Indian raids. Mexican forces were sent to reclaim the cannon. They were not successful. The Texans captured Goliad and Concepcion. Plans were underway at San Felipe to establish a provisional government. A declaration was written calling for a return to the Constitution of 1824. By the end of November, Henry Smith was appointed governor, James W. Robinson lieutenant governor, Austin commissioner to the U.S. and Sam Houston was commander-in-chief of the army. They would meet at Washington-on-the-Brazos on 1 March 1836 for further action. General Cos' army was now encamped in San Antonio de Bexar and in an old, run-down Spanish mission outside of the town - the Alamo.
What transpired in the life of Robert Cunningham between March of 1834 and late 1835 is not yet documented; he wrote his family in 1836 that he had joined the Texas army. He was undoubtedly with the army as it moved from Concepcion to San Antonio in November and December of 1835. Robert was serving as a sergeant and second gunner in Captain T.L.F. Parrott's artillery company.
Parrott's company was initially under Austin's command, but Austin was called away and Edward Burleson took command of the regiment. Burleson gave the order to attack the Mexican forces on the evening of December 4th. Ben Milam led the assault on the town, while James Neill attacked the Alamo. There was much house to house fighting over the next five days. Among the most notable casualties of the battle was that of Col. Ben Milam on the 7th. Milam had been an inspirational leader of the Texas. Cannon fire helped keep Mexican forces from leaving the Alamo to reinforce Bexar. By the 9th, Cos' troops had retreated to the old mission and ran up a white flag. In the early morning hours of 10 December 1835 Cos surrendered. Cos and his officers were never to return to Texas, nor were they to, in any way, oppose the reinstitution of the 1824 Constitution. Santa Anna, at the head of an army of 6000, was marching toward the rebellious colony.
Robert Cunningham chose to remain with the Bexar garrison. He was assigned to Captain William R. Carey's artillery company as a private. Cunningham was part of the force of fewer than 100 regulars left to man San Antonio de Bexar under the command of Col. James Neill.
Col. James Bowie arrived on the 19th of January with 30 men and orders [left to Bowie's discretion] to abandon Bexar, blow up its fortifications, and remove the artillery to Gonzalez. Neill disagreed. Bowie took stock of the situation and finally agreed with Neill that holding Bexar was crucial. Bowie wrote Houston stating that "we would rather die in these ditches than give it up to the enemy." The commanders began to fortify their defenses.
Governor Smith ordered Travis to Bexar. Travis made several pleas to have his orders revoked and even threatened to resign his commission. In the end, Col. Travis led his 30 men into Bexar on February 3rd. On the 6th arrived the Tennessee Mounted Volunteers under the command of former Congressman Col. David Crockett. Crockett proceeded to regale the soldiers and citizens with stories of his exploits. David informed them that he had told Congress that "you may all go to hell and I will go to Texas. Neill left on 20 days leave on the 11th and placed Travis in command of the regulars.
Bowie was drinking heavily and suffering from bouts of fever [probaby typhoid or pneumonia] and constantly at odds with Travis. Finally, on the 14th, they agreed to maintain their separate commands and make major decisions together.
23 February 1836: Sentries see guidons on the horizon. Orders are given to evacuate Bexar and move into the Alamo. Santa Anna had arrived. Santa Anna, under a white flag, demanded the surrender of the Alamo. He was answered with a cannon shot. A blood red flag was raised in Bexar - no quarter, no prisoners - the Alamo garrison was to be put to the sword.
Travis drafted a letter on the 24th and sent it out through Mexican lines:
COMMANDANCY OF THE ALAMO, BEXAR, February 24, 1836.
FELLOW-CITIZENS AND COMPATRIOTS : I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna. I have sustained a continued bombardment for twenty-four hours, and have not lost a man. The enemy have demanded a surrender at discretion ; otherwise the garrison is to be put to the sword, if the place is taken. I have answered the summons with a cannon-shot, and our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then I call on you in the name of liberty, of patriotism, and of everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all despatch. The enemy are receiving reinforcements daily, and will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. Though this call may be neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible, and die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor and that of his country. Victory or death!"W. BARRET TRAVIS, Lieutenant-Colonel commanding." P. S.—The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight, we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found, in deserted houses, eighty or ninety bushels, and got into the walls twenty or thirty head of beeves. "T"
Other riders were sent out to deliver dispatches and pleas for help. Skirmishes took place between Mexican and Texan troops. The Alamo was constantly bombarded by Mexican artillery. Return fire was sporadic. Forage parties were sent out to find food and firewood. The Texans also managed to put to torch a few nearby huts that would provide cover for the enemy. Miracuosly, there were no deaths among the defenders. Bowie's illness had won out - he was now a bedridden non-combatant. Travis was in full command.
The artillery headquarters of Capt. Carey was in the southwest corner of the compound. It may have been there, at Alamo's 18 pounder, or the battery trained on the main gate on the south wall to which Pvt. Cunningham was assigned. From his post he witnessed the shenanigans of fellow artilleryman, Scotsman John McGregor and Crockett. McGregor on his bagpipes frequently duelled Crockett and his fiddle. When not at his post at the southeast barricade joining the south wall to the church, Crockett was found around the compound trying to keep spirits up. Periodically David would scale the southwest wall and take shots at enemy soldiers within range. On one occasion he took aim on a Mexican engineer 200 yards away - and shot him dead. Life was anything but boring for young Cunningham.
On March 1st, 32 men arrived from Gonzalez to reinforce the Alamo. Still believing that reinforcements were on the way from Goliad, Travis sent Crockett and two others to find the men and lead them back to the Alamo. About twenty miles out, Crockett's party located the party of about 50. Crockett got most of the men safely inside the Alamo; the others were driven off by the Mexicans. The last messengers were sent out on the 5th. The defenders of the Alamo had not received word that the provisional government had declared Texas an independent republic on March 2nd.
Santa Anna called for an all out attack on the morning of the 6th and ended the bombardment about 10:00 P.M. on the 5th. The exhausted defenders inside the Alamo slept.
At about 5:00 A.M. the Alamo sentinels outside the walls were killed in their sleep as the advance troops approached. Overly enthusiastic soldiers shouted "Via Santa Anna!" and brought the Alamo to life. Santa Anna ordered the 'Deguello' [cut throat song] to be played.
A three acre compound that required 1000 men to adequately defend it, had perhaps 200-220. Crockett's Tennesseeans repelled multiple assaults, forcing the enemy to the west. At the north wall, two assaults failed, but the third did not. Travis, at the north wall, was one of the first to fall. The Mexican troops swarmed over the north wall. Texans exposed to musket fire were cut down. Others abandoned their positions and fought a retreat toward the two barracks and church.
Robert Cunningham and the other artillerymen fired into the masses of Mexican soldiers filing into the compound from the north. As their shot ran out, they grabbed nails, scrap metal, door hinges and anything else they could load into their cannons. The "scrap shot" nearly wiped out one entire Mexican company. The south wall was left unguarded as guns were trained on the north. Battery by battery the artillerymen were overrun. At some point during the push over the south wall, the 32 year-old artilleryman from Jeffersonville fell next to his cannon riddled with musket fire or pierced by bayonets.
The north and south walls had been breached. Mexican troops scaled the east wall and entered the foray. The defenders there escaped into the prairie and, despite cover fire from Captain Almeron Dickinson's artillery on the church, were slaughtered by the enemy cavalry. Defenders jumped from the west wall and tried to fight in the ditches near the mission.. They were also cut down by the Mexican cavalry. Many defenders took refuge in the long barracks [west wall] and the low barracks [south wall].
Crockett and his men were still in the open, backed up against the southeast palisade and in front of the ruins of the church. They put forth a desperate last stand. Witnesses reported between 15-20 soldiers piled around Crockett and a couple of his men.
Captured cannons were turned on the doors and walls of the two barracks, tearing brick and defenders to pieces. Soldiers stormed the buildings firing point-blank into the Texans reduced to hand-to-hand combat. Bayonets finished the job. Soldiers stormed into Bowie's room and found him lying near death in his bed. Legend holds that he generated enough strength to discharge a set of pistols and bury his famous Bowie knife into one of the enemy. His body was raised on bayonets like a bale of hay.
The Alamo's 18 pounder was turned on the church by Mexican soldiers and blew apart the doors. Dickinson's artillerymen and the remaining Texans who had taken refuge in the church were quickly overrun. A handful of men were captured and taken before Santa Anna - they were executed on the spot. By 6:30 A.M. it was all over.
Survivors? At least 14. The wife and children of defender Enrique Esparza and a few other Mexican women and children. Travis' slave, Joe. Susanna Dickinson and her infant daughter were the only Anglo survivors. Mrs. Dickinson and Joe were sent north to tell of the fall of the Alamo.
Santa Anna ordered Christian burials for his dead [estimates between 600 and 1200]. Many bodies had to be tossed into the nearby creeks and rivers. As to the Alamo defenders they were stacked - a layer of wood, a layer of bodies..... and put to the torch. Only one, Enrique Esparza, whose brother fought for Santa Anna, was granted burial.
It is not known how long it took the news of the fall of the Alamo to reach the Cunninghams in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Reports would have begun making their way from New Orleans up the Mississippi by the end of March. News of Robert's death may not have reached the Cunningham family until late April.
By that time, Sam Houston and the Army of Texas had exacted a measure of revenge. On 21 April 1836 the Texans, with the battle cry, "Remember the Alamo!", overwhelmed Santa Anna's forces at San Jacinto, killing 650 and capturing 700 in an 18 minute battle. Houston's force of just under 800 suffered 9 dead and 34 wounded. Among the Mexican prisoners was a soldier in a corporal's uniform. Upon seeing him, other prisoners shouted, "El Presidente!" A disgraced Santa Anna was brought before Houston and signed Texas over to the general in exchange for his life.
Robert W. Cunningham, born in New York, resident of Jeffersonville, Indiana, with stops in Kentucky, Arkansas, New Orleans, and numerous towns along the Mississippi decided to settle in Texas in 1832. On the 6th of March 1836 at the Alamo, he joined David Crockett, Jim Bowie, Travis and the others in immortality.
Sources for excerpts:
The History of Texas: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/texas/history-texas.htm
Battle of the Alamo [wikipedia]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Alamo
1. Bill Groneman, "Cunningham, Robert W.," biographic sketch, Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles : accessed 29 January 2010).
2. Wall Street John, William F. Archerd online [http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi~bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=wallstreetjohn&id=194&pr...], accessed 6 November 2009.
Note: Current online for Wall Street John, Ann S Eldredge [http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=wallstreetjohn&id=I110]
Ahh, genealogy. Sometimes, it can just leave you in awe of history.
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