The Last of Their Kind
“Then a Nation, proudly stepping / To the front, her flag unfurl’d, / Taking rank in hero annals / With the proudest of the world! / Gone are all those valiant heroes, / Held in such supreme regard; / Gone to him, who in his wisdom / Will their service reward.”
Jake H. Harrison, “The Last Hero”
Texas won its independence on the marshy plains of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, when Sam Houston’s Texians defeated Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna in a battle that lasted a mere eighteen minutes. Seventy years later, on the anniversary of that victory, the last surviving veterans from the Army of the Republic of Texas reunited at Fannin Park in Goliad, where Colonel James Fannin and some four hundred soldiers were massacred by Mexican forces under the command of José de Urrea on March 27, 1836. The photograph is of that April 21, 1906, reunion. The cannon they are sitting on is know as Fannin’s Cannon since it was used during the battle of Coleto Creek—a last ditch effort to escape the presidio at Goliad and join Houston’s army.
The Texas Veterans Association, of which these men were apart, formed in 1873 at its first convention in Houston. It consisted of men who served in the Texas Army and Navy, and among the Texas Rangers during the years of the Republic, before Texas was annexed into the United States. The Association meet annual on San Jacinto Day, April 21. It dissolved the year after this photograph was taken. These men include:
William Physick Zuber (1820–1913) served in the rear guard at the Battle of San Jacinto, assigned to protect the army’s baggage and care for the sick and wounded. After the Revolution against Mexico, he fought Indians along the south central frontier of Texas. He later took part in the Somervell Expedition of 1842, which was an ill-fated and foolish invasion of Mexico. Zuber later signed up for the Confederate Army, serving in the Twenty-First Texas Calvary. He was a charter member of the Texas Historical Association and made a life member because of his service to Texas during the struggle for independence.
John Washington Darlington (1821–1915) did not serve during the Texas Revolution, but fighting was in his blood. It is believed that his father took part in the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803–1806 and fought at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Shortly after arriving in Texas in 1838, Darlington worked on the construction of the first Texas Capitol building. In 1841, he took part in the Battle of Plum Creek, in which Comanches raided down the Guadalupe Valley, killing and plundering, and finally sacking the town of Linnville before they were attacked by Texas Rangers at Plum Creek, near present-day Lockhart. The following year, he served as a volunteer to repeal Mexican raids by Rafael Vásquez and Adrián Woll. During the Civil War, Darlington served as a private in a ranger company assigned to protect the Texas frontier.
Asa Collinsworth Hill (1826–1913) is the outlier in this photograph. He didn’t serve during the years of the Republic. However, his father and brothers did. After statehood and the election of Sam Houston to the Senate, Hill went to Washington DC and served as Houston’s private secretary. When war broke out with Mexico, he served as part of the Texas Mounted Volunteers, before commanding a spy company. Before the Civil War he served as a Texas Ranger. Injured before the the war began, he volunteered as a civilian guide before being brought up on charges of insubordination. He was convicted at a court martial and served six month in prison before being vindicated.
Stephen Franklin Sparks (1817–1908) is the only one in the photograph who was in the forefront of the Texas Revolution. Many people believe there was only one battle for the Alamo. Not so. There was an earlier battle, in 1835, known as the siege of Béxar, where Mexican general Martín Perfecto de Cós was driven from the Alamo by a company of Tejanos and three hundred Texians. Sparks was one of the three hundred. During the Run Away Scrape—the eastward retreat of Sam Houston’s army and civilians in the face of Santa Anna’s advance—Sparks was commissioned to recruit men to defend Texas and to confiscate weapons that could be used by the Texas Army. He fought along side his fellow Texians at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Levi “Lee” Lawler (1826–1915) is a bit of a mystery man—at least historically. We know he served in a ranging company in his early teens, protecting the Republic’s frontier. During the Civil War, he was a first sergeant in a Texas brigade.
Alfonso (Alphonso) Steele (1817–1911) was the last surviving combatant of the Battle of San Jacinto. Before San Jacinto, however, he worked in a hotel in Washington-on-the-Brazos. One of his jobs was to grind corn to make bread, which was fed the delegates who were then meeting to discuss—and eventually declare—independence from Mexico. Once independence was announced, Steele join a company of men who set out for San Antonio de Béxar to reinforced William B. Travis’s command at the Alamo. When Steele’s company reached the Colorado River they received word of the Alamo’s fall. Steele and the others joined Sam Houston’s retreating army, where he saw action as a private at San Jacinto. He was severely wounded in the first minutes of the battle but continued to fight until the eighteen minute battle was over. Houston rode Steele’s gray horse through much of the battle, until it was shot out from under him.