The Twin Sisters are firing again. Well, not the actual Sisters, but their models. And you can see them blast away this summer on the San Jacinto Battlefield – with blanks. If you just got off the United flight from Chicago and plan to make Texas your new home, Pilgrim, here’s a bit of mystery and history mixed together. The Twin Sisters were a pair of naughty young women who came to our rescue, then disappeared, never to be seen again. The Sisters were two cannons used by the Texians (that’s what they called themselves back then) at the Battle of San Jacinto, which is why there is a Texas and why you are here. So this story is worth retelling.
The cannons were 6-pounders made of brass or cast iron (there is a dispute), 5 feet 5 inches long, with a four-inch bore and weight of approximately 800 pounds. They began life on Nov. 17, 1835, when the people of Cincinnati, Ohio, wanted to aid the cause of the Texas Revolution. They raised funds to procure two cannons and their equipment for Texas. Since the United States was officially neutral toward the rebellion in Texas, the Cincinnatians listed their cannons as "hollow ware."
They were manufactured at a foundry and then shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans where the guns were placed on the schooner Pennsylvania and taken to Brazoria. The cannons were named "Twin Sisters" at Brazoria for Elizabeth and Eleanor Rice, twin daughters of Dr. Charles W. Rice who were on board the Pennsylvania. At that time the Texas Army was in full retreat but after several unsuccessful efforts, the Twins reached the army at its camp on the Brazos on April 11, 1836. On April 19 the Texas Army of 763 soldiers arrived on the banks of the San Jacinto River, slowly fording it.
Soldiers took the floor of a house belonging to a Mrs. Batterson and used it as a raft to float the cannons across. On the day before the battle of San Jacinto the Sisters got into a fight with a Mexican artillery piece twice their size, the Golden Standard. The Standard’s first shot hit the Sisters’ commander, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, in the rump. The Texians hit Cap. Fernando Urriza in the rump, killed two mules and wrecked the Standard’s limber. So much for the first artillery duel. The next day, April 21,1836, the Sisters were probably put near the center of the Texians' line and 10 yards in advance of the infantry. Then General Sam Houston, in his usual mild manner, gave the order to his artillerymen: “Halt! Halt! Now is the critical time! Fire away! God damn you, fire! Aren’t you going to fire at all?”
During the battle they fired handfuls of musket balls, broken glass, and horseshoes, the only ammunition they had. Their first shots were fired at a distance of 200 yards, and were credited with helping to cause confusion in the Mexicans’ ranks and significantly aided the Texians’ infantry attack. Following the battle the cannons were used to guard the Mexican prisoners. In 1840 the Twins were moved, along with other military stores, to Austin, where on April 21, 1841, they were fired in celebration of the fifth anniversary of the battle of San Jacinto. When Sam Houston was inaugurated as president of the republic that year, the Twins were fired. In 1842 the Twins were placed on the summit of “President's Hill” in Austin (I think that is where the State Capitol is today) to defend the river crossing against an attack by Mexican troops that occupied San Antonio. They were inventoried in Austin in 1843, where they remained for another 20 years.
After that the Sisters were moved here and there, used by the Texas Army, then by the Confederates. Then they disappeared. (No, they are not the two cannons guarding the south entrance to the state Capitol, although a lot of people think they are.) Here’s the version I like best: After the end of the Civil War, in August of 1865 five discharged Rebs returning from Galveston by train got off in Houston, and one of them, 19-year-old Henry North Graves, spotted some confiscated Confederate weapons in a pile earmarked for a northern foundry and destruction. In the pile Graves found the Twin Sisters. (They had been marked at the foundry.) Graves and his companions -- John Barnett, Ira Pruett, Sol Thomas and Jack Taylor -- immediately decided to save the Sisters. As one of them remarked, "We'll bury them so deep no damned Yankee will ever find them." That night, joined by a Black man named Dan, they stole the cannons, burned the wood and leather attachments, then buried the barrels near a bayou.
That is the last the Sisters were seen. In 1895 Graves and two of his old diggers returned to the bayou's banks to retrieve the cannon. No luck. Graves came back in 1920 but could find nothing. I wrote about all of this back in 1982, and George Brown, of Brown & Root, called up and said, "Wonder if a reward might help the hunt?"
"It would," I agreed.
"How about $2,500?"
"How about $25,000?"
Pause. "All right."
Brown insisted on anonymity, so a $25,000 certificate of deposit was drawn up with my name on it to be awarded for the return and verification of the Twin Sisters. The offer finally expired and Brown died without anyone ever finding the guns. A few years later a friend of Brown's renewed the offer.Again, no takers. Since then others have tried, but the Twin Sisters have eluded all discovery. (According to maps of that period, the two cannons should be somewhere by the bayou near Brady’s Island, beside the railroad track.) Perhaps the Sisters are not being coy, but are simply awaiting General Houston’s next orders, “Fire away! God damn you, aren’t you going to fire at all?”
Ashby can be fired at firstname.lastname@example.org
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