An Alamo misfire: What really happened to James Hannum?

Mom was strolling on the Alamo grounds when a stone bearing a familiar name stopped her cold.

She turned to a friend and exclaimed, “What’s he doing here?”

The name was James Hannum. It’s on the stone for his sacrifice in the battle that became a rallying cry in Texas’ war for independence. He’s one of 189 men hailed for their heroic stand against thousands of Mexican troops.

Alamo in 1912 painting by Percy Moran, 1912

A romanticized image of the Alamo battle of March 6, 1836, in a painting by Percy Moran, 1912. James Hannum is on the official list of Alamo defenders.

My mom is a Hannum. Her ancestors settled in southeastern Pennsylvania way back in the 17th century. She couldn’t imagine how a Hannum had ended up 1,700 miles from home.

“I was surprised that one of us had made it all the way down there,” she told me recently.

Mom and her friend visited the revered site in San Antonio years ago. From time to time, she’s mentioned seeing the name. I thought it was worth looking into and made a note of it. After all, how many folks can claim that an ancestor fought at the Alamo? But I never did anything about it until this year, when the coronavirus lockdown gave me the time.

In my first search online, I saw that James Hannum is on the Alamo shrine’s official list of defenders. He was born August 8, 1815, in Pennsylvania to Washington Lee and Martha Hannum. A member of the Alamo garrison, he was twenty-one years old when he died in the battle on March 6, 1836. (Actually, if his birth date is correct, he would have been twenty.)

Hannum family history, 1911

The Hannum family history suggests James Hannum was executed with several hundred other prisoners in Goliad, Texas, three weeks after the Alamo. The book, “A Record of the Descendants of John Hannum since 1686,” was published in 1911 in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Now I needed to know how, or whether, we were related. I turned to Ancestry.com and a century-old Hannum family history my older brother lent me. The oversize book, A Record of the Descendants of John Hannum since 1686, takes up 696 pages. It was compiled by a Curtis H. Hannum, who worked on it for twenty-seven years before having it published in 1911.

The answer is yes, I’m related to James, but indirectly and very, very distantly. My great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather and James’ great-grandfather were brothers. Their father was the John Hannum in the book’s title. He lived in a part of Chester County, Pennsylvania, that’s now in Delaware County, and ran a tavern.

The against-all-odds fighting spirit that put James in the thick of the Texas Revolution might have come from his grandfather, John Hannum III. He was a Chester County leader and Revolutionary War colonel who served with George Washington at the Battle of Brandywine.

It seemed that everything about James was falling into place, but the book’s entry on him raised a yellow flag.

For starters, there are no specific birth and death dates, only that he was born in 1816 – not the year before, as the Alamo site and Ancestry.com put it – and died in 1836. It doesn’t say exactly where he was born, but points to Tennessee, not Pennsylvania. He was the fifth-born of seven children, and several of his younger and older siblings are listed as having been born in Nashville. That’s where their father, a lawyer, had met and married Martha “Patsey” Robertson.

The book answers Mom’s question of how James got to Texas. His father was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and, soon after being admitted to the Chester County Bar in 1797, moved to Tennessee. According to James’ sister Elizabeth, the family moved from Nashville to Somerville and then to Memphis. Patsey died in 1833, and in 1835 or ’36, the family left for Mexican Texas.

They arrived by boat near Matagorda, on the Gulf Coast, and traveled some sixty miles northwest to Texana, which disintegrated into a ghost town years later and now lies under a reservoir. Washington Lee Hannum left three of his children with a local family and went to New Orleans on business. While he was gone, the family and Texana’s other white settlers fled as a Mexican army bore down on the town. The Hannum kids camped out in a woods. Their father found them when he returned, but only after a long and arduous search.

Elizabeth said her brother Lucian “had no saddle – his father went to the town of Columbus, which was almost entirely abandoned, to get a saddle, and while there he was captured by the Mexicans a few days before the battle of San Jacinto took place [on April 21, 1836]; soon after this he returned to Matagorda and died. His library and family records were burned by the Mexicans.”

A paragraph that starts with “It is also said that …” gives a further account of Washington Lee’s fate. It says a son was captured with him, “that they made their escape, and were several days without food except the fruit of the cactus, when they came upon a pecan tree full of nuts, of which they ate freely; they succeeded in getting within the American lines, but soon died from the exposure and improper diet.”

Washington Lee Hannum was fifty-nine when he died on October 6, 1836, according to Ancestry.com, and was buried in Matagorda. If the escape tale has a ring of truth, it’s unclear which of his sons made the final journey with him. None is listed as dying in 1836 except James, who died well before the Mexicans seized his father.

And not, according to the family history, at the Alamo.

The one sentence the book has on James Lee Hannum casts doubt on whether he was with William B. Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett. It says Hannum “was a soldier in Fannin’s company during the Mexican War, when Texas became an independent State, and died at Goliad, Texas.”

A quick note: Curtis Hannum’s tome confuses two wars a decade apart. In the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, colonists from America and Texas Mexicans, called Tejanos, rebelled against the centralist government of Mexico. In the Mexican-American War, from 1846-48, the United States and Mexico fought over a disputed border after the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas.

That aside, who was Fannin and where was Goliad?

James W. Fannin Jr. was a Texas army commander who led his men to battle against the Mexicans near Coleto Creek in Goliad County, some 100 miles southeast of San Antonio. The clash took place two weeks after the Alamo fell to General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

On an open prairie, Colonel Fannin’s troops formed a square and beat back several charges. But they were low on ammunition, desperate for water and unable to care for their wounded. They surrendered the next day, March 20. A week later, in what’s known as the Goliad Massacre, the Mexicans executed Fannin and about 350 of his men. They had been unaware of what was in store for them.

If the Hannum book is right in saying James was with Fannin and died at Goliad, it could mean he was among the prisoners who were shot, bayoneted or lanced to death.

There’s reason to be skeptical. Family histories tend to be the work of well-meaning amateurs and aren’t always reliable. It’s not clear where Curtis Hannum got his information on James, because he doesn’t list a source. It might have been Elizabeth, but how would she have known what company her brother was with and where he died?

Then again, if the book has it right, it would mean James doesn’t belong on the Alamo’s list of defenders.

I pressed on and found a stunning, third version of what happened to James. This one, from a primary source, has the weight of authority.

Alamo Traces cover

Thomas Ricks Lindley’s 2003 book examines the case of James Hannum, who died “in the service of Texas.”

In 2003, a former Army military policeman and criminal investigator came out with an Alamo book that capped fifteen years of intensive research. His name was Thomas Ricks Lindley, and his book is Alamo Traces: New Evidence and New Conclusions.

Historians were impressed with his detective work. One of them, Stephen Harrigan, author of The Gates of the Alamo, wrote the foreword. He says Alamo Traces “burrows deep into the historical record, shovels away deposits of myth and folklore and faulty assumptions that are generations deep, and never wavers in its search for a bedrock level of fact.”

One of the facts Lindley uncovered is that the official Alamo honor roll is “flawed” as a result of a 1931 doctoral dissertation that became the bible of reference works on the thirteen-day siege. He found that the list of Alamo heroes contains the names of some men who didn’t die there, or whose deaths aren’t backed up by the sources given. He gives the names of ten.

James Hannum is among them.

Lindley blamed Amelia W. Williams, who wrote “A Critical Study of the Siege of the Alamo and of the Personnel of its Defenders” for her Ph.D. at the University of Texas. Though some historians pecked at her scholarship, the paper became the definitive academic work on the battle. In 1936, when Texas celebrated its 100th birthday, Williams’ research was the basis for determining the Alamo defenders who would be memorialized in bronze and stone.

But her study was rife with errors, probable fabrications and unfounded conclusions, Lindley says. In a section of his book called “Incorrect Alamo Defenders,” he shows how Williams wrongly identified James Hannum as a slain hero of the battle.

Lindley wrote that “the name ‘Hannum’ or a variant is not found on any of the Alamo lists that Williams investigated. Just how Williams came up with this name remains a mystery.”

Still, he says, Williams asserted that Private James Hannum, twenty-one years old, died at the Alamo. Her sources weren’t muster rolls but land-grant certificates in the Texas General Land Office. Land grants were issued to the estates of Alamo defenders and others. The certificates Williams cited for James bear the names of places in Texas and a file number: Milam, 1212; Refugio, 154; I Milam, 53 and 202.

Lindley examined the documents. The Milam 202 grant was issued to Lucian Hannum, not James. Lucian, a single man, is identified as deceased, but the file doesn’t say he was an Alamo defender. The Hannum history lists two Lucians as brothers of James. One died as an infant in Nashville. The other died in 1838 when he was nineteen or twenty years old and was buried in Milam County, Texas.

James’ heirs did receive Milam 1212 and Refugio 154. According to the Milam grant, James died in the service of Texas and was a private in Captain Philip Dimmitt’s company, based in Goliad. The Refugio grant and Milam 53 don’t indicate that James was killed at the Alamo.

Lindley says James’ age isn’t on any of the land-grant certificates. Where did Williams get it?

Finally, hard evidence that James wasn’t at the Alamo – and couldn’t have been there – exists in papers Lindley found at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. These are Captain Dimmitt’s morning reports, which are daily notes on personnel.

Dimmitt’s morning report for December 14, 1835, says: “REMARK – DIED – This Morning James Hanum [sic], Private.”

That was almost three months before the Alamo.

Dimmitt, a trader and merchant, commanded a frontier garrison at Goliad starting in mid-October 1835. According to the Texas State Historical Association, on December 6, Dimmitt led a small force to join a siege against a Mexican army at Presidio de Bexar, a San Antonio fort near the Alamo. He returned to Goliad about December 14, the day James’ death was recorded.

Had James gone to San Antonio with Dimmitt? Was he badly hurt storming the fort, and did he die when the troops returned to Goliad?

That’s unlikely, from what Lindley says. He contends that Dimmitt didn’t go to San Antonio and that he sent a Tejano company to participate in the final, successful assault on Bexar.

I wanted to see Dimmitt’s morning report for myself, so I emailed the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Working remotely because of the coronavirus, a reference intern accessed a list of what’s in the Dimmitt papers and sent it to me with this note: “I do not see any suggestion in this finding aid that the morning reports you are looking for would be in the collection.”

Neither did I. That means there’s more work to do.

I would have liked to speak with Lindley, but he died in 2007 at age sixty-four. He was buried in the town where he was born and lived – Nixon, Texas, about fifty-five miles from San Antonio. You can see him on a C-SPAN video of an Alamo panel discussion held November 9, 2003, in Austin.

How Private James Hannum died remains in question. Unless some long-dusty record rises from obscurity, we won’t ever know whether it was homicide, suicide, illness, injury or battle wounds.

But it’s clear from Dimmitt’s morning report that the Alamo roster of heroes has at least one mistake, and the Hannum family history book is wrong, too. James wasn’t with the volunteers who bravely faced Santa Anna’s men at an old Spanish fortress, and he wasn’t with Fannin’s troops when the Mexicans murdered them at Goliad. He was already gone. He didn’t make it to 1836.

It’s unclear why, seventeen years after publication of Lindley’s book, the Texas nonprofit corporation that runs the Alamo hasn’t corrected its defenders list. I haven’t been able to ask about it, because the shrine has been closed during the pandemic.

Certainly, our record of the past should rest on solid ground. The faulty narrative of James’ fate originated with Amelia Williams’ doctoral dissertation. Ten years later, she admitted she wasn’t sure that all of the names on her list were accurate. It’s an example of how easily mistakes can distort the truth, proliferate and go unchallenged for generations, or even forever.

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