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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Col. James Bowie at the Battle of Concepción

James Bowie is of course well known for his role in the defense of the Alamo and, ultimately, his death there. However, he had a leadership role in several earlier battles of the Texas War of Independence, such as the Battle of Concepción. On October 28, 1835, Col. James Bowie and Capt. James W. Fannin Jr. led a force of 92 men against a Mexican force four times their number, led by Gen. Martín Perfecto de Cos, brother-in-law of General Santa Anna.

The following newspaper article, which was published on the 100th anniversary of the battle, tells the story, relying on the report written by Bowie and an account left by Noah Smithwick.
Bowie's Men Win at Concepción Battle
A century ago today the Battle of Concepción was fought and won by the Texas army. The story is told in the following article.
By Bess Carroll 
Topping the cupola of Mission Concepción was a shock of wild red hair, as an incongruous figure peered into the foggy dawn.

Henry Karnes and his Kentucky rifle were out of place. Monks who had greeted other days here would doubtless have uttered sudden prayers had they come face to face with such a stranger, in their sanctified confines. Yet Henry Karnes of Tennessee was in reality a high priest of another creed, that of the freemen who lay on their arms below him 500 yards away in the bend of the San Antonio river. Within the bend a stretch of river bottom nearly 100 yards wide had sunk lower than a plain in front, and this depression was bounded by a bluff which, the night before, had seemed to James Bowie an excellent cover for his men in case of attack. Behind the natural embankment his command slept, each man clasping a long rifle.

Bowie and his brother officer, Capt. James W. Fannin Jr., anxiously scanned the cupola for signals. They had disobeyed orders to spend the night here because they had reached the spot late. Now. at the first faint hint of day, they planned to break camp and return to their commander, Stephen Austin, whose main army lay waiting at Espada.

Texans Surrounded by Cos' Soldiers
They had no way to knowing that late in the afternoon of the previous day, Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos (who held Bexar) had himself gone on a reconnoitering trip, and had discovered the small detachment of Texans at Concepción. Nor could they know that Cos had sent all of his cavalry and a body of infantry, with an artillery company, to surround the little detachment under Bowie during the night. The dense fog added to the grayness of early dawn and made it impossible to see. And now perhaps Bowie's report to Austin can tell the story best: “The night passed quietly off, without the least alarm, and at dawn every object was obscured by a heavy dense fog which entirely prevented our guard, or lookout from the Mission, seeing the approach of the enemy.

“At about half an hour by sun an advance guard of their cavalry rode upon our line, and fired at a sentinel who had just been relieved, who returned the fire and caused one platoon to retire; but another charged on him (Henry Karnes) and he discharged a pistol at them, which had the same effect.

Henry Karnes was earning his breakfast. “The men were called to arms; but for some time were unable to discover their foes, who had entirely surrounded the position and kept up a constant firing, at a distance, with no effect other than a waste of ammunition on their part.

Bowie Disposes Men Cleverly
“When the fog rose it was apparent to all that we were surrounded and that a desperate fight was inevitable, all communication with the main army being cut off.

“Immediate preparation was made by extending our right flank to the south, and placing the second division on the left, on the same side, so that they should, be in a position to rake the enemy should they charge into the angle, and prevent the effects of crossfire on our own men; and, at the same time, be in a compact body, that each might reinforce the other . . . The men, in the meantime, were ordered to clear away bushes and vines, under the hill [the embankment] and along the margin, and at the steepest places to cut steps for footholds.”

Noah Smithwick, one of the soldiers, describes at this period of the battle how one man fell “thinking was killed,” but “he was just sick from the impact of a bullet on his Bowie knife, which he had tucked over his stomach. The bullet only broke his knife, which saved his life.”
 Noah Smithwick
As the Mexican bullets whizzed through the pecan trees, Smithwick said, “a shower of ripe nuts rained down on the Texas soldiers. And I saw men picking them up and eating them with as little apparent concern as if they were being shaken down by a norther.”

Enemy Makes First Advance
Bowie's account continues: “The work of clearing the embankment of brush was not completed to our wish before the enemy infantry were seen to advance, with arms trailed, to the right of the first division, and form the line of battle at about 200 yards from the right flank. Five companies of their cavalry supported them, covering our whole front and flanks.

“In this manner, the engagement commenced at about the hour of 8 o'clock, on Wednesday, the twenty-eighth of October, by the deadly crack of a rifle from the extreme right. The engagement was immediately general. The discharge from the enemy was one continual blaze of fire, whilst that from our lines was more slowly delivered, but with good aim and deadly effect, each man retiring under cover of the hill and timber to give place to others whilst he reloaded.”

Smithwick says that in those moments Bowie proved himself a “born commander.” He never needlessly spent a bullet or imperiled a life, Smithwick recalled.

“Keep under cover, men, and reserve your fire; we haven't a man to spare,” Bowie would shout. And now the one tragedy of the episode occurred for the Texans. In crossing a small number of men to Fannin's flank, a few reckless troops exposed themselves to Mexican fire. Among them was Richard (“Dick”) Andrews. A bullet dropped him and he remained where he fell; Smithwick a little later paused beside him as the battle moved forward and was won. “Great drops of sweat were already gathering on his drawn, white face, and the life blood was gushing from a hole in the left side. ‘Dick,’ I cried, ‘are you hurt?’ ‘Yes, Smith,’ he replied, ‘I’m killed. Lay me down.’ I laid him down and put something under his head. It was the last time I saw him alive. There was no time for sentiment.”

Mexicans Bring Cannon Into Play
Bowie wrote: “The battle had not lasted more than 10 minutes before a brass double-fortified four-pounder was opened on our line with a heavy discharge of grape and canister, and a charge sounded.

“But the cannon was cleared, as if by magic, and a check put to the charge. The same experiment was resorted to with like success three times, the division advancing under the hill at each fire, and thus approximating near the cannon and victory. ‘The cannon and victory’ was truly now the war cry, and they only fired it five times and it had been three times cleared, before a disorderly and precipitate retreat was sounded and most readily obeyed, leaving to the victors their cannon.”

The last Mexican gunner to attempt to stem the tide of Texans was killed with a match in his hands. The farmers and the barristers and the carpenters and their neighbors of the colonies reached the silent cannon, yelling madly, running now, yet still taking deadly aim.

On the field of battle lay 67 dead Mexicans and many wounded. Not a man of their artillery company had escaped unhurt. The inert forms and the writhing forms were passed by those avenging Texans. There were 16 lifeless figures around the cannon. But the Texans were interested in the Mexicans who rode ahead, those left of the 400 in the attack. They were dropping their muskets in their flight, and splashing through the shallow water of the river crossing, they “fled helter-skelter as if pursued, by all the furies.” [Smithwick quote]

Pickets on the mission roof gave the dragoons a parting volley.

Mexicans Vanish as Austin Arrives
And now as the last Mexicans vanished Austin's main army appeared, and the commander spurred his horse into the swarming Texas troops to find Bowie. A historic argument took place in the din and confusion then, with Austin anxious to follow the frightened enemy into San Antonio and take the town at once.

Bowie, who had seen the town's fortifications, begged Austin not to do this. The commander-in-chief reluctantly yielded to Bowie’s advice. He knew that had he not been delayed for two hours that morning, his main army would have met the Mexicans at Concepción and would have succeeded in killing or capturing so many that Cos would have been left without a garrison, and San Antonio could have I been taken easily without further bloodshed. That knowledge dimmed  the glory of the victory of Concepción for Austin.
But there were no bitter ashes in the mouths of the victorious colonists. They ran after the uniformed dragoons afoot until they were exhausted. Back on the battlefield the wounded Mexicans, “having no knowledge of civilized warfare,” believed they were to be killed. “It was pitiful to hear them begging for the miserable lives that no one thought of taking. Soon a padre came out with a train of carts and after a parley with Austin, carted the dead and wounded away to San Antonio, leaving us in undisputed possession. of the field.” [Smithwick quote]

Triumphs always have their price. The returning soldiers ceased shouting and removed their hats as they paused beside the spot where Dick Andrews lay. He had lived long enough to know that the fight was won. “He recklessly, foolishly threw away his life; but his was the first freeman's blood that wet the soil where the germ of the young republic was just bursting into life,” Smithwick writes. “We buried him at the foot of a pecan tree on the battlefield, where his bones were left to mingle with the silent dust, ‘with not a stone to mark the spot.’ The tree has no doubt long since gone to decay, the battlefield has been converted into a cotton field whose snowy fleece bears no trace of the crimson tide which that day soaked its soil. Thus the first gun, the first flag and the first martyr have all gone down to oblivion together.”
While the James Bowie of legend comes off as a habitual brawler whose greatest joy was arranging bizarre knife fights, the James Bowie of the historical record appears to have been highly intelligent and enterprising individual, a capable military officer, and a natural leader of men. Bowie's full reports can be read in A History of Texas and Texans, Volume 1.

Smithwick's full account can be read here.


  1. Has a Noah Smithwick Bowie knife ever been found?

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.