BRAY’S BAYOU – If you like one of history’s mysteries, this is a good place to start — a Da Vince Code with cactus. We are in search of historically valuable, lost artifacts. But unlike the Loch Ness Monster, Anastasia and UT’s winning football teams, these babies actually exist, maybe right here near the Houston Ship Channel. Have you heard of the Twin Sisters? They are not a Vaudeville act but two cannons – the only artillery the Texians had at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Now is a good time to reconsider their disappearance because this is the anniversary of the battles of the Alamo and Goliad, the Runaway Scrape and San Jacinto — Texans’ high holy season. In the Texas Revolution General Sam Houston had a few good, and not so good, men. Some cavalry, spies and a surly staff that kept trying to get rid of him. But no artillery which, if the other side has some, is a definite necessity. Enter the good people of Cincinnati, Ohio. They liked Texans (this was before there was major league baseball) and wanted to help them in their Revolution. So the citizens took up a collection and ordered two 6-pounder cannon 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. Both barrels were inscribed as being from Cincinnati.
They were shipped to New Orleans and, since the United States was officially neutral in the Texas Revolution, the cannons were listed as “hallow ware” which was, I guess, technically correct. The Sisters reached the Texians at Harrisburg as they were fleeing Santa Anna’s troops. 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. Thirty Texas cannoneers trundled the pieces forward for the duel. The Texians had never fired the cannons before and were probably trying to figure out where to attach the bayonet, when the Mexicans opened up. The Standard’s first shot hit the Sisters’ commander, Lieutenant Colonel James C. Neill, in the rump. The Sisters answered in kind, hitting Captain Fernando Urriza in the rump. Then the Texians went to work on the enemy, killing two mules and wrecking the Standard’s limber, which is the front part of the gun carriage.
So much for the first artillery duel. The next day, April 21, 1836, the Twin Sisters were put in the middle of the Texas line and were hauled up the hill by manpower. George Hockley was now in charge since Neill was still nursing his rear guard action. 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?”
Following the battle the cannons were used to guard the Mexican prisoners and were later sent up to Austin, when that village became the capital, to hold off Indian attacks. After Texas joined the Union, the cannons were moved to the U.S. Army depot in Baton Rouge, La. When the War Between the States erupted, Texas wanted the Twin Sisters back. They were found, one in scrap pile, the other in the hands of “a gentleman living in the Parish of Iberville.” They were fixed up and sent to Galveston.
Now comes the mystery. After the end of the 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. 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 as late as 1920 but could find nothing. I wrote about all of this years ago, 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 an old friend of Brown’s renewed the offer. Again, no takers. Since then others have tried, even without the reward, but the Twin Sisters have eluded all discovery, although one amateur historian says the cannons are hidden plain sight. He believes Graves and his merry men actually took the Sisters down the Gulf Coast and up the San Antonio River to Presidio La Bahia near Goliad where they were found in about 1935, and are on exhibit there.
But according to Graves’s story and maps of that period, the two cannons should be around here 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