An Archival Post: Texiana – Mr. Cannonball Was Not His Friend

(A repeat post from 2012)

Thomas William Ward was born in Ireland of English parents in 1807, and at the age of 21 took ship and emigrated to America. He settled in New Orleans, which by that time had passed from French to Spanish, back to French and finally landed in American hands thanks to the Louisiana Purchase. There he took up the study of architecture and engineering – this being a time when an intelligent and striving young man could engage in a course of study and hang out a shingle to practice it professionally shortly thereafter. However, Thomas Ward was diverted from his studies early in October, 1835 by an excited and well-attended meeting in a large coffee-room at Banks’ Arcade on Magazine Street. Matters between the Anglo settlers in Texas and the central Mexican governing authority – helmed by the so-called Napoleon of the West, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – had come to a frothy boil. Bad feelings between the Texian and Tejano settlers of Texas, who were of generally federalist (semi-autonomous) sympathies had been building against the centralist (conservative and authoritarian) faction. These developments were followed with close and passionate attention by political junkies in the United States.

Nowhere did interest run as high as it did in those cities along the Mississippi River basin. On the evening of October 13, 1835, Adolphus Sterne – the alcade (mayor) of Nacogdoches – offered weapons for the first fifty volunteers who would fight for Texas. A hundred and twenty volunteers signed up before the evening was over, and Thomas Ward was among them. They formed into two companies, and were apparently equipped and outfitted from various sources: the armory of the local militia organization, donations from the public, and ransacking local haberdashers for sufficient uniform-appearing clothing. They wore grey jackets and pants, with a smooth leather forage cap; the color grey being chosen for utility on the prairies. The two companies traveled separately from New Orleans, but eventually met up at San Antonio de Bexar, where they became part of the Army of Texas.

They took part in the Texian siege of Bexar and those Mexican troops garrisoned there under General Cos – who had come into Texas earlier in the year to reinforce Mexican control of a wayward province. Thomas W. Ward was serving as an artillery officer by then; a military specialty which men with a bent for the mathematical and mechanical seemed to gravitate towards. The Texians and volunteers fought their way into San Antonio by December, led by an old settler and soldier of fortune named Ben Milam. Milam was killed at the height of the fighting to take the town by a Mexican sharp-shooter, and Thomas Ward was severely injured; one leg was taken off by an errant cannon-ball. The enduring legend is that Milam was buried with Ward’s amputated leg together in the same grave. Was this a misfortune – or a bit of good luck for Thomas Ward?

Not very much discouraged or sidelined, Thomas Ward returned to New Orleans to recuperate – and to be fitted with a wooden prosthesis. He would be known as “Pegleg” Ward for the remainder of his life. He came back to Texas in the spring of 1836, escaping the fate of many of his fellow ‘Greys’ – many of who were among the defenders of the Alamo, their company standard being one of those trophies captured there by Santa Anna. Others of the ‘Greys’ were participants in the ill-fated Matamoros expedition, or became part of Colonel James Fannin’s garrison at the presidio La Bahia, and executed by order of Santa Anna after the defeat at Coleto Creek.

Thomas Ward was commissioned as a colonel and served during the remainder of the war for independence. Upon the return of peace – or a condition closely resembling it – he settled in the new-established city of Houston, and returned to the trade of architect and building contractor. He was hired to build a capitol building in Houston – one of several, for over the life of the Republic of Texas, the actual seat of government became rather peripatetic. When the second President of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, moved the capitol to Waterloo-on-the-Colorado – soon to be called Austin – in 1839, Thomas Ward relocated there, serving variously as chief clerk for the House of Representatives, as mayor of Austin and as commissioner of the General Land Office. As fortune would have it, during an observance of the victory at San Jacinto in April of 1841, Thomas Ward had another bit of bad luck. In setting off a celebratory shot, the cannon misfired, and the explosion took off his right arm. (I swear – I am not making this up!) To add to cannon-related indignities heaped upon him, in the following year, he was involved in the Archives War. Local inn-keeper, Angelina Eberly fired off yet another cannon in to alert the citizens of Austin that President Sam Houston’s men were trying to remove the official national archives from the Land Office building. (Either it was not loaded with anything but black powder, or she missed hitting anything substantial.)

Fortunately, Thomas Ward emerged unscathed from this imbroglio. I think it would have been plain to everyone by this time that Mr. Cannon-ball was most definitely not his friend. He married, fought against Texas secession in the bitter year of 1860, served another term as Mayor of Austin, and as U.S. Counsel to Panama, and lived to 1872 – a very good age, considering all that he had been through.

(Thomas Ward appears as a character in Deep in the Heart, and there is a well-received biography of him available: Peg-Leg: The Improbable Life of a Texas Hero. And in further book notes – Luna City IV is now out in ebook version, and the print version should be available by the end of this month,

3 thoughts on “An Archival Post: Texiana – Mr. Cannonball Was Not His Friend”

  1. I’m reading a biography of James K Polk and just read a section on the history of Santa Ana, who also lost a leg. The next chapter is on Orehgon.

  2. I recently read an autobiography in which the author remembered having tea with two uncles, to introduce his new girl-friend. The uncles had one leg in total.

  3. Two uncles with but one leg between them? Oh. My. Unlucky in war or just hideously accident-prone?
    Ward must have had an absolutely cast-iron constitution to survive both traumas, what with the state of medicine on the frontier at mid-19th century, and the infections that would have followed on whatever treatment he received.

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