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Sylvester, James Austin  ( 1807  -  1882 Apr 9 )

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SYLVESTER, JAMES AUSTIN -- Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1807. On December 18, 1835 he enlisted at Newport, Kentucky in the volunteer company being raised by Captain Sidney Sherman to assist Texas in her struggle for freedom. The company arrived in Texas in January, 1836 and left Nacogdoches February 29th for Gonzales.

On March 12, 1836 the army was reorganized at Gonzales. Captain Sherman was elected lieutenant colonel of the 1st Regiment of Texas Volunteers, William Wood succeeding him as Captain. Mr. Sylvester was made second sergeant and color bearer of the company, and participated as such at San Jacinto. It was he who carried the only flag flown by the Texans at San Jacinto. Not only this but it was he, more than any other man, who effected the capture of General Santa Anna on April 22nd. This claim was disputed in after years but the record stands for itself.

To begin with Mr. Sylvester's service record may be seen in the archives of the State Library at Austin, Comptroller's Military Service Record No. 1046. In it Captain Wood certifies that Sylvester enlisted December 13, 1835; was second sergeant and color bearer, participated in the engagements on April 20th and 21st and "was the individual who took the person of Santa Anna. He further states that Sylvester was honorably discharged June 18, 1836.

At San Augustine, August 3, 1836, General Sam Houston personally presented Mr. Sylvester with a printed pamphlet containing the names of the men who had fought at San Jacinto. On the back of it wrote:

Presented to James A. Sylvester by General Sam Houston as a tribute of regard for his gallant and vigilant conduct first in the battle of San Jacinto and subsequently in the capture of Santa Anna, whose thanks were tendered by Santa Anna, in my presence to Captain Sylvester, for his generous conduct toward him, when captured. (signed) Sam Houston San Augustine 3rd Aug. 1836

The original manuscript is among the Sylvester papers in the Rosenberg Library at Galveston. Captain Sylvester states that General Houston also appointed his captain August 3, 1836, when he presented him with the pamphlet, and that he remained in the army until June, 1837.

The following letter from Captain Sylvester was published in the Telegraph and Texas Register at Columbia, August 2, 1836.:

"On the morning of the 22nd of April, the report came into camp that Messrs. Carnes and Secretts, our spies, with a party of men, consisting of about 20 or 25 Texian soldiers, had surrounded Santa Anna and Cos, with near 50 Mexicans, 10 miles from our camp. Col. Burleson came round for volunteers to accompany him to reinforce them. He soon raised 50 or 55 mounted men and, we proceed to Simm's Bayou, near Vince's; where we expected to join Carnes's party. We arrived there about 10 o'clock in the morning, and not being able to overtake them (for we heard after we left the camp that they had proceeded to the Brazos) we hesitated, and consulted whether to return to camp, or go on to the Brazos; finally, about 30 of our party agreed to go on, the balance made a move to return. When we arrived at Vince's, I proposed to take down the Buffalo Bayou, when four others immediately joined me. I was ordered by Col. B. with positive orders from him not to kill any Mexicans, but to bring them into camp.

Our party consisted of Messers. Miles, of Richmond, Va. Vermillion Thompson, Cole and Mason of Texas. We had not proceeded far, before we espied some four or five deer on the west side of a branch that made up into the prairie, from the B. bayou, I observed to them to remain where they were, and I would try to kill one of them. I rode on within 40 or 50 yards of the branch, where I halted my horse under a lone tree, which stood in the prairie and was almost in the act of pulling the trigger of my rifle, when the deer started, I immediately looked to my right, when I espied a Mexican bending his course towards the bridge; he stooped a moment to gaze around, and immediately started on again. I collected my companions, three of them, (Cole being still in the rear of us for Mason had left us altogether) to come on 'here was a Mexican'.' As soon as I called to them he espied me, and immediately secreted himself in the grass. They rode up and arrived together where he was. The grass was high enough to hide him entirely from our view. When we arrived at the spot, he was lying on his side; with a blanket over his face, I called to him to rise, when he only took the blanket from his face, I called to him a second and third time to get up, when he rose and stood for a moment, and finding himself completely surrounded, he advanced towards me and desired to shake hands, which I immediately offered to him. He shook my hand, pressed it, and kissed the back of it and asked where our brave Houston was. I replied he was in camp - through the medium of one of our party, (Mr. Thompson,) who acted as interpreter on the occasion. I asked him who he was, he observed he was merely a private soldier; when I discovered the bosom of his shirt, which was very splendidly wrought, and pointed out to him, I observed that he was not a private solder, but must be an officer of some rank; he immediately replied that he was an aid to Santa Anna, and burst into a flood of tears; I told him in a mild tone "not to grieve, he should not be hurt". I then asked him where Santa Anna was, and observed farther, that it supposed by us, he was wounded; he replied that Santa Anna was not wounded, but that he and Cos, and some colonel, whose name I do not recollect,) had gone on to Brazos. He was very anxious to be taken into camp unhurt, as he was anxious to see Gen. Houston.

His attire, was indicative of a common soldier, being very plain. He had no arms about his person, and after he spoke, he appeared very much dejected; complaining of pains in his breast and legs, and saying he was not able to walk, Mr. Miles observed that he could walk a short distance, and Santa Anna desired me to let him ride a short distance, as it would relieve him very much. He mounted Mr. Miles' horse, and we proceeded some two or three miles, which distance he rode, Mr. Miles overtaking us, demanded his horse of him, which he refused to give up, without I said so, I requested him to alight, when he observed it was very hard, but he supposed it was fair, as he was then a prisoner, and should not expect so good treatment as he had received. He was conducted into camp by Messrs. Miles and Thompson, Mr. Vermillion and myself going in another direction. When I had advanced some 20 or 30 yards, he wished to see me once more before we parted. I returned, and drew a letter from his pocket, directed to Santa Anna from Col. Almonte, dated 14th April, of which the contents were, that he had learned there were 200 or 300 American soldiers on Galveston Island, and that he had better make his way to that place, take possession of the island, cut off our supplies; and he (Almonte) would join him in a few days, Urrea would take possession of Velasco, at the mouth of the Brazos, and he might establish his headquarters wherever he choose.

When he arrived in camp he was conducted to General Houston's quarters, which was made of an oak tree, in the bottom near the bank of the bayou, where he had made himself known. Some few minutes after, I arrived in camp and went to Gen. H's quarters where Col. Rusk, the then Secretary of War and Santa Anna were counseling, he pointed myself out, as being his captor, and immediately returned his thanks for my kindness, when I took him prisoner; and if it was ever in his power, (which he hoped it would be) that he would reward me handsomely for it. I observed to him that I had already been rewarded (which astonished him very much) that the honor of being captor of the Mexican Napoleon, was all the reward I ever expected to receive. When he was taken to the general' s quarters, he observed, "I am Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, President of the Mexican Republic, and Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Operation, I surrender to the brave who are always just. "Houston observed to him that he was then in an American camp, and not among Heathens, desired him to take a seat, and make himself as comfortable as he could.

This is a true statement of the capture of Gen. Santa Anna, notwithstanding the fabulous reports that have been circulated in regard to it. As to the person of Santa Anna, he is about 5 feet 9 inches high, rather stoop shouldered, though well proportioned otherwise. His face is long and narrow with a high forehead, and contracted brow, has a piercing look of the eye, as though he could see through the designs of man. His nose is short, remarkably thick and clumsy, his nostrils large and dilated. There is a peculiar expression of the mouth that I am unable to describe, but it is tolerably large and his under lip rather protruding. His chin is round and projecting forward.

But I would refer the reader to the remarkably striking likeness, painted by Maj. J. Strage, and now exhibiting in this city.

James A. Sylvester, of Cincinnati, Ohio.

2d Sergeant and Color-bearer in Capt. Wood's Company, at the battle of San Jacinto." The following appeared in the (Natchez) Mississippi Free Trader. September 30, 1836: "We saw a brace of beautiful pistols presented on the 17th inst. by the Hon. Robert J. Walker to Capt. Sylvester, of the Texian army. The presentation was made in compliance with an agreement between Mr. W. and a distinguished Senator and friend of Texas, that he who should first meet the captor of Santa Anna should present him a brace of splendid pistols."

Mr. Sylvester on January 10, 1836 was commissioned a captain in the Reserve army of Texas, January 10, 1836 by Henry Smith, Governor of the Provisional Government of Texas. The original commission is among the "Sylvester Papers" in Rosenberg Library, Galveston.

Captain Sylvester was issued Bounty Certificate No. 3332 for 640 acres of land May 12, 1838 for having served in the army from December 18, 1835 to June 18, 1836. He received Donation Certificate No. 50 for 640 acres of land for having participated in the battle of San Jacinto.

After the revolution Captain Sylvester moved to Texana, Jackson County where for several years he was deputy recorder of the county. He enlisted in the Somervell Expedition in 1842. The following year he moved to New Orleans and secured a position with the typographical force of the New Orleans Picayune. He was a trusted employee of that great newspaper when he died, April 9, 1882. He was never married.

Captain Sylvester was an active member of the I. 0. of Odd Fellows and at his death his remains were placed in a vault in the Odd Fellows Cemetery, New Orleans. They were moved to Texas and on November 5, 1935 reinterred in the State Cemetery at Austin. Senator T. J. Holbrook of Galveston delivered the funeral oration at his grave on that occasion.

On May 6, 1874, Mr. James A. Sylvester, from his home in New Orleans addressed the following letter to Caldwell and Walker, publishers of the "Democratic Statesman", Austin, Texas.

Gentlemen:

At the last celebration of the Veterans of the Texas Revolution held in the City of Austin on the 21st April last I noticed comments in some of the Texas papers of a speech made by General J. B. Robinson at that celebration, as being the captor of General Santa Anna at the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. General Robinson was one of the party of - I think - five, with myself that left the main body of men under General Ed Burleson at Vinces Bayou who with volunteers, were in pursuit of General Santa Anna and the strugglers of his army on the 22nd, the day after the battle. Proceeding back to our main camp on Buffalo Bayou we separated for the purpose of hunting. But neither Mr. Robinson or any of the party was within five hundred yards of me when General Santa Anna was captured by myself, they joining me in a few moments after General Santa Anna had surrendered. I have always awarded the same credit to them that I felt was due to myself. But you will find among the archives of the Texas Historical Society a full account of the capture as also what passed between General Santa Anna and myself in the presence of General Houston and nearly the whole of our little army, as also a complimentary card from General Sam Houston to the expression of thanks and gratitude from General Santa Anna himself to me, when captured.

Probably many of the old veterans have either forgotten me, or suppose me dead - as I left Texas in 1843 and have resided in this city ever since where I have had the pleasure of meeting many of my old comrades and friends, among whom I may be permitted to mention three of the heroes of that battle viz.: General Sam Houston, General T. J. and General S. Sherman." Who have gone to that borne from whence no travelers returns". The last names was my old and honored commander and friend.

Make what use you please of this, as it is only intended to correct an Historical error, and place myself in a proper light before the Veterans.

Yours truly, (Signed) James A. Sylvester.

Copy Note: Texas 1836 H R No. 10 1/3 league Jackson County Board of Land Commissioners

The Captors of Santa Anna,

By Louis W. Kemp

A letter from James A. Sylvester which appeared in the Telegraph and Texas Register, Columbia, Texas, August 2, 1836, gave to the public the first printed detailed account of the capture of General Santa Anna. This appeared three months and ten days after he had been apprehended and while the events incident to the capture of the Mexican dictator were fresh in the mind of Captain Sylvester. He was considered a men of highest integrity, as was vouched for by Gail and Thomas H. Borden, the publishers. At San Jacinto he was second sergeant and color-bearer of Captain William Wood's Company, but had previously on January 10, 1836, been commissioned captain in the Reserve Army of Texas by Governor Henry Smith.(1) General Houston had presented him with a printed pamphlet containing the names of the men who had participated in the battle of San Jacinto, writing on the back of it:

Presented to James A. Sylvester by General Sam Houston

as a tribute of regard for his gallant and vigilant conduct, first in the battle of San Jacinto and subsequently in the capture of Santa Anna, whose thanks were tendered in my presents to Captain Sylvester for his generous conduct towards him when captured.

(Signed) Sam Houston. San Augustine, 3rd, Aug. 1836 (Original pamphlet in the Sylvester Papers, Rosenberg Library, Galveston.)

In Comptroller's Military Service Record No. 1046 Captain William Wood certified that Sylvester "was the individual who took the person of Santa Anna." (Comptroller's Military Service Records, Archives, Texas State Library, Austin.)

Captain Sylvester said that the scouting party of which he was a member was originally composed of 'Miles of Richmond, Virginia; Vermillion, Thompson, Cole and Mason of Texas." and himself. When he first saw Santa Anna, he called to the three who were within hearing distance. He wrote, - "I collected my companions, three of them (Cole being still in the rear of us, for Mason had left altogether) to come on 'here was a Mexican'!"

Captain Sylvester evidently confused the names of Thompson and Robison. He stated that his conversation with Santa Anna was interpreted by "Mr. Thompson." Mr. Joel W. Robison always claimed that he was the only one of the party who spoke Spanish and that he acted as interpreter, and this was no doubt true.

Henderson Yoakum (1855) (Yoakum's History of Texas) refers to Sylvester's letter in the Telegraph and accepts it as being the true version of the capture of Santa Anna. He omits mentioning the names of the captors except to state that the capture was effected by a party of five, one of which was Sylvester. He evidently overlooked the fact that Captain Sylvester said that Cole was not present when Santa Anna was captured.

Joel W. Robison on August 5, 1858, wrote a letter to the editor of the Texas Almanac (Texas Almanac of 1859, page 166.) in which he told of Santa Anna's capture. In it he said: "I was the only one of the party that spoke the Mexican language." He gave as the names of the captors: "Miles, Sylvester, Thompson, Vermillion, another name I do not recollect, and myself." This seems to upset the supposition that Sylvester had confused his name with Thompson, but it is quite possible that he had seen Thompson's name in print as one of the captors and was not aware that Sylvester had confused the two names.

Homes S. Thrall (1878} (Pictorial History of Texas, page 265.) gives the names as James A. Sylvester, Joel W. Robison, A. H. Miles and David Cole. He misspells the name of Robison and is first to furnish the full name of Cole and the initials of Miles. He omits the name of Vermillion.

John Henry Brawn (1893) (Brown's History of Texas, Vol. II, page 41)names "James A. Sylvester, Joel W. Robison, Edward Miles, Joseph Vermillion, ________ Thompson and ___________." He appears to have accepted the surnames furnished by Joel W. Robison and was first to publish the given name of Vermillion. He does not agree with Thrall that A. H. Miles was one of the captors but gives credit to Edward Miles. Evidently he had not read the account of the death of A. H. Miles that appeared in the Telegraph and Texas Register of December 10, 1837:

"Killed in an engagement with the Indians, Lieutenant A. H. Miles, formerly of the city of Richmond, Virginia. This young man at the first call for volunteers gallantly came forward to assist the sinking and apparently desperate cause of Texas. He was at the battle of San Jacinto and was the real capturer of Santa Anna. His modesty while living induced him (together with the fact that he believed he had only done his duty) silently to see others reap the honor of the capture. He had, however, in his possession certificates of the late Secretary of War and Adjutant General of the Army, of the above facts. He left to mourn his loss an affectionate mother and sister, together with a numerous circle of friends and acquaintances. They, however, will find consolation by knowing that he died struggling for the weal of his adopted country."

Sylvester had names "Miles of Richmond, Virginia," as one of the party. Edward Miles was born in Natchez, Mississippi, and came to Texas from Mississippi. Mr. Miles, as late as July 18, 1879, made no claim to being a captor of Santa Anna, as is shown in a Letter he wrote to Colonel F. W. Johnson, President of the Texas Veterans Association (Copy in Sylvester Papers, Rosenberg Library), Brenham, Texas. The letter in full:

"Dear Sir: Your favor of the 11th inst. received. You ask me as to my recollections in the matter of the capture of General Santa Anna on the 22nd day of April, 1836. Sergeant James A. Sylvester, Company A, Captain William Wood, was a member of the same company with myself at that time, and when the president of the republic of Mexico and the commander-in-chief of the invading army into Texas was brought into the camp of General Sam Houston as a prisoner of war, I was on camp duty on the bayou side of our lines.

Our whole camp, prisoners and all, was by such an event, thrown into a great fever of commotion and excitement; and I, as soon as possible, hurried to our commander-in-chief's headquarters and there saw the distinguished prisoner of war.

"To put this matter more fully at rest, and in order that all honors be paid to whom honor is due, I exhibited your letter to H. P. Brewster, Ewq. who says in substance as follows: 'I was the private secretary at the time, of General Sam Houston, and was present when the general asked Santa Anna who it was that captured him, who he, pointing at the time to Sylvester, recognized him as having been the Captor of his person. This he says was done in the presence of Col. Almonte, Cos and others. He further says that he never knew until lately that anyone else ever claimed the credit of the capture of Santa Anna."

A letter from Captain Sylvester of New Orleans was published in the Democratic Statesman, Austin, May 6, 1874. In it he says that "General Robison was one of the party of - I think - five, with myself that left the main army.

This was 38 years after the battle and he had probably forgotten that he had left off Robison's name in his first report.

RELATIVES OF JAMES A. SYLVESTER

Captain Sylvester had two brothers, John and Jehu, and one sister, Ellen Sylvester. Jehu Sylvester was married and lived in St. Louis. He had no children. Ellen Sylvester married a Mr. Reed and lived in Philadelphia. She had nine sons. John Sylvester was a Mississippi River steamboat captain. He was married to Mary Belknap in 1840 at Bardstown, Kentucky. He lived in New Orleans and died there in 1848.

Written by Louis W. Kemp, between 1930 and 1952. Please note that typographical and factual errors have not been corrected from the original sketches. The biographies have been scanned from the original typescripts, a process that sometimes allows for mistakes in the new text. Researchers should verify the accuracy of the texts' contents through other sources before quoting in publications. Additional information on the veteran may be available in the Herzstein Library.


Battle Statistics

  • Died in Battle: No
  • Rank: Second Sergeant
  • Company: Capt. William Wood
  • Battle Account: Telegraph and Texas Register, Aug, 2, 1836 is Sylvester's account of the capture of Santa Anna.

Personal Statistics

  • Date of Birth: 1807
  • Birthplace: Maryland, Baltimore
  • Origin: Kentucky
  • Came to Texas: 1836 Jan
  • Date of Death: 1882 Apr 9
  • Burial Place: Texas State Cemetery, Austin, Texas
  • Comments: Carried only flag flown by Texans at battle; one of group that captured Santa Anna; Somervell Expedition.
  • Bounty Certificate: 3332
  • Donation Certificate: 50
  • Profession: Printer
  • Wife: none


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