Susanna Wilkerson Dickinson (1814 – October 7, 1883) and her infant daughter Angelina were among the few American survivors of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. Her husband, Captain Almaron Dickinson, and 182 other Texian defenders were killed by the Mexican Army.
Little is known of her early life, other than that Susanna Dickinson was born in 1814 in the U.S. state of Tennessee and never learned to read nor write. On May 24, 1829, when she was 15, Justice of the Peace Joseph W. McKean married Susanna to Almaron Dickinson. Two years later, the couple became DeWitt Colonists, obtaining property on the San Marcos River, where they opened a blacksmith shop and also invested in a hat factory run by fellow colonist George Kimbell in Gonzales.
As the Mexican government increasingly abandoned its federalist structure in favor of a more centralized government, Almaron Dickinson became one of the early proponents of war. Almaron Dickinson would later join with other volunteers during the Battle of Gonzales, becoming one of the "Old Gonzales 18" in the battle which launched the Texas Revolution on October 2, 1835. By the end of the year, the Texian army had driven all Mexican soldiers from the territory. Soon after, Susanna joined her husband at the former Alamo Mission in San Antonio de Bexar (now San Antonio, Texas) shortly after his assignment to the garrison there. The Dickinson family lived outside the Alamo, boarding with the Ruiz family.
In early 1836, Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna led troops into Texas, which arrived in San Antonio on February 23 and immediately besieged the Alamo. The unprepared garrison did not even have food stocked inside the mission to withstand the siege. The men thus quickly herded cattle into the Alamo and scrounged for food in the recently abandoned houses outside the fortress. Susanna Dickinson and her daughter Angelina were among the families of garrison members who were brought inside the Alamo for safety.
For the next twelve days, the Alamo lay under siege. Santa Anna planned an early morning assault for March 6. At 8:10 pm on March 5 the Mexican artillery ceased their bombardment. As Santa Anna had planned, the exhausted Texans soon fell into the first uninterrupted sleep many had had since the siege began. At 5:30 a.m. Santa Anna gave the order to advance. As the Mexican soldiers began to yell and their buglers sounded, the Texan defenders awakened and rushed to their posts. Dickinson, her daughter and most other noncombatants gathered in the church sacristy for safety. She later mentioned that Davy Crockett stopped briefly in the chapel to pray before taking his assigned position.
The Mexican soldiers soon breached the Alamo's outer walls. As previously planned, most of the Texians fell back to the barracks and the chapel. Almaron Dickinson briefly slipped from his post manning a cannon in the chapel to join his wife in the sacristy. He yelled "Great God, Sue, the Mexicans are inside our walls! If they spare you, save my child!", then kissed her and returned to his cannon. It took an hour for the Mexican army to secure complete control of the Alamo. Among the last Texians to die were the 11 men, including Almaron Dickinson, manning the two 12-pounder cannon in the chapel. The church entrance had been barricaded with sandbags, which the Texians were able to fire over. However, a shot from the Mexican 18-pounder cannon destroyed the barricade, and Mexican soldiers entered the building after an initial musket volley. Although Dickinson's crew fired their cannon from the apse into the Mexican soldiers, they had no time to reload. Dickinson, Gregorio Esparza, Bonham and the remaining Texians grabbed rifles and fired before being bayoneted to death. Texian Robert Evans, the master of ordnance, had been tasked with keeping the gunpowder from falling into Mexican hands. Wounded, he crawled towards the powder magazine but was killed by a musket ball with his torch only inches from the powder. If he had succeeded, the blast would have destroyed the church, killing Dickinson and the other women and children hiding in the sacristy. As soldiers approached the sacristy, one of the sons of defender Anthony Wolf stood to pull a blanket over his shoulders and was killed. Possibly the last Texian to die in battle was Jacob Walker, who attempted to hide behind Dickinson and the other women; four Mexican soldiers killed him in front of them. Another Texian, Brigido Guerrero, who had deserted from the Mexican Army in December 1835 also sought refuge in the sacristy, and was spared after convincing the soldiers he was a prisoner of the Texians. In the confusion, Dickinson was lightly wounded.
On March 7, Santa Anna interviewed each of the survivors individually. Impressed with Dickinson, he offered to adopt Angelina and have the child educated in Mexico City. Dickinson refused the offer, which was not extended to fellow Alamo survivor Juana Navarro Alsbury for her son of similar age.
Santa Anna ordered that the Tejano civilian survivors be allowed to return to their homes in San Antonio. Dickinson and Joe, a Texian slave, were allowed to travel towards the Anglo settlements, escorted by Ben, a former American slave who served as Mexican Colonel Juan Almonte's cook. Each woman received $2 and a blanket and was allowed to go free and spread the news of the destruction that awaited those who opposed the Mexican government. Before they departed, Santa Anna ordered that the surviving members of the Mexican army parade in a grand review, intending that Joe and Dickinson would thus warn the remainder of the Texian forces that his army was unbeatable.
When the small party of survivors arrived in Gonzales on March 13, they found Sam Houston, the commander of all Texian forces, waiting there with about 400 men. After Dickinson and Joe related the details of the battle and the strength of Santa Anna's army, Houston advised all civilians to evacuate and then ordered the army to retreat. Thus began the Runaway Scrape, in which much of Texas' population, including the acting government, rushed eastward to escape the advancing Mexican army.
Susanna Dickinson's witness accounts
Susanna Dickinson reported, after the battle, the following about the siege and final fight:
- There were very few casualties before the final assault. She didn't know the number.
- She confirmed the legendary "line in the sand" incident, where Col. William Travis gave defenders the choice of staying or leaving, did happen. However, she said that it happened the day before the final assault, when it is believed to have happened on either March 3 or March 4.
- On the morning of the assault, her husband ran into where she'd hidden, made his final statements to her and revealed that the Mexicans were inside, then returned to his duty. She never saw him again, nor did she ever see his body.
- She hid inside the chapel, and did not see the actual battle. One defender ran inside during the battle, attempting to hide, but was killed by Mexican soldiers.
- When she was discovered, a Mexican officer intervened. She believed he was a British mercenary named either Black or Almonte. He actually was Col. Juan Nepomuceno Almonte, who spoke perfect English, having been educated in New Orleans, Louisiana.
- Outside there was a single survivor, found hiding, who unsuccessfully begged for mercy and was killed. Joe also reported this, claiming the man's name was Warner. However no Warner is listed as being at the Alamo. The most similar name is Henry Warnell, who departed the Alamo as a courier, probably on February 28, 1836, and died in Port Lavaca, Texas, of wounds received either during the battle or his escape in June, 1836.
- She saw the body of Davy Crockett between the chapel and the barracks building.
- She saw the body of Jim Bowie with two dead Mexican soldiers lying beside him.
- She was taken to a house where she'd previously lived, and from there could see the pyres of the dead being burned.
- The next day she was taken before Santa Anna, and Almonte, or Black, convinced Santa Anna to release her rather than imprison her.
- She was sent east with Joe, and on the way to Gonzales, Texas, she was intercepted by a party including Deaf Smith.
- At some point after the battle, she had no recollections, only that she wept for days.
Other survivors, including Enrique Esparza (the son of Alamo defender Gregorio Esparza) confirmed some of Dickinson's account.
Since Mrs. Dickinson was an intelligent and well spoken woman, Santa Anna had her identify all the bodies of all the commanders and main players, including her husband.
After the Alamo
Illiterate, Susanna Dickinson left no written accounts of what happened in the Alamo, but did give several similar oral accounts. She remarried soon afterward to a man named Williams, in 1837, but divorced almost immediately afterward on the grounds of cruelty. She married a third time in 1838, a man named Herring, but that husband died of alcoholism. Dickinson married her fourth husband in 1847, last name Bellows, but the couple divorced in 1857, allegedly due to her having an affair. In 1858 she married for the fifth and final time, to J. W. Hannig, a cabinet maker, and with whom she remained for the rest of her life.
Death and Legacy
Dickinson died in 1883 and was buried in Austin's Oakwood Cemetery, with the following inscription:
"Sacred to the Memory of Susan A. Wife of J. W. Hannig Died Oct. 7, 1883 Aged 68 Years."
Hannig survived his wife (dying in 1890) and placed the original marble marker. The state of Texas added a marble slab above their graves on March 2, 1949. A cenotaph honoring Susanna Wilkerson Dickinson was placed in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas.
The house her fifth husband Joseph William Hannig built in Austin, Texas in 1869 became a museum, The Joseph and Susanna Dickinson Hannig Museum, dedicated to Susanna Dickinson and the other Alamo survivors.
In film and other media
Susanna Dickinson was portrayed by Joan O'Brien in the 1960 John Wayne feature film The Alamo. She was featured in the dramatic final scene walking away from the fort and into the sunset with her young daughter on the back of a mule, and a young slave boy walking with her. As she walks past Santa Anna she exchanges some very dramatic looks with him. Other important events dramatized in the film include her being captured in the church at bayonet point, and her electing to stay as Santa Anna allows the other women to leave the fort before the battle.
Kathleen York portrayed Dickinson in the 1987 film The Alamo: 13 Days to Glory. After the battle, Col Black (David Ogden Stiers) enters the room where the women and children are hiding and says that Santa Anna wishes to meet with her. After she refuses, he tells here that she should accept his invitation, that the lives of her child and comrades depend on it. And, why should Santa Anna's version of your husband's bravery be the only one heard?
In the 2004 version of The Alamo, the actress Laura Clifton plays Susanna Dickinson. She has a fairly minor part in the film. However, in the final battle scene she is shown witnessing the death of her husband, who a little earlier calls her by her name Susanna. In almost every scene she is in, she is shown holding her young daughter.