How did Susanna Dickinson survive the Battle of the Alamo, and who played her in John Wayne’s movie?
SHE BECAME AN INSTANT HEROINE by surviving the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836. Susanna Dickinson was only 21 and the mother of a baby daughter when she sought shelter inside the walls of the mission-turned-fort, where her husband, Almeron, captained the artillery. During the thirteen days of the siege, Susanna cooked for the defenders and cared for the wounded and sick; her eyewitness account of the battle’s aftermath remains a touchstone for Alamo historians. Her husband’s last words, she recalled, were “Great God, Sue, the Mexicans are inside the walls! All is lost! If they spare you, save our child!” Mexican soldiers found her huddled in the chapel and hauled her before General Santa Anna; he spared her life and the baby’s, then dispatched them to the Texas army in Gonzales with broadsides boasting of his military might. Thus the Alamo did indeed have its messenger of defeat.
She was born Susanna Wilkerson in 1814 in Hardeman County, Tennessee. Her exact birth date is unknown; so is the spelling of her first name.
Susanna was not the only survivor of the Alamo. She and her daughter, Angelina, were the only Anglos who escaped the carnage, but one black man and several Mexican women and children also survived.
As she exited the Alamo, a bullet tore through her leg. Because of that injury, Santa Anna supplied her with a horse to reach Gonzales.
Inevitably, historians embroidered Susanna’s tale. For example, one claimed she gave birth during the siege. Even John Wayne, in The Alamo (1960), dispensed with the leg wound, providing actress Joan O’Brien (in high heels) with the ultimate dramatic exit.
After the war, Susanna moved to Houston and embarked on a series of ill-fated marriages. One ended in widowhood, again, and two in divorce (a shocking rarity in those days). Husband number four charged Susanna with adultery and “opening another kind of house.” Indeed, she had once worked (perhaps, to give her the benefit of the doubt, as a laundress) at a Houston brothel. Because of the scandal, some members of the First Baptist Church objected to her attendance there. She voluntarily left.
Susanna never had another child, and Angelina died first, at age 35 in a cholera epidemic. She was buried in Galveston; her grave site was lost in the Great Storm of 1900.
In 1857 Susanna was happily married at last, to Joseph Hannig, a German immigrant twenty years her junior. They lived in Austin, where she died in 1883.
Because of her once-tarnished reputation, a marker at her grave reads simply, “Mother of the Babe of the Alamo.”