J. C. Neill, soldier and diplomat, was born in North Carolina in about 1798. He was a participant of the Creek War and was wounded at the battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. In 1831 he moved his wife and three children from Alabama to Texas and settled in what is now Milam County. Neill represented the District of Viesca in the Convention of 1833. He had apparently acquired some knowledge of cannons, for in September 1835, when conflict with Antonio López de Santa Anna's Centralist troops seemed inevitable, Neill entered the Texas militia as a captain of artillery. When fighting began, Neill was at the center of the action. On October 2, 1835, he was a participant of the skirmish at Gonzales. John Holland Jenkins recorded that Neill actually "fired the first gun for Texas at the beginning of the revolution"-the famous Gonzales "Come and Take It" cannon. The rebellious Texans valued Neill's skill with ordnance, and one described him as "the first in our camp whose experience was sufficient to mount and point a cannon at the enemies of Texas." From December 5 to 10 Neill, in command of a single gun and a small contingent, provided a successful diversion to cover the assault on San Antonio de Béxar. On December 8 he commanded the battery that repulsed a Mexican attack on the Texan base camp. Had Neill's defense failed, the insurgents inside the town-cut off from their logistical support-would have been forced to abandon their assault. After the battle Gen. Edward Burleson praised Neill for performing his duties to his "entire satisfaction."
The fall of Bexar brought recognition for Neill and a windfall of enemy artillery. On December 7 the General Council commissioned Neill lieutenant colonel of artillery in the regular army, in charge of more than thirty captured field pieces. In late December 1835 Francis W. Johnson and James Grant stripped the Bexar garrison of provisions to supply the quixotic Matamoros expedition of 1835–36, leaving Neill to hold the town with fewer than 100 men. Neill wrote bitter letters to the council condemning these "arbitrary measures." While constantly calling for reinforcements and supplies, he buttressed the defenses of the mission fort of the Alamo. On January 17 James Bowie arrived with orders to remove the artillery and blow up the fort, but instead became committed to its defense. Bowie, impressed with Neill's leadership, wrote, "No other man in the army could have kept men at this post, under the neglect they have experienced." In mid-February, Neill left the Alamo to care for his family, all of whom had been stricken with a serious illness. He left William B. Travis in temporary command, assuring the garrison that he would return within twenty days. He was riding back when the fort fell. On March 6-the day of the battle of the Alamo-Neill had reached Gonzales, where he spent ninety dollars of his own money buying medicines for the Alamo garrison.
On March 13 he joined the withdrawal of Sam Houston's army to Groce's Retreat on the Brazos River. Unable to transport the cannons, Houston ordered them dumped into the Guadalupe River before abandoning Gonzales, and Neill found himself a cannoneer without weapons. That changed on April 11, when the "Twin Sisters" -two matched six-pounders-reached the Texan camp. Since Neill was the ranking artillery officer, Houston named him to command the revived artillery corps. On April 20 Neill commanded the Twin Sisters during the skirmish that preceded the battle of San Jacinto. During this fight his artillery corps repulsed an enemy probe of the woods in which the main Texas army was concealed. Neill was seriously wounded when a fragment of grapeshot caught him in the hip.
After independence Neill continued to serve Texas. In 1838 the republic granted him a league of land in Harrisburg County for his service during the revolution. The next year he ran for the position of major general of militia but lost to Felix Huston. In 1842 he led an expedition against Indians along the upper Trinity River. In 1844 he was appointed an Indian agent, in which capacity he traveled extensively. In 1845 he was granted a pension by Congress of $200 a year for life as compensation for the injuries he received at San Jacinto. Neill died at his home on Spring Creek in Navarro County in 1848 and was buried in Seguin.