Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Hamer's Posse

Bonnie and Clyde


Few criminals have fired imaginations like Bonnie and Clyde.  A multitude of books, an academy award winning movie and a 1967 chart-topping song have told their story for over seventy years.  Often viewed as a romantic pair of Robin Hoods, their lives were anything but.  They were constantly on the dodge, lived out of stolen cars, and made little from their holdups.  Even worse, innocent people were killed.  As their notoriety grew, they were always recognized, forcing them to avoid family and friends for extended periods.  After a four year crime spree (1931-1934), it all came to a gruesome end, brought about by an unrelenting Texas Ranger. 

Clyde Barrow was born to a sharecropper family seeking a better way of life.   The Barrows settled in West Dallas, an extremely poor community during the Depression Era.  Homeless, the Barrows lived under their wagon until they could afford a more commodious abode - a tent.  With little work available, young men turned to crime instead.  Clyde started his life of crime while still a child, going from petty theft to robbery before he turned twenty.  A stint at the Eastham State Prison Farm, near Huntsville, stoked his criminal behavior rather than rehabilitate it.  The guards beat him unmercifully and one inmate named “Big Ed” raped him.  In a blind fury, Clyde dispatched Ed with a pipe, but was not charged for the murder.   Eager to get out of the grinding work details, he had a fellow prisoner chop off two of his toes with an ax.  Ironically, through the efforts of his mother, Clyde was paroled shortly after he lost his toes.  During a visit to a friend’s house in Dallas, he met the love of his violent life, Bonnie Parker.

Bonnie Parker also grew up in West Dallas.  Her family residence was in Cement City, a factory town dominated by a large cement factory that emitted clouds of choking gray dust.  Unlike her future boyfriend Clyde, Bonnie was a gentle soul who liked to write poetry.  She was lauded by her teachers for her good grades and sweet attitude.  Pretty and petite, it would seem Bonnie was destined for a better life.  The environs of West Dallas dictated otherwise.  Her dad, a bricklayer, died when she was young, leaving her mom destitute.  Bonnie had to wait tables to help her out.  At sixteen, she married a petty criminal, who abandoned her for long stretches while pursuing his profession.  Because of her own criminal life, she never got around to divorcing him.  Photos of Bonnie, found at a Barrow Gang hideout in Joplin, Missouri, shows her posing with a variety of firearms while smoking a cigar.  Bonnie was never that manly; she only smoked cigarettes.  Former gang members have stated she never fired a gun at the police.

Bonnie and Clyde were attracted to each other the moment they met.  She stayed with him throughout their four year spree.  Along with Clyde’s brother, Buck, and Buck’s wife, Blanch, they robbed a number of small town stores and gas stations, shooting those that got in their way.  When feasible, they robbed small town banks, though their take wasn’t much.  The Depression kept those banks to a very minimal cash reserve - $3,000 or less.  Before their demise, the Barrow Gang killed 12 men; most of them were in law enforcement.  They traveled as far north as Minnesota, with brief stops in Joplin and Platte City, Missouri.  At both places, they fled after shootouts with the local police.  Buck was killed from a gunshot wound to the head.  Blanche lost an eye and was captured.  Bonnie’s legs were severely burned when Clyde, ignoring a warning sign, drove their car off a riverbank.  Applications of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) saved her legs and probably her life.

Under-budgeted police and sheriff departments couldn’t match Bonnie and Clyde’s firepower.   Clyde kept his gang well armed with automatic rifles stolen from state guard armories.  His favorite was the Browning automatic rifle, later used as a light machine gun during World War II. To make matters worse, they couldn’t give chase beyond their own jurisdictions, making it difficult to apprehend them.   Outgunned and outdistanced, a new approach was needed.  The impetus came from two events:  a daring prison breakout, engineered by Clyde, which freed several convicts from Eastham, and the deaths of two Grapevine patrol officers gunned down by Clyde.  Under mounting pressure from the public, Texas’ first female governor, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson, assigned Texas Ranger Frank Hamer the job of bringing down Bonnie and Clyde.

Frank Hamer was an old school ranger, more at home on the back of a horse than a police car seat.  As a city marshal, he cleaned up the Texas boomtown of Navasota.  The town was so violent; a hundred men had been gunned down on the main street within a year.  As a Texas Ranger, he took on bootleggers and the Klu Klux Klan, preventing 15 lynchings.  As his tough guy image grew, Hamer could clear the streets of an angry mob with one simple command - “Git !” 

 Frank Hammer

After his appointment, Hamer formed a detail of four hardened law enforcement veterans.  He knew that in order to catch the ever moving crime duo, you had to live like they did.  That entailed endless driving, camping outdoors, and long periods away from their homes, just like an Old West posse.  Hamer’s posse included Manny Gault, of the Texas Highway Patrol, Bob Alcon, of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Dept., and Ted Hinton, of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department.  Hinton had grown up in West Dallas and knew the Barrow family.  Bob Alcorn had been waited on by Bonnie during her stints as a cafe waitress. After months on the road, they finally tracked Bonnie and Clyde to Bienville Parish, Louisiana, the home of one of their gang members, Henry Methvin.

Hamer noticed the crime duo followed a familiar pattern during their years of crime; they tended to stay close to county and state boundary lines.  By doing this, they could evade local law enforcement by simply crossing over jurisdiction lines.  In addition, they routinely stopped to visit their families and those of their gang members.  Hamer knew about the family visits and was informed in Shreveport that Bonnie and Clyde were due to visit the Methvin home at Gibsland, a remote town in Bienville Parish.  Hamer added Bienville Parish sheriff, Henderson Jordan, and his deputy, Prentiss Oakey, to his posse.  With the assistance of Henry Methvin’s father, Ivy, an ambush was set up along a road near the Methvin home.  Posse members disagree on whether or not a deal was made with Ivy - a lighter sentence for his son in return for his cooperation.  Nevertheless, Ivy’s truck was parked off the side of the road as bait for the ambush.  Thinking Ivy’s truck was broken down, Clyde would stop to help.  Hamer would then make his move.

On May 23, 1934, Bonnie and Clyde were driving a stolen Ford Sedan when they spotted Ivy’s truck.  Bonnie was eating a sandwich with a map on her lap.  Clyde was driving in his stocking feet with a shotgun between his legs.  They stopped.  From there, the accounts differ on what happened next.  Were Bonnie and Clyde told they were under arrest before the shooting began?  Tired of the chase and the government pressure, it would seem doubtful Hamer would leave anything to chance.  Considering the past gunfights Clyde was involved in, it was also doubtful he would have peacefully surrendered.  A hailstorm of bullets hit Clyde’s car.  Bonnie and Clyde were riddled from head to toe.  Bonnie’s nose and lower jaw were almost shot away, leaving her distorted mouth full of broken teeth.  What happened next was a festival of the grotesque.

Instead of using discretion, the bullet-riddled car, with Bonnie and Clyde still inside, was towed to a furniture store in Arcadia that doubled as a funeral home.  Because of the eight mile distance to Arcadia, a faulty tow truck, and overheard phone calls from Hamer to Texas law enforcement officials, word spread like wildfire about the ambush.  Morbidly curious, a mob gathered outside of the Conger Furniture Store.  At one point, the tow truck broke down in front of a Gibsland elementary school.  School children ran out to view the car and its ghastly contents.  Needless to say, they recoiled in horror.  One of the students fainted.  It only grew worse from there; a tightly packed crowd surrounded the car when it reached the furniture store.  Beer and sandwiches were sold at inflated prices to the crowd.  Ladies dipped their handkerchiefs in the blood, bits of bloody hair were snipped from the corpses, and one man tried to cut off one of Clyde’s ears while another tried to saw off a finger.  Laid out inside the store's mortuary, the bodies were almost too riddled to be embalmed.  Bonnie and Clyde were laid to rest at separate cemeteries in Dallas.  Clyde Barrow’s funeral was one of the largest attended in Dallas history.  At the time of their deaths, Bonnie was only twenty-three years old.  Clyde was twenty-five.


After the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde, Hamer, along with twenty rangers, prevented sabotage during the 1935 Gulf Coast longshoremen’s strike.  Next to the Bonnie and Clyde ambush, Hamer’s most controversial role came when he accompanied Governor Coke Stevenson, who had just lost a tight Congressional race, to Alice, Texas in the notoriously corrupt Jim Wells County.  Hamer told an armed crowd of locals to get lost while the tally seats were examined for fraud, especially the votes from a mysterious Precinct 13 ballot box.  Although the box was stuffed with over three hundred nonexistent voters, Stephenson’s opponent still won the election.  The opponent was Lyndon B. Johnson.  Hamer died on July 10, 1955 from the effects of a stroke two years earlier.  He was buried near his son, who was killed at Iwo Jima, at Memorial Park Cemetery in Austin.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Laredo Defended

Hispanic Confederate Officers



Founded in 1755, Laredo is not your typical Civil War battle site.  A Texas border town with a Hispanic majority, it was culturally more Tejano than Southern.  After becoming a republic in 1838, Texas did not extend jurisdiction over Laredo until almost a decade later.  During that time, the land between Laredo, on the Rio Grande, and north, to the Nueces River, was a veritable no man’s land; a land filled with Comanches, Lipan Apaches and bandits from both sides of the Rio Grande.  Referred to as the “Nueces Strip,” it effectively isolated Laredo from the rest of Texas.  The War with Mexico brought in the Texas Rangers; who raised the U.S. flag over the Laredo courthouse in 1846.  The city was divided in two by the Rio Grande:  Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side and Laredo on the U.S. side.   Because of its Mexican heritage and distinctly southwest culture, it would seem Laredo would be a neutral city, showing little support for either side.  Nuevo Laredo, its sister city to the south, provided a handy sanctuary for those who wanted to leave Texas and avoid the Civil War altogether.  Confederate logistics and an amazing local leader would prove otherwise.

To bypass the Union naval blockade, the Confederacy turned to Mexico to procure arms and military supplies.  In return for arms, Confederate cotton was shipped to Brownsville, across the Rio Grande to Matamoros, then routed east to the the boomtown, ramshackle port of Baghdad. Waiting ships, anchored offshore, carried the cotton to Europe after they dropped off the military supplies.  To protect the shipments, on both sides of the border, the Confederacy turned to Laredo native Colonel Santos Benavides. 

A former mayor of Laredo, Benavides commanded a mostly Hispanic, Confederate cavalry regiment to patrol for any Union activity.  Despite his Mexican heritage, he was an ardent supporter of the Southern states’ rights doctrine.  In 1841, many residents along the Rio Grande, who favored a Federal government, revolted against Mexico’s central government in faraway Mexico City.  Insurgents established the sort-lived “Republic of the Rio Grande,” consisting of the “Nueces Strip” and portions of northern Mexico.  Laredo was its capital.  Within the year, Centralist troops put down the revolt, executing one of the insurgent leaders by firing squad.  The Benavides’ family supported the insurgents, harboring a deep mistrust of powerful central governments in both Mexico and the United States.

The U.S. Federal government was kept informed on Texas’ arms-for-cotton shipments from
 U. S. consulates in Mexico and Texas Unionists in Brownsville.  During November, 1863, the Union Army invaded South Texas to shut down the Mexican border.  A force of over 6,000 troops from New Orleans, under Major General Nathaniel Banks, landed on the Texas coast and occupied Brownsville.  However, the line of Union occupation troops didn’t extend over the entire length of the Rio Grande.  Bypassing Union held Brownsville, the Confederate government sent their cotton further upriver to Laredo.  Laredo residents favored the trade and the economic opportunities that came with it.  Five thousand cotton bales were piled into Laredo’s St. Augustine Plaza to be shipped across the border.  Tipped off about the shipment, General Edmund Davis, commander of the Texas Unionist regiments, dispatched two hundred cavalrymen to Laredo.  Under the command of Major Alfred Holt, their objective was the destruction of the 5,000 bales. 

Not one to be taken by surprise, Benavides had established an extensive network of spies and scouts to keep him informed of Union activity coming out of Brownsville.  Holt’s troopers, however, managed to elude his scouts by riding south of the Rio Grande.  To make matters worse, Benavides was sick in bed.  Weeks in the saddle and sleeping in the open air had taken their toll.  On March 19, 1864, former Webb County mayor, Cayento de la Garza, rode into town with startling news; a large Union cavalry force was approaching the city.   Rising from his sickbed, a half-awake Benavides began issuing orders.  He had only forty-two men to defend his hometown.  A rider was dispatched to bring in one hundred men at a grazing camp 25 miles north of town.  Benavides told his brother Cristobal, “There are five thousand bales of cotton in the plaza.  It belongs to the Confederacy.  If the day goes against us, fire it.  Be sure to do the work properly so that not a bale of it shall fall into the hands of the Yankees.  Then you will set my new house on fire, so that nothing of mine shall pass to the enemy.  Let their victory be a barren one.”  Benavides was barren of energy.  Totally spent, he fell off his horse and suffered a concussion.  Their leader barely conscious, civilians and military alike set up barricades consisting of cotton bales.  On Laredo’s outskirts, the Confederates waited for Holt at a stone coral along Zacate Creek.  From the town rooftops, Laredo residents cheered them on. 

Holt was met with a withering fire as he approached his objective.  Benavides’ men held off three assaults for three hours.  Reinforcements arrived from the grazing camp that evening, forcing Holt to retreat.  The 5,000 bales were saved!  The victory was secured weeks later with the arrival of General John “Rip” Ford’s Cavalry of the West.  Ford was advancing toward Brownsville to drive out the Union forces.  He would recapture Brownsville in July 1864.  Benavides latter wrote, “This would not have happened had I not been confined to bed for some days.  I would have known all about their advance and would have gone below and attacked them.  As it is I have to fight to the last; though hardly able to stand, I shall die fighting.  I won’t retreat, no matter what force the Yankees have - I know I can depend on my boys.”

Texas could depend on Santos Benavides. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sweetwater Madam


Libby  Thompson


Elizabeth “Libby” Thompson was born Elizabeth Haley in 1855 in Belton, Texas.  Like many Texas families, her family’s fortunes collapsed during the Civil War and faced near poverty.  To make matters worse, Libby was abducted by the Comanches in 1864.  She was only nine years old.  After three years of captivity, her father paid a hefty ransom for her release.  Although she appeared physically and mentally healthy, most Belton residents assumed she had been raped while in captivity.  By the morals of the day, Libby was now a “soiled dove;” a young woman who lost her virginity out of wedlock.  She had little to no chance of finding a husband.  The only man who tried to court her was shot by her father.  He thought he was too old for her.  Ostracized by the locals and having a father who might shoot what few suitors she had, Libby was left with few options.   At fifteen, she ran away from home.  In frontier Texas, the only career options for a single woman were school teacher, boarding house matron, theater actress/singer and prostitute.  Libby chose the latter, and where better to get a start than the Kansas cattle town of Abilene.  

Libby later moved to Ellsworth, Kansas where she met the love of her life, Billy Thompson, the brother of notorious Texas gunslinger, Ben Thompson.  When he wasn’t drunk, Thompson drove cattle along the Chisholm Trail or dealt cards as a professional gambler.  When he was drunk, Billy had an itchy trigger finger like his brother.

A Confederate veteran, Billy had little respect for the U.S. Army during Reconstruction.  After a drunken altercation on March 31,1868, Thompson shot and killed William Burke, a U.S. soldier and clerk with the U.S. Adjutant General’s Office in Austin.  In Rockport, he shot an unarmed stable hand named Remus Smith.  Remus had slapped his horse when it nosed into the wrong feeding trough.  After both shootings, he hid out to avoid arrest before making his way to Ellsworth.  Joined by his brother Ben, they both became in-house gamblers at Brennan’s Saloon in Ellsworth.

By 1873, Billy and Libby were a couple.  Libby gave birth to their first child while both were on a cattle drive.  To give legitimacy to their child’s birth, they both goth married the same year.  It was also the year Billy faced his most serious charge - murdering a town sheriff.  A fight with a Brennan’s customer, over a high stakes game of Monte, led to the intervention of Sheriff Chauncey Whitney.  The sheriff was a good friend of the Thompson brothers.  Guns were drawn and tempers flared.  A drunken Billy accidentally discharged his shotgun into Sheriff Whitney.  “My god Billy,” his brother Ben stated, “you have shot your best friend.” The sheriff died and Billy fled Kansas after a $500.00 reward was issued for his arrest.  The three killings kept him on the dodge, leading to eventual arrests and acquittals in both Kansas and Texas.  Libby and Billy settled in Sweetwater, Texas where they purchased a ranch.  Libby became the madam of a Sweetwater brothel that fronted as a dance hall.  While there, Libby became known as “Squirrel Tooth Alice;” a nickname she acquired because of a rodent-like gap between her two front teeth and a talent for making pets out of prairie dogs.  Like a pack of poodles, she placed them in collars and walked them on a lease. As a madam, she had little tolerance for bad manners.  Any cowboy who got out of line could be looking down the barrel of her pistol.

Though Billy was away for long stretches of time, she managed to raise nine children.  Being a prostitute, it’s highly questionable if Billy was the father of all nine of them.  Most of them would follow her into a life of crime and prostitution. Worn from the years of sharing a bed with sex- starved cowboys, Libby retired at sixth six.  She lived with her many children before dying at a Los Angeles nursing home on April 13, 1953.  She was ninety eight years old.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

2nd Texas Flag and Rogers' Sword on Display

Texas Civil War Museum Display of 2nd Texas Flag and Col. Rogers' Sword


On October 4, 1862, Colonel William P. Rogers assembled his men before a formidable Union battery just outside Corinth, Mississippi.  Two previous assaults against Battery Robinett were unsuccessful.  To maintain his men’s momentum for a third assault, he grabbed his regiment’s battle flag, the flag of the 2nd Texas Infantry Regiment.  With his other hand, he drew his sword.  Clark scaled the earthen parapet that concealed the cannons within.  The 2nd’s charge captured the battery but faltered before a powerful Union counterattack.  Seven bullets found their mark in Rogers’ upper chest.  His bullet ridden corpse was left behind.  Impressed with Rogers’ bravery, Union Major General Rosecrans had his body set aside for burial on the spot.  He stated, “Mark his grave well men, for he was the bravest man I ever saw.” Rogers’ grave would later be marked with a monument where it remains to this day.

Colonel Rogers' Sword

Evading capture, the flag was carried from the field and later accompanied the 2nd Texas into Vicksburg. It was smuggled out by Dr. Charles Owens before the Confederate surrender.   After the war, the revered flag was kept by 2nd Texas Captain William Christian before it passed into private ownership.  For years, the flag remained folded and locked in a safe.

Under the direction of textile conservator Josh Phillips, the flag was meticulously conserved and placed in a glass case.  In 2016, the Texas Civil War Museum purchased the flag.  The 48” x 54” silk flag incorporates the “Texian” pattern which features a large lone star in the middle of the cross.  A portion is missing due to souvenir cutouts from the flag’s fly end.  The names of the 2nd Texas’ two battles before Corinth (Shiloh and Farmington) appear on the flag’s red field.  The fabric is punctured with 20 or more bullet and artillery shell holes.  Adding further provenance, a written note from Captain Christian is glued to the flag.  It states:

“Our treasured battle-flag torn by shot and shell in battles of Shiloh, Farmington, Corinth, Hatchie-Bridge and Vicksburg.  Our gratitude to Owens for saving it from capture at Vicksburg.”

Noted Civil War flag expert Greg Biggs writes, “In my years of flag research, I can categorically state that no Texas unit flag has been more sought after than those for this unit, especially the flag used in their famous charge at the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi in early October, 1862.”

Bullet holes on 2nd Texas Flag

Now, both Rogers’ sword and the 2nd Texas flag are on display to the public at the Texas Civil War Museum.  

2nd Texas dead near Battery Robinett.  The body of Col. Rogers is on the far left.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Summer of the Savage

Henry McCulloch




On June 2, 1861, Confederate Colonel Henry McCulloch trotted slowly into what was once a Federal Indian Reservation. Along with Major Edward Burleson, he arrived to hold council with the reservation’s Native Americans. The place appeared deserted. Because of the oncoming Civil War, the reservation’s Federal troops withdrew north into Kansas. Prior to leaving, they told their charges they would be massacred by the Confederates. In response, many reservation Indians fled their homes for the plains beyond. McCulloch assured Caddo, Anadarko and Tonkawa tribal leaders they would not be attacked as long as they remained peaceful. The Comanches and Kiowas, however, were not receptive toward any such assurances.

Since 1859, Fort Cobb, located in the Southwest Indian Territory, was the new home for Native Americans that formerly resided in Texas. Outraged over mounting Comanche raids, frontier settlers pushed Texas lawmakers to forcibly move all Native Americans north of the Red River. In addition to providing food and provisions, Fort Cobb’s Federal garrison was supposed to keep the Indians north of the Red River; they failed with the Comanches and their allies, the Kiowas. To make matters worse, unscrupulous traders cheated the Indians out of promised provisions, supplying them instead with rotten meat and rotgut whiskey. Scales for grain distribution were fixed to under supply the Indians and overcharge the Federal government. The Civil War brought new problems; Federal troops evacuated the Indian Territory completely, leaving North Texas wide open. Emboldened by the departure of Federal troops, hostile Indians began raiding Texas with a vengeance.

On January 30, 1861, the Texas state legislature formed a Committee of Public Safety to oversee the removal of Federal troops from Texas. The committee appointed Henry E. McCulloch, brother of famed Texas Ranger Benjamin McCulloch, to form a mounted regiment of volunteers to replace the departing Federals. The 1st Regiment, Texas Mounted Riflemen became the first Texas regiment to be mustered into Confederate service. Henry McCulloch was elected colonel, Thomas Frost lieutenant colonel, and Edward Burleson major. The 1st was charged with the protection of North Texas along a line running from the Red River to present day Kerrville, an area of roughly 30, 000 square miles. For shelter, the regiment’s companies occupied abandoned Federal forts. Captain Sidney Green Davidson described Fort Chadbourne as a “pretty post” with comfortable quarters, but the “dullest place in the world.” If there were not enough quarters, they constructed them from materials left by the Federals. Otherwise, tents of various shapes and sizes were issued. Each man was issued the frontier Texas version of a sleeping bag, a sleeping sack or burlap bag filled with straw. Because of the lack of trees, firewood had to be hauled in by wagon from East Texas. Water was available, but loaded with bacteria during the hot summer months, leading to numerous outbreaks of illness at the forts. Food consisted of worm-ridden hardtack, coarse cornmeal, over salted pork, and mushy pickles. Vinegar was issued to fight scurvy. Anything approaching fresh had to be hunted.

Defending North Texas, with just a single regiment, was practically impossible against the highly mobile Comanches; McCulloch devised a system of patrols to scout and engage the Indians on a continuous basis. Nevertheless, numerous bodies of ranchers, farmers and their families began turning up - scalped and covered with arrows like a pin cushion. At his ranch near Jacksboro, William Youngblood was killed and scalped while splitting rails. His neighbors went in pursuit of Youngblood’s killers; they killed two and retrieved Youngblood’s scalp to be buried alongside his body. Though effective, the constant patrols wore down the horses, leading to a severe shortage of fresh mounts. Grass was scarce on the open prairie, adding further to the horses’ misery. Very few were available for purchase; the Comanches had stolen most of them.

When the Comanches were encountered, 1st Texas troopers charged and gave chase for miles over dry, open prairie, risking a tumble from a prairie dog hole or a rattlesnake’s bite. On July 29, Captain James “Buck” Barry’s thirty-two man company encountered seventy Comanche warriors near the Clear Fork of the Brazos. The Indians were scattered when their leader, donning a Federal uniform jacket, was shot down. Not every patrol was successful; Captain Davidson was shot through the heart while in pursuit of Comanche war party. Lacking shovels, much less coffins, Davidson’s company buried him where he fell, in a shallow grave dug out with hatchets. Near Big Spring, a forty man patrol under Colonel Frost fought in a tight circle surrounded by 150 or more Comanches. During the fight, Trooper William Alexander recounted one of his better shots: “I dismounted, raised my gun sight to 500 yards, took aim, and cut him down.” The fallen warrior was ridding the slain Captain Davidson’s horse.

Abandoned during the war, Fort Cobb was more of a rest stop for raiding hostiles rather than a place of confinement. Severely underfunded, the 1st Texas kept patrolling until April, 1862. Their enlistment periods up, the 1st Texas was mustered out of service. The state-financed Frontier Battalion took its place. Most of the 1st Texas re-enlisted and continued serving the Confederacy in the Trans-Mississippi.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bowie's Big Silver Hunt

Jim Bowie


They could see them in the distance; one hundred or more Tawakonis, Caddos and Wacos moving fast on their tracks.  They weren’t looking for a trade or share of provisions, but booty and scalps instead.  The eleven-man expedition quickly unpacked their mules at a grove of scrub oaks, and then formed a line of leveled muskets.  Fortunately, their leader was no stranger to a standup fight.  His name alone was firing the frontier spirits of Americans everywhere, especially those seeking a new life in Texas. 

Most people know Jim Bowie for his legendary knife and martyr’s death at the Alamo.  What they don’t know is Jim Bowie had an abiding passion for wealth – gained honestly or dishonestly.  More often, it was dishonestly on a massive scale.  While residing in Louisiana, his first big score came from illegal slave smuggling.  Slaves were in big demand to work the massive gulf state plantations, but they could only be obtained within the United States.   Along with his brother, Rezin, Bowie purchased smuggled slaves from the notorious pirate, Jean Laffite.  Based in Galveston, Lafitte lifted his human booty from Spanish ships in the Caribbean.  Claiming they were taken from shipwrecks, the Bowie brothers turned them into the local parish sheriff.  By law, the slaves were to be sold at auction, with half the proceeds going to the people who turned them in.  Bolstered by the proceeds, the Bowies always outbid their competitors.  After making a cool $65,000.00 (around $1.5 million today) they had to give it up when the local authorities got suspicious.

During the1820’s, Bowie turned his attention toward land speculation.  Land titles, in the Louisiana Territory, were questionable at best, a total quandary at worst.  Decades of French, Spanish and American rule led to a Gordian knot of land claimants.  Bowie took advantage of the confusion by forging Spanish land grants for 60,000 acres of prime Louisiana acreage, much of it in present day Arkansas.  To back them up, he purchased affidavits from false witnesses.  Speculating, especially in a frontier territory, usually got you more enemies than real estate.  Among those enemies was the Sheriff of Rapides Parish, Norris Wright.  In the Antebellum South, personal disputes were often settled by fists and dueling pistols rather than courts of law.   After Sheriff Wright made disparaging remarks about Bowie in public, an incensed Bowie confronted the sheriff in a hotel lobby.  Wright pulled out his pistol as Bowie picked up a chair to hit him.  He promptly shot him in the chest.  Fortunately, the bullet didn’t penetrate the skin, but left Bowie severely bruised.  The fight turned to fisticuffs, highlighted by Bowie biting Wright on the hand and losing a tooth in the process.  Friends pulled the two apart and carried Bowie to a hotel room.  From now on, he wouldn’t be caught without a weapon.  Flintlock pistols were too unreliable.  Instead, he would carry a large menacing knife provided by his brother.

The confrontation wouldn’t end there.  Their next exchange took place at a remote Mississippi River sand bar.  In front of dozens of onlookers, Wright dueled with a friend of Bowie’s; the friend’s second was Bowie himself.  When the duelers missed their targets, their seconds took out their pistols and started exchanging fire.  The gentlemanly duel turned into a farcical, no-holds-barred gunfight.  Bowie went down with three bullet wounds in his thigh and torso.  Wright moved in for the kill with his sword cane.  Before he could inflict a fatal stab wound, Bowie rose up and thrust his knife into Wright’s chest.  The Jim Bowie legend was born.

Like the smuggled slaves, Federal investigators began to unravel Bowie’s land claims.  For Bowie, it was time for new opportunities and distance from U.S. law enforcement.  Because it was in Mexico, Texas offered new possibilities.  After an amazing recovery from his bullet wounds, he headed out west to San Antonio.  It was there he met the former acalde, Juan Martin de Veramendi, and his charming daughter, Ursula.  Bowie presented himself as a wealthy entrepreneur looking to stake a claim.  Ursula was smitten with the legendary knife fighter; they married in April, 1831.  In addition to a reputation, he now had the Veramendi family’s wealth and status. 

Always on the lookout for a big payday, Bowie had heard tales of a lost Spanish silver mine in the San Saba region, a hundred miles northwest from San Antonio.  Using his in-law’s connections and money, he obtained the Mexican government’s permission to lead an expedition in search of the mine.  Unfortunately, the search was to be in territory held by the Comanches.  The Comanches were at peace with Mexico at the time, but that didn’t apply to their neighbors, the Wacos and Tawakonis.  The eleven man expedition rode out from San Antonio in the autumn of 1831.  Three weeks into the journey, they encountered a couple of Comanches and their captive Mexican interpreter.  The interpreter warned them of a large body of Wacos, Tawakonis and Cados in the area.  Near the San Saba River, they encountered a Tawakoni scout with hundreds of his friends right behind him.  A parley was attempted, but Rezin Bowie refused to part with any of their goods.  Severely outnumbered, the treasure hunters took their goods from the pack mules and arranged them like sandbags for cover.  The Indians launched an all-out attack after encircling the expedition.  Five of Bowie’s men became casualties.  Fortunately, they were better armed and held them off.  After the Indian chief was killed by a volley, many of his comrades met the same fate trying to carry his body from the field.  Realizing their attack was more hazardous to them than Bowie, they tried to set fire to the prairie grass and burn him out.  The fortune hunters frantically began pulling up grass and pushing away dead leaves to keep from being burned alive.  Luckily, the wind wouldn’t cooperate.  The fire that did reach Bowie was beaten out with buffalo robes.  Evening darkness brought an end to the attacks.  Out in the distance, Bowie’s men could hear the piercing wail of Indians mourning their dead.  Their losses too great to bear, the Indians left the scene.  Worried about future attacks, the six survivors built themselves a makeshift fort of rocks.  Bowie erected a flag pole, defiantly waving a small flag “to intimidate them and show them that there were still men ready for a fight.”  Though no silver was found, Texas found a new hero.  Bowie’s reputation rose to new heights in the aftermath.  His exploits bolstered Texan fortitude and later gave impetus to their growing discontent with Mexico.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Dead-Line


Granbury's Texas Brigade at Pickett's Mill 



Though it was formed late during the Civil War, Brigadier General Hiram Granbury’s Texas Brigade would establish a legendary reputation for bravery and ferocity in the Western Theater.  The brigade was formed in November, 1863 at Chattanooga before the Battle of Missionary Ridge.  Eight Texas regiments, including Granbury’s 7th Texas, were consolidated into a single brigade under the command of General James Argyle Smith.  A lawyer before the war, Granbury had commanded the 7th Texas from the Fort Donelson Campaign until the Battle of Chickamauga.   The new brigade was attached to the Confederate division commanded by Arkansas Irishman, Major General Patrick Cleburne. Smith was wounded during the Battle of Missionary Ridge and replaced with Granbury.  During the Confederate retreat from Chattanooga, Granbury assisted Cleburne in performing a remarkable rearguard action at Ringold Gap, saving the Confederate Army of Tennessee from annihilation. The Texans waited until the Yankees came within fifty yards then unleashed a wave of gunfire that decimated General Ulysses S. Grant’s XV corps. After a five hour stand, Cleburne withdrew into Georgia and received the official gratitude of the Confederate Congress.    The following spring, Union forces, under General William Tecumseh Sherman, advanced into Georgia.  General Joseph Johnston tried to hold off Sherman by forming a series of defensive lines which Sherman skillfully bypassed, forcing Johnston to retreat.  Sherman’s objective was Atlanta, not a single decisive battle.  On May 22, 1864, Johnston again established a defensive line, this time, thirty miles east of Atlanta at New Hope Church.  General Thomas Hooker, the former Commander of the Army of the Potomac, struck the entrenched Confederate division of General Alexander P. Stewart.  Hooker was repulsed with heavy casualties, but the worst was yet to come.  Further to the right on Johnston’s line, near an abandoned grist mill owned by the Pickett family, Patrick Cleburne was waiting.

Though repulsed at New Hope Church, Sherman decided to try flanking the Confederate right.  He dispatched General Oliver Howard’s Corps for the attempt.  The one-armed Howard was known as “Old Prayer Book” by his men for his fervent Christian beliefs.  The rocky ravines and jungle-like growth made marching difficult.  Companies became lost in the vines and could only find their way through bugle calls to and from the companies marching in front.  The Confederates heard the bugles as well and positioned themselves accordingly.  Cleburne’s men had the advantage of height above a vine-chocked ravine.  On May 27, the brigade of General William Hazen moved up ravine toward Granbury’s Texans.  Cleburne’s artillery opened fire, cutting down trees and men alike.  Hazen’s tough Ohioans continued their advance to within thirty yards of the Texans.  Like Rngold Gap, a brutal standup fight ensued along Granbury’s line.

 Future author, Lieutenant Ambrose Bierce witnessed the battle firsthand and later penned an account entitled “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill.”  Bierce later wrote, “With its well-defined edge of corpses-those of the bravest, where both lines are fighting without cover-as in a charge met by a counter-charge-each has its deadline and between the two is a clear spot-neutral ground, devoid of dead, for the living cannot reach it to fall there.”  Confederate Sergeant A.G. Anderson also left an account of the deadline.  “They seemed to be drunk, and line after line would charge us and be cut down,” he wrote, “They came so close to us that they endeavored to plant their colors (flags) right in our lines, and when the flag would go down another man would raise it again.  Many of their men rushed into our lines and were clubbed and bayoneted to death.”  An exception to the many was noted by Private William Oliphant.  Dropping his musket, one young Union soldier grabbed one of the implanted flags, waved it in the Texans faces, and then retreated down the ravine.  “One of the Texans,” recalled Oliphant, “shouted out don’t shoot him, he’s too brave.”  A cheer went up as the young bluecoat retreated down the ravine with the flag.

By 6:00 PM, Sherman decided to call off the attack.  Union casualties were 1,600 killed and wounded.  Cleburne suffered 600.  In General Cleburne's official report on Pickett’s Mill, Cleburne wrote, "The piles of dead on this front was but a silent eulogy upon Granbury and his noble Texans."  Faced with further losses and tired of the rugged, wooded terrain, Sherman decided to pull his army from their trenches and head northeast toward the railhead at Allatoona Pass.  Johnston could only follow.  Blankets of dead horses and humans filled the ravines from New Hope Church to Pickett’s Mill.  Union troops gave the ravines an appropriate moniker - “The Hell Hole.”  Impatient with his retreats and lack of success, Confederate President Jefferson Davis replaced Johnston the following July with General John Bell Hood.