Friday, October 7, 2016

General Polecat

Prince Camile De Polignac

During the Civil War, most of the generals on both sides were American born and received their training from U.S. military academies.  In a few cases, they came from foreign countries and had served in their country’s army.  German officers received experience through a failed revolution against the Prussian monarchy.  French and British officers served due to a sense of adventure and an earnest support for the Union or Confederate causes. Oddly enough, one of them commanded a brigade of Texans. 

Camille Armand Jules Marie de Polignac or the Prince de Polignac was a French nobleman through and through – something right out of a Hollywood script.  Born on February 16, 1832, his father served as a minister in the French court of Charles X.  Young Polignac served as a lieutenant in the French army during the Crimean War.  After his service, he traveled to Central America to study geography.  He also studied music and was known to break into verse when the mood suited him.  Not one to let a military career languish, Polignac offered his services to the Confederacy.  He served as a staff officer in the commands of both Braxton Bragg and P.G.T. Beauregard. 

What General Polignac had in dash and discipline would be sorely lacking in his command.  His brigade included some of the worst regiments to come out of Texas.  The 22nd Texas Cavalry, the 31st Texas Cavalry, and the 34th Texas Cavalry came from North Texas counties that were opposed to secession before the war.   Originally from the South’s Border States, they were subsistence farmers that had little use for slaves.  Of the nineteen Texas counties that voted against secession, eight of them were in North Texas.  Needless to say, they were not thrilled about fighting for the Confederacy, preferring instead to be fighting Comanches near their homesteads.  Union threats from Kansas and Missouri led to their deployment in the Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma), a place with little to sustain troops and a fragile moral.  There were shortages of everything: clothes, shelter, weapons, food, medicine, and discipline.  They also had to fight alongside Confederate Indian regiments whom they had little regard for.  To make matters worse, many of them succumbed to illness and were forced to go on extended leave, provided they hadn’t died already before departing.  Desertions increased and mutiny became a greater threat than the Union Army.  The brigade saw some action at Shirley’s Ford and Newtonia in Missouri, but did little to reinforce their lagging reputation.  General Thomas Hindman, their district commander, finally had enough of this ill-disciplined band of Texans; he took away their horses.  Now dismounted, and feeling like teenagers barred from a homecoming dance, they were forced to fight on foot.

Unreliable as cavalry, they were even more so as infantry.  After withdrawing from Missouri, the 31st nearly mutinied when they arrived at Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Some stability returned with the arrival of the 15th Texas Infantry, tough farm boys from Central Texas with a strong sense of cause.  Ordered back to the Indian Territory, the dismounted Texans were forced to endure one of the Civil War’s worst marches.  In January, 1863, many of them died from exposure as they trudged along in frigid temperatures with moldy corn meal to sustain them.  Unionist guerillas, led by Texas Unionist Martin Hart, attacked their supply wagons.  Alfred T. Howell of the 34th Texas recalled:

“By day, I limped along in my rundown boots, holes wearing into my feet.  At night my feet swelled and I could not stand.  Men died every day.  They laid themselves down.  They would not move and they died.  Men died on the wagons.  From Fort Smith to the Mouth of the Kiamichi where we camped, our trail was a long graveyard.  The bones of dead horses and mules, with destroyed and castaway wagons, would have made almost a turnpike.”

During the following spring, the dismounted Texans marched to Shreveport.  General Richard Taylor, Commander of Confederate forces in Louisiana, was not impressed with his new brigade.  Even more so when he discovered that many of them had no weapons.  Training was needed, and a lot of it.  Two of the regiments were placed in camps of instruction for schooling in infantry tactics.

In October, 1863, Polignac assumed command of the brigade, but his men couldn’t pronounce his name, much less comprehend his noble origin.  They came up with an easier name to pronounce – Polecat.  Fortunately, the prince took it all in good humor.  During a skirmish at Vidalia, Polignac stood up in his stirrups and exhorted his men to “Follow me! Follow me! You call me ‘Polecat,’ I will show you whether I am ‘Polecat’ or ‘Polignac!’ “He showed them the later.  Though forced to retire, he brought back a precious haul of four hundred cattle, horses and mules.  Further redemption came at the Battle of Mansfield in 1864, a key turning point during the Union’s Red River Campaign.  Polignac’s Texans assisted in outflanking the Union line and routing it off the field. 

For his actions at Mansfield, Polignac was promoted to Major General.  His replacement, Colonel James Harrison, presented him with a horse.  The Frenchman promised he would ride his noble charger across Texas after the war to visit his old brigade. Major General Polignac was later sent back to his native France on a mission to drum up support for the Confederacy.  The war ended before he could complete his mission.  He served again in the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War.  He died in 1921, the last surviving Confederate General of the Civil War.  His brigade returned to Texas where they were discharged in May, 1865.

No doubt glad to be returning home, they were no less glad to be returning with an honorable service records.  Under a dapper Frenchman, Polignac’s Texas Brigade helped save the day at Mansfield and prevent a Union invasion of Texas.   

Friday, August 5, 2016

"Autie" Comes to Austin

The Custers and their maid

In U.S. history, few military notables have been adulated then hated like George Armstrong Custer.  He rose to stellar heights during the Civil War, becoming a general at the tender age of twenty-three.   His reckless cavalry charges and dashing looks made him a darling of the Union cause.  His wife Elizabeth, or Libby, had jaw-dropping looks that could stop traffic.  If you read the newspapers and followed the gossip, indications were anything but failure for “Autie” Custer.  After the war, and before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, his career began to slide.  Where did it start going wrong?  It may have started with a brief stint in Texas.   

After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, there was a growing concern that the war would continue in remote Texas.  To make matters worse, French forces, under the puppet emperor Maximillian, had occupied Mexico while the U.S. was occupied with the Civil War.  President Lincoln was deeply worried that the French would try to retake territory lost during the War with Mexico or form an alliance with the Confederacy.  Grant’s able cavalry commander, General Phil Sheridan, was sent to Texas to command Union occupation forces.  He invited Custer to come along.

What awaited Custer was a disgruntled body of troops that would grow to despise him with each passing day.  After the war, men were anxious to get home to their families.  In response, many veteran units were mustered out, but some were forced to stay on as occupation troops.  Five veteran Union cavalry regiments, from the Mid-West, were selected to go to Texas.  Though the war was essentially over, they were not happy.  This duty was for recruits, not veterans that had fought in the war.  They wanted to go home now.

Alexandria, Louisiana was the assembly point for Custer’s new command.  Alexandria was devastated during the Union’s ill-fated Red River Campaign.  Most of the town was sacked, abandoned and burned to the ground.  The surrounding farmland was almost devoid of crops and livestock.  There was little left for an occupation army except sweltering heat and mosquitoes.  When Custer arrived on a comfy steamboat, a less then glowing reception awaited.  Although he was from Michigan, his fellow Mid-westerners saw him as an “Eastern Dandy.”  His curled, flowing hair and tailored uniforms didn’t help.  Custer, his wife Libby, and their maid took up residence at a deserted house where they were supplied with fresh fruits and vegetables purchased locally.  His men received nothing of the sort.  Because of the lack of palatable rations, there was a strong incentive to steal food from the locals.  Roving bands of soldiers scavenged the countryside and threatened the inhabitants.  In a show of conciliation toward Southerners, Sheridan ordered Custer to enforce “rigid discipline among the troops, and to prevent outrages on private persons and property.”  Custer’s men were in no mood to obey orders; they continued to steal. 

As the thefts worsened, Custer was forced to adopt Draconian measures to keep them in line, some of which were against military law.   By his orders, any man caught foraging would have his head shaved and receive twenty five lashes on his bare back.  If an officer failed to report it, he would be dishonorably discharged. 

On August 8, 1866, Custer was ordered to march to the Texas town of Hempstead, an isolated town in a region blanketed with towering pine trees and few good water sources.  The 240 mile ride took nineteen agonizing days.  Thirsty men began to desert in growing numbers while those that remained smoldered in resentment.   The 2nd Wisconsin regiment, the most troublesome of Custer’s command, circulated a petition to be disbanded immediately.  They even plotted to assassinate him.  An Iowa regiment had complained so loudly, the Iowa legislature and governor issued an official letter of condemnation on Custer. 

Upon arrival, Custer took up residence in a tent on the grounds of the nearby Groce Plantation.  The plantation had once served as a Confederate prison camp.  During his time there, he enjoyed hunting, family visitations and collecting stray dogs.  Whenever he rode out, a herd of dogs enthusiastically followed. 

Unfortunately, his men didn’t follow with the same enthusiasm.  Things got even worse.  They were forced to subsist on a dreadful ration of tooth-breaking hardtack and salted hog jowls.  With food like that, who wouldn’t steal?  Five men were flogged and had their heads shaved for livestock theft.  A deserter was shot.  One private wrote, “He was only twenty-five years of age, and had the usual egotism and self-importance of a young man.  He was a regular army officer, and had bred in him the tyranny of the regular army.  He did not distinguish between a regular soldier and a volunteer.  He had no sympathy in common with the private soldiers, but regarded them simply as machines created for the special purpose of obeying his imperial will.”   Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In October, Custer’s command relocated to Austin.  The Texas capital was going through a period of lawlessness brought on by the war’s end.   Provisional Governor Andrew “Colossal Jack” Hamilton requested U.S. Troops to help enforce the law.  Austin’s Blind Asylum became Custer’s new home and headquarters.  The roomy asylum was also an ideal place for socializing.  During a Christmas party at the asylum, Custer dressed up as Santa Claus. 

Austin brought Custer close to society, but it also brought him close to the press.  Alleged cruelties against his men began appearing in newspapers.  When he learned of one damning article, he confronted a captain of the 1st Iowa who refused to retract it.  Custer reached for a horse whip and the captain drew his sword.  The fight was quickly broken up before it started.  The article was not retracted. 

Fortunately, Custer was ordered back east before his own men killed him.  The troublesome 2nd Wisconsin was mustered out right there in Austin and sent home.  Months later, Custer returned to the West to fight Indians.  Trouble still followed him.  He was suspended for a year after abandoning his post to visit Libby.  He led a controversial cavalry attack on a Cheyenne village that killed women and children.  President Ulysses S. Grant was angered when Custer gave testimony on administrative corruption to a Congressional committee.  Only a glorious death at the Little Bighorn kept his torch burning for decades ahead. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cavalry Life on the Texas Plains

With the exception of the Civil War period, the U.S. Cavalry and Texas enjoyed a harmonious relationship until the early 1900’s.  Not surprising when you consider the following threats: bandits, Apaches, Kiowas, and Commanches.  To counter them, a chain of forts was built from Northwest Texas down to the Rio Grande.  Some avoided the U.S. defense budget ax while others were abandoned and left to the elements.  Four forts (Fort Stockton, Fort Hancock, Fort Davis and Fort Worth) outgrew their perimeters and became cities.  The forts not only offered up protection, they provided jobs, a sense of civility, and government authority where none existed.  Though often portrayed heroically in movies and TV shows, the reality of cavalry life was often more to the contrary: backbreaking construction work, raw endurance, and at times, absolute boredom. 

The post-civil war army was reduced in numbers to 25,000, with most assigned to far flung posts out West.  Enlisted personnel were often not the dutiful, patriotic volunteers of the Civil War, but hard-luck men who needed a job.  Many were immigrants: Germans, who barely spoke English, and Irish looking for a new life in frontier America.  Newly freed slaves, referred to as “buffalo soldiers,” also filled the ranks.   The majority of cavalry recruits were assembled at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just south of St. Louis.  There they learned the bare essentials of military life within a short, three week period.  The real training came after they were shipped out to an active unit.

The nomadic, buffalo-hunting Plains Indians and the desert bound Apaches were the two biggest threats in the western frontier.  Texas was threatened by both.   The Comanches and their allies, the Kiowas, accounted for most of the attacks on Texas settlements.  Unmatched at stealing horses and raiding homesteads, they were exceptionally elusive.  They appeared without warning (sort of like a present day “flash mob” robbing a store), burned your house, kidnapped your wife and children, and quickly left the scene.  For the Comanches, war was more of a manly sport, like hunting, rather than a military drive to conquer a country or discipline a rebellious province.  They didn’t go looking for a battle; you had to bring the battle to them, provided you could find them.

 A second line of forts was constructed in the late 1800’s to replace the aging first line and further deter the Comanches. Their meager garrisons, however, didn’t have the numbers to halt every attack.  To prevent them, cavalrymen had to endure endless hours of patrolling in weather that could bake you in one minute and freeze you with a “blue norther” in the next.    If the weather didn’t kill you, the food brought its own hazards.  Salt pork (sometimes not fully processed with the pig skin still on it), beans, moldy potatoes, and a tooth-breaking cracker called hardtack were among the few foods that didn’t spoil over long periods of time.  Because of the lack of vegetables, it was not uncommon for fort garrisons to come down with scurvy.  If you wanted it fresh, you had to shoot it or grow it in a fort garden. Water was always in short supply and usually had to be shipped in from distant rivers on wagons.  Above all, the pay was absolutely lousy for the services performed: a whopping $13 dollars a month with food and board barely included.  The uniforms issued were surplus civil war uniforms that had to be retailored at the soldier’s expense. 

The weapons issued included the venerable, Colt revolver and the .45 caliber Springfield carbine.  Repeating rifles, Winchesters and Henrys, were also issued to a lesser extent.  Unlike the repeating rifles, the Springfield was single shot, but had greater long range accuracy.  Their adversaries were armed with repeating rifles as well.  In addition, they used bows and arrows with metal heads instead of flint.  This made them even more deadly if they hit you in the torso.

When not on duty, bored soldiers turned to vice.  Then as now, drinking was prevalent.  Alcohol could be purchased from town saloons and trading posts.  The more desperate would steal it from the fort’s medical dispensary.   Prostitutes could be found in saloons and brothels established outside the fort.  Because of their low pay, they couldn’t afford the more expensive prostitutes and had to settle for those with even fewer scruples and scant hygiene.  Eighty out of one thousand army personnel would come down with venereal disease.  Sometimes female companionship could be found among the fort’s laundresses; whose services went far and beyond scrubbing soiled underwear.  The most notorious, of the Texas vice-ridden fort towns, was near Fort Griffin along the Clear Fork of the Brazos.  Called simply “The Flat,” it was a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah on the prairie.  In addition to army personnel: cowboys, buffalo hunters, gunfighters, and professional gamblers spent a raucous evening or two at “The Flat.”  Among its visitors, were the West’s most famous and notorious: John Wesley Hardin, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett.

Comanche raids came to an end in 1874; General Phil Sheridan launched a sweeping offensive against the remaining Comanche villages in the Texas Panhandle.  Three of the columns were led by one of the Army’s best Indian fighters, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie.  Aided by Tonkawa scouts, he caught up with the Comanches at Palo Duro Canyon.  Scaling the canyon walls at night, Mackenzie’s troopers surprised a Comanche village of 1,000 and drove them from their tepees.  They burned the village and shot all their horses, leaving them helpless to the elements.   With the buffalo hunted out of existence in the Panhandle, the Comanches were forced on to a reservation at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. 

Despite the pay and hardships, the U.S. Cavalry played a crucial role in taming the West. Because of the inclusion of men of all economic backgrounds and race, they were indeed forerunners of today's U.S. Army.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Masonic Saboteurs

C.S.S. Hunley

Since the discovery of the C.S.S. Hunley, a sunken Confederate submarine near Charleston Harbor, a growing body of research is emerging on the Confederacy’s secret weapons.  Many of these weapons were designed by a surprising array of Southern professional men; those with a knack for finance, military engineering and subterfuge.  One of the most prominent was an unlikely Texas resident that few would know about until decades later.

Prior to the Civil War, Ohio native Edgar C. Singer was a gunsmith in the tiny port village of Lavaca just off the Texas coast.  He came from a family of noted inventors.  Singer’s uncle, Isaac Merritt Singer, invented the first commercially successful sewing machine.  After Texas seceded, Singer enlisted in the Confederate Army and was assigned to a coastal battery. 

With many young Texans being shipped off to eastern battlefields, the defense of the Texas coast rested upon older, middle-aged men.  Captain Daniel Shea’s artillery company, which included Singer, was positioned to help defend the Matagorda Bay area.  Among its company roster were professional, middle-aged men from Lavaca: jewelers, gunsmiths, merchants, doctors, attorneys, carpenters, and steam engineers.  Despite their diverse backgrounds, they had one common affiliation - the local Masonic lodge. 

Shea’s company received their baptism of fire when a Union fleet sailed into Matagorda Bay and shelled Lavaca.  Seeing their homes bombarded led to a sustained outrage that would bring fear and grief to the Union Navy; they were determined to prevent another bombardment.

Shortly after the Union fleet departed, Singer began experimenting with underwater torpedoes or mines as they are called today.   The experiments proved successful, but required men and government support to deploy them on a massive scale.  In addition, the use of hidden explosives was considered a dishonorable form of warfare, more of a criminal act than an act of war.  Nevertheless, the Confederacy possessed little in the way of a standing navy and had to rely on unorthodox methods to defend her coasts and rivers.  For much less than the cost of a trained crew and a steam-powered warship, a small torpedo could fit the bill quite nicely.  

Singer’s new mine was successfully tested on a half submerged wreck before Captain Shea.  Impressed by the result, Singer was ordered to present his creation to the Texas district commander, Major General John Magruder.

Based in Houston, Magruder, or “Prince John” as he was referred to by friends, was no stranger to the use of unorthodox military tactics and weapons.  During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, his use of such tactics helped stall the Union advance on Richmond.  When Singer blew up an old scow in Buffalo Bayou, an excited Magruder ordered torpedoes for the defense of Galveston and Matagorda.  

Small in size, but awesome in delivery, the Singer torpedo was a metal canister filled with gunpowder and topped with a spring-loaded rod, somewhat similar in appearance to a butter churn.  Anchored 3 feet below the water’s surface, the torpedo was set off when a vessel’s hull struck the rod.  Like a pinball machine, the rod slammed into 2 percussion caps that set off the gunpowder.  In a terrifying flash, a heavily armed warship could be sent straight to the bottom.

In early February 1863, Singer travelled to Richmond to demonstrate his invention.  After convincing the Confederate government of the torpedo’s potential, he was awarded a patent and authorization to form a company of twenty five men.  Christened “Singer’s Submarine Corps.,” most of the company consisted of Singer’s fellow masons.  From his Lavaca workshop, Singer began cranking out his deadly devices while his company fanned out across the Confederacy to deploy them.  On the Yazoo River in Mississippi, they hit pay dirt; a Union ironclad, U.S.S. Baron De Kalb, struck two Singer mines and sank.

Singer’s company wasn’t limited to torpedoes; they supervised and assisted in the construction of submarines and torpedo boats.  At the port of Mobile, Singer met three New Orleans inventors: James McClintock, George Baxter and Horace Hunley.  The three had experimented with submarines in New Orleans until Union forces captured their city.  Plans for a new submarine were drawn up to be used against Union blockading vessels off the gulf coast.  Singer offered to put up a third of the $15,000 construction cost.  Named after Horace Hunley, the submarine was armed with a spar torpedo activated by Singer’s patented, spring-loaded trigger.  On the night of February 17, 1864, the C.S.S. Hunley sank the Union gunboat U.S.S.Housatonic, the first vessel in history to be sunk by a submarine.  The Hunley, however, failed to make the return trip and was lost along with its crew.

Captured documents in Mississippi revealed his torpedo operations to Admiral Porter, the commander of the Mississippi River Fleet.  Having lost two ironclads to torpedoes, Porter ordered Singer and his company to be “shot on sight.”  That didn’t deter Singer, whose Lavaca-made torpedoes sank another one of his ironclads, the U.S.S. Eastport on the Red River.   

Though twenty-seven Union ships were sunk by torpedoes, Singer’s creations couldn’t fully deter Union Navy.  His company spent their final days mining the James River near Richmond and the Texas coast.  To avoid prosecution for war crimes, most of the Singer documents were destroyed by its members.  After Texas was surrendered, Singer and his fellow Masons signed parole papers and retired to obscurity in Lavaca (now Port Lavaca).  Most of their activities are lost to history but certainly not their impact.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Last Stand at the Long Barracks

The Alamo

Colonel William Barret Travis raced across the old mission grounds to his battery.  “Come on boys,” he shouted. “The Mexicans are upon us and we’ll give them hell!”  Within an hour, Mexican forces had penetrated the walls and were fanning out toward the chapel.  Point blank cannon fire mowed down scores, but the Texans’ meager numbers couldn’t plug the onrush.  Travis himself was among the first to fall - a bullet through the forehead.  The only place left to make a stand was the barracks.  Before the battle ended, savage hand to hand fighting would occur within its long adobe interior.  It was the last stand at the Alamo.
If any place in Texas was ill-suited to be a fortress, San Antonio’s Mission San Antonio de Valero was certainly it.   Its remoteness ensured little support from the Texas populace further east.  The fort covered more ground than the Texans could adequately defend.  The walls were only good for fending off bullets and arrows, not artillery.  To make matters worse, the walls covered a standing man only to mid torso, a real hazard under heavy musket fire.  Even the redoubtable Texan commander, General Sam Houston, took note of its faults and ordered Colonel Jim Bowie to blow it up.  Nevertheless, the Alamo, as it was called, offered some semblance of a fort and the Texans’ small numbers precluded any kind of major offensive action.  Santa Anna’s thousands would soon be among them.  They had to hold them off somewhere.

In December 1835, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna set out from San Luis Potosi with six thousand men, mostly inexperienced conscripts bolstered by well-trained regulars.   One Mexican officer remarked that the Mexican Army was “created by bayonets and now had to be up held by them.”  Each battalion carried only a month’s supply of rations - the equivalent of one 8 oz corn cake a day per man.   The few supplies on hand were transported grudgingly by civilian teamsters.  Often unreliable, they abruptly deserted when they didn’t receive their pay on time.   The cooks and nurses, called soldaderas, were not military; they were the wives of the soldiers.  Needless to say, they were a distraction among their husbands, who were a lot more concerned about them than their duty to Santa Anna.  If the supply problem wasn’t bad enough, there was the weather.  In February, a freakish blizzard laid out a 16-inch ice carpet across Northern Mexico.  Troops from Yucatan, more accustomed to a tropical climate, suffered mightily from the bitter cold.  Lacking overcoats, many stuffed their uniforms with grass and hay.  Those that didn’t died from exposure.  Despite their ordeal, Santa Anna’s “Army of Operations” showed remarkable fortitude and willingly pressed onward to chastise their rebellious neighbors.   

Meanwhile, the Alamo’s commander, Colonel James Clinton Neill, did what he could to convert the Alamo into a bulwark.  With only a hundred men, crumbling walls were shored up with dirt and logs.  Nineteen cannons were brought in and placed in embrasures along the walls.  Due to his ailing family, Neill was forced to leave San Antonio for home.  He was replaced with a very young Colonel Travis.  When Bowie arrived, he was impressed enough to cancel Houston’s orders.  His problems only increased from there.  First, there was the problem of command; Bowie’s men refused to follow Travis.  That left the prideful Travis with just under thirty men to command.  A patchwork solution was reached when Bowie and Travis agreed to command jointly.  Second, reinforcements would be needed to defend the fort.  Two hundred men, armed with one-shot, flintlock muskets, was certainly not enough against 6,000 Mexicans.  Lastly, there was the problem of food.  The Alamo’s supply wouldn't last a month if a siege came about.

On February 28, a lookout, posted in the bell tower of the San Fernando Church, warned of Santa Anna’s approach.  The Alamo garrison hastily gathered up what food and water they could carry from San Antonio.  Upon the Mexican dictator’s arrival, an ultimatum was sent to the Alamo.  The Texans were to surrender unconditionally or face death.  Travis responded with a blast of cannon fire.  Santa Anna responded with the red flag of “No Quarter” hoisted over San Fernando’s bell tower.  To demoralize the garrison and weaken the Alamo’s walls, a daily bombardment from the Mexican artillery ensued.  Knowing his situation was critical bordering on hopeless, Travis sent out letters by courier requesting reinforcements.  Colonel James Fannin, with over 300 in Goliad, set out for San Antonio, but was delayed by broken supply wagons, contrary oxen and oddly forgetting to pack food before setting off.  The delay proved fatal for him, his men and the Alamo.  Mexican troops bagged them all then later massacred them.  Fannin was executed with a shot through the face.  In response to Travis’ plea, thirty men reached the Alamo from Gonzales.  Their spirits certainly took a nosedive when they saw just how desperate things really were.

With only a month’s supply of rations, a tight siege would probably have forced the Texans to surrender.  Santa Anna had a more grandiose plan in mind.  The Alamo would be stormed from all sides in a surprise dawn attack.  On March 6, 1836, Mexican troops rose from a midnight slumber, prodded by sergeants bearing wooden staffs.  Lines were quietly assembled and bayonets affixed to their British made muskets.   Santa Anna chose a 5:30 AM attack knowing the Texans would be drowsy and freezing in the night time cold.  Upon approaching the walls, the surprise ended when the Mexicans began shouting “Viva Santa Anna!”  The Texans, alerted to the attack, poured preloaded musket and cannon fire into their columns.  The attack wavered then picked up after Santa Anna committed his reserve forces.  By sheer force of numbers, the Mexicans breached the walls in a flood of bayonets.  The Texans’ muskets and cannons (only three men per cannon) couldn’t be loaded and fired fast enough.   Those who were not killed defending the walls sought positions within the long barracks and chapel; they were the only two places left.  The barracks’ doors were blocked shut while the others fired from the windows.  Unfortunately, they didn’t count on the Mexicans using their own artillery against them.  Cannons were rolled up to barrack doors then fired into the doors.  Afterwards, some sought surrender by affixing a white cloth to their musket and poking it out a window.  Those that didn’t continued shooting.  Enraged by seeing comrades gunned down under waving surrender flags, Mexicans took their anger out on the few still standing.  Bodies from both sides piled up in barrack’s interior – a charnel house of smoke and scorched bodies. 

The battle was over in less than an hour; all were killed.  Those that attempted to escape over the wall were speared by mounted lancers posted outside.  The legendary Davy Crocket, along with his Tennesseans, was overwhelmed near the Alamo chapel.  Contrary to legend, he may have been executed after surrendering; no one knows for sure.  Overtaken by illness, possibly pneumonia, Jim Bowie was killed on his sickbed.  

Mexican losses totaled close to 600, a figure accelerated by Santa Anna’s lack of field hospitals and doctors.  In a show of disrespect, no Texan was afforded a Christian burial; they were all burned on wooden funeral pyres.  Though Santa Anna gained “No Quarter” victories at San Antonio and Goliad, he lost the moral high ground in the process.  Vengeance provided more than enough incentive for Texans and their U.S. neighbors to enlist with Sam Houston.   It paid bloody dividends at San Jacinto.  

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Deadly Diary of Ephraim S. Dodd

The Grave of Ephraim Shelby Dodd

“Slow and fiendish murder,” wrote Chaplain Robert F. Bunting.  “He met his fate like a hero: there was not a muscle moved, nor an indication of fear.”  What the chaplain was referring to was the hanging of a Texas cavalryman.  More unfortunate than the tragic execution itself, were the events leading up to it.

Ephraim Shelby Dodd was born in Kentucky and moved to Texas in 1857.  Like many young Texans, he dreamed of a better life, but got caught up in the secession fever sweeping the state.  His sense of duty led him to enlist in a Confederate cavalry regiment, the famed 8th Texas Cavalry or Terry’s Texas Rangers.  Dodd served with the Rangers in all of their campaigns from September, 1861 until December, 1863.  During his service, he kept a diary – one of the few firsthand accounts of Ranger daily life.  Unlike his rowdy comrades, Dodd didn’t indulge in drinking and cards.  Instead, he flirted with every single woman in Northern Georgia.  “I made the acquaintance of Miss Maggie Ezzell, Miss Mattie Sommers, Miss Fannie Summers and Miss Mollie Robert and enjoyed myself with them finely,” he wrote.  Details of the enjoyment were not provided.

Among their many duties, the Rangers most often served as scouts and pickets.  Sometimes the scouting took place behind enemy lines or in areas where pro-Union citizens resided.  In East Tennessee, many of the residents were subsistence farmers with little use for slaves and Confederate authority.  Many joined the Union Army or became guerrillas, more commonly referred to as Bushwhackers.  Supply columns were ambushed, telegraph lines cut and bridges burned to hamper the Confederate war effort.  Confederate authorities responded with arrests and executions of suspected Bushwhackers.  In one instance, several accused Bushwhackers were hanged and left dangling along a railroad track, a clear warning for any would be saboteur.  Feelings grew harder among Secessionists and Unionists as the war progressed.

A cavalryman was only as good as the horse he rode.  Finding a trusty steed in a war-ravaged region could take days, if not weeks.  Some had to become infantrymen or travel away from their units to purchase new mounts.  After losing his horse to a broken leg, Dodd sought a replacement in Sevier County near Knoxville, an area teeming with Union sentiment.  After Confederate General James Longstreet lifted his siege of Knoxville, his army corps left the area.  Union forces moved in and left Dodd trapped behind enemy lines.  He sought refuge among local residents, but few would take him in.  The few that did, however, had taken Union loyalty oaths.  They could be arrested for treason and have their property seized for aiding the enemy.  Therefore, Dodd couldn’t stick around for very long.  With the help of local citizens, Union Home Guard units closed in.  He was arrested and taken to Knoxville.

Christmas was spent in a frigid jail cell.  Dodd wrote, “Receiving one-quarter pound bread a day and about one pound beef, no wood hardly-freezing and starving by inches.” Too make matters worse, he was wearing a captured Union jacket and pants, tell tale signs that he might be a Bushwhacker. A common tactic, among Bushwhackers, was to don captured uniforms then infiltrate enemy lines.  In the process, pickets were killed and outposts were overrun.  As a result, Union General John G. Foster, Commander of the Ohio, ordered all captured Confederate soldiers shot if they were wearing Union uniforms.  Further damning evidence came from an unlikely source – his diary.  Amidst all the petty dalliances, Union picket locations were noted.  It was all the evidence a Union tribunal needed; Dodd was sentenced to be hanged for espionage.  Being a Mason, he sought the help of both fellow members and Union chaplains to secure his release.  In addition, he was wearing a wide brimmed Texas hat (adorned with a Ranger badge) and a Mexican serape, common attire among Texas troopers and proof that he wasn’t in disguise when captured.  All to no avail, Dodd was to be the unfortunate victim of a vicious internecine struggle in the remote hills of East Tennessee; a struggle where burned out farms, destitute refuges and tit-for-tat executions were commonplace.  He was clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The execution took place on January 8, 1864.  Dodd’s last words were “I die innocent of the charge against me.”  In a farcical twist, the rope broke after Dodd was dropped.  Upon regaining consciousness and a somewhat upright composure, he was hanged again.  His diary was appropriated by the lieutenant of a New Hampshire regiment.  Fifty years later, the diary was purchased for the Texas State Archives from a New York resident who came into its possession when the officer died. 

Chaplain Bunting’s account of the Dodd hanging was printed in the “Houston Telegraph.”  No doubt fueled by the account, Terry’s Texas Rangers would battle on with renewed fury.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Come and Take It !

"Come and Take It" flag

By 1835, Texas was a colony on the verge of revolt.  President- General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had overthrown Mexico’s constitutional government and replaced it with himself.   The rise of Santa Anna’s Centralist government marked the beginning of hardened attitudes toward the Texan colonists.  The lure of cheap land, no taxes and Mexico’s constitutional government lured droves of U.S. citizens to Texas – legally and illegally.  Slavery, which had been abolished in Mexico, was openly practiced in Texas; local authorities could do little to prevent it.  To make matters worse, hundreds of squatters settled on land without Mexico’s permission.  Once encouraged to settle in Texas to help ward off Indian raids, the colonists were becoming a bigger threat to Mexico than the Comanches.  Things were about to change.

Santa Anna ordered all illegal settlers expelled and that all Texans be disarmed.  To demonstrate he meant business, Santa Anna ruthlessly put down a Federalist revolt in the province of Zacatecas.  As a reward, he allowed his troops to rape and pillage Zacatecas for two straight days.  Alarmed, Stephen F. Austin rode down to Mexico City to seek independence for Texas as an alternative to Santa Anna’s tyranny.  Instead, he was arrested and spent two years in prison.  Upon release, Austin was convinced resistance was the only recourse for Texas.

In 1831, a small, six pound cannon was presented to Gonzales impresario, Green C. DeWitt, for the defense of his colony against Indians.  In September 1835, Mexico’s military commander of Texas, Colonel Domingo Ugartechea, ordered the colony to return the cannon.  To retrieve it, he dispatched one hundred troops, under Lieutenant Francisco Casteneda, to Gonzales.  The good citizens of Gonzales weren’t about to let that happen. 

Upon reaching the Guadalupe River on September 29, a group of Gonzales militiamen (eighteen in all) refused to allow Casteneda to cross.  Casteneda, under strict orders to not provoke a fight and risk defeat at hands of those upstart Texans, complied and set up camp on a nearby hill.  The Gonzales militia, meanwhile, sent out a call to all neighboring settlements for help.  Noted ranger, Captain Matthew (“Old Paint”) Caldwell, sent word to Casteneda that his troops would not be attacked during the night and he would be respectfully contacted the following morning.  Such assurances were a means of stalling the Mexicans while reinforcements were gathered.  By October 1, the Texans had one hundred forty men to confront Casteneda.  The Mexicans moved seven miles upriver to attempt a less defended crossing.  Discovering Casteneda’s maneuver, the Texans decided to make their own crossing and attack his camp.  They stealthily ferried themselves across, but a thick fog prevented a coordinated attack and a barking dog took away the element of surprise.  Under fire from the alerted Mexican camp, the Texans fell back toward the Guadalupe and the protection of a tree line along the river.  The following day, Casteneda, ordered a charge by forty of his cavalry.  Armed with superior Kentucky rifles, the Texans delivered a volley that halted the charge in its tracks and forced the Mexicans to return to their camp.  A stalemate ensued until the fog lifted.

Before the fighting resumed, an unlikely messenger rode up to the Texans bearing a message; Casteneda wanted a parley.  The messenger, Dr. Launcelot Smither, was a self-appointed envoy sent from San Antonio to prevent bloodshed and encourage the return of the cannon.  Because the Texans broke their word that they wouldn’t attack, Casteneda didn’t trust the Anglo doctor’s motives.  Because he came at the behest of the Mexican military commander, the Texans didn’t trust him either.  Nevertheless, Smither set up a meeting between Casteneda and the Texan commander, Colonel John Henry Moore, on neutral ground between the opposing lines.  Cateneda asked why he was attacked when promised he wouldn’t be.  Moore replied that Casteneda was acting illegally on behalf of Santa Anna and in defiance of Mexico’s constitutional government.  Casteneda said he was not looking for a fight but was only requesting the return of the cannon.  He also stated that he, like Moore, was a Federalist, a supporter of the constitutional government.  Moore put Casteneda on the spot by suggesting he should switch sides and fight with the Texans.  Taken aback, he responded that as a soldier he was duty bound to Mexico’s present government – be it Federalist or Centralist.  The negotiations went nowhere and both commanders returned to their respective camps.  The Mexicans noticed the Texans had a new flag to stoke their rebellious spirit: a white flag with a black cannon barrel on it and the defiant words “Come and Take It” printed below it.  The tiny cannon itself was on hand and mounted on an ox cart - more frightening for its noise than its destructive force.  Unimpressive as a weapon, it was more than impressive in symbolic value. 

Upon Moore’s return, the Texans fired the cannon toward the Mexican camp and followed it with a spirited charge.  No cannon balls were on hand, only scrap metal was available for ammo.  Before they could close in, Casteneda’s men left the field and returned to San Antonio.  Casteneda wrote in his report that “since the orders from your Lordship were for me to withdraw without compromising the honor of Mexican arms, I did so.” 

The Battle of Gonzales was more of a glorified shoving match than a battle.  Two Mexicans were killed while one Texan received a bloody nose after falling from his horse – the first Texan casualty of a growing revolt.  Like Lexington of the American Revolution, Gonzales, the “Lexington of Texas,” marked the first act of armed defiance against Santa Anna.  As events unfolded, Santa Anna himself would try to come and take it on a more massive scale - the Texas Revolution had begun !

The cannon itself may have been captured at the Alamo and later melted down; nobody knows exactly.  Often seen today on the bumpers and rear windows of motor vehicles, the “Come and Take It” slogan is a popular symbol of Texas’ independent spirit.  Every October, the City of Gonzales celebrates the battle with its “Come and Take It Days.”   A fine replica of the cannon is on view at the Gonzales Memorial Museum.