Sunday, June 30, 2019

Bad Sheriff

Sheriff A. J. Royal

In western movies, sheriffs are often portrayed as rigid disciples of law and order.  They were the one person the public could trust above all others — a bulwark against lawlessness and incivility.  Reality, however, sometimes paints a different picture.  In the town of Fort Stockton, Texas, Sheriff Andrew Jackson Royal was not the most civil of law enforcement officials.  Possessing a firm hand, he was often mistaken for a tough, no nonsense sheriff with little tolerance for bad guys.  Actually, he was just plain mean, with little tolerance for anyone.

Born on November 25, 1855, in Lee County, Alabama, Royal grew up in a family of five daughters and one son.   Royal later made his way to Fort Worth where he worked for the railroad.  In 1879, he married a young lady with the intriguing name of Naomi Obedience Christmas.  Whether or not that was her actual name or a working girl moniker has not been determined.   After their marriage, Royal moved to Junction City, Texas where he started a ranch and operated a saloon.  It was there that he began his dark decent; one of his employees was found murdered.  To avoid arrest, he moved his family of six daughters and one son to Pecos County.  Again, he started a ranch and established a saloon near Fort Stockton.   As owner of the “Gray Mule Saloon,”  Royal shot and killed another employee — obviously not a boss you want to start an argument with. 

In 1892, Royal managed to get elected the Sheriff of Pecos County.  The town citizenry became polarized into those who supported Royal and those who didn’t.  Employing a deputy of similar deportment, Barney Riggs, he terrorized those citizens and officials who didn’t support him.  In one instance, he almost beat a man to death over a stolen watermelon.  A grand jury, largely made up of Royal’s cronies, indicted Judge O. W. Williams for failure to pay a city occupation tax.   Another was indicted for fornication; a charge that didn’t hold up because the girl involved was also fornicating with a member of the grand jury.  Some just disappeared without a trace.  As the months went by, Royal only got meaner, especially after he had a few.

Royal’s main rivals were two brothers, Frank and James Rooney, local merchants, and County Clerk W. P. Matthews.  The three of them supported R. P. Neighbors in the coming 1892 election for sheriff.  Hopefully, Neighbors would replace Royal, but not before Royal tried to take out Matthews and the Rooney brothers.  Intoxicated in his saloon, Royal heard that they were at Koehler’s store.  Threatening to “wipe them out,” he pulled out his pistol and walked over to the store to confront them.  James Rooney confronted Sheriff Royal with a shotgun.  Both exchanged shots but no one was hit.  Royal had the store surrounded by his cronies and deputies.  When the Rooney brothers and Matthews refused to come out, Royal threatened to burn them out; they filed out and surrendered.  Needless to say, they were thrown in jail, along with a number of anti-Royal residents. 

As tensions in Fort Stockton began to elevate, the Texas Rangers were called to the scene.  Company D of the Texas Rangers rode into town, where a recent sheriff election was on the verge of becoming an all out feud between Royal and Neighbors supporters.  To intimidate voters, Royal had posted armed men at the polling places.  It didn’t take the Rangers long to figure out Sheriff Royal was less than appropriate for his position.  Texas Ranger Sergeant Carl Kirchner stated, “Royal was a very overbearing and dangerous man when under the influence of liquor.  Almost the entire county seems to be against him.”  Skeptical of his reelection chances, Royal looked to the Hispanic population for support.  Unable to speak Spanish, he released one of his prisoners who could.  Victor Ochoa was allowed to escape provided he would campaign for Royal.  It didn’t work.  Royal lost the election to Neighbors.  On November 21, 1894, before Neigbors took office, Royal was assassinated by a shotgun blast to the neck.  The mystery of his murder was never solved, not that anyone really cared.  

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Last Day of Sam Bass

Sam Bass

Unlike many “Wild West” outlaws, whose lives passed with nary an obit and a tombstone, Sam Bass gained legendary status with the likes of Jesse James, Butch Cassidy, and the Sundance Kid.  He was born on July 21, 1851, two miles outside of Mitchell, Indiana.  Both parents died while he was still a child.  Illiterate until his death, Bass was raised on a farm with his uncle and nine children, a life where grinding manual labor held sway over education and the promise of a secure future.  At eighteen, he struck out on his own, ending up at the Mississippi town of Rosedale.  While working at a lumber mill, he learned the skills that would define many an outlaw - cards and pistol shooting.  Deciding he wanted to be cowboy, he traveled to Denton, Texas where was employed by Sheriff W.F. “Dad” Eagan.  Unfortunately, he was not employed as a deputy, but as a farmhand, the occupation he had hoped to leave behind.  It wasn’t all feeding chickens and milking cows; he also took up horse racing, earning enough to leave farming for good.  Ironically, Sheriff Eagan would later join in the manhunt for his former employee. 

While in San Antonio, Bass met Joel Collins. Together, they purchased a herd of longhorns on credit.   They drove them to Nebraska, earning a tidy sum of $8,000 which they never repaid.  Their next occupations proved more risky - prospecting for gold in the South Dakota Black Hills.  They went broke, using up all the money from the cattle drive.  Faced with an impoverished life in the remote Black Hills, they turned to robbing stagecoaches.  The rewards didn’t outweigh the risk; they joined an outlaw gang, turning to train robbery instead. 

At Big Springs, Nebraska, the gang robbed their first and most profitable train.  It netted them $60,000 in newly minted gold coins.  In 1878, Bass assembled his own gang in Texas, robbing four trains near Dallas.  Such exploits brought the full weight of federal, state and local law down on the Bass Gang.  The profit-laden railroads offered huge rewards for their apprehension.  The heavy brush and tangled woods, outside of Dallas, offered ample hideaways from local posses, who often stumbled over themselves and others trying to find Bass.  Governor Richard “Jumbo” Hubbard, who weighed all of 400 pounds, turned to a top notch Texas Ranger, Major John B. Jones, to lead the search.  Jones brought unmatched, military-style discipline to the Rangers, converting them from unruly Indian fighters into a model for public law enforcement. 

Despite Jones’ efforts, law officials were still frustrated in their attempts to nab Bass.  Instead, they rounded up Bass Gang associates and family members.  Gang associate, Jim Murphy, along with his ailing dad, was taken into custody.  In return for his freedom and continued medical treatment for his dad, Murphy agreed to become an informant; a risky venture that would lead to an immediate execution if Bass felt he was being betrayed.  The gang combed central Texas for bank robbery prospects, finally settling on the Williamson County Bank in Round Rock.  Somehow, Murphy managed to get a letter off to Jones, almost getting caught by Bass in a Georgetown post office.  Jones frantically began searching for Rangers to dispatch to Round Rock.  He selected Rangers Dick Ware, George Harold and Chris Conner from his own company.  Jones took a train to Round Rock.

On July 19, 1878, the Bass Gang arrived to scout out the Williamson County Bank a final time.  The Sheriff and the Texas Rangers were waiting, but they weren’t entirely sure of what Sam Bass and his gang looked like.  Unlike a typical Western movie scene, they didn’t ride up en masse, dressed in black, and into a deserted town.  To avoid detection, they mingled innocuously with the Round Rock locals.  Ranger Ware later recollected that he had walked right past Bass without realizing who he was.  Luckily, Williamson County Deputy Sheriff A. W. Grimes spotted Bass and fellow gang members, Seaborne Barnes and Frank Jackson at a tobacco shop.  Grimes and Travis County Deputy Sheriff Maurice Moore approached them from behind, and then asked them to surrender their pistols.  Instead, the outlaws spun around and shot Grimes dead. Moore was wounded in the chest.  Alerted to the scene, Rangers George Harold and Richard Ware gunned down Barnes and mortally wounded Bass as they were trying to escape on their horses.  Ware had been getting a shave at the local barber shop before the gunfire erupted; his face was still lathered when he ran outside.  Just west of town, a posse found Bass; who shouted out, “Hey, I’m over here. I’m Sam Bass, the one you are looking for.”  He was hauled in, but died the following day on his 27th birthday: July 21, 1878.  

Frank Jackson escaped and was never found.  Given the unflattering nickname “Judas” after Bass’ death, Murphy committed suicide the following year.  Bass was buried in the Round Rock Cemetery.  The famous shootout is re-enacted each year at Round Rock’s Frontier Days celebration.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Walking Into a Den of Wildcats

Major Emory Rogers

The governor of Arkansas, Henry Rector, was beyond furious.  The Confederate defeat at Pea Ridge was bad enough. Now, Major General Earl Van Dorn was taking his “Army of the West” east of the Mississippi.  Arkansas was now wide open to Union invasion.  Believing Little Rock, the state capital, was about to fall, Governor Rector moved the state archives south to Hot Springs.  He issued a public proclamation stating Arkansas would have to fight it out alone, implying Arkansas would secede from the Confederacy if it didn’t receive military assistance soon.  Desperate measures would be required to raise a new army and restore public moral.  General John Roane, a former Arkansas governor, was assigned to do the impossible.     

Victorious at Pea Ridge, Union General Samuel Curtis had Little Rock well within his grasp, possibly the whole state as well. However, terrain and distance would make it a difficult task at best.  His nearest supply base was miles away at Rolla, Missouri; miles traversed only by foot and wagon.  Then there was the weather.  The spring of 1862 brought record setting rainfall that overflowed rivers and turned roads into quagmires.  To make matters even worse, local farms and towns had been emptied of their food supplies, thoroughly scavenged by both Union and Confederate troops.  Very little was left for Curtis’ hungry troops.

Roane needed troops fast to defend Little Rock.  After Van Dorn left, there were only 1,500 troops available against a vast Union army of 23,000.  The only experienced troops available was a small Texas spy company under Captain Alf Johnson, a near legendary scout who once served under General McCulloch.  During a scouting mission near Springfield, Missouri, before the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Johnson found himself surrounded by Union troops outside the home of a Confederate supporter.  With the blast of his shotgun, he broke out of of the encirclement and headed back to McCulloch’s camp without a scratch.   Roane stopped all Confederate units leaving Arkansas to join Van Dorn.  Heading toward Memphis, Colonel William Parsons’ 12th Texas Cavalry Regiment was ordered to promptly turn around and head toward Little Rock. 

William Parson’s family heritage is anything but Southern, much less Texan.   He was a direct descendant of New England Puritans that arrived on the second voyage of the Mayflower.  That all changed when his father opened a store in Montgomery, Alabama.  Young Parsons became fully immersed in Southern culture and habits. He attended Emory University in Georgia then abruptly left to fight in the War with Mexico.  Parsons later moved to Texas and published newspapers in Tyler and Waco.  After Texas seceded, he received a commission to organize the 12th Texas Cavalry Regiment in Hempstead.  His officers came up with rather unorthodox means to recruit members.  Captain Jeff Neal gained recruits by offering free liquor to potential recruits. Many awoke the following morning to a hangover and unknowingly pledged to serve as a cavalryman in the Confederate Army.  Parsons set up a training camp in Ellis County.  His new regiment developed a liking for their new commander; one who fought for their needs while fighting by their side in battle.  After arriving in Arkansas, the 12th Texas was later joined with the 19th and 21st Texas Cavalry Regiments, Morgan’s Texas Battalion and Pratt’s 10th Texas Field Battery.  Parson’s regiment would become Parsons’ Texas Cavalry Brigade.

The spirited Texans were welcomed by less than spirited Little Rock residents; who were resolved to a Union occupation.  The Confederate national flag was absent from the capitol dome.  The Texans were like a tonic; Parsons’ troopers quickly took charge of the situation.   One elderly gentleman asked Captain Jeff Neal how long it would be before Union troops arrived.  Neal replied brusquely, “Never! We will whip them back.” Writing his wife about the missing flag, Lt. George Ingram wrote, “We will hoist one on the dome…Hurrah for the Texans.”

Curtis, through Union scouts and spies, was aware of Van Dorn’s move east.  Fearing Van Dorn might outflank him and then head for the Missouri border, Curtis moved his army east to shadow him. East Arkansas proved anything but accommodating.  Unlike the rolling Ozark hills in the Northwest, East Arkansas was flat and swampy.  Disease was rampant and guerrilla bands began to harass Curtis’ flanks.  Consisting largely of German immigrants trained in staid European tactics, Curtis’ men were unaccustomed to the rebels’ hit and run attacks.  One such immigrant regiment was the 17th Missouri under Brigadier General Peter Osterhaus. 

At Pea Ridge, Osterhaus defeated Confederate troops under the famed Texas Ranger, Major General Benjamin McCulloch, killing McCulloch in the process.  Before immigrating to America, he was a reserve officer in the Prussian Army.  A St. Louis resident before the war, Osterhaus trained fellow immigrants for militia service.  The training would reap dividends for the Union Army in Missouri.  Rising through the Union ranks, Osterhaus would later command an army corps during Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas.  While camped at Batesville, Arkansas (fifty miles northwest of Little Rock), he sent out companies from the 17th Missouri to forage.  

Crossing the overflowing Little Red River, members of the 17th encountered 100 members of the 12th Texas Cavalry Regiment under Major Emory Rogers.  Fifty Arkansas locals arrived on the scene to help Rogers.  Dividing his command into three units, Rogers surrounded the foraging party at Whitney’s Lane near Searcy, Arkansas.  Outmaneuvered, the foragers were forced to flee back across the river, picking up support from the 4th Missouri Cavalry to help fend off the swarming Texans.   Fifty members of the foraging party became casualties.  The Rebels suffered only two.  A Union private later wrote, “Fighting the Texans was like walking into a den of wildcats.”

Lauded by the Southern newspapers, Rogers’ small victory would provide a huge moral boost for Arkansas residents while dampening the moral fortitude of Curtis.  His supply line broke down completely; he abandoned his advance on Little Rock. Instead, he opted for the capture of Helena on the Mississippi River.  His starving army would now be supplied by riverboat.  Little Rock was saved for another year.

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.