Saturday, November 30, 2019

Savage Gray Wall

Brigadier General John Gregg

Confederate Brigadier General John R. Gregg faced an insurmountable task.  With only a single brigade, he was ordered to patrol the approaches to Jackson, the state capital of Mississippi, and prevent the severing of the main supply line to Vicksburg, the Confederacy’s vital river port on the Mississippi.  Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee had landed south of Vicksburg at Bruinsburg, the starting point of Grant’s campaign to bypass Vicksburg’s river defenses and take the city from the east.  Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, the commander of Confederate forces in Mississippi, tried to fend off Grant at Port Gibson but was swatted aside by superior numbers.  Too make matters worse, a successful cavalry raid, led by Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, diverted his attention from Grant’s landing, leaving his men widely dispersed to guard essential rail lines and too far to gather them for an effective defense.  Lacking sufficient cavalry, Pemberton was in the dark.  Numbering 12,000, the XVII Corps of Grant’s army, under Major General James B. McPherson, was marching toward the town of Raymond, several miles southwest of Jackson.  Based on initial reports he received from his scouts, Gregg was mistakenly convinced the corps marching toward him was a single smaller Union brigade.  That brigade, however, outnumbered him by almost three to one. 

Born on September 28, 1828, in Lawrence County, Alabama, John Gregg was destined to command.  Possessing a striking domed forehead, piercing eyes and a rough cut beard, Gregg was the stereotypical frontier warrior you respected on a battlefield.  As a lawyer in Freestone County, Texas, he was a leader in local affairs, ran a successful farm, served as a district judge, and was elected to the Texas Secession Convention.  After briefly serving in the provisional Confederate congress, he returned home to organize an infantry regiment.  The 7th Texas consisted of 746 men from ten East Texas counties.  Among his officers was a major who would later prove to be one of the best during the war - Hiram Granbury.  The 7th saw its first action at Fort Donelson where it was forced to surrender.  Disease decimated the 7th during its time in Northern prisons.  Gregg, along with the other senior officers at Fort Donelson, was imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.  His fiercely devoted wife, Mary, stayed with him.  He was exchanged after almost a year in captivity.  Promoted to Brigadier General, Gregg was given command of a brigade consisting of the 7th Texas, a light Missouri artillery battery and five Tennessee regiments.  Colonel Granbury now commanded the 7th.  Gregg’s brigade served in Vicksburg during the repulse of Sherman at Chickasaw Bluffs.  It was later transferred downriver to bolster the defense of Port Hudson in Louisiana.  Desperate for troops to stop Grant, Pemberton ordered Gregg to Raymond. 

To assist Gregg, Pemberton ordered Colonel Wirt Adams’ cavalry regiment to Raymond as well.   Adams regrettably misunderstood Pemberton’s order.  Instead of providing all of his cavalry to Gregg, Adams provided only the cavalrymen he had on hand at Raymond - a grand total of five.   Teenage scouts from the state militia were utilized but were woefully inexperienced in assessing troop strengths.  Unbeknownst to Gregg, he was facing a blue tidal wave.      

Confident in his ignorance, Gregg deployed his brigade just south of Raymond near Fourteen Mile Creek.  The 7th Texas was positioned on either side of the Utica Road.  The 3rd Tennessee was to the left of the 7th.  Gregg’s battle plan was to hit the Union center with the 7th Texas and 3rd Tennessee.  Captain Hiram Bledsoe’s Missouri battery was positioned behind them to provide artillery support.  The rest of the Tennessee regiments would attack McPherson’s right flank from the east.  The plan was sound if Gregg was taking on a single brigade or less; he hoped to bag the lot of them. 

Fortunately, McPherson was just as initially in the dark as Gregg.   A tangled mass of woods concealed Confederate troop numbers and made it difficult to march offroad to scout ahead.  On May 12, 1863, McPherson approached Raymond from the Utica Road.  After the 23rd Indiana Regiment crossed Fourteen Mile Creek, Bledsoe’s three-gun battery opened fire.  In full rebel yell mode, Texans and Tennesseans crashed into them.  Rifle volleys from the 7th cut down scores of the 20th Ohio at point blank range.  One Federal soldier noticed a Texas officer who stood more than ten yards away, calmly smoking his pipe, and emptying his revolver into the Union line.  The gunfire was so intense, the Confederates ran out of ammo and had to scavenge for cartridges from the dead and wounded.  Hand to hand combat ensued.  Lacking bayonets, the Texans used their rifle muskets as clubs.  Granbury later wrote:

“As my skirmishes neared the woods on the brow of the hill, the enemy commenced firing from their first line of infantry, posted near the base of the hill.  I ordered my regiment to advance in double-quick time.  The men obeyed with alacrity, and, when in view of the enemy, rushed forward with a shout.  So near were the enemy and so impetuous the charge, that my regiment could have bloodied a hundred bayonets had the men been supplied with that weapon.”

The 23rd Indiana and 20th Ohio fell back behind the creek.  Fortunately for them, the 8th Michigan Battery stopped the rebels in their tracks.   Gregg ordered his left flank to advance and take out that battery.  On the Confederate left, the 50th Tennessee’s commander, Lt. Colonel Thomas W. Beaumont, beheld a startling sight from his hilltop position, “On reconnoitering the position,” he recalled.  “I found the battery was supported by a line of infantry, which extended as far as I could see toward our right, their right resting in the woods which we were standing.”  In the face of such huge numbers, Gregg was under great risk of being overwhelmed before he could retreat.   Communication to his field officers had to be by courier, extremely difficult because of the dense, smoke-filled woods.   As a result, Gregg’s regiments would often find themselves isolated and fighting on their own. 

Unaware of the numbers they faced, the 10th/30th Consolidated Tennessee Regiment launched a daring infantry charge against the Union left flank, driving it back for six hundred yards.  After the flag bearer for the 7th Missouri Regiment was shot down, the Union troops began to cave but received timely reinforcement.  The best field officer in the XVII Corps, Major General John “Blackjack” Logan, rallied fleeing Union troops and sent them back into action.  The Tennesseans fell back to their original position then lied down on the ground to become less of a target.  During the battle, Gregg was informed through cavalry scouts and Union prisoners of the actual size of his adversary.  Outnumbered, outflanked and short of ammo, Gregg had little choice but to order a gradual withdrawal towards Jackson, leaving Raymond to the Yankees.  Incredibly, the 7th Texas held off an entire Union division, buying precious minutes for Gregg’s   withdrawal.  Having lost one of its cannons after the barrel burst, Bledsoe’s battery, along with reserve support from the 41st Tennessee, further slowed the Union advance.

After seven hours of the most savage fighting imaginable, Gregg’s casualty figures numbered 820.  Union figures were less at 450.  The Texans and Tennesseans had fought nobly against overwhelming odds.  Raymond’s courthouse and churches became hospitals for both sides.  Gregg’s defensive stand had a profound effect on Grant; he would move on Jackson instead of proceeding northeast toward Vicksburg.  By taking Mississippi’s capital, he would remove any Confederate forces in his rear while he advanced toward his main objective.  Gregg joined with General Joseph Johnston’s 6,000 troops in Jackson.  Displaying a shocking lack of confidence and ineptitude, Johnston ordered a disastrous withdrawal.  On May 14, Jackson fell to Grant’s troops.  Vicksburg fell seven weeks later.  Destined for greater things, Gregg later commanded the famed Texas Brigade attached to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Texas Women on the Homefront

During the Civil War, Texas troops were known for their fortitude and fighting ability.  As with any army, its soldiers were only as good as the support they received back home.  Being largely a frontier state, industry, government bureaus and hard cash were severely lacking in Texas.  To make matters worse, a Union naval blockade cut off Texas ports from the outside.  For much of their support, the 70,000 Confederate Texas troops could count on only one thing — their wives, mothers and sweethearts. 

Before the war, women were literally the property of their husbands.  Unless you ran a boarding house or became a prostitute, very few paying jobs were available.  With the men gone - many times for good - women would have to take on roles long held by their male counterparts. “Be assured,” proclaimed Miss Sallie O. Smith of Marshall, Texas, “that in our bosoms burns a patriotism as lofty-a courage, in our appropriate sphere, as daring-and a heroism as chivalric, as that which nerves the brawniest arm which wields the battle-ax, and cleaves down the foe upon the field of carnage.”  She further exhorted that although the women they left behind would wield no weapons, “some Boadices, burning with Southern fire, shall leap from her retirement, and full panoplied, like Pallas from the head of Jupiter, shall brandish her saber and call, like avenging spirits from the deep, another hundred thousand heroines to avenge the wrongs of their brothers and their country.”  With talk like that, who would doubt any woman’s resolve?

At the beginning of the war, women were prime motivators for enlistment in the Confederate Army.  Dr. William Oakes of Waco, Texas wrote,  “The young ladies have entered into an agreement to refuse associating with or countenancing any unmarried man who does not volunteer in the war.”  Some ladies took it a step further.  According to Amelia Barr, “They would not eat with them, speak to them, or listen if spoken to.  They ignored all their personal necessities, or met them with constant tears and voiceless reproaches, and what man could bear his family weeping over him, as if he was already dead to their love and respect.”  The war was certainly hot for the men on the battlefront, but frosty cold on the home front if they didn’t serve in the Confederate Army.  However, the ladies’ sole means of support would now be miles away on a distant battlefield; a distance surmounted only by handwritten letters that took weeks to be delivered, if at all.  Most Texans thought it would all end in a very short time.  After a few battles, victory would be secured and the men would come home.  The four year long Civil War proved otherwise.

Ladies Aid Societies used their needles to make flags for local companies.  In a solemn ceremony, often held at the town square, the flags were presented to the commanding officers, in front of their assembled men, before marching or riding off to war.  As the war progressed, they became a cottage war industry making everything from uniforms to tents.  Blankets and quilts, a hallmark of Texas culture, got a huge production boost from the Civil War.  Lacking textile mills, cotton and wool cards were sold or issued across the state to women.  Using cards and spinning wheels, women produced cotton and wool threads to make badly needed fabrics.  Confederate uniforms were more often issued from home instead of a government supply depot.

Hospitals were considered off limits to women because of the horrendous sights, the foul odors and seeing men in a less dignified position.  The sheer number of casualties, along with a shortage of male labor, dictated otherwise.  From assisting in amputations to washing bed linen, women eagerly filled those roles.  Ladies Aid Societies also provided clothing, bandages and entertainment for the patients. Similar to the USO today, they provided music and short plays called tableaus.  Dances, fairs and barbecues were held by local woman volunteers help fund medical care.  

In East Texas, women had to assume the role of managing slave-worked farms and plantations.  Up to two hundred thousand slaves labored in Texas during the war.  Their numbers increased as slaveholders sent their slaves east to avoid the Union Army.  Women were forced to make decisions such as purchasing, management and punishment of their slaves.  Like their husbands, wives could be as cruel and domineering, especially with the help a zealous overseer.  As the war progressed, slaves were often worked harder to keep up with Confederate war demands as well as those demands on the plantation.  In many instances, however, slaves were treated like family members and worked closely with their women owners to maintain farms and households.

The Texas frontier, especially in Northwest Texas, offered greater challenges than the more settled region of East Texas.  The Victorian inspired customs of the genteel South took a back seat to a more pressing demand - survival.  Life on a frontier farm or ranch often forced women to work alongside their husbands instead of under them.  With their men off to war, they now performed farm chores alone.  Along with child care, plowing a field, milking a cow, shoeing a horse, and harvesting crops were now assumed by women.  Their biggest threat to their frontier homestead bliss was not the Union Army, but raiding Comanches and Kiowas.  Before the war, a quarter of the U. S. Army provided protection through a chain of forts.  After Texas seceded, the forts were abandoned.  Militia units offered minimal protection at best against the fast moving Comanches.  Without nearby protection, the Comanches attacked without warning, catching frontier families off guard.  Horses and arms were lacking since they were donated to the army.   Along with other families, they gathered or “forted up” in makeshift picket forts or former U. S. Army forts to fend off attacks.   One hundred or more of these picket forts dotted the frontier. 

Others were not as fortunate.  The 1864 Elm Creek Raid in Young County led to deaths of two women, a local doctor and a black slave.  Susan Durgan tried to hold off raiding Comanches with a shotgun but failed.  She was killed with a tomahawk blow to the head.  One women, her two grandchildren, and the wife and children of a slave were kidnapped by the Comanches.  Many families abandoned their homesteads altogether and headed east for a secure environment.

Some women assumed male roles completely without the burden of a domineering husband.  Sarah Jane Newman Scull, better known as Sally Scull, trailed herds of wild horses from Mexico to New Orleans and ox carts laden with cotton from South Texas to Matamoros for the Confederacy.  A Texas version of “Calamity Jane,” she swore mightily, supported a pair of revolvers and fought off five husbands who were usually old enough to be her father.  Sally’s business acumen could be as fearsome as her sidearms.  After running into a freighter who owed her money, she grabbed an ax and threatened to “chop the god damn front wheels off every god damn wagon you got.”  One European tourist wrote, “She can handle a revolver and Bowie-knife like the most reckless and skillful man; she appears at dances (fandangos) thus armed, and has shot several men at merry-makings.  Obviously, those fandangos weren’t always that merry.

Despite the absence of their men, Texas women adjusted their lifestyles to survive their state’s most tumultuous period and protect their families.  Sometimes at the expense of their own lives. 

Check out the book, “Women in Civil War Texas” edited by Deborah M. Liles and Angela Boswell.  It’s published by the University of North Texas Press in Denton, Texas.

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.