Friday, December 6, 2013

Forsaken Ally

 Members of Tonkawa Tribe
Whenever the early Texas settlers needed a good, stand up ally, they could find one in the Tonkawa Nation.  Of all the Native American tribes in Texas,  the Tonkawa were always quick to offer assistance to their Anglo neighbors.  Stephen F. Austin developed cordial relations with them and welcomed them into his colony.  At every social affair held by the settlers,  members of the Tonkawa tribe would often show up uninvited.  Texas rangers used them as scouts and auxiliary troops against the Comanches. 

 For decades, the Tonkawa inhabited Central Texas near present day Austin.  Advancing pressure from the Comanches in the North and the Apaches to the West forced them to seek alliances with any group that could help fend them off.  The Anglo settlements offered them a powerful deterrent against their long time enemies.   It's not surprising they were friendly towards them. 

The Tonkawa adopted the customs of the Plains Indians with its emphasis on the horse and buffalo hunt.  Tonkawa families lived in crude tepees within a maternal clan.  They wore little or no clothing; the men wore excessively large breechcloths and the women donned short skirts and painted breasts.  During the winter, they wore buffalo robes.  The Tonkawa  had a preference for facial ornaments such as earrings, necklaces and tattoos.  Subsistence came from anything they could hunt or gather.  This included, buffalo, deer, jackrabbits, pecans, oysters, crayfish, and dogs.  Pecans were used as a form of barter.  Farming was tried but with little success.    

The Tonkawa had one abhorrent custom: cannibalism.  Like the Karankawas, the Tonkawa didn't consume human flesh for food, but as a ritualistic means of acquiring a dead persons spirit and strength.  During a "Scalp Dance," they bit off portions from the cooked limbs of a slain enemy.  The Comanches, along with the other neighboring tribes, greatly detested this practice, especially when members of their own tribe were consumed. 

The period of close relations with the settlers came to an end in the 1850's.  The Tonkawa were forced on to a reservation in Young County near the Brazos River.  Because of the incessant Comanche raids on their settlements, Texans began to regard all Native Americans  as hostile.  In some cases, Tonkawa villages were attacked by angry settlers who wanted them removed.  Before the start of the Civil War, the Tonkawa were moved across the Red River into the Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma). 

During the war, the Tonkawa continued to serve as scouts for the Texas rangers  and backed the Confederate authorities that managed their reservation.  The other tribes hated the Tonkawa for helping the Texans and their continued practice of cannibalism.  On October 23, 1862, a coalition of the Osage, Shawnee, Kiowa, Caddo and Comanche tribes attacked the Tonkawa's  Wichita Agency near present day Fort Sill.  The Confederate agent, Mathew Leeper,  escaped out a back window in his nightshirt while his agency was burned to the ground.  The Tonkawa were forced to flee but many were caught and killed on the spot.  Their long time leader, Chief Placido, was slain along with 137 men, women and children.  Already decimated from disease, the Tonkawa were almost wiped out . 

The survivors fled back to Texas near Fort Belknap.  Like today's homeless people, they lived in squalor near Fort Griffin until the late 1880's.  They were later moved to the Sac and Fox agency in Oklahoma.  Because of their dwindling numbers, the Tonkawa language was lost along with many of their songs and dances.  Today, the tribe has only 600 members that reside in Oklahoma.
 Tonkawa Scouts and U.S. Cavalrymen

Sunday, October 6, 2013

New Artillery Wing Opens

A much anticipated Civil War artillery wing has opened at the Texas Civil War Museum.  The new wing features four artillery pieces, an artillery limber, and a Coehorn mortar.  A diverse collection of artillery shells and uniforms are also included.  The four artillery pieces represent a cross section of the Civil War's big guns.

Confederate 6 Pounder
Used widely during the early years of the Civil War, the Confederate 6 pounder was considered obsolete due to its limited range and shell size.   Both the Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia had their 6 pounders recast as 12 pounders, a  superior gun with greater mobility, range and firepower. The recast 12 pound Napoleon model became the Civil War's most commonly used artillery piece.   Cast in Rome, Georgia at Noble Brothers and Co., this cannon was used in the defense of Atlanta against Sherman's forces. 

U.S. Artillery Ordnance Rifle
Made of high grade wrought iron, the Union Ordnance Rifle was extremely accurate at distances less than a mile.  Through a technique called rifling, grooves were cut into the inside of the barrel.  This put a  spin on the artillery shell after it was fired, giving it greater accuracy.  These guns were manufactured by the Phoenix Iron Works of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

Parrott Rifle
A second rifled piece is the Union Parrott Rifle.  Invented by  the Superintendant of the West Point Foundry, Robert Parker Parrott,  the Parrott featured a heavily reinforced breech.  This allowed for an increased gunpowder charge to fire 10 pound shells accurately at great distances.

Mountain Howitzer
The smaller, bronze  Mountain Howitzer was ideal for warfare in rugged, mountainous terrain where there were few roads.  Unlike the Napoleon, they could be disassembled and carried by pack mules. This Union howitzer was cast by Alger and Company of Boston, Massachusetts.  Texas troops used the Mountain Howitzer during the New Mexico Campaign.

Coehorn Mortar
The Coehorn Mortar, like its modern counterpart, rained shells on  opposing troop lines. This weapon was ideal for the trench warfare fought during the wars final months.  At the Battle of the Crater near Petersburg, Confederate defenders decimated Union troops with this weapon.  Four handles, one at each corner of the base, were used to carry and deploy the Coehorn.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Final Curtain at The Vaudeville

Ben Thompson
Hollywood has shaped our image of the Old West gunfighter; we picture him as a rather unsociable character with a piercing gaze, collected demeanor, donning a duster or serape, and crowned with a dark, wide brimmed, telescope creased hat.  Someone who doesn't have a lot of redeeming qualities, unless he shot an arch-criminal or two.

One of the most notable of Texas gunfighters was just the opposite; a portly, dapper Englishman that wore top hats, drank heavily, and had a fondness for musical theater.  Despite his appearance, Ben Thompson was probably the most dangerous gunfighter in the Old West.  Famed U.S. Marshal "Bat" Masterson wrote, "Ben Thompson was a remarkable man in many ways and it is doubtful if, in his time, there was another man living who equaled him with the pistol in a life and death struggle." He was a survivor that always managed to outthink his opponents. On March 11, 1884, his luck ran out in a San Antonio theater.

Born in the industrial town of Knottingly, England, Thompson immigrated to Austin in 1851. During the Civil War, he served with the 2nd Texas Cavalry under Colonel John "Rip" Ford.  Wounded twice, he saw action at the Battles of Galveston and La Fourche Crossing.  While in a Laredo gambling hall, he and his brother Billy got into a shootout with a company of Mexican American Confederates.  They killed two of them but were never charged, probably because the victims were Hispanic. 

After the war, Thompson again got into another deadly dispute, this time with an Austin teamster over a mule.  He shot the teamster while he reached for his shotgun.  Union occupation troops arrested him, but he escaped from jail and headed south into Mexico.  Serving under the Emperor Maximilian, he battled both Juaristas and the Mexican police.  When Maximilian was overthrown, Thompson returned to Texas with an attitude and even more experience with a pistol. 

Upon his return, he wounded his own brother-in-law in a family altercation.  Thompson served a two year sentence at Huntsville for attempted murder.  Upon release, Ben, Billy, and wife Catherine settled in Abilene, Kansas.  Ben and another Texan, Phil Coe, opened up the Bull's Head Saloon; a successful establishment that catered to a steady stream of free-wheeling cowboys and supported an outdoor painting of a manly bull with an oversized lower appendage.  Local society complained, so Sheriff "Wild Bill" Hickok painted over it.  While Thompson's family were recovering from a horse buggy accident, "Wild Bill"  killed Phil Coe, probably over Hickok's impromptu paint job.  Thompson decided to move back to Austin.

He became a professional gambler and joined a traveling circuit of the Old West's most famous: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Luke Short, John Wesley Hardin, "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and "Wild Bill" Hickok.  Like most gunmen of that period, he was more dangerous when drinking.  Using nearby street lights for target practice, you could say he actually shot better when he was drunk.  One of the most serious and notable  of many liquor induced shootouts was with the management of Austin's Capital Theater.  He shot the operator of the theater, Mark Wilson, and seriously wounded the bartender.  He was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. 

In 1879, Thompson became a professional gunman for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  With his hefty railroad earnings, he opened up a gambling hall at the Iron Front Saloon on Congress Avenue.  Gaining a notable reputation for his gun fighting skills, fair play, and sense of charity, he was elected twice as Austin's City Marshal.  Needless to say, that reputation led to a considerable drop in the crime rate.    

Always one to compromise a lofty position with a festive nature, Thompson often traveled to San Antonio for a rollicking night of drinking and gambling.   His drinking got the best of him after he started losing his money at the popular Vaudeville Saloon and Theater; he pulled his gun on the dealer and demanded the return of his money.  The Vaudeville's gruff owner, Jack Harris, put the word out that Thompson was no longer allowed in the Vaudeville.  Thompson didn't take that as a warning but as a direct challenge. 

 On July 11, 1882, Ben Thompson returned to the Vaudeville.  Cradling a shotgun, Jack Harris waited for Thompson at the theater ticket office.  Thompson stood at the doorway, somewhat concealed by the evening darkness.  He spied Harris who was standing behind a wooden, latticework screen in the ticket office.  Thompson yelled, "'What are you doing with that shotgun?"  Harris replied, "Kiss my ass you son of a bitch!"  Before Harris could bring his shotgun to bear, Thompson fired two shots, mortally wounding Harris in the chest.  He surrendered to the San Antonio police that night. 

Texas courts were amazingly lenient where gunfighters and gamblers were concerned.  If both parties were armed, it was usually declared self-defense fair and square.  Neither murder nor manslaughter was considered; the victor was set free.

Thompson was acquitted and returned home to a hero's welcome.  He was now Austin's gunfighter; the man who took out their rival city's bullying theater owner.  Nevertheless, Harris' death weighed heavily on Thompson.  He resigned as City Marshal shortly after his return.  Many claimed Thompson was never the same; he became depressed and drank more heavily.

The end came when he took his depressed state back to the saloons and theaters of San Antonio. This time he was accompanied by an old friend, John King Fisher.  King Fisher was the deputy sheriff of Uvalde County; a former cattle rustler with an itchy trigger finger.  They both made their way to the Vaudeville where its new managers Billy Simms and Joe Foster were prepared for a worst case scenario.  The worst came soon enough.

Accounts vary but not the results - Ben Thompson and King Fisher were ambushed from behind in a Vaudeville Theater balcony.  As many as twenty guns, rifles and pistols, were fired into Thompson and Fisher.  The balcony was spattered with blood and gore as frantic people shoved their way out of the smoke filled Vaudeville.   

Thompson was found dead with his eyes wide open.  Considering the leg wound Foster suffered, Thompson may have gotten a few licks in before he fell.    King Fisher never got off a shot, he died immediately.  Eleven days later, Joe Foster died of complications from his leg wound.

The fact that Thompson had five bullets in his head lends evidence toward an execution rather than a face-to-face gun battle.  As usual, since all the participants were armed, a jury found Joe Foster and a Vaudeville bouncer named Jacob Coy not guilty on the grounds of self-defense.  Thompson's corpse was returned to Austin by his brother Billy and received one of the largest funerals in Austin history.  He was buried at Austin's Oakwood Cemetery.
Ben Thompson certainly had his fair share of supporters and detractors.  Austinites generally liked him, respected him and overlooked his drunken combative nature. San Antonians felt the opposite; they resented having their respected local businessman gunned down by Austin's hooligan marshal.  That resentment could certainly have swayed a local jury of Jack Harris'  peers.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Wartime Coat of General Ulysses S. Grant on Display

The only intact wartime coat of General Ulysses S.Grant is now on public display at the Texas Civil War Museum.  For decades, the coat belonged to the Hillyer Family until its 1994 sale to a private collector.  Brigadier General William Hillyer was Grant's Aide-de-Camp and a close family friend.  This blue field or sack coat is made of fine wool with a black velvet collar.  The shoulder bars denote the rank of Major General.  Only the buttons are not authentic; the original buttons were probably removed by Grant's wife Julia for souvenirs.  Grant's disdain for pomp and formality is certainly reflected in the coat's austere appearance.  
Because Julia Grant cut up all the other wartime coats to sell as souvenirs and spared this one suggests a certain significance.  It maybe the coat Grant wore during Lee's surrender at Appomattox.  Eyewitness accounts state Grant's coat was that of a private.  However, the coat's utter simplicity could have led to a mistaken description.    
As opposed to being stored out of sight in a vault, Grant's wartime coat on public display is a real treat for Civil War aficionados.  With the acquisition of this priceless artifact and a new artillery exhibit on the way, the Texas Civil Museum is becoming one of the best if not the best Civil War museum in the country.  You might want to add this place to your "bucket list" of Civil War sites.

Stop by and come on in.  The door's open !

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Stand With The Second !

                                                                       Texas Memorial at Vicksburg
On the morning of May 22, 1863, Private Brooks scanned the Union line for activity. He wiped the early morning sweat from his eyes for a better look.   Vicksburg summers promised stifling humidity, raging dysentery and waves of biting insects.  Except for the frequent artillery shellings, nothing seemed too out of the ordinary.  Plumes of campfire smoke rose in the distance; the Yankees were cooking breakfast.

General Ulysses S. Grant finally had Vicksburg in his grasp; his forces surrounded the Mississippi River port from all sides.  Union shells rained down on the residents from river mortars and land batteries.  Civilians and soldiers alike were forced to spend long stretches in trenches and caves.   At 10 A.M., the shelling stopped.  The blue clad Yankees began falling into columns with fixed bayonets.  Members of the Second Texas Infantry Regiment knew what was coming.  Soaked with sweat, covered with dirt, and starving for a decent meal, they grabbed their rifle muskets and took their positions along the earthen barricades.  In addition to their own rifle muskets, each Texan possessed five or six outdated smoothbore muskets to increase their short range firepower.   A lone cannon sounded in the distance; the Union columns began moving toward them.  Brooks screamed, "Here they come!"   

The Second Texas consisted of ten companies mustered in September, 1861.  Organized in Galveston, most of its ranks consisted of young men from Harris and Burleson  counties in Southeast Texas.  Among them were Sam Houston Jr., son of the heroic general of the Texas Revolution and Albert Jones, the son of Anson Jones, the last President of the Republic of Texas.  Despite his opposition to Secession, Sam Houston visited the Second often, told jokes and watched them drill.

During the Battle of Shiloh, the Second saw heavy action and played a major role in capturing the stubbornly held "Hornet's Nest."  Close to one hundred casualties were sustained, including Sam Houston Jr., who was wounded and later sent to a Union prison camp.  Six months later, it participated in a disastrous attack on Corinth, Mississippi, a critical railroad juncture in Northern Mississippi.  Col. William Rogers, wearing an iron vest and carrying the regimental flag himself, led his command against the stout defenses of Battery Robinette.  The vest failed to protect him and he was toppled from the battery's walls in a bullet ridden heap.  Confederate forces were forced to retreat.  Out of 314 troops, the Second Texas lost 116 men.  Its next assignment would prove more daunting: Vicksburg.

No sooner had the Second arrived when it was rushed to Chickasaw Bayou along the Yazoo River.  General William Tecumseh Sherman attempted to take Vicksburg from behind, thus avoiding the heavy gun emplacements along the river; he failed miserably.  His forces were pinned down beneath the bluffs under a hail of gunfire.  When Union steamships anchored to evacuate Sherman's troops, the Second Texas launched a bold attack.  Union troops were shot off their boat decks while navy officers hurriedly cut their anchors and steamed away from the river bank.  "This most gallant regiment with a dash," wrote Brigadier General Stephen Lee, "rushed almost up to the boats delivering their fire with terrible effect on their crowded transports."

The Second Texas in time became a superb defensive unit, eagerly serving at positions under serious threat of attack.  After holding off a Union amphibious force at Fort Pemberton near Greenwood, they were sent south to Warrenton to protect Vicksburg's southern approaches.  While there, they supplemented their meager corn meal diet with an abundance of crawfish.  As Grant closed in on Vicksburg's outskirts, the Second was called up to help defend the city.  A crescent shaped earthen fort or lunette became their home for the duration of the siege.  The Second Texas Lunette, as it was called, guarded the vital Baldwin Ferry Road into Vicksburg.  Because of its location and importance  it would certainly be subject to Union assault

An entire brigade from the command of Union General James McClernand hit the Second Texas Lunette head on. Carrying scaling ladders and shouting "Vicksburg or hell," Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin troops attempted to scale the sloped earthen walls of the lunette.  They were mowed down in heaps by the many accurate muskets of the Second Texas.  Cotton bales used to bolster the lunette walls caught fire, sending an eerie shower of cotton embers over the Texan defenders.  The fires were put out as Union troops fell back into the only available cover, a deep moat at the base of the lunette.  Despite their success, the Texans couldn't fire their cannons because they were quickly shot by Union troops in the moat while servicing their guns.   Instead, crude hand grenades were constructed from artillery shells and rolled down the sloped walls into the crowded moat below.     

A second assault at 5:00 PM met the same fate.  The lunette was briefly pierced at times but vicious counterattacks erased any success.  Three brigades assaulted and three brigades failed.  Union flags stuck in the lunette's walls were removed in true Texas fashion by lassoing them by rope and pulling them down.  A carpet of mangled Union bodies laid at the foot of the lunette.  For three days, a terrible stench rose from the dead as they rotted under the summer sun. A temporary truce allowed for a brief respite and the removal of the dead and wounded.  Henceforth, siege warfare would ensue until Vicksburg's surrender on July 4, 1863. 

Disease and starvation would reduce the Second Texas more than Union arms.  The survivors were paroled after the surrender and forced to sit out any fighting until exchanged.  By foot, they traveled back to Texas in small groups.  Out of the initial 1,300 men, only 200 were left upon their arrival.  Too reduced in numbers to be effective elsewhere, the Second Texas was used to guard the Texas coastline until the end of the war.

Check out Joseph Chance's book, "The Second Texas Infantry" and visit the wonderful Vicksburg National Battlefield Park.  With or without the casinos, the park and city are definitely worth a two to three day visit.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Palestine SCV Camp Opens Confederate Memorial

It's going to take more than a humiliating public flag removal and a booth denial to stop the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.  In the face of a media fueled outcry and mounting pressure from the Palestine City Council,  the John Reagan SCV Camp removed the Confederate "Stars and Bars" flag from the Anderson County Courthouse.  Two years later, they were denied a booth at Palestine's Spring 2013 Dogwood Trails Festival.  "Too divisive," they were told. "Bad for the local economy," said others.

When you can't display or promote your heritage on public property, what do you do?  You use private property instead.  In April, 2013, the camp opened a fine Confederate memorial plaza in downtown Palestine, a few blocks from the courthouse and Dogwood Trails Festival.  All on private property, not tax funded public property.

The plaza honors Confederate soldiers from Anderson County and the State of Texas.  It features historical interpretive markers, bricks engraved with the names of Texas Confederate soldiers, and Confederate flags.  The flags include the Confederate national flags (including the flag removed from the courthouse), the State of Texas flag, and the ever controversial Confederate battle flag.  During the opening ceremony, a Texas Historical Marker was also dedicated at the plaza commemorating Anderson County during the Civil War.

The Palestine NAACP chapter has protested the new plaza and its flag display.  "You can honor the history of your ancestors any other way besides flying this flag," said Palestine NAACP President Kenneth Davidson.  "You know what this flag stands for, you know what it means to a lot of people .  We do not want this here."

"That flag was hijacked years ago by a hate group that we do not associate with," countered Dan Dyer, President of the SCV John Reagan Camp.  "We denounce them.  The flags of the Confederacy are the flags our ancestors fought under.  We regret that this hate group hijacked the flags back in the 1950's and 1960's but that's not what we're about."

 Educational programs will be provided as well as Confederate heritage events at the plaza.

 Reflecting on the courthouse flag removal, Commander Dyer said, "Apparently they thought that would be the last time they heard from the John H. Reagan Camp, but that's not in our Southern DNA."

Monday, April 8, 2013

"Paging Johnny Ringo ! Johnny Ringo to the set please !"

                                                                                       Johnny Ringo
During the late 50's and early 60's, TV Westerns were all the rage.  Every network had at least four Westerns a week.  Some such as "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," and the "Big Valley" (gosh that Linda Evans was cute) became prime time icons.  Any network that put a show in "Bonanza's" time slot faced a brutal demise.  I've always wondered why a Western about three single half-brothers of varying physique, a three times widowed patriarch, and an overly polite Chinese cook named Hop Sing merited such a following.    I guess people just couldn't get enough of that hunky "Hoss" Cartwright.  Other shows portrayed famous Old West  personalities such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Colonel George Armstrong Custer.  Not surprisingly, Native Americans hated "Custer" so much they protested it right off the air.

One character that found its way into numerous TV Westerns, and movies as well, was a little known gunfighter from Texas history, Johnny Ringo.  Historians agree that there are no redeeming qualities to Ringo.  He didn't own a massive cattle ranch, didn't kill anybody of note nor did he serve in the law enforcement community.  The only two reasons are he indirectly confronted the legendary Wyatt Earp and he had a really cool name.  Mostly the latter it seems.

In 1850, John Peters Ringo was born in Indiana and grew up in Liberty, Missouri; an area tainted by the Kansas-Missouri border violence during the Civil War.  Looking for greener pastures, the Ringo family loaded up a covered wagon for a move to California.  During the move, Ringo's father accidently blew his head off with a shotgun.  The tragedy had a traumatic effect on Ringo; his life took a downward spiral ever since.

During the mid 1870's, he migrated to Mason County, Texas; a region rocked with ethnic strife between Texas ranchers and German settlers.  A full scale range war broke out in 1875 when ranchers began rustling the Germans' cattle.  Texas law at that time allowed ranchers to round up cattle, regardless of their ownership, as long as they reimbursed the owners after the cattle was sold.  How hard do you think those ranchers tried to find and pay those owners?  Needless to say, the Germans were really pissed.

 Because they were in the majority, the German settlers were able to elect law enforcement officials sympathetic to their grievances.  Within a day, Sheriff John Clark arrested nine suspect ranchers and let it slip that he had no problem with them being lynched.  After being dragged from their cells, two of the ranchers were hanged while a third was shot.  Only the intervention of the Texas Rangers prevented further bloodshed.  The Mason County War or "Hoodoo War" took an ominous turn with the murder of popular ranch foreman, Tim Williamson.   Williamson's close friend, a hot-tempered former Texas Ranger named Scott Cooley, vowed vengence for his friend's murder.  Within a few months, he would gun down a dozen men.

Into the fray stepped Johnny Ringo, also a close friend of Cooley's.  Ringo assisted in the shootings of at least two settlers.  By the end of the year, both Cooley and Ringo were on the dodge from sheriff posses.  Ringo spent almost two years in a Llano County jail for the murder of Jim Cheney, one of the settlers killed during the Mason County War.  He was later released and ironically served as a constable in Loyal Valley, a German community in the same Mason County he once terrorized.  Afterwards, he headed out west to Arizona, a favorite destination for former Texas outlaws. 

With an uncanny knack for finding trouble, Ringo rode into Tombstone, Arizona.  Somewhat like the Mason County War, the conflict in Tombstone was between local outlaw ranchers known collectively as the "Cowboys" and Tombstone's established business community. The word "cowboy" was actually a derogatory term back then.  A cowboy was thought of as a lowlife,  an unruly character more worthy of a jail sentence than respect. It was more proper to be referred to as a cattleman or a rancher, never a cowboy.

 The "Cowboys" made their fortunes by rustling cattle across the border in Mexico and robbing stagecoaches.   Ringo befriended local rancher Ike Clanton and an odious outlaw named "Curly Bill" Brocious, both members of the "Cowboy" clan.  After a hard day of rustling, the "Cowboys" reveled in the town's saloons and brothels.  Firing his pistols in the air after a heavy round of drinking, "Curly Bill" accidently killed Tom White, the town's marshal.
                                                                 "Curly Bill" Brocious

Ringo also became noted for his own whiskey induced tantrums. He shot one man in Safford, Arizona after offering to buy the man a whiskey and the man ordered a beer instead.   In another incident, he almost got into a gunfight with the famed tubercular gambler, "Doc" Holliday. 

After White's death, local law enforcement fell into the firm hands of the Earp brothers: Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt.  The "Cowboys," lead by Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, "Curly Bill" and Johnny Ringo, had an ongoing dispute with the Earps over gambling operations in Tombstone.  The confrontation turned deadly when Wyatt pistol whipped "Curly Bill" after Marshall White's shooting.  In 1881, a series of stage coach robberies committed by the "Cowboys" brought things to a head.  The Earps and their friend "Doc" Holliday killed three of the "Cowboys" during the Old West's most famous gunfight, the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."   Shortly after, the "Cowboys" got their revenge;  Virgil lost the use of an arm after being shot and Morgan was killed by a shotgun blast to the back. 

Enraged, Wyatt Earp went on a vendetta.  Ringo was now a target of Earp's wrath.  His friend "Curly Bill' was killed by Earp at Iron Springs.  He managed to avoid the vendetta, but not his own inner demons.  He was found under a tree at West Turkey Creek Valley with a bullet hole in his temple.  Had he had committed suicide, or did an Earp supporter finally catch up with him?  Some have speculated that "Doc" Holliday killed Ringo.  A theory proved impossible because of records showing Holliday in a Colorado courtroom at the time.  More probable was severe depression brought on by heavy drinking.  Ringo was buried at the spot he was found.

Johnny Ringo probably gained more fame through film and TV than anything he did in real life.  In 1959, "Johnny Ringo" appeared for one season on CBS.  For some strange reason, he plays a gunfighter turned sheriff and curiously packs a Confederate LeMat revolver.  Any TV Western with a setting in Arizona was most certainly going to have an episode featuring Johnny Ringo.  One of my favorites, NBC's "The High Chaparral," had him on twice.

Noted actors such as Gregory Peck, John Ireland, Kris Kristofferson and Michael Biehn (he played Reese in "The Terminator" ) played Johnny Ringo or a variation of him in the movies.  Here is a scene from the 1993 movie "Tombstone" where Johnny Ringo, played by Michael Biehn, confronts "Doc" Holliday played by Val Kilmer.  Wyatt Earp was played by Kurt Russell and Powers Boothe made a convincing "Curly Bill."  Check it out.

And lastly, we have the Johnny Ringo song performed by actor Lorne Greene, the father of the Cartwright boys on "Bonanza."  More of a narration than a song actually.   Good thing Lorne didn't give up the day job.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

On Opposite Paths

                                                                Chris Kyle

                                                  Eddie Ray Routh with his mother

The country was greatly saddened by the senseless shooting of Navy Seal sniper Kris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield.  Even more saddening is the shooter was a Marine veteran, Eddie Ray Routh.  All three were native Texans, all three served in the military.  One would become a celebrated hero, the other would struggle with the dark grasp of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. 

Born in Odessa, Chris Kyle, like many Texas boys, owned a gun and learned to hunt at a young age.   A stint in professional rodeo ended when he shattered his arm after being thrown from a bucking horse.  Despite his damaged arm, Kyle joined the Navy Seals.  From there he trained and served as a sniper during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

During the course of the war, Kyle perfected his marksmanship on Iraqi insurgents, racking up an incredible tally of 160 confirmed kills.  The deadliest sniper in U.S. history shot one insurgent at the astounding range of 2,100 yards.  His success led to a bounty of $80,000 being placed on his head and a newly bestowed moniker, "The Devil of Ramadi."

Kyle retired in 2009 after receiving 2 Silver Stars and 5 Bronze Stars.  Now living in Midlothian, just outside of Dallas, he started Craft International to help train military and law enforcement personnel.  Kyle also authored the bestseller, "American Sniper," a book that chronicled his service in the SEALs.  Despite his busy schedule, he found time to start a controversial program to assist veterans suffering from PTSD.  The program offered therapy through target shooting.  One of the veterans was a very disturbed fellow Texan named Eddie Ray Routh.

Unlike Kyle, Routh's postwar experience was a series of mental wards, jail cells and frantic 911 calls.  Recent pictures and records suggest a man at times devoid of feeling with a terrifying, explosive inner rage.  The rage would surface at a remote target range in Erath County.  On February 2, 2013, the bodies of Kyle and Littlefield were found at the Rough Creek Lodge shooting range; both had been shot with a semi-automatic handgun.  While driving Kyle's stolen pickup, Routh was pursued and arrested in Lancaster, Texas.  He is now in the Erath County Jail awaiting trial.

Kyle's funeral procession may have been the longest in U.S. history and certainly the longest in Texas history.  He left a wife and two children.  As befitting all Texas heroes, he was buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.  His exploits  will be studied by military historians for decades to come.  Routh's exploits will be studied by prison psychiatrists and a public wondering why.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tragic Turncoat

                                                     Captain Martin Hart

Unlike most Texas Unionists who simply put aside their feelings for the good of the state and supprt the Confederacy, former State Senator Martin Hart decided to act on his; he joined the Union Army.  A resident of Greenville, Hart was a prominent lawyer, politician, land owner, and committed Unionist.  To add fuel to his inner flame, his father, John F. Hart, was shot during a land dispute with wealthy slaveholders. The death of his father and the loss in court of the disputed land left Martin deeply embittered.  Along with twenty-four others, he signed the “Address to the People of the State;” a circular that condemned slavery and foretold of its eventual destruction.  The “Texas Republican,” a Marshall, Texas newspaper, denounced the document as “an insidious attempt to prejudice the nonslaveholder, not only against slaveholders, but slavery itself.”
 In August, 1862, Hart and thirty-seven followers, known locally as the Greenville Guards, left North Texas for Ft. Smith, Arkansas.  Upon reaching his destination, he obtained a commission to raise a Confederate company. The commission was only part of an elaborate ruse; Hart used the commission to pass through Confederate lines into Union held Southwest Missouri.  In Springfield, he obtained a captain’s commission to raise a company for the Union Army.  Hart hoped to use his new command to recruit fellow North Texans for an entire regiment, the 1st Texas Cavalry Regiment.  Part of his command was sent back to North Texas to help recruit in Hunt County for his new regiment.   Meanwhile, the newly commissioned Captain Hart and his remaining men began operations in Northwest Arkansas.  With personal scores to settle, ragtag, ill-disciplined Arkansas Unionists began to sign on with Hart's growing company.
Union General Francis Jay Herron ordered Hart to pursue the notorious Confederate guerilla, James Ingraham.  The elusive Ingraham managed to avoid Hart while ambushing Union wagon trains in Benton County.  Ingraham himself would become a target after the war; the son of one of his victims would gun him down.  In addition to hunting Ingraham, Hart conducted operations against regular Confederate forces.  In January, 1863, he attacked the rear guard of Colonel Joseph W. Speight’s 15th Texas Infantry Brigade, capturing and paroling 20 soldiers.  According to an Arkansas local, Sophia Kannady, Hart was a perfect gentleman.  "Hart lifted me off my horse.  He was a fine looking man, and while he robbed us of our team, provisions and everything else, he did not cause me to be searched nor did he take my horse." The gentle niceties would soon end.
Word of Hart’s turncoat activities trickled down to North Texas, causing a widespread panic that he was going to invade his home state.  Confederate General William Steele alerted his superiors that Hart was wreaking havoc in the countryside with a bloodthirsty band of Unionists and deserters.  Lieutenant Colonel R. P. Crump of the 1st Texas Partisan Rangers began a determined pursuit of Hart.
As with most guerilla warfare units, the fine line between military activity and criminal activity can become blurred during the course of war.  Military objectives become lost in the shuffle as personal scores are settled.  Nowhere was this more true than in the Southwest Missouri and Northwest Arkansas;  Bushwhackers, Jayhawkers and Red Legs showed little mercy toward their victims.  Hart’s Arkansas Unionists, with a deep rooted hatred of slaveholders, took their hostilities out on their neighbors.  In Charleston, two prominent planters, Edward Richardson and DeRosey Carroll, were beaten then shot repeatedly after being called out of their homes.
Despite being held up by the harsh winter weather, a detachment of Crump’s men encountered a local Arkansas Unionist who mistook them for Union cavalry, probably because of their captured Union apparel.  Utilizing their mistaken identity, Crump’s men persuaded the Unionist to lead them to Hart’s camp.  At 2:00 AM, January 19, 1863, Crump surrounded Hart’s camp near Ft. Smith on the Poteau River.  Hart and his Greenville Guards were holed up inside a blacksmith shop.  Crump shouted, "Unconditional surrender within five minutes, or I shall fill the shop full of holes!" Hart and twenty three of his men surrendered.  He was taken to Ft. Smith for a drumhead court-martial.  Both Confederate and Union authorities in the region usually didn't offer clemency toward guerillas.  Hart was hanged from a tree branch and buried in an unmarked grave.  After the war, his body was exhumed and reburied at the National Cemetery at Ft. Smith.