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  In addition to their own rifle muskets, each Texan possessed five or six outdated smoothbore muskets to increase their short range firepower.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.