Friday, October 7, 2016

General Polecat

Prince Camile De Polignac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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