Friday, May 5, 2017

Duplicitous Trail Drives

John Chisum

During the Civil War, there were instances on both sides of profit replacing patriotism.  The sudden lack of markets and severe income loss led some to circumvent government authority for new business opportunities, especially if the authority was on the losing side.  Late in the war, cotton was always a hot commodity in illegal trading with the enemy.  In West Texas, a different commodity offered a second monetary source:  Cattle.

After Confederate forces were driven from Southeast New Mexico, Union forces occupied the region and established an Indian reservation near their newly constructed Fort Sumner.  The reservation was built on an arid, uninhabitable stretch called the Bosque Redondo.  Into this dreadful landscape, the U.S Army, under the firm command of General James Carlton, crammed members of the Navajo and Mescalero Apache tribes.  During the months to come, Bosque Redondo would prove to be more of a prison camp hellhole than a reservation.  To begin with, the Mescalero and Navajo had fought each other for decades, and weren’t about to make a lasting peace.  The dry weather wouldn’t allow sustained crop production.  Being that it was in a desert, there was no wood to make fires and only a brackish trickle of water to drink.  To make matters worse, the Comanches raided the reservation and stole the Navajo’s horses.  A stable food source was quickly needed to feed the reservation and the Union forts in New Mexico.

In 1864, Union contractors James Patterson and William Franks contacted Texas ranchers to arrange cattle drives to Fort Sumner and Union held El Paso.  They carried plenty of cash to make their purchases.  With Confederate markets cut off by the loss of the Mississippi and Confederate currency on the wane, it was difficult not to accept their offers.  Famed Texas Ranger James “Buck” Barry reported to his superiors, “It might be well to inform you that we have five men here under arrest that say they were hired by one Patterson in New Mexico to drive beef from our frontier.”  The Texas Third Frontier District reported a drive of 1,000 to 1,500 cattle heading west over their district.   The most notable of these unlawful ranchers was famed cattle baron John Chisum.  Although he supplied the Confederate Army with 4,000 head of cattle, Chisum sought approval from the Texas governor to move his vast herds from Denton County to Concho County in West Texas, a remote area near the New Mexico border and conveniently too remote for Confederate authorities.  In his book, “From the Cow Camp to the Pulpit,” one of Chisum’s ranch hands, M.C. Smith, wrote about the assembly of a cattle herd destined for Fort Sumner in September 1864 – seven months before the end of the war.  After the war, Smith went to work for Patterson.

The Texas government had few men and funds to patrol West Texas.  Most defensive efforts were focused on the Texas coast where Union amphibious operations were a constant threat.  Ironically, the Native Americans that plagued Confederate Texas also kept Union troops in New Mexico occupied and away from the more populated East Texas.

Though their loyalties became more blurred toward the war’s final month, Texas ranchers, nevertheless, had a keen eye toward the future.  In 1866, the Goodnight-Loving Trail was established to drive Texas herds into New Mexico.  The great cattle drives to Kansas followed shortly.  Though traitorous by law, it’s still good to know these unlawful Texas cattle drives went to feed hungry Navaho children.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Let Us Charge the Cannon !"

Colonel Hinche Mabry

General Sterling Price had all the evidence he needed – a Yankee attack was coming. Horribly spattered with the blood of his comrade, the scout before him needed little to convince the portly Missourian. Just southwest of Iuka, Mississippi, he had encountered a Federal cavalry detachment on the San Jacinto Road. Price sent an infantry brigade, under General Louis Hebert, to counter the threat. A Union army, under the command of General William Rosecrans, was indeed marching steadily toward Price from the southeast. At the same time, a second army was advancing on him from the northwest. Under the overall command of General Ulysses S. Grant, both armies were executing a classic pincers move to trap Price in Iuka. Price would have to move quickly to avoid the trap. Hebert sent the Third Texas Cavalry regiment out ahead to find and screen Rosecrans’s advance – an overwhelming task at best.

The Third Texas Cavalry was actually the Third Dismounted Texas Cavalry. Consisting mostly of planters from Northeast Texas and armed prodigiously with shotguns, the Third had shed their mounts to become infantry. Their commander felt there were too many cavalry units in Mississippi. Encamped at the railroad junction of Corinth, the dismounted Texans learned the rudiments of infantry drill during the spring of 1862. They suffered staggering losses from disease and Corinth’s foul water supply. Fortunately for their health, but not their moral, the Confederates were forced to evacuate Corinth before a massive Federal offensive. Under the command of General Braxton Bragg, the Confederates later retook the initiative by invading Kentucky. Sterling Price was left behind to guard Mississippi. The newly appointed commander of the Vicksburg, Mississippi garrison, General Earl Van Dorn, requested Price to join him and invade West Tennessee while Bragg was in Kentucky. Price would have to get out of Iuka before joining Van Dorn.

Rosecran’s deployed his regiments to meet Hebert’s brigade. In the center of the line, directly in front of the Texans, was the 11th Ohio Artillery. The Federals were aligned along the south slope of a ravine. No sooner had the 3rd Texas descended into the ravine, when a shower of canister shot forced them to hit the dirt. Sgt. W. P. Helm recalled:

“The roaring artillery, the rattle of the musketry, the hailstorm of grape and ball were mowing us down like grain before we could locate from whence it came. We were trapped; there could be no retreat, and certain death was in our advance. We fell prostrate to the ground.”

The certain death was a gruesome decapitation if you stood up. There was only one solution - charge the battery and take the guns. With a rebel yell, the Third got to its feet and charged into the Union line. To the right of the battery, the 48th Indiana, a regiment consisting of green recruits, bolted to the rear when the Texans hit their line. Their brigade commander, Colonel John B. Sanborn, ordered them to stand and fight, drawing his pistol and shooting two who didn’t. The regiment directly behind the 48th, the 16th Ohio, was swept up by the 48th’s rout – a domino effect. The battery, however, kept many of the Texans back. To make matters worse, they were being fired on by their fellow Confederates behind them. After three attempts, the Third’s Colonel Hinche Mabry rallied his men for a fourth. “Boys if we are to die, let it be by Yankee bullets, not by our friends,” he cried. “So let us charge the cannon.” The Ohioans fought with an unmatched fury. Helm recalled, “Sword and bayonet were crossed. Muskets, revolvers knives, ramrods, gun swabs – all mingled in the death dealing fray."  Only a handful of the fifty four artillerymen were still standing when their battery was captured. One of the dead was found holding the bridles of his battery horses with a firm death grip. The horses were dead as well. Respectfully, the Texans released the survivors, but kept their six cannons. Of the 388 men in the Third Texas, 22 were killed and 74 were wounded - the highest loss the regiment suffered in battle. The Third continued serving in Mississippi until the end of the Civil War. They eventually regained their mounts and became part of the famed Sul Ross cavalry brigade. The brave charge of the Third Texas held up Rosecran’s advance and helped Price make his escape.