Sunday, June 18, 2017


Samuel Walker

It seemed like an unlikely pairing: a well-heeled Connecticut gunmaker and a rough hewn Texas Ranger.  Despite their backgrounds, both had an abiding passion for firearms, and how to improve them.  They met at a New York gunsmith shop to exchange their ideas.  The result was a revolving pistol that would change the course of Texas and the American West.
Fighting Mexicans and Comanches provided Texas Rangers with more than a firsthand knowledge of firearms.  Being on horseback, it was crucial they have repeating firepower to take out mounted, hard charging adversaries.  This needed feature became apparent in confrontations with the Comanches.  The “Lords of the Plains” could use a bow and arrow faster than Rangers could fire and reload a musket.  To make matters worse, the Rangers often had to get off their horses to fire at them; the Comanches could stay on horseback.  The solution came from an unlikely source: the Texas Navy.  In 1839, the Texas Navy purchased 130 of Samuel Colt’s revolving pistols.  Named for their origin of manufacture, Patterson, New Jersey, the Patterson Colt featured a five shot cylinder with .36 caliber paper charges.  Though fragile with its delicate frame, pocket watch mechanisms and cumbersome reload process, the Colts provided game changing firepower.  Better yet, they could be fired on horseback.  When Republic of Texas President Sam Houston disbanded the navy, a surplus of Texas Navy Colt revolvers became available.  The Rangers helped themselves.

On June 8, 1844, the Patterson Colts got a thorough shakedown.  At the battle of Walker’s Creek, fifty miles north of San Antonio, a Ranger detachment of 14 battled 70 Comanches under Yellow Wolf.   When numbers were starting to tip the balance in the Comanches favor, Captain Jack “Coffee” Hayes shouted, “Any man who has a load, kill that chief!”  Yellow Wolf was dropped from his saddle while his warriors fled the battlefield.  Under the superior leadership of Captain Hayes and their Colts’ firepower, the Rangers won a signal victory that put the enemies of Texas on notice.

One of the Rangers, Samuel Walker (no connection to the creek), suffered a gapping lance wound in the back during the battle.  He recovered in time for the War with Mexico where he served as a Ranger lieutenant.  The Rangers continued to prove their mettle, but more manpower was needed.  During a recruiting trip to New York, Walker was approached by the Patterson Colt’s manufacturer: Samuel Colt.  The famed gun maker, however, was flat broke.  He desperately needed a sale.  Both Samuels warmed to each other and started an earnest discussion on revolvers.  The Patterson’s shortcomings were the main topic.  How do you make a proven revolver better?  Walker had answers.   

As in any confrontation with overwhelming numbers, firepower was vital.  Instead of five chambers, a sixth chamber would be added.   The reloading process was simplified; the cylinder could be reloaded without taking the revolver apart.  A loading lever was attached to secure the cartridges in their chambers.  Stopping power from one shot depended on the caliber.  The .34 caliber bullet was replaced with a .44 caliber.  The result of the discussion was a new revolver that was heavier, sturdier, and packed a wallop.  The reloading was still cumbersome, but was compensated for by having more loaded revolvers on hand.  Instead of one revolver, a Ranger would carry from two to five revolvers.  Also, the reloading lever was often knocked loose when the revolver was discharged.  A piece of rawhide cord was often used to secure the lever to the barrel.  The most serious problem was a ruptured cylinder after firing; a problem caused by loose powder igniting the cartridges in the other cylinders.  Nevertheless, the Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun prior to the modern day .357 Magnum.

The first six- shooter was manufactured during the War with Mexico.  In 1847, Samuel Walker would receive two of his namesake revolvers.  Tragically, he was killed at the Battle of Huamantla.  Only 1,100 Walker Colts were produced, making them extremely rare and coveted by gun collectors.  At auction, a Walker Colt could go for as high as $950,000.00.

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.