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Saturday, November 13, 2021

Ector's Charge

Battle Flag of Ector's Brigade

On the evening of December 30, 1862, Union Brigadier General Joshua Sill grew nervous.  Large numbers of rebel troops could be heard in the darkness marching toward his corps’ right flank; a march, perhaps, to outflank the Union Army of the Cumberland prior to launching an attack.  Erring on the side of caution, Sill rode to division headquarters to warn his division commander, Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan.  Afterwards, both of them preceded to the corps headquarters at the Gresham House, a log cabin just off the Wilkinson Turnpike near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  They found their corps commander, Major General Alexander M. McCook, sleeping on a bed of hay, exhausted from a winter march in mud and freezing rain.  Unlike his subordinates, he was confident the rebels across the river would not attack.  Besides, Union troops were going to attack the Confederate right flank in the morning, thus preventing any rebel attack on the Union right.  “I am only to hold my line, and wait for orders from headquarters,” he told them.  The matter was dropped.  Complacent in their confidence, McCook and his troops were about to endure the most terrifying ordeal in their lives.  Less than a mile from his position, 12,000 Confederate troops were amassed for an all out assault the following morning.  Spearheading the assault was a brigade of battle-hardened Texans under Brigadier General Matthew Ector. 

A lawyer by profession, Ector was born in Putnam County, Georgia on February 28, 1822.  He moved to Henderson, Texas in 1850 where he practiced law, edited the Henderson “Democrat” newspaper and served in the Texas State Legislature for a single term.   When the war began, Ector enlisted as a private then later became adjutant to General Joseph L. Hogg.  He was later elected colonel of the 14th Texas Cavalry.  In August, 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general after his regiment distinguished itself at the Battle of Richmond during Major General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky.

Ector’s Brigade consisted of four brigades of dismounted Texas cavalry and a battery under Captain James P. Douglas.  Most of the men had enlisted in cavalry regiments from North Central and East Texas, serving in Arkansas and the Indian Territory.  Under the mercurial command of Major General Earl Van Dorn, they rode for the Tennessee border to join the Army of Mississippi under the command of Major General P. G. T. Beauregard.  Before crossing the Mississippi, they were ordered to give up their horses upon payment for their value and convert to infantrymen.  Their destination was Corinth, Mississippi - a disease-ridden railroad junction and Beauregard’s army headquarters.   After Beauregard’s ignominious retreat from Corinth, he was replaced with Bragg; who renamed the army - the Army of Tennessee.  Supporting butternut jackets, homespun shirts and slouch hats, the Texans were originally armed with their own weapons from home – mostly crudely-made Bowie knives and short-range shotguns that were eventually replaced with Enfield or Belgian rifles acquired through capture or blockade runners..

Placed under the command of Tennessean Major General John P. McCown, Ector’s Brigade marched into Kentucky in an unsuccessful attempt to bring the Bluegrass State into the Confederacy.  After the Battle of Perryville, they retreated back into East Tennessee.  Failing in Kentucky, Bragg settled for an occupation of Middle Tennessee and the crucial railroad town of Chattanooga.  From Knoxville, Bragg marched his 35,000 troops to Murfreesboro, setting up a defensive line along Stone’s River under two corps commanders – Major General William J. Hardee and Major General Leonidas Polk.   Both were outspoken opponents of Bragg.  McCown’s division was under Hardee and assigned the far left end of Bragg’s line.   

Across the river, the 42,000 man Army of the Cumberland, under Major General William S. Rosecrans, approached Murfreesboro after a 34 mile march from Nashville.  By December 30, both armies faced each other from north to south along the banks of Stone’s River.  Yanks and rebels slept in cold mud covered with a rain-drenched blanket or no blanket at all.  No campfires were allowed; their sole comfort was their respective army bands serenading them through the night.  The song “Home Sweet Home” was a special favorite.  Bragg and Rosecrans planned to attack the right flank of the opposing army, cutting off its supply line and escape path.  Planning to attack at dawn, the rebels would beat Rosecrans to the punch.  If all went well, the Union right would be jackknifed into the Union left, forcing them into the river.  With the Ector’s Brigade in the middle, seven brigades under McCown and Major General Patrick Cleburne would initiate the assault.  In front of them were the Union brigades of Brigadier General Edward N. Kirk, a lawyer in civilian life, and German-born revolutionary Brigadier General August Willich, who once served in the Prussian Army and edited a Communist newspaper. 

Commands were passed down to McCown’s field officers, “Be quiet - get your men in line - see that their guns are in working order - no talking or laughing.” Whiskey, for warmth or fortitude, was also passed around the ranks.  At 6:00 AM, the order was given, “Forward, march!”

Union pickets saw them first - a ghostly line of gray emerging from the morning fog.  Fleeing to the rear, they spread the alarm, “They’re coming!”  Advancing at the double-quick, the Texans overran the 34th Illinois first along with an Ohio battery under Captain Warren P. Edgarton.  To make matters worse for the Yanks, their field of fire was blocked by innumerable cedar trees.  “It seemed that the whole Confederate Army burst out of a piece of wood immediately on the front,” recalled a Union private.  Both brigades collapsed, sending a wave of terrified artillery horses and panicked Union troops, bereft of their muskets, fleeing to the rear.  Lt. Tunnel of the 14th Texas recalled the panic, “Many of the Yanks were either killed or retreated in their nightclothes.  We found a caisson with the horses still attached lodged against a tree and other evidence of their confusion.”  Both Kirk and Willich were taken prisoner. Sheridan, who was still suspicious of a Confederate attack, kept his men in line and at arms through the night.  Together with Brigadier General James S. Negley, they stalled the rebels along their lines; a site of gnarled cedars and rocky outcroppings the combatants referred to as “The Slaughter Pen.”  General Sill was killed after a bullet struck him square in the face.  Ector continued his advance, losing men along the way from bullets and canister shot.  After three miles, the exhausted Texans were halted by an impenetrable blue line of infantry and artillery along the Nashville Turnpike; their dead left in piles after several fruitless attempts to capture the Union’s Chicago Board of Trade Battery.  One of the Texans recalled, “The artillery opened up on us and it seemed that the heavens and the earth were coming together.”  A group of Texans waived a white handkerchief to surrender.  One of them told his captors, “I am tired of this foolishness and I want to see it stopped.”  The charge stopped for the night, leaving a long trail of dead and wounded.  Ector’s Brigade suffered 343 casualties.  One colonel, J. C. Burks, was killed during the charge.

For three grueling miles, Ector’s Brigade and the Army of Tennessee pushed Rosecran’s army into near destruction.  Union resolve, diminished numbers and low ammunition turned the tide.  An assault on the Union left the following day by Major General John Breckinridge met with disaster.  Bragg decided to retreat to Shelbyville.  Both sides suffered 24,000 casualties - three thousand lay dead on the field.  Ector’s Brigade served with the Army of Tennessee until the end of the war, suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Allatoona.  They surrendered at Meridian, Mississippi on May 4, 1865.  Ector returned to his law practice in Henderson with a new wife, Sallie P. Chew, and without a leg, amputated from a wound suffered during the Atlanta campaign.  He was buried in Marshall Texas after his death in 1879.  Ector County in West Texas was named after him.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tejano on a Tightrope


Juan Seguin

Juan Nepomuceno Seguin was born on October 27, 1806, in San Antonio, to a prominent Tejano family that served Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas.  In his youth, Seguin helped run the post office with his father, who was San Antonio’s postmaster.  He married Maria Gertrudis Flores de Abrego in 1825 with whom he had ten children.  A fascination with politics led to service on a number of electoral boards before becoming Alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio in 1833 and later the political head of Bexar province. 

Seguin’s father, Erasmo, was a close ally of Stephen F. Austin’s colony.  The alliance between Erasmo and Austin eventually included Juan before the outbreak of the Texas Revolution.  In 1829, Mexico’s government was in factional turmoil with Centralists, who favored a strong central government, pitted against Federalists, who favored strong local governments.  Out of the tumult emerged a Mexican army officer and politician with an amazing charisma that concealed an extreme ruthlessness.  A Federalist at first, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was elected president then suspended Mexico’s constitution in favor of a dictatorship. 

At that time, Texas was adjoined to the Mexican state of Coahuila.  Texas’ growing Anglo population favored an independent state under less control from Mexicos Centralist government.  Opposed to Santa Anna’s rule, Seguin sided with the rebellious Texans.  Stephen F. Austin commissioned him a captain in charge of supplying food and provisions.  Seguin raised a company of 37 men.   In 1835, he assisted Texas forces in capturing his hometown from Mexican forces under General Martin Perfecto de Cos.  Forced to leave San Antonio with his 500 men, Cos marched to Laredo where he met Santa Anna’s army of 6,000 marching in the opposite direction - toward San Antonio.  Seguin joined the Alamo defenders with the hope reinforcements would arrive.  Before the Alamo was encircled, Seguin was dispatched as a courier to seek help from Sam Houston.  After learning the Alamo had fallen, Seguin organized a company of Hispanics to act as a rearguard for Houston’s nascent army.  His company was the only Hispanic company that fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. 

After Santa Anna’s defeat, Seguin was promoted to Lt. Colonel and ordered to San Antonio, where he accepted the surrender of the Mexican forces that occupied the town.  On February 25, 1837, he ordered the collection and burial of the Alamo defenders’ ashes almost a year after the battle.  Despite Santa Anna’s surrender and the ensuing Treaty of Velasco that granted Texas’ independence, the Mexican government refused to accept the treaty and continued making armed incursions into Texas.  Sequin’s regiment was woefully short of supplies, complaining they were “on foot, naked and barefoot.”  Unable to obtain supplies from the Texas army’s quartermaster, he had to confiscate supplies and horses from San Antonio residents which alienated him from his fellow Tejanos.  Nevertheless, Seguin’s regiment was invaluable in collecting intelligence and maintaining communication between Mexico and the Republic of Texas, especially since many Anglo-Texans did not speak Spanish.  During the fall of 1837, Seguin was elected a senator of the newly created Texas Congress. 

Although he represented San Antonio, he represented the interests of all Hispanics in the Republic of Texas as well.   The challenge for Sequin was representing a district that Anglo-Texas settlements distrusted because of its Hispanic population, while many of his constituents were neutral during the Revolution and had a flagging regard for their new government.   

In 1840, Seguin resigned from the Texas Senate to assist General Antonio Canales in an abortive attempt to set up a Federalist nation along the Rio Grande - the Republic of the Rio Grande.  He mortgaged his property to help fund Canales’ efforts, which abruptly ended when Canales signed an armistice with the Mexican government.  Now in debt, Seguin engaged in land speculation and smuggling to recoup his losses. 

To encourage Texas colonists to stay in Texas after its independence and promote settlement, the Texas Congress adopted the headright system to award land grants; a system rife with fraud and corruption.  Abused by Anglo settlers who wanted their land and Comanche attacks, many Tejanos sold their land grants for far less their value to unscrupulous speculators.  Though he engaged in the trading of land grants, no hard evidence exists of any criminal activity. 

Seguin was elected Alcalde again in 1841, but under accusations he betrayed a failed Texan expedition to conquer New Mexico by notifying Mexican authorities.  In addition, he faced a growing threat from Anglo squatters within San Antonio’s corporate boundaries who wanted to displace Hispanic business owners.  Matters only grew worse when Mexican troops under General Rafael Vasquez briefly occupied San Antonio.  Though Vasquez’s occupation lasted only three days and was simply a plundering expedition, he managed to sow distrust among the Anglo Texans, who now considered Sequin a traitor.  Hounded by the squatters and fearing for the safety of his family, Seguin resigned as alcalde and fled to Mexico, writing later he was “a victim to the wickedness of a few men whose imposture was favored by their origin and recent domination over the country.”  With no means to support his family, he took the drastic step of joining the Mexican Army. 

Despite Seguin’s support of the Texas Revolution, Mexican authorities recognized his popularity with Tejanos, who had fled Texas from vengeful Anglo settlers who considered them enemies.  Taking advantage of his popularity and leadership skills, they gave him command of a Tejano unit called the “Defensores de Bexar” (Bexar Defenders) assigned to the command of General Adrian Woll.   The French born Woll had fought under Santa Anna and retreated with the Mexican Army after San Jacinto.  In 1842, he invaded Texas along with Seguin’s “Defensores.”  Seguin was given no official military title.  He and his command served primarily as scouts and forgers. On September 11, 1842, Woll’s army of 1,400 occupied San Antonio for a week before retreating back to Mexico.  Under Seguin’s supervision, 200 Tejano families, fearing Anglo retribution, left with Woll for the safety of Mexico.  One Texas Ranger declared killing Sequin and his followers “would be doing God a service.”  Seguin continued serving in the Mexican Army during the War with Mexico, participating in the Battle of Buena Vista. 

After a six year exile, Seguin returned to a Texas annexed by the United States with the blessing of his one true Anglo friend - Sam Houston.  He settled with his family at his father’s ranch near present-day Floresville in Wilson County.  He later served as Bexar County Justice of the Peace and an election precinct chairman.  In 1852, Seguin participated in the establishment of the Democratic Party in San Antonio.  In his later years, he moved to Nuevo Laredo to be near his son.  Seguin died there at the age of 87 on August 27, 1890.  On July 4, 1976, his remains were transferred from Nuevo Laredo to the town named in his honor - Seguin.  Considered a traitor by Texans and Mexicans, Seguin provided invaluable service to the Republic of Texas, sound leadership for a developing San Antonio and an important intermediary between Tejano and Texan.           





Sunday, June 6, 2021

Ships of the Desert


During the early 1800’s, patrolling the vast, arid landscapes of West Texas and the Southwest Territories was difficult at best.  Railroads in the Southwest didn't exist back then.  Unlike the East, the Southwest didn’t have the rivers for steamboats.  To maintain operations at U.S. forts, everything had to be hauled in with mules, wagons and stagecoaches.   Maintaining ample supplies of feed for horses and mules was vital since forage was scarce.  What was needed was a cost effective way, for the U.S. Army, to traverse the Southwest without the gallons of water and sacks of grain needed for horses and mules.  The answer came from across the Atlantic Ocean in the Middle East.

In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis urged Congress to appropriate money for the purchase of camels to be used in Texas.  After $30,000 was appropriated by Congress, Major H. C. Wayne boarded the navy supply ship USS Supply for a buying trip along the North African and Middle Eastern coasts.  On May 13, 1856, Supply arrived at Indianola, Texas with a cargo of 33 camels, along with 3 Arabs and 2 Turks to handle them.  Since camel saddles were not available or even seen in the United States, Supply brought them along as well.  Wayne lead the first camel caravan from Indianola to Camp Verde in Kerr County, Texas, followed by a second, consisting of 41 camels.  At Camp Verde, he helped train U.S. Army personnel in the use and care of camels, a talent he had acquired during his trip to the Middle East.  The first camel driver hired by the U.S. Army was an Ottoman Turk named Hadji Ali.  Brought over on USS Supply, he became one the first Muslims to set foot in Texas.  Because no one in Texas could properly pronounce his name, much less spell it, he was referred to as “Hi Jolly.”  Ali served with the U.S. Army as a camel driver and later handled mules as well.  He also hauled supplies for miners using camels he had purchased for his own use.  Ali died in 1902 and is buried at Quartzite, Arizona under a stone pyramid topped with a copper camel.    

Among the camels’ duties were carrying supplies during long reconnaissance missions in Southwest Texas, carrying survey equipment across the New Mexico Territory to the California border, and hauling supplies and mail to the U.S. forts.   The camels proved their worth by carrying up to 600 pounds, traveling miles without water, and ate almost any plant protruding from the ground, incuding cactus.  In one remarkable instance, a camel was bitten by a rattlesnake and showed no effects from it.  The problem, however, was their incompatibility with horses and mules – they frightened the hell out of them.   Naturally, mule drivers preferred the more docile, smaller-sized mules over the more ill-tempered camels.   They also emitted a strange, obnoxious odor and would spit on you when angered.  In the end, they just couldn’t fit in with a frontier culture geared around horses, mules, wagons, and livery stables.

The camel experiment went bust during the Civil War.  Those that fell into Confederate hands were used to haul cotton to Brownsville where it was sent across the Mexican border for arms.  One even carried camp equipment for a Confederate Missouri Infantry company.  A camel named “Old Douglas” served with the 43rd Mississippi Infantry.  After the war, those still alive were auctioned off.  Some ended up in traveling circuses.  Eventually they all died off from old age, neglect, slaughter or being left in the wild to roam the Southwest desert.  In 1902, while working cattle in the Arizona desert, a group of cowboys came across a dead camel.  Wrapped around its neck in a poignant embrace was the deceased “Hi Jolly.”        

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Unce Ben's Place

 Benjamin Dowell

In Old El Paso, tempered justice and politics were seldom practiced with a public courtroom and debate hall.  It was often practiced with bare knuckles and revolvers, usually with deadly consequences.  A visitor at the town saloon experienced El Paso justice firsthand by trying to break up a saloon fight.  The saloonkeeper calmly informed him “when you see anything of that kind going on in El Paso, don’t interfere.  It is not considered good manners here.”  Though gentle in manner, the saloonkeeper presented a wise, authoritative figure enhanced by his unusual white hair and long beard.  Affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ben,” Benjamin Dowell brought a rough sense of growth and order to a remote corner of Texas.   


In the late 1840’s, El Paso, Texas was a small, unincorporated community north of the Rio Grande across from El Paso del Norte, now present day Juarez.  Often referred to as Franklin, its most dominate establishment was a collection of white adobe buildings referred to as the Ponce Ranch, established by a wealthy El Paso del Norte merchant, Juan Maria Ponce De Leon.  The living quarters were surrounded by high walls for protection against Indian raids, ocassionally breached when the Indians shot their arrows over the walls.  Among the ranch employees was Ben Dowell, a former U.S. cavalryman who had spent eight months in Mexico City as a prisoner of war.  Conditions were poor at best; the prison diet consisted of tortillas purchased through donations from the prison guards, who were just as poor as the prisoners they guarded.  In his late twenties, he came out of prison with white hair and a fluency in Spanish.  After the Mexican War, he returned to his home state of Kentucky, divorced his wife, and headed for Texas.  In dire need of employment, Dowell got a job at the Ponce Ranch tending the ranch’s vineyards.  He also married, for the second and final time, an illiterate Tigua Indian woman named Juana Marquez.  Stricken with “gold fever,”he headed for California, briefly settling in Los Angeles and working as a carpenter with a fellow West Texan, Bill Ford.  Even by El Paso standards, Los Angeles was too violent to raise a family,  Dowell decided to return to Texas.


In 1850, Dowell opened El Paso’s first saloon in one of the Ponce Ranch buildings. De Leon sold his ranch to a local freighter before Dowell purchased it in 1853.  Like many frontier Texas towns,  Dowell’s Saloon served many functions, such as a billiard hall, post office, grocery store, and courthouse.  High stakes poker was played with silver coins and thousands won or lost in a single hand.   Food was brought to the players if games lasted through the night.  Overseeing it all was Ben Dowell.  


Like all frontier saloons, gunfights were bound to happen.  In 1855, Dowell himself became involved in a shooting.  The theft of $2,300 from the town custom house and a horse from Dowell’s residence brought accusations against William McElroy and three others.  Dowell called out McElroy directly for the theft, something McElroy didn’t take well after he had a few drinks.  In San Elizario, a town southeast of EI Paso, McElroy spilled his intentions to kill Ben Dowell to the town’s saloonkeeper, Bill Ford - Dowell’s California buddy.  Ford sent a message by courier on a swift horse to his friend, warning him of McElroy.  Dowell was ready; he felled McMcElroy with a shotgun blast after the would-be assassin entered his saloon.  Later, another gunslinger was dispatched after taking potshots at El Paso legislator Jeff Hall in front of Dowell’s Saloon.  Armed vigilantes cornered him behind a hotel before showering him with bullets. There were no probations or lengthy jail sentences, law was enforced through the barrel of a gun.


The Civil War brought further disruption.  In 1861, Texas seceded from the Union.  A Confederate flag flew over Dowell’s establishment, leaving no doubt as to which side he supported.  A failed Confederate invasion of New Mexico led to occupation by Union troops, forcing residents to flee to San Antonio or across the river to El Paso del Norte.  The saloon’s fixtures and billiard tables were taken across the river and used in an El Paso del Norte bar. After leaving his family in Mexico, Dowell served as a Confederate recruiting officer in Galveston.


After the war, former Confederates had their property confiscated, forcing them to stroke politicians or seek redress from courts of law to get it back.  In McDowell’s case, it didn’t hurt if those politicians were in the same Masonic order or were friends before the war.  Dowell got his property back while El Paso’s started to grow.  Dowell’s Saloon added two more functions - stagecoach stopover and livery for travelers heading from San Antonio to San Diego, a sort of latter-day Buc-ee’s.   


Unlike the war, the violence never subsided.  Reconstruction politics became the new flashpoint.  Democratic politicians were replaced with Republicans who favored the Union side during the war.  The Republican Party had two factions:  Radicals, who favored a progressive approach, such as equal rights for former slaves, and Conservatives, who favored the opposite.  In 1868, customs collector W. W. Mills, the son-in-law of Texas Governor A. J Hamilton, was El Paso’s Conservative representative at the constitutional convention in Austin.  During his absence, Albert Fountain took over Republican interests in El Paso.   On the local ticket for state senator, Mills ran against the radical Fountain - Mills lost.  With the new office came the power to appoint friends and relatives to judicial and law enforcement posts.  Frank Williams, an El Paso lawyer and friend of Mills, lost his chance at a judgeship when Fountain appointed Gaylord Clarke instead.  To assuage his disappointment, Williams began drinking heavily at Dowell’s Saloon.  In addition, he showed scant respect for the new judge when pleading his cases and vowed vengeance against Fountain and his cronies.  Things only grew worse from there.


On December 6, 1870, while Williams was drinking, Albert Fountain approached him at Dowell’s Saloon to discuss Williams’ less than respectful attitude.  In response, Williams pulled out his pistol and shot Fountain three times, hitting him in the left arm, scalp and almost his heart before the bullet deflected off his pocket watch.  Williams fled to his house to reload while Fountain gathered a posse, Judge Clarke included.  They surrounded Williams’ abode and began breaking in the door.  Williams emerged from the doorway with a double-barreled shotgun, shooting Clarke dead.  Fountain killed Williams with one rifle shot, ending the dispute.


In 1872, El Paso decided it needed a city government.  Ben Dowell was elected its first mayor.  His saloon became the first city hall.  Among the new city’s vexing problems were tax collections, clean water, and stray dogs.  Dowell’s main problem was more of an international one - the Rio Grande.  After a severe flood in 1864, the river changed course, leaving three hundred acres of Mexican land now in the United States.  Mexico wanted that land back. Mayor Dowell felt the matter should be resolved by the United States and Mexico instead of locally.  The matter was not resolved until a century later when President John F. Kennedy and Mexico’s President Adolfo Lopez Mateos agreed to give 630 acres back to Mexico and Mexico would give 193 acres to the United States.  As a result, 5,500 El Pasoans had to move to other parts of the city.            


After being a mayor, Dowell was a county commissioner and city alderman while still tending his bar.  He died unexpectedly in 1880.  The saloon continued operating after his widow leased it out to Frank Manning and his brothers, all well known gunfighters.  El Paso had become a city but it was still under the cloud of its wild frontier past.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Texas Pirate


Jean Lafitte

Pirates are generally not associated with the cowboy-laden culture of Texas.  Pirate icons such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan got their fame in the Caribbean Islands at the expense of Spain and her New World colonies.  Texas, during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” was a frontier Spanish colony with little to offer a pirate crew.  Rum, gold and loose women were severely lacking.  The inhabitants were mostly rattlesnakes and the Karankawas, an indigenous tribe of hunters and gatherers that practiced ritual cannibalism.  For a few years in the early 1800’s, however, the Texas port of Galveston was a pirate base - the home of notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. 

Little is known about Lafitte’s youth.  He was likely born in 1782 in France before immigrating to Saint Domingue (now Haiti) then New Orleans.  He and his brother Pierre attended a military academy on the French island of Saint Kitts.  A few years later, they were brokers for privateers and smugglers on the Louisiana island of Barataria, 23 miles south of New Orleans.  Lafitte was not your basic slovenly, hard-drinking pirate; he was more like a mob boss.  He enjoyed gambling, attractive women, fine dining, and fashionable attire.  He was also well educated and spoke three languages. 

In the 1790’s, Louisiana was a French colony peopled with a diverse mix of Spaniards, French, Creoles, and free blacks.  New Orleans relied heavily on trade with the Caribbean Islands.  That all changed with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  France’s Emperor Napoleon, strapped for cash, sold Louisiana to the United States for $15 million.  Because of its war with France, U.S. merchant ships were often seized on the open seas by British warships, impressing their crews for service in the British Navy.  In retaliation, the United States passed the Embargo Act of 1807 that barred American ships from anchoring at any foreign port and placed an embargo on goods imported into the United States.  New Orleans merchants needed a new source for goods and merchandise.  Jean and Pierre made a fortune smuggling goods and slaves into New Orleans with their pirate fleet, some of which were captured Spanish schooners.  Goods and slaves were seized on the high seas, brought into Barataria, and then purchased or auctioned off in New Orleans.   Slaves were in huge demand, but the slave trade had been outlawed in the United States, making slave ships beckoning targets. 

The Lafitte brothers operated as privateers, legally authorized pirates through letters of marque issued by foreign governments.  In the Lafittes’ case, the letter of marque was from the Port of Cartagena in Columbia, though none of the Lafitte’s pirated goods ever made it there.  Most privateers held multiple letters of marque like a person today would have multiple credit cards, giving them wide leverage in pirating merchant vessels.  By 1810, Barataria was becoming a booming port for smugglers, pirates and privateers, practically a separate nation within the United States - a separate pirate nation.  Louisiana’s new territorial governor greatly resented the Lafittes’ privateering operations, which paid no import taxes and whose well-paid, experienced sailors could cause problems for the fledgling U.S. Navy.  Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, commander of the U.S. naval squadron in the gulf and once a prisoner of the Barbary pirates, wrote, the smugglers “should they not be soon destroyed, it will be extremely hazardous for an unarmed vessel even American to approach the coast.”  During November, 1812, a detachment of 60 U.S. troops invaded Barataria and arrested the Lafitte brothers.  The brothers posted bond before disappearing and then not showing up for their trial.  Louisiana Governor William C. Claiborne posted a $500 reward for the arrest of Pierre and Jean.  The Lafittes, in turn, posted a reward for the arrest of Governor Claiborne.   The Louisiana legislature, whose constituents benefitted from smuggling, refused to assemble a militia to suppress Barataria’s privateers. 

In September, 1814, Patterson launched a second attack on Barataria with a small fleet of seven warships, scattering the privateers and capturing ten of Lafitte’s ships.  Despite Patterson’s success, Claiborne had a bigger problem two months later - the British Navy.  The United States had declared war on Great Britain in June, 1812 over the seizure of its vessels and the arming of hostile Indian tribes resisting westward expansion.  Two years later, the British sacked Washington DC.  By the end of 1814, the British had arrived in the Gulf and requested a meeting with Jean Lafitte.  Meeting at his Baratarian home, they offered him and his fellow privateers land grants and British citizenship if he would support them.  Despite its military setbacks, Lafitte felt the U.S. would eventually win out.  He offered his support to Major General Andrew Jackson.  Lafitte provided guns, ammo and men to Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans.  For his support, Lafitte received a full pardon.  Nevertheless, Lafitte renewed his privateering after the battle while also serving as a Spanish agent during Mexico’s revolt against Spain.  

Pressure from the U.S. forced Lafitte to seek another base.  In 1817, he established his new base at Galveston, giving it the name “Campeche.”  Lafitte had seized the island from another privateer, Louis Michel Aury.  He also built himself a house he named Maison Rouge (Red House).  Eventually, 1,000 people settled there, mostly men.  The better armed settlers held off the Karankawas, but could do little about the weather.  A hurricane swept over the low-lying island in 1817, destroying most of Lafitte’s fleet. 

Jim Bowie, the future knife-wielding, Texas revolutionary, formed a partnership with Lafitte over pirated slaves.  Lafitte brought them ashore before selling them to Bowie; who tipped off U.S. customs officials in New Orleans where they could be found.  In return, Bowie received a bounty and the chance to bid for them at auction.  Bolstered with his bounty money, he outbid his competitors at the auction.  The slaves were, in essence, being laundered like drug money.  Slaves were in high demand in the Mississippi’s Delta Region and planters paid Bowie top dollar for his slaves. 

After the seizure of a U.S. merchant vessel, Lafitte was forced to leave again, this time for the Yucatan Region of Mexico.  He became ill and then returned to Barataria to die. The burning of “Campeche” by Lafitte and natural erosion have left no remains on Galveston Island.  A Texas historical marker stands where Lafitte supposedly lived but the concrete foundations are actually from a house erected years later after Lafitte left.  Lafitte gained renewed prominence with the popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  A theater for tourists, on Galveston’s Pier 21, presents a film entitled The Pirate Island of Jean Lafitte and a museum on the Strand, “Pirates ! Legends of the Gulf Coast,” that has a replica pirate ship and chronicles the life of Lafitte. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Rebel Raider off the Texas Coast


                                   Captain Raphael Semmes on board the CSS Alabama

In January, 1863, less than two weeks after Confederate forces recaptured Galveston, a squadron of five Union warships arrived at the entrance to Galveston Bay.   Their purpose was to reestablish the Union naval blockade, driven off a few days earlier by Texas troops under the command of Major General John B. Magruder.  Venting their wrath over the loss of Texas’ largest city, the Union vessels began lobbing shells into Galveston.  Commodore Henry H. Bell’s attention was diverted to a distant ship on the horizon.  Rumors swirled of a new Confederate warship plying the Atlantic Ocean, but she was too far east to be a threat.  Nevertheless, the ship might be a Confederate vessel.  Bell ordered the side paddlewheel steamer, USS Hatteras, to chase down the mystery ship. 

Prior to the Civil War, the 210-foot Hatteras had served as a passenger steamer on the Delaware River.  In desperate need of steam vessels to chase down blockade runners, the U.S. Navy purchased every seaworthy steamboat available, mostly passenger and ferry boats.  Hatteras possessed an iron deck, making her ideal for supporting large naval guns.   Because of the paddle wheels, she was limited in the number of guns she could carry.  Four 32-pound shell guns, two 20-pound rifled guns, and a 12-pound howitzer were installed.  The added weight, however, decreased her speed to 7 knots.  A crew of 126 men and officers was assigned to the converted gunboat under the command of Commander George Foster Emmons.  Hatteras was dispatched to the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron to patrol the coast of West Florida.  Despite its slow pace, Hatteras managed to capture 14 blockade runners; seven of which were captured during an evening raid on Cedar Keys, Florida.  She was later assigned to the Western Gulf Coast Blockade Squadron, patrolling the waters off Louisiana and Texas.  Emmons was replaced by Commander Homer C. Blake; who had performed a geographical survey of the Texas coast before the war.  

Hatteras steamed toward the mystery ship at top speed, but was moving too far from the support of her squadron.  The mystery ship’s commander counted on it, keeping her just slow enough to entice a chase.  Twenty miles from the Texas coast, he suddenly turned about and steamed toward Hatteras.  The evening darkness hampered identification, except for the presence of a British flag flying from her aft mast.  Within 70 yards, Blake called out to the ship to stop and identify herself.  “What ship are you?”  The mystery ship replied, “Her Britannic Majesty Ship Petrel!”  Not convinced of her neutral nation identity, Blake shouted back that he was sending a boat over.  Before the boat could depart, Petral turned her broadside to directly face Hatteras.  The British flag was lowered and replaced with the flag of the Confederate States of America.  A second identity was shouted out.  “This is the Confederate States Steamer Alabama - Fire!  Blake was now locked into a duel with the Confederacy’s deadliest warship.

The steam cruiser CSS Alabama was British-built under the discrete direction of Confederate Agent Commander James Bulloch.  According to Great Britain’s neutrality laws, vessels could be constructed for foreign powers at war provided they were not armed.  That didn’t mean they couldn’t be armed outside British territory.  Upon completion, Alabama sailed for the Azores Islands off the Portuguese coast.  Eight 32-pound smoothbore guns, one 8-inch smoothbore pivot gun and a ship-killing 110-pound Blakely pivot gun were brought aboard.  To save fuel and reduce drag, the cruiser’s screw, or propeller, could be raised, enabling her to be solely propelled by sail.  Lured by pay in gold coin that was double their normal salaries and booty from captured ships, the crew was recruited from British ships.  The officers were Southerners.   The cruiser was placed under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes, who had previously commanded the steam cruiser CSS Sumter.   Before Alabama entered the Gulf of Mexico, she had seized 26 vessels.  Twenty-two were burned after any useful items were confiscated.  The rest were bonded to send prisoners home or had foreign registry.  Confederate agents and captured newspapers kept Semmes apprised of any opportunities.  Cruising off Santo Domingo, a Boston newspaper informed Semmes of a planned coastal invasion of Texas by Major General Nathaniel Banks, requiring over twenty transport vessels.  Although Alabama’s main purpose was to sink Union merchant vessels, Semmes couldn’t resist an opportunity to attack Union troop ships.  The invasion was thwarted when Confederate troops liberated Galveston, capturing a Union regiment and driving off Union blockaders in the process.  On January 11, 1863, off the Galveston coast, Alabama’s’ lookout yelled out, “Land ho! Sail ho!”  He counted five warships, but no transports.  It became apparent that Galveston had been recaptured when they fired their guns on the Texas port.  One of the warships, USS Hatteras, approached.  Semmes ordered Alabama to steam west, luring Hatteras away from the coast. 

Hatteras’ Executive Officer Henry O. Porter told Blake, “That, sir, I think is the Alabama.  What shall we do?”  Blake replied calmly, “If that is the Alabama we must fight her.”  A tremendous broadside from Alabama crashed into Hatteras’ hull.  Porter shouted out, “Alabama, boys give it to her.”  The firepower of the Confederate raider was too much.  Semmes later recalled his men had “handled their pieces with great spirit and commendable coolness.”  One shot hit the port paddlewheel, forcing portions of the wheel into her hull.  Another shot hit the steam chest, disabling the engine and sending out a cloud of scalding steam.  Hatteras was now dead in the water.  A shot from Alabama’s 110-pound Blakely ripped into Hatteras’ sick bay, setting bottles of turpentine on fire.  The fire spread throughout the ship, threatening the powder magazine.  An alert African-American steward desperately began drowning the gunpowder in the rising seawater to keep it from exploding.  Alabama’s guns punched gaping holes into Hatteras’ hull below the waterline.  Water poured through, forcing Hatteras to list on her side.  Blake ordered a canon fired to signal surrender.  The battle was over in thirteen minutes.

Alabama ceased fire and sent out her boats to rescue Hatteras’ crew.  Semmes set course to Jamaica to refuel and drop off his prisoners; a task made difficult because the number of prisoners equaled the number of crew members.  Semmes men had to sleep on their arms.  Later that evening, the Union warship USS Brooklyn arrived at the site of the battle.  Submerged in 8 feet of water, only the top of Hatteras’ masts protruded from the surface.  Her commission flag was still flying - clear evidence Hatteras had fought honorably.   Hatteras was the only warship Alabama had sunk until her fateful duel off the French coast with the USS Kearsarge.  The sinking of Hatteras, along with Galveston’s recapture, helped keep one of the few Confederate ports in Confederate hands until the end of the war.


Sunday, October 4, 2020

Santa Anna's Army

                                        Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna


The Texas Revolution is mostly known for the courageous deeds of Texas settlers resisting an autocratic Mexican government.  Less is known about the Mexican army they fought.  Collectively designated the “Mexican Army of Operations,” the 6,019 Mexican troops proved a tougher foe than most Texans originally thought.  With minimal food and water, they marched hundreds of miles in desert-like conditions through a territory plagued with hostile Native Americans and one of the worst winters to ever hit Northern Mexico.  In the end, incompetent leadership, politics, and poor logistical support led to the Army of Operations’ defeat.


The Mexican Army’s roots lie with its former colonial master, Spain.  After Mexico gained its independence, its army simply kept the tactics of their Spanish forebears.  During the 1830’s, Mexico’s military manuals were exact copies of Spanish manuals that were already dated in 1815.  Innovation was slow in coming, especially in a country where politics could change on a dime.  To make matters worse, government officials were often rife with corruption and shifted their loyalties according to the dictates of their status and income.  The two competing political parties in Mexico were the Centralists, who favored a strong, central government and Federalists, who favored strong, local state governments over the central government in Mexico City.  Straddling this political divide was Mexico’s charismatic leader, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.


Elected president in 1833, Santa Anna promised democratic reforms.  Instead, he reneged on those promises, establishing a more autocratic, central government instead.  Those who resisted were subject to arrest, imprisonment and execution.  A revolt by the Mexican state of Zacatecas was ruthlessly put down followed by 48 hours of pillaging that appalled the international community.  Texas colonists resisted as well, driving Mexican troops out of San Antonio and securing the city’s one fortified position - The Alamo.  Santa Anna was incensed by the Texans effrontery to his government, deciding to make an example of them.  To do so would require an army of several thousand that would have to be augmented by conscripts often forced to volunteer at gunpoint.   One of Santa Anna’s officers and one of his fiercest critics, Colonel Jose Enrique de la Pena, wrote The Army of Operations was “created by bayonets and now had to be upheld by them.” 


Santa Anna’s tactics were based primarily on his hero - Napoleon Bonaparte.  His officers knew that a thorough knowledge of Napoleon’s tactics was a fast tract toward advancement.  He referred to himself as the “The Napoleon of the West” with little regard for innovative tactics and methods outside the French emperor’s dogma.  Santa Anna’s second in command, the Italian-born General Vicente Filial wrote that Santa Anna would “listen to nothing which was not in accord with Napoleon’s ideas.” 


The Mexican Army consisted of three branches:


1.    The Permanent Troops - regular army infantry and cavalry troops on active duty.

2.    The Active Militia (Milicia Activa) - active, or partialy, active duty militia that included infantry and cavalry units.

3.    The Civic Militia (Milicia Civica) - reserve militia where any male between 18 and 40 could voluntarily enlist or be conscripted by force if necessary.  Used primarily for local police duties or national emergencies.


One branch of service that was sorely lacking in Mexico’s wars with Texas and later, the United States, was the Navy.  With a navy, large numbers of troops could have been dispersed on the Texas coast with greater ease than marching them hundreds of miles over difficult terrain.  In addition, it would have deprived Texas of its coastal ports, vital entry points for supplies and volunteers from the United States.


Since Mexico had no arms manufacturers, the infantry was armed with imported four foot long, British-made Brown Bess muskets.  The powder flash from the Brown Bess could burn the face of its user, forcing him to shut his eyes while firing.  A residue of gunpowder built up in the barrel that affected the musket’s firing, requiring frequent cleaning.  In some instances, the blockage was removed by simply urinating into the barrel.  To compensate for the musket’s inaccuracy, troops had to fire in concentrated volleys to hit their target, leaving thick clouds of smoke on the battlefield.  The bullet was a massive .753 caliber ball that could knock a man right off his feet.  A bayonet was affixed to its long barrel, making it an effective spear in close combat.   The cavalry was armed with British-made swords, single shot pistols and that most feared of Mexican weaponry, the lance. 


           Uniforms varied in color, especially during the period of Santa Anna.  The standard uniform of a Permanent infantryman included white pants and a blue jacket with red piping and a red collar with the regiment number on the collar.  White sashes and a white belt supported an ammunition pouch and bayonet holder.   Topping it off was a conical, visored shako adorned with a red plume and a brass plate of Mexico’s national symbol.  Some units wore all white pants and jackets, more suitable for the warmer summer months.  The cavalry wore red jackets with green breasts and collars.  Headgear was a metal helmet or wide-brimmed, white-banned hat.  Assisting the cavalry were state militias and rancheros from the Northern Mexico states.


Through the Catholic Church and private money lenders, Santa Anna financed and then assembled his army at San Luis Potosi in December 1865.  They began their march to San Antonio that same month. Napoleon was quoted as saying “an army marches on its stomach.”  Santa Anna seemed to have little regard for the stomachs of his own army.  Each man carried only one month of rations.  Food caches were established in advance of Santa Anna’s march but they often fell prey to marauding Comanches.  Forage parties and state government provisions had to make up for any food deficits.  Enlisted men were generally poor Indian peasants who were badly uniformed, ill fed and physically abused by officers who embezzled their pay.  Many could not speak Spanish and were more use to the jungle climate of Southern Mexico’s Yucatan Region than the desert regions of Northern Mexico.  The Army of Operations did not have an effective quartermaster corps nor a medical corps.  Instead, the families of the soldiers accompanied them on the march, providing food, medical attention and comfort along the way.  Referred to as Soldaderas, they became an increasing burden as Santa Anna marched north.  The doctors that were on hand were incompetent to the point of being outright “Quacks.”  Despite the doctors’ best efforts, hundreds died of disease and exposure as winter arrived in Northern Mexico.  A blizzard in 1836 dropped over a foot of snow on the line of march, subjecting many to frostbite.  Dead animals, discarded equipment, and broken down wagons lined the march.


To transport their supplies, the Army of Operations relied on a train of two-wheeled carts pulled by oxen and the sturdy backs of pack mules.  The skills needed to drive mules made the mule drivers indispensable for Santa Anna’s march.  They had to be paid or else they would leave, taking their mules with them.  To add to the transport problem were the Comanches, who stole from the Mexicans’ horse and cattle herds.   The problem forced Santa Anna to dispatch a division to go after the Comanches.  Straggling soldiers faced an increased risk of being killed and scalped by Indians.


Despite the overwhelming hardships, Santa Anna’s troops accomplished their march and inflicted defeats on the Texans at The Alamo and Goliad.  Santa Anna enjoyed superior numbers, but made a fateful decision after capturing San Antonio - he divided his army.  The decision cost him at San Jacinto and forced his troops to retreat back to Mexico.  Nevertheless, the Mexican soldier proved a stalwart opponent dedicated to his country and supportive of its efforts to suppress revolting Texans.