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Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Deadly Beans


The Drawing of the Beans at Salado

During the Autumn of 1842, Sam Houston, the President of the Republic of Texas, was in a quandary.  General Santa Anna, his defeated adversary at San Jacinto, had regained power in Mexico and reneged on his promise to support Texas independence.  Financial problems and government instability prevented the wily dictator from launching another invasion on what he still considered a rebellious Mexican province.  Instead, Santa Anna dispatched a number of military expeditions into Texas to raid its settlements.  After San Antonio had been occupied and plundered by Mexican troops under General Raphael Vasquez, enraged Texans wanted immediate revenge.  Texas, however, was flat broke and had no standing army, relying instead on ill-disciplined militia units.  To make matters worse, the Texas arsenal was practically empty, consisting of only 2 brass cannons, 581 kegs of powder, and 395 muskets - barely enough for a single company.  Aid from the U.S. was not forthcoming because Texas was a slave republic.  Northern politicians were opposed to slavery and had little enthusiasm for the Lone Star State, much less its annexation.  As a result of these shortcomings, Houston was opposed to conducting military operations in Mexico.  When the Texas Congress passed a bill to raise an army, he vetoed it.


That all changed after Mexican General Adrien Woll surprised and briefly occupied San Antonio with 1,500 men.  After looting San Antonio for the second time, Woll left with 52 prisoners in tow.  Near Salado Creek, he confronted an 80 man militia force under Colonel Matthew Caldwell.  Woll’s cavalry tried to break Caldwell’s defensive line and took a drubbing from his sharpshooters.  Captain Nicholas Mosby Dawson arrived on the scene with 50 men, only to be slaughtered by Woll’s artillery.  Sheltered in a mesquite thicket, Dawson’s remaining men tried to surrender but were cut down in what would later be called the “Dawson Massacre.”  The public’s clamor for revenge intensified, too much for Houston to simply ignore; he issued a call for volunteers.


Houston had no illusions of immediate success against Mexico’s army; he favored a defensive position along the Texas border where volunteers could be properly trained and readily supplied with what little was on hand. Instead of appointing a tough, two-fisted commander that would take the fight into Mexicos interior, Houston chose a portly, feckless town merchant who he could micromanage - Brigadier General Alexander Somervell.  One militia member remarked, His very looks and deportment combined to prove him no General.”


Militias from all over Texas converged on San Antonio, where Somervell set up a loosely managed headquarters and nightly fandangos offered a less than military regimen.  Many were volunteers from the U.S., later described by a historian as “a rabble of adventurers and self-willed men unable or unwilling to subordinate their impetuous desires to the general good.”  Instead of issued uniforms, they wore an odd assortment of coonskin hats, sombreros, buckskin breeches and moccasins.  Nevertheless, their long rifles gave them a decided edge over Mexico’s antiquated muskets and spirits ran high.


On November 13, Somervell’s ragtag army of 700 set out for the Medina River.  Its first target was the border town of Laredo; a town decimated from Comanche and Apache raids.  Plagued by freezing rain, mud, misdirection and malnourishment, the Texans arrived in Laredo and found out the Mexican soldiers there had withdrawn.    Pleased that they wouldn’t have to fight entrenched troops, they were less pleased with Laredo’s utter lack of provisions.  The only thing the town alcalde could offer were 6 scrawny cows and a few sacks of flour.  Angered by the meager offering, many of the Texans began plundering Laredo’s ramshackle homes.   Furious over the looting, Somervell ordered his men to return the items they stole.    After he apologized to the alcalde, a mound of lifted booty was grudgingly assembled for return to Laredo’s residents.  Somervell next marched across the Rio Grande and captured the town of Guerro.  Like Laredo, there were only threadbare civilians and little loot to plunder.  With minimal support from President Houston, no military objectives in the offing, an army devolving into chaotic mob, and converging Mexican troops, Somervell prudently ordered his men to disband and return home.  Outraged at Somervells orders, 308 chose to continue the expedition, mostly to search for horses, cattle and sheep herds to rustle.  They would soon wish they had left with Somervell.


The expedition was now under Colonel William S. Fisher, a reckless, bombastic former Secretary of War under Houston.  Always searching for praise and glory, Fisher’s saw his chance to shine.  The shine took a dull tone when he entered the Mexican town of Mier on the Rio Grande.  Again,  the Texans requested supplies from the town’s alcalde, taking him hostage to ensure delivery.  Mexican troops arrived in Mier and cut off Fisher from the supplies.  Undeterred, he decided to attack Mier and seize them.  Hours of bloody street fighting ensued with the Texans seemingly getting the upper hand.  A staggering eight hundred Mexicans became casualties compared to thirty on the Texas side.  However, they were outnumbered, running out of ammo, and low on moral.  Fisher was in agony after his thumb was shot off.  Only the fear of a “no quarter” defeat kept them fighting.  The Mexican commander, General Pedro de Ampudia, deceptively offered a way out - surrender and be honorably treated as prisoners of war.   Fisher fell for the ruse; he surrendered. 


Now prisoners, they were dishonorably forced to march on foot to Mexico City.  Referred to as “Los Diablos Tejanos,” they were jeered by Mexican villagers along the way while church bells signaled their approach.  At the town of Salado, they decided to cheat an uncertain fate; they overpowered their guards and then escaped into Mexico’s treacherous countryside.  To avoid recapture, they took a circuitous route through the mountains only to become lost.  The escapees, worn-out from the march, became exhausted and dehydrated to the point of collapse - only three made it back to Texas.   The rest were recaptured and returned to Salado, where they were placed in irons.  Santa Anna wanted to execute all of them but was persuaded to take a less drastic measure - execution by lottery.  The prisoners were forced to draw dried beans from an earthen jar.  If a white one was drawn, you were spared.  A black bean meant execution by firing squad.  Seventeen selected black beans.  William “Bigfoot” Wallace cleverly felt the beans after noting the size of the black beans; he drew a white one.  After writing letters to their loved ones, the condemned were blindfolded and seated on a log bench.  A local priest sprinkled holy water over the execution site.  Because of the poor quality of the Mexican muskets, the prisoners were shot multiple times to ensure their deaths.  The remaining prisoners, manacled in pairs, were again force marched to Mexico City and internment at a dark, foreboding prison.


Perote Prison was a massive, medieval-like stone fortress that could hold 10,000 people.  Once called the Castle of San Carlos, it took seven years to build.  Perote had only one entrance and was surrounded by a moat.  Water was provided by an underground reservoir, but the food was sorely lacking.  The daily fare consisted of a few ounces of bread, a half pint of cornmeal, and potatoes covered with sprouts.  There was no furniture in the cells, just a cold stone floor with a mat to sleep on.  Though they surrendered to be treated as prisoners of war, the Texans were forced to perform grueling manual labor such as road repair and shoveling out latrines.  The few comforts allowed were writing letters to loved ones, receiving money and gifts, and purchasing goods outside the prison.  Overall, conditions were very harsh and the prisoners, especially those without money, suffered extensively from illness and starvation.   Seventeen managed to tunnel out through their cell floors or walls before bribing their way to Vera Cruz and boarding ships bound for the United States.  The rest had to rely on the goodwill of Santa Anna for a release date.  After pressure from British and U. S. Government officials,  Santa Anna released the prisoners on September 16, 1844.  One hundred five made it back home after two years in captivity.  Mostly forgotten, no warm public welcome awaited them.  The republic they had fought for was about to become the newest addition to the United States.  Texas no longer had a need for freebooting, rogue armies.  It wasn’t until 1850 that members of the Mier Expedition were awarded $300 in back pay.  Unlike Texas veterans from other wars, they didn’t receive land grants.  The prisoners executed and buried at Salado were exhumed during the War with Mexico, stuffed into sacks, and then reburied at Monument Hill in La Grange, Texas.             

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Frontier Hitman


Jim Miller

For many Americans, the Old West was a time where the line between good and bad was clearly defined.  An outlaw was always an outlaw - a life on the dodge until incarceration or a violent execution brought about their demise.  Where money is concerned, that line can become blurred.  A man who appears to have an upstanding, normal, and rewarding life with a wife and child can actually be a cold, calculating killer for a price.  Such was the case with James Brown Miller.

With his suit, hat and long, black overcoat, Jim Miller could easily be mistaken for a Wall Street business tycoon.  He never smoked nor drank while often attending church.  Born in Van Buren, Arkansas, young Jim moved to Evant, Texas with his mother and siblings after his father died.  They moved in with the mother’s parents, whom Jim apparently didn’t like.  A short time after, they were both found murdered.  At the age of eight, Jim was arrested, but was never prosecuted.  With an astonishing knack for getting out of trouble, it wouldn’t be his last arrest.

Miller next moved in with his sister and husband near Gatesville.  Like his grandparents, he developed a dislike for his brother-in –law, dispatching him with a shotgun blast while he was asleep on the front porch.  This time Miller was sent to prison, but the conviction was overturned on a technicality.  He moved on and became a ranch-hand at the ranch of Mannen Clements in McCulloch County where he met and later married his daughter, Sallie.  During that time, Clements was killed by Ballinger City Marshal Joe Townsend.  Miller responded by almost shooting off Townsend’s arm with a shotgun.  Forced again to move on, he headed for the Texas-Mexico border region; a region rife with violence and corruption held only in check by the Texas Rangers.   He became a bartender in San Saba County, a deputy sheriff in Reeves County and a town marshal in Pecos where he gained a reputation for killing Mexicans by claiming they were trying to escape after arresting them.  To bolster his corrupt authority, he surrounded himself with known gunfighters who killed anyone that threatened Miller’s growing criminal empire.  Otherwise, Miller was a popular resident and a member of the Methodist Church.  The folks in town fondly referred to him as “Deacon Jim.”  

Unfortunately, Miller gained the enmity of Pecos County Sheriff George A. “Bud” Frazier, who accused him of murdering cattleman Con Gibson, who was witness to a conspiracy involving Miller to kill Frazier.  What followed was a blood feud that could only have been scripted in Hollywood.  On two occasions, Frazier opened fire on Miller while he was out in public.  Miller cleverly wore an iron vest, secured under his long coat that protected his chest from Frazier’s bullets.  He ended the feud on September 13, 1896 by blowing Frazier’s head off with a shotgun while resting it on a saloon door in Toyah, Texas.   Frontier justice in those days was often not blind but corrupted in full sight, especially by friends and cohorts who sat on the jury - Miller was acquitted. 

Killing was becoming second nature to Miller by the time he moved to Ft. Worth in 1900.  He and Sallie opened up a boarding house where Miller hired himself out as a professional assassin for $150 on up depending on the victim’s stature.   His clients were usually ranchers who wanted neighboring farmers killed for fencing in their properties or sheep herders competing with them for grazing space.  Victims were killed in Miller’s signature style – a shotgun blast to the head or upper body.  In Orr, Oklahoma, Miller killed U.S. Deputy Marshal Ben Collins with a shotgun blast to the face.  Miller was hired by a man named Port Pruitt who Collins had shot and partially paralyzed.  Although he was arrested, Miller took the precaution of killing the witnesses, forcing his acquittal. 

His gun for hire practice came to a head when Miller was hired to kill popular U.S. Marshal Gus Bobbit.   Ada, Oklahoma was an often lawless town where disputes were often solved with a gun.   Ada saloon owners Jesse West and Joe Allen were involved in scamming Indians into selling their land; a practice known as “Indian Skinning.”  In exchange for their reservation land, Indians were given 160 acre plots by the Federal Government.  With the help of corrupt officials, the Indians were plied with liquor to persuade them to sell their lands for ridiculous prices, sometimes as low as $50.  Bobbit publicized the corrupt practice and urged residents to vote out corrupt officials.  Those who profited from “Indian Skinning” couldn’t afford such publicity and notoriety; they hired Miller to assassinate Bobbit.  On February 27, 1909, Bobbit was shot while driving his wagon home from Ada.  He died an hour later, but not before instructing his wife to offer a $1,000 reward for his assassin.  That following April, Miller and the men who hired him: Jesse West, Joe Allen, and Berry Burrell were arrested.  Bobbit was a popular, upstanding figure in Ada and the locals were afraid his murderers would get off scot-free.  On April 9, 1909, a lynch mob stormed the Ada jailhouse and dragged the four to a livery stable where ropes were thrown over the rafters.  Asked to confess his crimes, Miller told the mob he had killed 51 men.  He asked that his long, black coat be draped over his shoulders.  Miller was hanged after telling his executioners, “Let her rip!”  All four were photographed in macabre fashion, swinging from the rafters among the stalled horses.  Miller’s body was shipped back to Fort Worth before being buried at Oakwood Cemetery.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

"Feel the Enemy Gently" : The Texas Brigade at Eltham's Landing


Texas Brigade Flag

Throughout his checkered career in the Confederate Army, Major General Joseph E. Johnston was often vilified, and at times lauded, for one tactic— retreat.  During the spring of 1862, he applied this tactic stealthily along the Virginia Peninsula against the Union Army of the Potomac.  Under Major General George P. McClellan, the Union army’s objective was the Confederate capital of Richmond.  Fortunately for Johnston, McClellan was convinced he was heavily outnumbered, leading to an overly cautious advance that gave Johnston more than ample time to retreat towards Richmond’s stalwart defensive works.  After a brief hearted attempt to hold Williamsburg, Johnston again ordered a retreat to gain distance from McClellan.  To seal off Johnston’s rear, McClellan ordered Brigadier General William B. Franklin’s division of 11,300 men to board transports and then steam up the York River to Eltham’s Landing, across the river from the town of West Point. From there, they would march to the village of Barhamsville to attack Johnston’s rear.  Despite an uneventful landing, Franklin spent precious hours unloading his transports, delaying his advance.  Johnston was aware of his presence and ordered Major General Gustavus Woodson to block the road to Barhamsville, protecting his line of retreat.  Not wanting to bring on a major battle, Johnston ordered him to “go feel the enemy gently and fall back.”  Woodson selected Brigadier General William C. Whiting’s division to “feel” Franklin.  Whiting’s division included one exceptional brigade that would go on to legendary status in Confederate military lore - The Texas Brigade.


After spending months observing Union activity along the north bank of the Potomac River and retreating up the Virginia Peninsula, the Texas Brigade was itching for a stand-up fight.  Under the command of Brigadier General John Bell Hood, the brigade consisted of the 1st, 4th, 5th Texas regiments, the 18th Georgia regiment and the Hampton Legion from South Carolina.  The long-bearded, six foot tall Hood cut an imposing figure the Texans respected, especially on the battlefield.  To honor their commander, they presented Hood with a horse they had purchased with their own money.


On May 7, 1862, Hood advanced on Franklin’s position.  Rain fell incessantly during the week, turning  dirt roads into quagmires and creeks in raging rivers.  Because of the dense woods ahead, Hood ordered his men not to load their rifles to prevent friendly fire among his troops.  No sooner had they entered the woods, they encountered a Union picket line.  Hood later recalled, “I did not discover the Federals till they were close enough to shake hands.”  A Union corporal offered no handshake but leveled his musket at Hood instead.  Fortunately, Private John Deal of the 4th Texas had ignored Hood’s order.  He shot the Union corporal dead.   Afterwards, Hood’s Texans advanced into Franklin’s 16th New York and 95th Pennsylvania regiments, driving them toward the York River.  Franklin’s troops fell steadily back to the river and the protection of gunboats that accompanied the transports.  Hood retired from Franklin’s position.  Casualties totaled 194 for the Union side and 48 for the Confederates.  The Confederate line of retreat was secured. 


Johnston was pleased with the outcome. He humorously asked General Hood, "What would your Texans have done, sir, if I had ordered them to charge and drive back the enemy?” Hood replied, "I suppose, General, they would have driven them into the river, and tried to swim out and capture the gunboats.”  As the Texans would later prove, they would have certainly done just that.


Saturday, June 18, 2022

Mirabeau Lamar's Caravan of Folly


President Mirabeau Lamar

President Mirabeau Lamar had a vision for his new country - The Republic of Texas.  Unlike his predecessor Sam Houston who favored annexation with the United States, Lamar envisioned a separate independent republic. His fellow Texans or Texians - as he liked to call them - would become a cultured society free from Mexican influence and Indians, whom he wanted expelled.  In addition, his republic would have extended borders, including the entire length of the Rio Grande.  Within its borders, portions of present day New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas would be included.  Texas, however, didn’t have the manpower, military and money to stake such an extensive claim.  Though defeated, Mexico refused to recognize the Texas Republic and still considered it a Mexican state in rebellion.  Nevertheless, the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico and its trade riches beckoned to a cash-strapped Texas that had no established trade routes.

The Santa Fe Trail was a lucrative commercial pipeline between St. Louis and Santa Fe.  For years, teamsters drove ox and mule carts filled with fabrics, tools, and knives to Santa Fe in exchange for silver coins, wool, processed gold, and most important to a continued westward expansion - mules.  Texas merchants were more than eager to tap into Santa Fe’s wealth by redirecting the Santa Fe Trail toward Texas and its ports on the Gulf Coast.

Lamar, who wanted to occupy Santa Fe, saw opportunity through a Kentucky-born adventurer and trader who resided in Santa Fe, William D. Darden.  Via an offshore shipwreck, he entered Texas and met with Lamar.  Impressed with Darden’s enthusiasm, Lamar appointed him a commissioner in a planned Texas expedition to Santa Fe - a sort of front man for Texas interests.  Two other Santa Fe residents were appointed commissioners as well, John Rowland and William Workman.  Darden carried back instructions for the new commissioners and a rambling speech written by Lamar for the citizens of Santa Fe, explaining the benefits of a Texas government.  Unimpressed, the debt-ridden Texas Congress refused to approve the expedition, forcing Lamar to issue a call for volunteers. Five companies of infantry and one artillery battery were raised to protect an ox-drawn wagon train of twenty-one wagons carrying goods for sale and 321 teamsters, merchants, and more Lamar-appointed commissioners.  Altogether, the crude caravans merchandise totaled $200,000. 

The expedition’s commissioners were prominent Texans, including Colonel William G. Cooke, J. Antonio Navarro and Dr. Richard Brenham.  Navarro, a highly respected Hispanic community leader, spoke fluent Spanish and could possibly influence Santa Fe’s Hispanic residents.  “My participation,” said Navarro, “would serve…to avoid a crisis among my fellow citizens.”  One of the more curious members of the expedition was British immigrant and respected jurist Thomas Falconer who had offered his services to Lamar in developing Texas’ fledgling judicial system.  Sensing a grand adventure ahead, he went along as an observer and chronicler.  He would soon wish he had stayed in England. 

The expedition did not get off to an auspicious start.  On June 19, 1841, its members, officially dubbed the “Santa Fe Pioneers,” set out from Kenny’s Fort on Brushy Creek, twenty miles north of Austin near present day Round Rock.  Since no one in the expedition had ever traveled to Santa Fe from Austin, the expedition had to rely on a dubious Mexican guide who eventually deserted them.  In addition to a poor sense of direction, supplies were lacking.  Only two days into their journey, the Santa Fe party had to send back wagons for more food.  After mistaking the Wichita River, near present day Wichita Falls, for the Red River and lacking reliable maps, a company was sent out to find the elusive Red River that would lead the party into New Mexico.    The rudderless expedition was plagued by terrain, infighting, thirst, soaring temperatures, and Kiowas, who stole Falconer’s horse.  To avoid starvation, the party consumed dogs, horses, lizards, and snakes.  The hapless Falconer had his eyebrows and hair singed off when his campfire suddenly became a raging wildfire.  On August 20, 1841, a guide arrived to lead the expedition into New Mexico.

After three hellish months, the expedition’s main party reached Laguna Colorada near present day Tucumcari.  On October 5, party member Captain William G. Lewis, in cahoots with New Mexico’s Governor Manuel Armijo, turned traitor and talked the expedition into surrendering to Mexican forces in New Mexico.  Thinking the New Mexicans would be overjoyed to see them, the Texans quickly found out they were anything but.  The expedition straggled into Santa Fe, only to be made prisoners by 1,500 Mexican troops and then forced to march 2,000 miles to Mexico City where they were imprisoned.  To make matters worse, the President of Mexico was none other than Santa Anna, the vanquished commander of Mexico’s army at San Jacinto.  Freed from captivity, the wily Santa Anna had regained power and a fresh hatred for the Texans who defeated him.  He especially wanted to punish Navarro; whom he considered a traitor to be sentenced to death.  Fortunately, the United States stepped in and negotiated the prisoners release in April 1842.  Falconer was released at the request of the British ambassador to Mexico.  Navarro was not released and forced to spend another three years in prison.  Sympathetic Mexican citizens helped Navarro escape before he made his way back to Texas.  Falconer made his way back to England and never came back. Though a failure, the Santa Fe Expedition led to a renewed U.S. interest in Texas and statehood for the struggling republic.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Spymaster of the Pecos


Mule-Driven Freight Wagon Leaving San Antonio

During the summer of 1862, the Trans-Pecos Region of Texas was left wide open to Union occupation.  After the Confederacy’s disastrous retreat from New Mexico, fifteen-hundred troops from California, under the command of Brigadier General James H. Carlton, occupied El Paso del Norte (now modern day El Paso) and the surrounding area.  The lack of manpower, limited supplies, hostile Indians, and a tortuous climate kept Carlton’s men – the California Column - from invading the Texas interior.  Nevertheless, a threat existed – made worse by Union threats along the Texas coast and overland from Louisiana.  After Major General Nathaniel Banks occupied Brownsville in 1863, he encouraged Carlton to advance into Texas and join him.  The Confederate Commander of the Department of Texas, the flamboyant Major General John Bankhead Magruder, needed a close eye on West Texas.  A number of Texas residents in the region, with Confederate sympathies, offered their services.  Among them was a former scout for the U.S. Army – John Skillman.

Born in New Jersey, Skillman grew up in Kentucky before coming to Texas.  He served as a scout, interpreter, and mail contractor for the Butterfield Overland Mail.  In 1851, the U.S. Postmaster General awarded him the first contract for mail delivery between Santa Fe and San Antonio.  To secure his mail delivery from marauding Comanches and Apaches, Skillman deployed armed, 18 man escorts for his mule-driven freight wagons.  Utilizing canvas-topped farm wagons and charging a flat twenty-five dollar fee, he also offered passenger service along the same route.   Waterman L. Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald, offered a colorful, albeit inflated, description of Skillman.  He wrote that Skillman “carries several revolvers and Bowie knives, dresses in buckskin, and has a sandy head of hair and a beard.  He loves hard work and adventures, and hates ‘injuns’ and knows the country about here pretty well.”

Needless to say, Skillman’s previous occupations made him uniquely qualified for setting up a Confederate intelligence network in the Trans-Pecos Region.  To avoid Carlton’s troopers, he set up his base of operations in the Mexican border town of Presidio Del Norte (now present day Ojinaga).  Across the Rio Grande in Texas, intelligence was gathered in the town of La Junta (now present day Presidio) through cryptic letters and clandestine meetings with informants.  To avoid detection, Skillman traveled the backcountry, using little known trails and river crossings. In addition to collecting intelligence, he planted misinformation among Carlton’s troops, leading to a widespread fear of a rebel attack.

In January, 1864, Magruder summoned Skillman to his Houston headquarters for instructions. The instructions were to compile a map of the Trans-Pecos Region for a possible Confederate advance when, or if, the needed troops became available.  In addition, he was to continue his observations of Carlton’s troops for any movements toward the east.  “I have no doubt that they will come sooner or later,” said Magruder, “probably this Spring [1864].”

To finance Skillman’s operations, cotton was provided to be sold in Mexico for $500 in specie.  To assist him in his mapping, Skillman recruited a company of 10 men, mostly associates from Skillman’s stagecoach days.  On April 3, 1864, they set out from San Antonio for Presidio del Norte in Mexico.  They set up camp at Spencer’s Ranch near the Rio Grande border. In addition to gathering data on the surrounding region, the company demanded custom duties from Mexican wagon trains carrying salt harvested from Lake Cordona in Texas.   

Carlton was aware of Skillman’s operations through his own informants, mainly Hispanic residents that hated the Anglo Texans.  On April 13, 1864, a scouting party of twenty-five troopers, led by Captain Albert A. French, departed San Elizario in search of any rebel activity.  Following mule and horse tracks, they discovered Skillman’s camp at Spencer’s Ranch amidst a brush thicket.  Early on the morning of the 15th, French attacked Skillman’s sleepy camp.  Two of the Texans were killed, including Skillman.  Four were taken prisoner, while the rest escaped across the border to Mexico.  Though Skillman’s death dealt a severe setback to Confederate intelligence operations, information on Carlton’s activities continued to filter out of the Trans-Pecos.  Luckily for Magruder, Carlton’s troops never left the Trans-Pecos.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Wagons, Buffaloes and Red-Haired Kiowas


Lone Wolf

Under the terms of the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty, the Southern Plains Indians (Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Southern Cheyenne) exchanged their homes in the buffalo-laden Plains for reservations in the Southwest Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).  In return, the U. S.  Government would provide rations, annuities, farming implements, and security from outlaws and unscrupulous merchants – everything needed to become sedentary farmers.  In addition, the Indians were allowed to hunt buffalo outside the reservations, provided the herds were large enough.  U. S. officials, however, provided very little, if any, from their side of the treaty.  Bootleg whiskey traders, such as “Slippery Jack” Gallagher, peddled their wares within the reservations or from backcountry inns called “Whiskey Ranches.”  Desperadoes stole horses from reservation corrals while buffalo hunters decimated the buffalo herds to the point of extinction.  Hungry and their patience worn thin, many Indians began leaving the reservations during the early 1870’s for the Panhandle Plains in the East.   The reservations, managed by peaceful, non-violent Quakers, could do little to pacify the hot-tempered Kiowas and Comanches.  Instead, the Indians used the reservations for bases to conduct raids into North Texas and the Panhandle.  The Indians traveled in small, fast-moving war parties that were almost impossible to chase down.  Farms and ranches were raided for horses, cattle and, depending on their age - children.  The scalped corpses of teamsters, surveyors and settlers littered the countryside.   Because of the slaughter of the buffalo herds, buffalo hunters faced a gruesome death if caught by the Indians.  Knowing what awaited them, the hunters carried vials of cyanide to be taken before capture.   

General Phil Sheridan, who favored a scorched earth policy toward the recalcitrant Indians, planned an advance of five troop columns into the Texas Panhandle to corral them.  On August 11, 1874, Colonel Nelson Miles led the column heading south from Fort Dodge, Kansas.  To supply his troops, Miles depended on a remote U. S. Army post, in present-day Woodward County, Oklahoma, with the generic name of Camp Supply.  So remote in fact, it later became the site of Oklahoma’s first insane asylum.  Sheridan had established the post to supply his winter operations against the Southern Plains Indians in Texas and the Indian Territory.  Dangerously over-extended in the drought-ridden Panhandle, Miles’ column needed water and provisions.  From his camp at Sweetwater Creek in the Panhandle, he dispatched Captain Wyllys Lyman with a military escort and 36 empty supply wagons to rendezvous with an ox-drawn supply column from Camp Supply.   On September 7, he met up with the train at Commission Creek – 48 miles from Camp Supply.  After transferring the supplies to his wagons, he headed back with an additional 104 men that had accompanied the supply column.  Sensing an ambush, Lyman assembled the wagons into a double column with fifty men per wagon marching on either side.  At Oasis Creek, Lyman was met by Lt. Frank D. Baldwin, three army scouts, and a Kiowa prisoner on their way to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas carrying dispatches from General Miles.   Curiously, their prisoner was not Kiowa, but a young red-haired White man dressed in Kiowa garb.  According to the prisoner, he had been abducted by the Kiowas when he was a child.  Given the name Tehan (Texan) by his captors, he was raised to be a warrior and had participated in several raids as a sort of warrior apprentice.  Baldwin captured him before he could alert a nearby Kiowa camp he was guarding.  

“What are you doing here?” He asked.  “Are you living with the Indians?” 

“Yes,” Tehan replied.  “They treat me good.”

Whether it was from relief or protection from skeptical Whites, Tehan assumed the role of liberated captive rather than defiant Indian warrior.  Feeling he might be useful to Miles, Baldwin left him with Lyman. 

On September 9, 1874, the Kiowas discovered their warrior missing and set out after him.  Along the way, they discovered Lyman’s wagons and the hapless Tehan among them.  From a ridge, they took potshots at the wagons until forced away by a cavalry company escorting the train.  After 12 miles, seventy mounted Kiowa warriors attacked the train about a mile from the Washita River.  Lyman circled his wagons before being overrun - fighting them off until sundown.  Trenches were dug during the night for additional protection.  Water was obtained from a small pond or buffalo wallow 400 yards away.  For four days, the Kiowas laid siege to Lyman’s wagons.  A courier was dispatched to get help from Camp Supply.  On September 10, Scout William F. Schmalsle rode out after dark through the Indian line toward Camp Supply.  Hotly pursued, he steered his horse into a buffalo herd, causing them to bolt and block off his pursuers.  The Kiowas also got help too - from Tehan; who turned on his captors and somehow managed to escape during all the commotion.  Now wearing a White man’s uniform, Tehan told his fellow Kiowas to fortify the wallow against Lyman’s thirsty soldiers.  Denied their water source, the soldiers opened cans of fruit in the wagons and drank the juice.  After reaching Camp Supply two days later, Schmalsle obtained 58 cavalrymen before heading back to Lyman.  They reached the train on September 14.  With a larger cavalry force, Lyman was able to rejoin Miles. Thirteen of Lyman’s men received the Medal of Honor.  Casualties included two men killed and three wounded.

By September 12, the siege started to fall apart; the Kiowas spotted a column of U. S. troops under Major William R. Price in the distant.  They slowly began to drift from the scene.  Among their leaders present at the siege were Lone Wolf, Satanta, Big Tree, Big Bow and the Kiowas influential shaman -  Maman-ti or “Owl Prophet.”  They decided to keep moving west to the Palo Duro region, but were discouraged by messages dispatched from fellow Kiowas living on the reservation to return or face annihilation.  Thinking they would receive a more sympathetic ear from the troops stationed there, many of them headed east for the Arapahoe and Cheyenne reservation.  Instead they were herded back to the Kiowa reservation, without their horses and with Satanta and Big Tree in chains.  In violation of his parole for a previous raid, Satanta was sent back to Huntsville Penitentiary where he jumped to his death from an upper story window.  The unreserved Kiowas, under Lone Wolf, made their way to Palo Duro Canyon until hunted down by U. S. troops under Captain Ranald S. Mackenzie . 

No tangible records exist on the mysterious Tehan.  According to Rev. J. J. Methvin, a missionary at the Wichita Agency, Tehan was killed by Big Bow in order to cover up his crimes during a raid into Texas.  Big Bow, on the other hand, claimed Tehan died of thirst during a retreat from U. S. cavalrymen.  Tehan’s foster sister, Red Dress, stated he went to live with the Comanche and later the Mescalero Apaches.  Twenty years would pass before Tehan resurfaced, not as a Kiowa warrior, but as a somber Presbyterian minister from Buffalo, New York named Joseph K. Griffis.  The good reverend claimed to be Tehan and that he had drifted east to learn more about the White man’s ways.  He joined the Salvation Army, which set him on the path toward the ministry.  Years later, Oklahoma journalists tried to investigate Tehan, but came up short as to his actual origin and whereabouts.  The trail for answers ran cold.

After eight months of warfare, the Comanches and Kiowas were forced back on to the reservations.  With the exception of a small herd saved by Texas cattle baron Charles Goodnight, the vast buffalo herds in the Texas Panhandle disappeared - to be replaced with cattle and wheatfields.

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.