By Mike Cox
In a reflective mood, on Aug. 30, 1914, W.D. McDonald wrote a long letter to the Trenton Tribune, his old hometown newspaper in Fannin County. He noted it had been 54 years that month since his honorable discharge from Company C, First U.S. Cavalry, and 52 years since he enlisted in the Confederate Army to fight against some of the same men with whom he had once chased hostile Indians.
Married Sept. 1, 1861 — only four months into the Civil War — McDonald built a log cabin near Honey Grove and settled into domestic life. “We . . . were happy,” he wrote. “But listen, we hear patriotic men and women all over our Southland saying: ‘Your homes are in danger of being destroyed.’ I, with every fibre of my being going on to that six-months bride in love said, ‘Here am I; send me.’ ”
On Feb. 22, 1862, McDonald enlisted in Company D, 16th Texas Cavalry, “and for three years and four months I did the best I could to protect that log cabin home and that wife.”
Unlike many thousands of Texans who fought for the South, McDonald survived unscathed. Late in life, he and his wife moved to Abilene, a West Texas town that had not even existed during the Civil War.
As a young Federal cavalry trooper, McDonald had followed in newspapers the growing sectional crisis that led to what would be the nation’s deadliest war. The election of that “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln as president in the fall of 1860 climaxed nearly a decade of political strife between the slave-reliant South and the more urbanized North. Starting with South Carolina, the Southern states began seceding from the Union as the not-even-century-old nation edged steadily toward fratricidal war.
In Texas, a secession convention composed of 177 locally elected delegates convened in Austin on Jan. 28, 1861. Only five days later, by a vote of 166 to 8, the body adopted an ordinance of secession.
Future governor James W. Throckmorton drew boos when he cast his vote against the measure.
“Mr. President, when the rabble hiss, well may the patriots tremble,” he retorted, addressing Oran M. Roberts, the convention’s presiding officer.
In addition to voting for leaving the Union, the convention created a Committee of Public Safety, which claimed all Federal military installations in Texas, including the U.S. arsenal in San Antonio. U.S. Army Gen. David E. Twiggs, the ranking military officer in Texas, surrendered his entire 3,000-soldier command and relinquished all military property, including 10,000 rifles.
The last chance for Texas to avoid the coming hostilities came with a statewide referendum on Feb. 23, 1861, but 46,153 Texans voted for secession, with only 13,020 voting against leaving the Union. Texas would be the nascent Confederate States of America’s seventh star, with four more breakaway states soon to join the confederation.
The nation’s long war of words over states rights and the extension of slavery ended on April 12, when Confederate artillery began bombarding Fort Sumter, a Federal harbor defense installation off Charleston, South Carolina. Three days later, President Lincoln signed a proclamation calling for 75,000 militiamen to put down a rebellion. Then, on April 19, he ordered a naval blockade of the Southern states from the mouth of the Rio Grande to South Carolina. Lincoln extended the blockade to Virginia a week later following the secession of that commonwealth and North Carolina.
The first fighting in Texas was Texan versus Texan, as a vicious war within a war broke out in the Hill Country, where many of the liberal-minded German settlers who had come to the state in the mid-1840s opposed slavery and remained loyal to the Union. Confederate militiamen, some more outlaw than soldier, terrorized Gillespie and surrounding counties, lynching Unionists and stealing what they could under the guise of military authority. When the German-Texans in Gillespie County organized as the Union Loyal League to defend themselves against what they called Die Hangerbande (the Hanging Bandits) things only got worse.
By the summer of 1862, the South instituted mandatory military service for all white males 18–35. Needless to say, the German immigrants had no interest in fighting for the Confederacy. James Duff, a dishonorably discharged U.S. Army soldier who now led Confederate forces in the Hill Country, declared the region in open rebellion against the Confederacy. Faced with hanging or conscription, 68 German men decided to ride for Mexico. They made it as far as the Nueces River, when, on Aug. 10, Duff and his men caught up with them. A sharp battle ended with 19 Germans and 12 Confederates dead. An additional nine wounded German-Texans were later executed. The bloody incident broke the spirit of German resistance, but hangings and murders of suspected Union sympathizers continued throughout the war.
The next outbreak of internal strife came along the Red River in North Texas, another pocket of pro-Union sentiment. On Oct. 1, 1862, a roundup of suspected Unionists led to the hanging of seven men following their hasty trial for treason. Fourteen more were lynched without benefit of a court proceeding. When one of the leaders of the Unionist cleanup was murdered, his killer was soon hanged. But 19 others suspected of Union complicity also got lynched in Gainesville, with five more hanged in Sherman. The event became known as the Great Hanging at Gainesville and still stands as one of the worst episodes of vigilantism in U.S. history.
The same month the hangings began in North Texas, the U.S. Navy captured Galveston, which ranked as Texas’ largest and most prosperous city. One of the busiest ports on the Gulf of Mexico, its capture had been a key objective of Federal war planners. Federal control of the port, which came on Oct. 8, 1862, made it even harder for blockade-runners to escape with cotton to sell in the foreign market and for the South to receive badly needed supplies.
Earlier that year, on Aug. 16–18, 1862, the U.S. Navy shelled Corpus Christi and attacked by land, but an attempt to take the town failed. One possible factor in that came to light when Confederate defenders noticed that an inordinate number of Federal shells had not exploded on impact. Examining one of the still-intact rounds, someone discovered it held whiskey, not gunpowder. Though not mentioned in the official record of the engagement, the enduring legend is that some of the Yankee seaman had been emptying shells to hide their clandestine whiskey supply. Elsewhere along the Texas coast, Federal naval forces conducted periodic offensive operations from 1862 to 1864.
Attacking by land and sea, Confederate forces under Generals John B. Magruder, the ranking CSA officer in Texas, and William B. Scurry retook Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863.
While rebel soldiers defeated the 43rd Massachusetts Volunteers on land, two Confederate vessels armored with bales of cotton took on a much larger and better-armed Federal flotilla. One of the “cottonclads” ran aground, but the other, though badly battered by Union cannon fire, rammed the Federal gunboat Harriet Lane. Capt. Henry Lubbock, the brother of Texas Gov. Francis Lubbock, boarded the Union vessel, killed most of her officers (including the grandfather of future U.S. Army Gen. Jonathan Wainwright), and called for the surrender of the rest of the Federal fleet. Commodore William Renshaw declined to lower his flag, but accidentally ran his flagship, the Westfield, aground. As he prepared to scuttle his ship rather than have her pass into rebel hands, the vessel’s powder magazine exploded before he meant it to, killing him and most of his officers and sailors. Seeing this, the remaining Union vessels soon stood to sea, leaving Galveston back in Confederate control for the rest of the war.
Loss of Galveston severely crimped Federal plans for a Texas invasion, but the North did not give up. In September 1863, red-headed 27-year-old Houston bartender Dick Dowling proved he could do more than mix a stiff drink. Commanding 47 mostly Irish soldiers known as Dowling’s Davis (as in Jefferson Davis) Guards, the withering artillery fire Dowling directed stood off an invading force of 20 warships and 5,000 Union soldiers during the Battle of Sabine Pass. In appreciation, the Confederate government presented Dowling and his men silver medals, the only such awards conferred on any Confederate soldiers during the war.
Dowling’s victory would not affect the war’s outcome, but it had huge significance for Texas. Historians agree that the one-sided, short-lived battle spared the state from a Union invasion that would have visited on Texas the same level of devastation and misery experienced by other Confederate states, such as what Georgia saw when Gen. William T. Sherman made his infamous march to the sea.
Throughout the Civil War, Texas had to contend with another problem none of its sister Confederate states faced: An ongoing threat from hostile Indians. The withdrawal of Federal forces at the beginning of the war had left Texas’ western frontier exposed to raids from Comanches and Kiowas, effectively contracting the settled portion of the state by a hundred miles. Texas garrisoned some of the abandoned Federal forts with state troops and mounted regular patrols to look for and occasionally skirmish with Indian war parties.
In West Texas, Fort Chadbourne, Camp Colorado, Fort McKavett, Fort Mason, and Camp Verde also served at various times as prisoner-of-war camps. The Confederacy also had four such camps in East Texas, the largest being Camp Ford at Tyler. The state prison at Huntsville also housed Federal prisoners.
The North tried one more time to invade Texas, this time along the Red River through Louisiana in the spring of 1864. Confederate troops, many of them from Texas, defeated Union forces in western Louisiana at the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill.
If anything, given the destruction of telegraph lines in the South, at the end of the war news traveled even slower than it had early on in the conflict. Though rumors were afloat in Brownsville that Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, no official word had been received by Gen. James E. Slaughter and Col. John Salmon “RIP” Ford, who commanded Confederate troops in the Rio Grande Valley.
The two officers learned on May 12, 1865, that 1,600 Federal troops under Lt. Col. David Branson were on the march from Brazos Santiago to Brownsville to take the town. Slaughter proposed retreat, but Ford famously declared: “Retreat, hell!”
That night, Ford’s men skirmished with Union forces at Palmito Ranch, a dozen miles east of Brownsville. Fearing Confederate reinforcements, the Federals torched the ranch and withdrew to Palmito Hill, four miles distant.
On May 13, supported by a battery of 12-pounders, Ford’s command advanced on the Union troops. Soon, those who were not killed or wounded surrendered. This was not only the final fighting in Texas, it was the last land battle of the Civil War.
Gen. E. Kirby Smith formally surrendered what little remained of the CSA’s Trans-Mississippi Department on June 2. Seventeen days later, U.S. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston. The same day, June 19, he issued an order advising Texans that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect. That marked the end of slavery in Texas for more than 200,000 African-Americans, a figure that included thousands of slaves moved by their “owners” into Texas from other Confederate states for “safekeeping” during the war.
While Texas had been spared the devastation seen in much of the South, it paid a dear price for its decision to join the Confederacy. Of the 65,000–70,000 Texans (more than 10 percent of the state’s population) who served in the Confederate military, an estimated 24,000 died. Thousands more came home with life-altering wounds, from missing arms or legs to blindness. Countless others suffered from the psychological trauma they had endured, a condition that more than a century later would come to be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Texas’ elected officials were far slower in providing assistance to these veterans than their predecessors in office had been in contributing men and treasure to the war effort. A home for Confederate veterans in Austin that opened in 1886 with money raised by the Daughters of the Confederacy did not begin receiving state funds until 1891.
The last survivor of the war was Mississippi-born Walter Williams. He came to Texas at age 14 and served under Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood. Williams died at age 117 in 1959 and is buried in Franklin in Robertson County.
Aside from the thousands of lives lost and economic and social upheaval, the Civil War changed the Texas map. Of Texas’ 254 counties, 29 are named for Confederate veterans. Ten of the tens of thousands of Texans who served in the military during the war would become governors.
Not every Texan who went to war fought for the South. Some 2,000 men from the Lone Star State joined the Federal military. One of those Texas Unionists was Edmund J. Davis, who as a brigadier general commanded the Federal 1st Texas Cavalry during the war and served as governor during Reconstruction. (Click to see Black Soldier was First Native Texan to Receive Medal of Honor.)
Texas’ economy did not fully recover from the impact of the Civil War until World War II, when Japan and Germany threatened the nation that Lincoln and his armies had saved from division.
The Civil War claimed its last life in Texas nearly 145 years after Appomattox when a 62-year-old Victoria man drowned on Jan. 1, 2010, after his 14-foot aluminum boat struck the submerged wreckage of the Mary Summers, a Confederate blockade runner sunk during the war at the confluence of the Navidad and Lavaca rivers to prevent Union vessels from navigating up either stream.
Lewis Maverick, one of the three sons of Texas pioneer Samuel Maverick and his wife, Mary, who had fought for the South, survived the war. Like many of the soldiers on both sides, he kept a diary. Back in Texas from the battle-scarred Deep South, his wartime journal ended on May 31, 1865, with this: “Alas under what gloomy circumstances we return, how different from our fond hope.”
— Mike Cox is an author and Texana writer living in a Austin. This article was written for the Texas Almanac 2012–2013.
For more information see Handbook of Civil War Texas.