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Between the Enemy and Texas
Parsons's Texas Cavalry in the Civil War
By Anne J. Bailey
TCU PressCopyright © 1989 Anne J. Bailey
All rights reserved.
"A Healthy Bunch of Scrappers"
The campaigns fought west of the Mississippi River seemed "small indeed by comparison with the more imposing and dramatic events of the far east," asserted William Henry Parsons, "but momentous in results to the fortunes of [the] Trans-Mississippi department, and especially to the fate of Texas." As he astutely pointed out, "Our lines once broken, whether on the Mississippi or the Arkansas, or the Red River, would have thrown open the approach to the invasion of Texas, by an ever alert and powerful foe." Parsons strongly believed the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, including his own command, never received the recognition it merited for "again and again foiling the invasion and intended devastation" of Texas.
Parsons had a point; the men who served under him gained scant acknowledgment for shielding Texas from Federal occupation. Yet his troops took part in almost fifty battles (although most were too small to rate a name), and they were responsible for watching Federal operations from Memphis to Vicksburg. For three years the men provided outposts and scouts for the army headquartered first at Little Rock and later at Shreveport. The brigade rarely mustered in full at any single place; instead, the troops generally fought by detachments or regiments. Even during the winter when the infantry retired to camps, Parsons's cavalrymen remained in the field. And, proudly insisted George Hogan: "It was a noted fact that whether fighting as a company, battalion, or regiment, the brigade was never whipped" until the last major engagement at Yellow Bayou during the Red River campaign of 1864.
Parsons's Texas Cavalry Brigade was a veritable collage, described by one Confederate as "a healthy bunch of scrappers." Its nucleus was the Fourth Texas Dragoons (later designated the Twelfth Texas Cavalry), a regiment Parsons raised in North Central Texas soon after the war began. One year later his command included the Nineteenth Texas Cavalry from the Dallas area, under District Judge Nathaniel Macon Burford; the Twenty-first Texas Cavalry mainly from South Central Texas, under Methodist minister George Washington Carter; and Charles Morgan's command, a hodgepodge of companies from throughout the state. Morgan began with a squadron in 1862 but three years later had gained enough companies to attain regimental strength. For artillery, Joseph H. Pratt's Tenth Field Battery from Jefferson in East Texas provided welcome firepower that Parsons used with great efficiency. This amalgamation represented the best of Texas—men from the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Cross Timbers and blackland prairies of Central Texas, and the Gulf Coast of South Texas.
The Confederate Congress never promoted Parsons to brigadier general, although he acted in that capacity for much of the war. Several times he was recommended for field promotion, but the government never granted him a commission. Twice the authorities superseded him with an officer unacceptable to the rank and file. In each instance the troops protested so fiercely that the bureaucracy had to reinstate him. After the war the governor of Texas appointed Parsons a major general of the home guard for services never recognized by the hierarchy in Richmond.
The loyalty most members of the brigade exhibited for Parsons mystified outsiders. The colonel had the ability to inspire affection, to motivate men in order to gain their devotion. If he had one fault, recalled Lieutenant L. T. Wheeler, "it was in the carefulness of the lives of his men." But even this proved advantageous. The hardheaded and individualistic Texans appreciated his compassion as much as they admired his bravery under fire. Although it appeared that creating a homogenous unit from such an amalgam would prove difficult, through admiration, respect, and mutual trust Parsons molded his brigade into an effective fighting force.
By birth Parsons was a Northerner, by training and preference a fervent, even fanatical, Southerner. Born in 1826 of Puritan stock, William could claim that his ancestors had arrived in the early 1600s on the second voyage of the Mayflower. Over the years the Parsons family flourished, and several of William's ancestors fought with distinction in the American Revolution. William's father Samuel was a native of Maine but had married a woman from a distinguished New Jersey family, and it was there that William was born.
William's family moved south when he was a small child, and he never developed the Puritan beliefs of his ancestors. The elder Parsons opened a grocery in Montgomery, Alabama, hired an Irish clerk, and, like most who prospered modestly, purchased slaves. Although Samuel never lost his New England values, his son thrived in an environment that respected a skilled horseman or marksman far more than a scholar. Transplanted Yankees like William often became radical proponents of Southern rights; by the time he reached manhood his political convictions reflected attitudes prevalent throughout the South.
William was typical of restless youths living in a period of increasing tension. In his teens he entered Emory College at Oxford, forty miles east of Atlanta. The institution, chartered by Georgia Methodists in 1836, offered students a conservative curriculum. Parsons acquired the polish of an educated man through a bit of classical learning, a brush with Greek, Latin, and mathematics, and a smattering of geography, astronomy, and chemistry. But at midterm in 1844 the young man quit school—against his father's wishes—and headed for Natchitoches, Louisiana, where he intended to enlist in the army. His father's plans for his formal education ended.
In later years Parsons proudly recalled his military service and noted that he had the distinction of repelling two invasions of Texas, first on the Rio Grande under Zachary Taylor and later on the Red River under Zachary's son Richard. He believed that his skill in sword exercise and field maneuvers learned during the war with Mexico gave him the advantage over other Confederate field commanders drawn straight from civilian life.
After the Mexican War Parsons made Texas his home. In 1851 he married Louisa Dennard, from a prominent family in Jefferson, settled down, and began to raise a family. Texas offered abundant opportunities for an ambitious person. The year after his marriage Parsons joined a stock company, bought a newspaper in Tyler, and at the age of twenty-six became an editor. As his reputation grew, he became known as a well-educated, talented writer whose editorials possessed a rare courage of conviction.
Southern editors were notorious for disputes, and Texans were no exceptions. A disagreement between Parsons and H. L. Grinsted, editor of the Jefferson Herald, grew so bitter that Grinsted sent a challenge to Parsons, who accepted. Although dueling was publicly condemned, few men were willing to risk being branded as cowards for refusing to fight. On the appointed day only Parsons showed up, and the two men finally submitted the matter to a Board of Honor. After both parties agreed to apologize, the feud ended without bloodshed. In spite of this, when Parsons visited Jefferson to attend the funeral of his father-in-law, someone shot and wounded him. He claimed he did not see his assailant, but local newspapers speculated that the culprit was a Jefferson printer. Parsons allowed the matter to drop, sold his interest in the Tyler Telegraph, and moved to the Brazos River region in Central Texas.
Throughout the 1850s, Parsons lectured and wrote on local, state, and national issues for Texas newspapers. When the Houston Telegraph advocated reopening the slave trade, Parsons concurred. When the United States government considered a transcontinental railroad route through the South, Parsons maintained that if Southerners would show "the energy, and the swiftfooted enterprise of our Northern brethren, we would soon cease to complain of Northern political preponderance and commercial supremacy.... Let the South take an even start in the race of Empire. We have been outdistanced in our northwestern territories; should we now supinely yield territory, legitimately our own without a struggle?" His writing indicated a strong devotion to his adopted state. "Give Texas all she now needs," he advocated, "to make her not only the empire state of the South, but of the nation." While he spread his political rhetoric throughout Central Texas, he insisted, "there has been a tendency upon the part of some of the Texas, and Southern press, to discourage Southern emigration, and to disparage the resources of these new fields of adventure and enterprise."
Parsons needed a mouthpiece for his increasingly radical convictions; in 1860 he founded his own pro-Southern newspaper in Waco. In October he issued the first edition of the South West, a weekly newspaper devoted to supporting Southern rights. The Houston press soon called it one of the best papers in the state. Although one old resident recalled, "Parsons made the sheet a red-hot one," the content is impossible to verify because only three copies still exist. In the first issue Parsons stated that he supported "co-equality of rights in State and Territory; and the maintenance of the present social relations of the races in Southern society"—although he owned no slaves himself, and his wife Louisa possessed only "Aunt Esther," more part of the family than servant. Parsons professed that his paper would not support any party, for "we care nothing for men, nor mere party; but principles have indistructible essence." He did suggest, nevertheless, that Texans arm themselves for a possible conflict if Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election.
Parsons correctly predicted his state's reaction. As word of Lincoln's election spread throughout Texas, radicals called for a secession convention. While politicians squabbled over the state's position, a number of diehard Texans seized the initiative by lowering the United States flag from above the Alamo. The Secession Convention, which convened in January 1861, began to prepare for war. All three future colonels in Parsons's brigade travelled to Austin to support the work of the legislators.
After the convention announced that Texas was no longer a part of the Union, Federal troops evacuated the western forts, leaving the frontier at the mercy of roaming Indians. Many of the men eventually joining Parsons's brigade originally enlisted in companies providing local defense, but the outbreak of war quickly transcended problems along the frontier. As soon as the Confederate government began to request soldiers, Governor Edward Clark authorized prominent citizens to raise troops for state service. Parsons was among those commissioned.
The Texans' preference for mounted service exasperated the governor. Most wanted to join the cavalry and refused to have anything to do with the infantry. Clark observed that the Texans' disinclination to become foot soldiers was founded "upon their peerless horsemanship." They were "unwilling, in many instances to engage in service of any other description, unless required by actual necessity." Even English Colonel James Fremantle noted that when the war began "it was found very difficult to raise infantry in Texas, as no Texan walks a yard if he can help it."
While Governor Clark tried desperately to fill the Confederate War Department's request for infantrymen, Parsons had little trouble enlisting horsemen. By December 1861, the cavalry leaving the state outnumbered the infantry by twenty-four to one. Texas produced far more than its fair share of mounted troops, while neighboring Louisiana claimed thirty foot soldiers to every mounted one. (Estimates for the entire area west of the Mississippi for this period suggest that infantry outnumbered the cavalry by a slim margin of one and one-fourth to one.)
Enlisting recruits was an informal process. Prominent men who decided to raise their own companies competed with one another to fill quotas. Although minor details varied, the procedure was generally the same throughout Texas. A typical example was that of Jeff Neal, a young lawyer who set out to raise a contingent to join Colonel Parsons. In Buchanan, seat of Johnson County, Neal appealed to the men's sense of loyalty while he provided them with free liquor. At the proper time he mounted a big box he had placed in the center of the square and called for volunteers. "All that waat [want] to go away in my company just form a line right out in front of me," he shouted. Nearly fifty citizens, spirits stimulated by the free whiskey, came forward. "Now gentlemen," Neal charged, "raise your right hand, pull off your hats and I will now administer the oath to you or muster you into service." Men lined up next to their friends, the liquor continued to flow, and the next morning many discovered they had joined the "Johnson County Slashers." To commemorate the event the townspeople threw a barbeque on the "great glorious and never-to-be-forgotten Fourth of July."
Eight companies from North Central Texas and two from the region near Austin (Figure 1) eventually rendezvoused in Ellis County, where Colonel Parsons opened a camp of instruction early in July. These troops formed the Fourth Texas Dragoons (later designated the Twelfth Texas Cavalry), the unit that became the backbone of Parsons's brigade. Few men paid much attention to rank. Lawyers, doctors, bankers, merchants, college graduates, and sons of prominent families enlisted along with farmers and stock raisers. The majority were eager young men anxious to fight Yankees and unconcerned with the political issues involved.
Throughout the hot summer Parsons drilled military training and discipline into the raw recruits. Those who could not endure the hard life left; those who remained learned essential military skills. Lieutenant George Ingram wrote his wife: "We rise at daybreak and drill from 7 oclock A.M. until 11 oclock A.M. and from 2 until 5 oclock P.M. We are improving very fast." The majority seemed proud of their accomplishments, and Ingram added that all of the "companies here are learning the art of war quite fast and all hands seem to take a great interest in the drill."
The person immediately responsible for the training was usually the company captain. Although each group had a distinctive nickname and a letter for proper designation, companies often went simply by the name of the captain. The average age of the original ten captains was thirty-five, while the average age for the rank and file was twenty-five. Deaths and resignations changed the company officers during the war, and of the ten men selected in the summer of 1861, only half persevered until the war's end.
The office of captain carried considerable prestige, but a man might easily yield it to another if offered a higher rank. When Captain John Mullen of the "Williamson Bowies" was elected lieutenant colonel, he passed the captain's position on to Wiley Peace. Mullen, a fifty-year-old farmer from Delaware and a veteran of the Mexican War, was an expert on infantry tactics as well as cavalry drills. He elicited respect for his sound judgment and coolness under fire—a trait frequently lacking in officers at the outset of the war. Many thought Mullen should have allowed them to enter his name for colonel; indeed, he was the only real competition Parsons ever had in his own regiment. Yet Mullen served as lieutenant colonel only until 1862 when, because of his age and personal commitments, he resigned and returned home.
His replacement as lieutenant colonel was the former adjutant, Andrew Bell Burleson. The Burleson name carried prestige in Texas. All of the troops knew that Bell's uncle, Edward Burleson, had served as vice-president for the Republic of Texas and that Bell's father and uncles had fought in the Texas Revolution. Although personally brave—despite his exploits he miraculously escaped injury during the war—Bell drank too much. By late 1864 he was in trouble with his superiors for insubordination and probably escaped serious military discipline only because the war ended.
As with all elective offices, the selection of major revolved around personalities. The large contingent from Ellis County was able to elect one of its own, Emory W. Rogers, the proprietor of a local hotel. Rogers, who had migrated to Texas not long after the war for independence, settled in the area that became Waxahachie around 1847 and donated the land for the original townsite. A family history describes him as a "loveable, impulsive, generous Irishman." He declined reelection at the reorganization in 1862 because his four sons and a son-in-law belonged to the Confederate army and he believed he should return home to take care of his family.
Excerpted from Between the Enemy and Texas by Anne J. Bailey. Copyright © 1989 Anne J. Bailey. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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