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Grudge Match at the O.K. Corral

By Sean McLachlan
3/21/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

For the Earps, Clantons, and McLaurys, the Civil War never really ended.

THE UNITED STATES WAS STILL reeling from the Civil War in the 1880s. Reconstruction had barely ended and many still suffered from wartime injuries. In the South, countless families never recovered economically. Bitterness ran high.

Many veterans from both North and South pinned their hopes on the West, as the united country rapidly expanded. Mining camps and towns sprang up all over the territories, and it took some time before the rule of law could firmly establish itself.

Situated in the hot, dusty hills of southern Arizona, the town of Tombstone sprang to life in the late 1870s as one of the many mining boomtowns on the frontier. It fared better than most, with its rich veins of silver lasting long enough to fuel construction of a sizable town with plenty of saloons, gambling houses and bordellos. It also had its share of high culture and could attract leading entertainers from both coasts.

But where there was money on the frontier, there were those who wanted to take it. In the countryside around Tombstone, a loose-knit group called the Cowboys rustled cattle in Mexico and sold them cheaply in town. The famous Earp clan, led by Wyatt and Virgil, moved to Tombstone in 1880 and tried to make their fortune in the silver mines and faro tables. James “Jim” Earp’s various enterprises helped the family build its power base. Having had experience in law enforcement in other tough frontier towns, Wyatt and Virgil soon followed that calling as a way for social advancement. That inevitably brought them into confrontation with the Cowboys.

Meanwhile, retaliations by Mexican ranchers and increased patrols by the Mexican army made the Cowboys decide to start rustling north of the border, and some decided it would be easier to raise money by robbing stagecoaches. There were frequent standoffs between the Earps and their supporters—notably a tubercular dentist/gunfighter named Doc Holliday—and the  Cowboy faction, including the Clanton and McLaury clans.

Lingering sentiments from the war played a key role in the explosive situation. The town’s business elite and many of its regular citizens came from the North and supported pro-business Republican policies. Many of the prospectors and ranchers were Southerners and nursed a simmering resentment against the Republican Party for crushing the rebellion. Among them were a large number of Texans. The War of Independence from Mexico was a central part of Texan identity and they were only too happy to eat beef rustled from Mexican ranches.

 

DURING THE WAR, JAMES, VIRGIL and Newton Earp all fought in Illinois regiments. While Wyatt was too young to enlist, he tried to run away from home and join the Union Army on more than one occasion. His father thwarted his patriotic but unwise plan each time.

James “Jim” Earp joined the 17th Illinois Infantry soon after hostilities began. Missouri, just to the south, threatened to secede and the 17th was one of many regiments from surrounding states sent to keep it in the Union.

Jim’s regiment saw action on October 21, 1861, at the Battle of Fredericktown. In the southwest part of the state, the main Confederate force under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price was retreating after a campaign that had earned it a victory at the Battle of Lexington on the Missouri River. Price had gone too far from his base of supply, however, and a large force from St. Louis was after him. On the other side of the state, Brig. Gen. M. Jeff Thompson, the Confederate commander in southeast Missouri, was ordered to make a distraction to take off some of the pressure.

In early to mid-October, Thompson marched with about 1,500 men to the mining region around Fredericktown, captured 16,000 pounds of lead that he promptly shipped south, and cut the vital Ironton railroad from Missouri’s mines to St. Louis. He intended to get the notice of the Union command, and certainly succeeded. Soon 4,500 Union troops converged on him in two columns. Thompson decided to strike a quick blow against them and then withdraw. He positioned an advance force behind a rail fence concealed by a cornfield just outside Fredericktown  and awaited the Yankee advance. The 17th Illinois was first to deploy and got  the full brunt of the Rebel volleys. A slugfest ensued, with artillery on both sides jumping into the action.

For a time the Rebel advance held, but as more Union troops got into the field, the Confederates were in danger  of being outflanked. The order came  to withdraw. The 1st Indiana Cavalry gave chase and fell right into an ambush Thompson had prepared for them. They reeled back, and Thompson was able to withdraw his entire force with no more serious harassment.

Casualty reports for the battle vary, but it seems the Rebels lost about 20 killed, 40 wounded and 80 captured, including 38 of the wounded. The Union lost seven killed and 61 wounded. The Illinois troops were the key to victory, being in the thick of the fighting and  suffering many casualties. Jim took a bullet in the shoulder that crippled his arm for life. He was invalided out of the Army, and after the war joined his brothers in Tombstone.

Virgil Earp joined the 83rd Illinois Infantry in 1862 and served mostly in Tennessee until the end of the war. He seems to have been a lackluster soldier, as he was never promoted and indeed was brought before a court-martial. His offense is unknown, but since he was docked only two weeks’ pay, it must have been minor.

A more inscrutable Union veteran was “Texas Jack” Vermillion. For many years it was thought that this shadowy member of the Earp faction was John Wilson Vermillion, a Virginian who fought for the South. In a new biography of Vermillion, historian Peter Brand reveals that Texas Jack was actually John Oberland Vermillion, also of Virginia. John Oberland Vermillion was only 15 and living with his parents when the war broke out. His family had Unionist sentiments, and, finding  Virginia unwelcoming, they moved north to Ohio. When he turned 18 in 1864, John ran away from home and enlisted in the 122nd Ohio Infantry. In his enlistment papers he claimed his birthplace as Ohio, perhaps on the assumption that being a Virginian would be held against him. Ironically, the 122nd Ohio spent most of the war in Vermillion’s home state of Virginia. He saw serious action at the Battle of the Wilderness, Cold Harbor and many smaller engagements.

John was deeply scarred by the war. He later recounted that during the October 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek he was so badly shaken that he sat down on the battlefield in a daze. The  Union lines were in retreat, and were it not for a caring comrade-in-arms who picked him up and led him to the rear, he would likely have been captured or killed. Vermillion later recalled that he was so traumatized that he couldn’t speak above a whisper for two years.

Another Union veteran among the Earp faction was Dan Tipton, who  served on the USS Malvern from July 15, 1864, to April 15, 1865. While his term of service was short, Tipton got to rub shoulders with some major figures.  The Malvern was Admiral David Dixon  Porter’s flagship and frequently hosted  conferences that included Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant. The Malvern also ferried Lincoln to Richmond on April 2, 1865. The ship’s records have been lost, so only the bare facts are known about his war service.

 

DOC HOLLIDAY, ON THE OTHER hand, had ties to the Confederacy. While he was only 9 when the Civil War began, coming from a wealthy family in Fayette County, Ga., he certainly felt its effects. His father, Henry Holliday, served as a quartermaster for the 27th Georgia Infantry and rose to the rank of major, but was discharged August 24, 1862, because of poor health—suffering from chronic diarrhea and general disability. Holliday’s uncles and one of his cousins also served in various Georgia regiments. While his father suffered health problems from his brief war experience, his uncle Robert suffered even more. He stayed in the war until its finish, only to return home with  his health broken and his home burned to the ground during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

In 1863, Holliday’s father decided to uproot the family and move farther south to Valdosta, an out-of-the-way little town in Lowndes County. Holliday was only 12, and moving 190 miles away meant losing all his friends. This made the already quiet boy even more withdrawn and apparently a bit depressed. While Holliday’s immediate family suffered financially, they could  consider themselves lucky. More than a quarter of the men from the region who went off to war never returned. His father took up farming in his new location and did well. By the end of the 1860s he was almost as wealthy as he had been before the war.

Holliday bridled under Reconstruction. That might have been expressed in what has been described as his first  shooting incident, during which young Holliday went to his favorite swimming hole only to find a group of black boys  swimming there. His uncle Thomas McKey later reported how he saw Holliday fire over the boys’ heads to scare  them off. Later writers embellished this story and turned it into a massacre, gleefully claiming he shot down dozens of blacks for the terrible sin of taking a dip in a white man’s swimming hole. In reality, there’s no record of anyone being killed in this incident.

A more serious occurrence came in April 1868. It was an election year, with blacks voting alongside whites. Former Confederates were not barred from the vote in Georgia, but to the former secessionists the large, newly enfranchised black population seemed a major threat. As J.W. Clift, a Republican candidate for Congress, spoke on April 4 in front of the courthouse—also headquarters of the local Freedmen’s Bureau—there was a small explosion. Holliday and other youths had planted some gunpowder in a keg under the building. No one was injured, but the blast caused a panic.

Community leaders, including Henry Holliday, officially denounced the act,  stating “our condemnation and disapproval of said riotous conduct.” The Valdosta South Georgia Times for April 8 wrote it off as a prank, saying, “It is idle to suppose there was any intention on the part of the boys, if they did it, to blow up their friends and relations.”

The April 10 edition of the Savannah News and Herald condemned the prank. “The idea that the young men of Valdosta would attempt with a handful of gunpowder to blow up such a mass of villainy, ignorance, and vagabondism as must have composed Booby’s [Clift’s] auditory, is perfectly absurd—especially when it is considered that the Guy Fawkes of the enterprise in exploding the powder to which no train or fuse was set, must necessarily have blown himself up with the rest.”

But the Federal occupation force wasn’t laughing. Five young men were arrested and later released. Holliday wasn’t among them. Local and family tradition claims he and others had been part of the plot but managed to avoid getting arrested. Whatever the true details of the incident were, it appears Doc never harbored any resentment,  since he threw in his lot with the Unionist Earps.

 

THE LIVES OF MOST OF THE Cowboys who opposed the Earps in Tombstone are little known. Many of the young toughs weren’t even in their teens during the war, and others are known only from their aliases. The leaders of the loose-knit group of rustlers and robbers were the Clanton family, which was in Texas during the war. “Old Man” Newman, the patriarch of the family, and his eldest son John served in a Confederate Home Guard unit. It’s unclear if they saw any action. At the end of the war Old Man Clanton moved his family to Arizona and set up his ranching and rustling empire.

One of the more intriguing characters in the drama was Sheriff Johnny Behan, a political rival of the Earps, who threw in his lot with the Cowboys. Why he did this is a bit of a mystery. He might have been taking kickbacks in the Clantons’ rustling trade. In the early years of the war, Behan lived in San Francisco. He signed on as a civilian employee for Carleton’s Column of Union Volunteers, the famous “California Column” that marched into New Mexico and Arizona to secure them for the Union. They met little resistance from Confederates, who were outnumbered and already retreating. After a brief skirmish with the Rebels on April 15, 1862, at Picacho Pass outside Tucson (often called the “westernmost battle of the Civil War”) the column continued east to pursue the retreating Confederates into New Mexico.

It was hard going. The Federals had to ride under a blistering Arizona sun between isolated water holes through country filled with hostile Apaches,  who had grown bold because of the lack of regular patrols.

“The heat was very oppressive, the mercury standing at 118 in the shade,” recalled Albert Fountain, then a sergeant in the California Column, “and the infantry encumbered with their arms, accoutrements, forty rounds in their cartridge boxes and sixty rounds in their knapsacks, found marching anything but pleasant.”

On July 14, the advance column left camp at 5 p.m. to make the 40 miles to Apache Pass, where they knew there would be a water hole called Apache Spring. They arrived a little after noon the next day. A mile from their goal the Apaches attacked the column in the rear, killing a soldier and wounding a teamster before being driven off with the loss of four of their number.

With skirmishers thrown ahead with the support of one cannon, the column approached the pass, which cut between a pair of steep cliffs with Apache Spring situated in between. Soon a rain of fire came down from  both cliffs. Several hundred Apaches under Chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas were stationed among the rocks. Both sides knew that if the soldiers didn’t get to the water soon, they’d never be able to keep fighting  and would be wiped out.

The California troops sent skirmishers up both slopes. Many of the civilian teamsters reportedly decided to join the fight since they, too, would die if  the battle were lost. Tradition holds that Behan was among them, although there is no official verification. Fountain  said years later that the teamsters actually guarded the animals in the rear. While exaggerating his wartime exploits would fit with Behan’s blusterous and self-serving character, we can grant the prevaricating future sheriff the benefit of the doubt in this case.  Going up those slopes under a hail of gunfire was really the only option.

As the soldiers and civilians struggled up the slope, firing as they went,  they were supported by the two mountain howitzers of the “Jackass Battery.” The Apaches held the cliffs tenaciously for some time, but the artillery shells smashing into the rocks around them took a terrible toll and at last they retreated. The California column gratefully drank their fill at Apache Spring,  watered their animals, and then retreated 15 miles that evening for fear of the Apaches returning.

The next day dawned and they still had to go through the pass. They returned to find the Apaches were  back, and a similar fight played out  with the same results. The Apaches eventually retreated, with Chief Mangas suffering from a bullet wound. The government immediately saw the vulnerability of the pass and authorized Fort Bowie to be built to protect it. The California Column continued its march through the desert southwest, eventually making a trek of 900 miles—all the way to El Paso.

 

TENSIONS AMONG THE PLAYERS in Tombstone fared into violence on  October 26, 1881, at the legendary gunfight just outside the O.K. Corral. Billy  Clanton along with Frank and Tom McLaury were killed, and Doc Holliday  and Virgil and Morgan Earp were all wounded.

Vengeance was not long in coming. The Cowboys shot Virgil, crippling his arm, and killed Morgan as he played billiards one night. Wyatt, unable to get help from the weak-willed Sheriff Johnny Behan, gathered his supporters and went on the famous Vendetta Ride, shooting down several Cowboys. Jim Earp’s Civil War infirmity kept him  from participating in the gunfight or  the Vendetta Ride, but he stood guard on many occasions after Virgil was wounded.

Although the Earp clan had gotten some measure of revenge during their Vendetta Ride, most of the Cowboys survived, while Wyatt and his colleagues had to leave the territory for fear of repercussions. Cowboy power was on the wane, however. As civilization grew in Arizona, the rule of law became stronger and there was no place for widespread rustling and robbery. Ike Clanton, who instigated the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral but ran  away once the shooting started, was killed in 1887 while resisting arrest on a charge of cattle rustling. Other Cowboys met similar fates or ended up in jail. The rest drifted away or settled into more legal pursuits.

Like the other Vendetta Ride members, Vermillion left Tombstone once the fighting was over. He wandered  all over the West doing everything from working as a carpenter to being a confidence man in the famous gang of  “Soapy” Smith.

He eventually ended up in Minden, La., calling himself J.O. Smith and working as a carpenter for many years. In 1916 he suffered a stroke and was unable to work. There was a Confederate soldiers’ home called Camp Nicholls nearby, and Vermillion claimed he had been a scout for General Robert E. Lee and had ridden with Terry’s Texas Rangers. He gained admittance, but questions arose about his claims. Vermillion packed his bags and headed home to his family in Ohio, who hadn’t seen or heard from him in more than 50 years. Now dying, he applied for a pension for his service in the Union Army, but investigators discovered his fraud at Camp Nicholls and a lengthy bureaucratic battle ensued. Vermillion died before he was given a pension, but his family successfully applied for remuneration for the costs of caring for him in his last months of life.

While the Cowboys ceased to be a regional power, the Democratic Party  was on the ascendant. Its leading gunmen had fled after their Vendetta  Ride, and the Republican newspaper, the Epitaph, was sold to a Democrat  when its editor left town. If this turn of events bothered the Earps, they never tried to change it. None of them ever visited Tombstone again.

 

Sean McLachlan has written numerous books and articles about the Civil War and the Old West, and is the author of Tombstone: Wyatt Earp, the O.K. Corral, and the Vendetta Ride 1881-82 and the Civil War novel A Fine Likeness.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.

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