Reviewed by Robert K. Krick
By Stephen Chicoine
McFarland & Company, www.mcfarlandpub.com, Jefferson, N.C.
Chappell Hill, Texas, lies a few dozen miles northwest of Houston, in Washington County. The 1850s brought thriving prosperity to the region, generated by slavery-based cotton production. “Crops as good as you ever saw,” a resident boasted, “girls fat and saucy.” The advent of the Civil War shattered the boom and sent thousands of men into military service all across the South.
The saga of a Southern community driven from boom to bust by the war is not unfamiliar, but The Confederates of Chappell Hill, Texas (McFarland & Company, www.mcfarlandpub.com, Jefferson, N.C., 2005, $45), by Stephen Chicoine, benefits from an opulent infusion of contemporary evidence never before published. That makes Chicoine’s story worthwhile.
Soldiers from Chappell Hill went to war in the renowned Terry’s Texas Rangers, in Edwin Waller’s Texas cavalry battalion and in other Texan organizations. Chicoine devotes chapters to their experiences at Arkansas Post, in the amazing operations around Galveston and at Vicksburg and Atlanta. A fine chapter on the home-front experience cites 17 manuscript sources.
A company of Washington County men also went to Virginia as part of the 5th Texas Infantry, which became a veteran mainstay in the justly famous Texas Brigade commanded by General John B. Hood. The five chapters devoted primarily to the exploits of Chappell Hill’s 5th Texas troops probably will appeal most to Civil War readers.
Twenty war-dated letters written by three men, printed in pleasingly long block quotes, buttress the story of the 5th Texas’ experiences in Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. They cover much of the war: four from 1861, six from 1862, four from 1863, five from 1864 and one dated 1865. The earliest was written on August 5, 1861, and the last on February 23, 1865.
Chicoine also supplies a gratifying volume of contemporary evidence from periodicals, most of them published in Houston or Galveston. Newspapers printed almost as much gasconade and rhodomontade in the 1860s as they do today. Unlike modern newspapers, though, journals of the Civil War era mixed in with the foolishness a generous budget of letters directly from men on the battle lines. Families who received letters from their soldiers often took them to the papers to print for public consumption, thus spreading information to others hungry for news of their own loved ones.
Between the manuscript letters that Chicoine adduces and the newspaper accounts, Confederates of Chappell Hill throws new light on some of the most famous moments in the annals of Hood’s Texas Brigade and the Army of Northern Virginia. The letters do not include an eyewitness narrative about the brigade’s first triumphant moment, at Gaines’ Mill, but one man quoting the word of participants boasted, “Our brigade did damn good service &…fought as becomes Texians.”
Writing soon after the violent combat at Second Manassas, a Texan provided vivid and accurate evidence about the brigade’s assault against Federal Zouaves: “We kept advancing & shooting until we got within thirty yards of them….The ground was perfectly strewn with the bodies of the red breeched fellows.”
One of the Chappell Hill men wrote dramatically of his role in the celebrated fight for Gettysburg’s Little Round Top: “We charged…at double quick up an almost perpendicular peak,” he wrote seven days after the event, “at the top of which the enemy had fortified….Our regiment…charged up within thirty yards of the enemy four successful times & having to fall back as many times two hundred yards from the enemy’s works.”
When the war moved from fluid maneuver to static defense, the Texans occupied “strong entrenchments” around Richmond and Petersburg, with “the breastworks of the enemy…[with]in 75 yards of ours in some places.” On July 14, 1864, one of the Washington County boys complained: “We have been in entrenchments six days without relief, sharpshooting with the enemy.” He boasted, nonetheless, of “fine spirits” among the troops. Another Texan wrote that a “feeling of most complete security seems to privail.”
A September 1864 letter affords further evidence of high morale in Lee’s army, a theme of amazing recurrence in contemporary documents, despite modern assertions to the contrary. A Chappell Hill soldier described the mortal wounding of a comrade who “seemed to not think of himself or the agony he suffered, but prayed to God to spare his life that he may defend his beloved country. Such exhibitions of patriotism from an humble private is of daily occurance & makes one proud to know he belongs to such an army.”
Chicoine devotes 70 pages to recounting the weary survivors’ return to Chappell Hill, the Federal occupation and Reconstruction, and the eventual emergence of reunions and veterans’ organizations. A battered veteran of Terry’s Texas Rangers rode up to the gate of his home, where his family “thought the boy was dead and were not expecting even his ghost to appear.” The patriarch of the household offered the grizzled stranger a chance to spend the night, if he had money to pay the bill, then the family dog recognized what the humans could not, setting off a tearful reunion typical of countless thousands of others across the South.
Icy reality soon ended such celebrations. “I have been doing nothing, could find nothing to do,” a Washington County veteran wrote in November 1865. “I have been blown about upon the waters of adversity like a storm beaten bark, with no rudder.”
Numerous excellent photographs, many of soldiers in uniform, illustrate Confederates of Chappell Hill. One is a full-page, full-length photo of Rufus K. Felder, the most frequently quoted of the 5th Texas correspondents, and his brother, both men holding bayonet-tipped muskets.
The book’s design conforms to what has become a standard for McFarland & Company — no dust jacket and glossy hard boards, prettily illustrated — although an inane designer mindlessly plastered a Confederate naval ensign on the cover. McFarland’s small press runs of specialty books inevitably result in high prices for volumes of modest size. In this case, the book surely is worth the tariff.