Duty, honor and a fervent desire to uphold the fighting reputation of the Lone Star state drove Lee’s favorite shock troops.
On a sorrowful September day in 1862, Private Alexander Erskine of the 4th Texas Infantry paused to write a letter to his wife. He shared news of the recent Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Manassas, but admitted that his sense of triumph was tempered by the casualties the Texans had suffered. “The day after the battle,” Erskine noted, “the sky was clothed in mourning & wept tears of pity for the great slaughter. In this rain I was detailed on the sad duty of burying the dead of our regiment.” Despite his grief, a sense of determination ran through his words. Writing proudly on confiscated Union stationery, he embraced his likely fate as a soldier in a hard-fighting unit.
Brigadier General John Bell Hood had just told Erskine and the surviving members of the Texas Brigade that they “did too much more than was ever asked of [them].” Despite this, and perhaps in recognition of it, Erskine clearly felt honored to be serving the Confederacy when he wrote: “I do not suppose we will attack Washington but may invade Maryland. I trust we will. I shall remember with pride that I belonged to the great army that fought before Richmond so gloriously, that made twice memorable Manassas bloody plains & entered Maryland for its liberation….We have been fed very scantily & marched & fought hard but we are all satisfied since God has granted us in victory.”
The letters written by Private Erskine and thousands of his fellow Texans are key to understanding what motivated the men of this legendary brigade to volunteer, to fight with such determination on the battlefield, and to stay with the army until the war’s final hours at Appomattox. And understand them we should. While countless units fought valiantly throughout the war, only a handful earned elite reputations. In the past few decades historians, this author included, have become obsessed with studying the motivations and experiences of Civil War soldiers. In this quest—one that has revealed astonishing levels of bravery and ideological thought—it is impossible not to become curious about the units that were recognized by their peers and by posterity as the finest to take the field. If we are to fully comprehend the military motivations of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb, we must first understand what drove the best of the best.
Part of the Texas Brigade’s fame can be attributed to postwar recognition by respected historians such as Douglas Southall Freeman, who christened the brigade’s men “The Grenadier Guards of the South” and “Lee’s favorite shock troops.” But the more telling acclaim came during the war, particularly when General Robert E. Lee, witnessing the collapse of the Confederate position at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, celebrated the unit’s arrival on the field. “Texans always move them,” he exclaimed as the Texas Brigade stopped and then pushed back the Federal advance along the Orange Plank Road. Major General Dorsey Pender trained his North Carolinians with the Texans in mind, insisting that “if any effort of mine can do it, this Brigade shall be second to none but Hood’s Texas boys. He has the best material on the continent without a doubt.”
While their place in history is secure, the question remains: What motivated the men of the Texas Brigade to fight so well and so bravely? Some of the answers are not unexpected—a strong sense of duty to family, community and the Confederacy; a thirst for adventure; and even a fear of being branded a coward. What is surprising is that a defense of slavery is not mentioned as a motivation until late in the war. Nor do the Texans cite religion as a critical catalyst for service, although they do reference their faith in God as a source of strength and solace in the face of overwhelming hardships. The most significant motivation of all for the brigade was the exceptionalism of Texas. While other Confederate soldiers took pride in their state heritage, the Texans were unique in their sense of obligation not just to their state, but also to its reputation for producing tough fighters. This pride drove them to fight heroically, sustained them in the harsh conditions of the field, and influenced their faith in their leaders, their comrades and themselves. It is essential to any understanding of this elite fighting force.
Why They Joined
Formed in the spring and early summer of 1861, the core units of the Texas Brigade were the 1st, 4th and 5th Texas Volunteer Infantry Regiments—the only Texas units to fight in the Eastern theater. Other infantry regiments joined the brigade, including the 18th Georgia and 3rd Arkansas. Eight companies of infantry from Wade Hampton’s South Carolina Legion eventually were attached as well. However, the unit became best known for its Texans and its hard-fighting commander, John Bell Hood, who led them through defining battles such as Gaines’ Mill and Antietam between March and November of 1862.
Many of the volunteers traced their roots to local militia units from east Texas with names like the “Washington Light Guards” the “Crockett Southrons” and the “Livingston Guards.” The ranks also included men from areas farther west, such as the “Tom Green Rifles” from Austin. Most of these companies reached Richmond, Va., in the summer of 1861, where they reorganized into the three core regiments.
Writing to his mother not long after arriving in the Confederate capital, Robert Gaston of the 1st Texas’ Company H reveals one of the most common motivations for enlisting. Gaston explained that he had heard of her depression and her fears for his safety and that of his brother William. “I don’t think you all ought to be at all dispirited because we have come off,” he wrote. “For I think that it will be a great deal better for us to toil through a long war or even to die on the battlefield than to stay at home & ever have the finger of scorn pointed at us as those who were afraid to contend for their rights.” William Fletcher, who joined Company F of the 5th Texas, wrote about his early motivations years later. He relied on the advice of his father, who did not believe in secession but explained to his son: “I have opposed it, but as it is here, I will say that you are doing the only honorable thing and that is defending your country.”
There are other men, such as Malachiah Reeves, who never offered a clear explanation for their decision to join the Confederate Army. Reeves was happily attending school in Crockett, Texas, in June of 1861 when a Dr. Edward Currie marched a company he had raised through the school grounds “under martial music,” as Reeves recalled. “I stepped into line of march,” he later wrote, “and enlisted for three years, or for the duration of the war.”
James Rogers Loughridge of Corsicanna, however, recorded highly ideological motivations. In January 1862, camped with the 4th Texas near Dumfries, Va., he admitted to his mother: “How long this unholy war will last I have no idea…[but] It seems that God is on the side of the South….I do not desire to go home until my Country is free & independent. Mother I would far prefer to die than to live in a land overrun by base foes. You will not think strange of it when I tell you this. No mortal living has dearer and more loved ties to bind him to his house than I do. Yet I will give them all up & my life too, before I will live in a land that is not independent.”
Loughridge also contemplated the great purpose of this war as a cleansing of the nation and a chance to refocus a lost land: “It may be that God is displeased with both North & South. Corrupt men have multiplied in our land and caused an unholy state of manners and sentiment to exist. War will therefore probably be made a great blessing to us teaching us from whom we have received our noble land & the inestimable blessings given to us by our forefathers.”
All blessings of war aside, some of the Texas volunteers began complaining soon after signing up. As Robert Gaston hinted from Richmond in the summer of 1861, “It goes very hard with our boys to be kept under military rule.” Private Harvey Pinson provides a case in point. According to D.H. Hamilton, who served with him in Company M of the 1st Texas, problems surfaced within days of Pinson’s enlistment. At that time, Hamilton recalled, departing troops enjoyed grand parties, and young men in the enlisted ranks had raucous celebrations in camp the night before they left Texas. They brought out fiddles and “boxed, wrestled, yelled and whipped the Yankees all night, preventing the older men from getting any sleep.” Indeed, as Hamilton recalled, “it was impossible to sleep [with]in a mile of that camp.”
The next few days were not nearly as much fun. The men became footsore and tired, and some, like Pinson, decided they had already had enough of soldiering. Hamilton recalled that as far as Pinson was concerned, “He had volunteered to go and he thought he could volunteer to go back.” On about the fourth morning of their march, the men of Company M awoke to find him gone. The captain sent two men after him: Ephriam Dial (who was known more commonly as Eph Jenkins) and Willoughby Tullos. They found Pinson fairly quickly—and almost as quickly found a bottle of whiskey. All three proceeded to get drunk. During the revelry, Tullos managed to shoot off the tip of his right index finger. In their stupor, the injured soldier’s compatriots decided to save him by removing more of the finger down to the second joint and proceeded to perform the operation with a pocket knife. Then Jenkins, the surgeon of the evening, decided they needed to treat it and went to find the necessary supplies. A nearby family did not have the turpentine and sugar (the makings of a classic home remedy) Jenkins was hoping for, but they did have salt. After Tullos received his salt bandage, the three men sat down to toast the evening’s excitement and then drifted off to sleep. They caught up with Company M a few days later, and all three went on to serve in the war. Pinson made a good soldier, despite his dislike for military discipline, and died in service. Tullos and Jenkins survived, though the former became known for his unique habit of using his middle finger for pulling the trigger.
Pinson wasn’t the only soldier to complain of rough discipline and horrendous conditions. Nearly every company in the Texas Brigade, like many other units North and South, suffered from disease and discomfort. The realities of camp often surprised men who previously had glorified military life, but many of the early recruits were determined to make the best of it. Shortly after departing Texas, Robert Gaston confirmed as much in a letter to his sister in July 1861. With a little sadness but strong determination in his voice, Gaston reported: “Our company is in very good health & in tolerable spirits, for boys as far from home as we are. The nights are a great deal cooler here than in Texas and damp ground and wet blankets make a disagreeable bed. Yet we all bear it cheerfully, feeling that it is our duty and for our country’s good.”
The Texans seemed to have little patience for those who failed to tolerate hardships and serve as they did. While they may have told humorous stories about men like Pinson, they remembered that he not only returned but also died in service. There was little forgiveness, however, for those who enlisted, enjoyed the parties and then failed to stick around for the grisly work to be done. In the fall of 1861, Adam Damm of the 4th Texas wrote to his family from Richmond with news from the front. After sharing general stories from camp, he closed noting, “…one individual I like to forgot Mr. W.H. Lawrence who has deserted us since since [sic] we Arrived here he has not been heard of since he left.”
A Glorious Reputation
As the Texas Brigade took form, a tremendous sense of loyalty to their state and a desire to uphold the reputation of its soldiers inspired the men. The 4th and 5th Texas were organized primarily by Austin newspaper editor Jefferson Marshall to ensure that at least 2,000 Texans would serve in the Eastern theater, where Marshall believed the war would be decided. This concept of state pride and rivalry was hardly unheard of during the war, but the frequency with which the men of the brigade—as well as those outside it—referred to their impressive reputation is significant.
James H. Manahan of Company E, 4th Texas, offers a classic example. In late April 1861, he told the girl he would later marry that the men were all responding to the coming battle in different ways, but he was confident that they would fight well because, “We have got a great reputation to sustain.” Later that summer he reiterated his pledge and explained that though he had not yet seen combat, he was confident that he would fight well. “As for myself, I do not know how I will feel, but be assured I will not disgrace myself nor the Lone Star Guards.”
Robert Gaston made similar reports from Richmond in July 1861. “The Texians have a great reputation here as fighters. The people here look upon a Texian ranger (as they call all Texians) as a person who don’t care for anything. They say that they had as soon fight devils at once as Texians. We will have enough to do, if we do get into a fight, to sustain our reputation. We cannot gain much honor if we fight as bravely as men could.” A few days later, Gaston had these expectations confirmed when Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited the men and commented on the already impressive reputation of Texas troops, reminding them that they would have to fight well to maintain it. The brigade’s first commander, Brig. Gen. Louis Wigfall, made a similar charge later that fall of 1861 when speaking to the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas regiments. As William H. Lewis of the 5th Texas recalled, Wigfall was “a little drunk, but he gave a good [speech]. He paid a high compliment to Texians, said they had a high reputation to sustain as fighting men.” The Texans seemed more honored than overwhelmed by the challenge and responded to Davis’ and Wigfall’s speeches with thunderous cheers.
In September 1861, 17-year-old John Marquis “Mark” Smither of Company D, 5th Texas, noticed that the “Texas boys” were “a perfect curiosity” to the citizens of Richmond and other Southerners all along the march to Virginia. “The people…come from every direction to see the boys from Texas…they had great ideas of the Texans,” Smither told his mother.
While numerous letters revealed the men’s pride in the brigade’s fighting reputation, some of them occasionally contained complaints about it too. William P. Townsend of Company C in the 4th Texas told his wife in August 1862, “Many of our men say they are tired of their character for bellicosity…” He joked that they assumed their next assignment would be “to charge a fleet of Yankee gunboats.” Even he, however, immediately went on to note the men’s pride. “Our Regt. has gained quite a reputation in the Army—so much so that every man and officer has “4 Texas” written in his cap.”
Proud Men, Proud Leaders
The Texans’ pride in their reputation was both a cause and effect of their faith in their leaders. They often praised officers to family at home, including commanders such as Hood and Jerome Bonaparte Robertson. The majority of the men shared a powerful devotion to Hood. James Murray of the 4th Texas insisted in October 1862 that Hood was “one of the best generals we have in this army. If he could have had his way at the Battle of Sharpsburg, we would have routed the entire Yankee army in 3 hours.” In Robertson, as both a regimental and brigade commander, the men found an equally brave and dedicated officer. At Gaines’ Mill, Arthur H. Edey, 5th Texas, noted that “our loss was lessened by having Col. J.B. Robertson as brave a man as the service boasts. In front of this regiment as they went up the hill in the face of the fire, he proved to the boys that we were sure of an entrepid [sic] leader while he lived.” Robertson maintained this reputation as he rose to command the brigade. In the days after the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Benjamin I. Franklin of Company I, 5th Texas, informed his wife: “Genl. Robertson was to be seen on all occasions in front of his Brigade leading them on and exposing himself to every danger[. A] man never acted more gallantly[.] [H]e had two horses shot under him but escaped unhurt.”
The men of the Texas Brigade also spoke fondly of regimental commanders such as the 5th Texas’ John C. Upton. One soldier described him as “a daredevil—[an] open hearted and brave Texan.” As Private Robert Campbell recalled, Upton’s battlefield dress consisted of “an old pair of pants, a dilapidated pair of cavalry boots, and an old cotton shirt, a slouch black hat—a huge saber, with a pair of six shooters—looking less like an officer than any of this men.” The men seemed to love his unusual style as much as his bold leadership, and they would mourn his loss while leading the 5th at Second Manassas.
The Texas soldiers’ loyalty was not lightly earned, however. The spring of 1862 found the men of the 4th Texas frustrated with their colonel, John Marshall. Some grumbled that he had not been elected by the regiment but instead had used his powerful political connections to obtain an appointment from President Jefferson Davis. Others complained about Marshall’s inability to properly drill the men. No one questioned his bravery, but they did not appreciate his inexperience or their lack of input in the decision to make him their commander. In the weeks before the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, a number of the men and officers of the 4th Texas drafted a petition insisting on Marshall’s resignation or removal from command. But they agreed to set aside their differences long enough to focus on their common enemy, and the 4th Texas marched into battle under Colonel Marshall on June 27, 1862. Ironically, the debate was settled for them. Marshall fell mortally wounded while leading men who did not want to serve under him.
It was, however, that same deadly June struggle that forever sealed Hood’s reputation with the men and his identification with the Texas Brigade. He kept a promise he had made to his old command, the 4th Texas, to lead it into battle that day. He was also with the men that night as they searched among the wounded and dead. They made prideful note of the commander who celebrated and suffered with them. In the years after the war, it would be this battle, more than any other, that the Texas Brigade Association would commemorate with their annual reunions on June 27. As one soldier later noted, at Gaines’ Mill the Texas Brigade earned a reputation that “nearly exhausted them to achieve, and nearly finished them to maintain.”
Brothers in Arms
Pride in the brigade’s reputation also was influenced heavily by the men’s faith in their comrades in the rank and file. The intense loyalty they shared with one another played a powerful role in their success on the battlefield. H.W. Berryman, who served in Company I of the 1st Texas, told his mother about their desperate fight at Gettysburg. He related that his brother “Newt was wounded in the head. He was right by my side. It knocked him down. I thought he was killed, but he jumped up and kept to fighting harder than ever. I tried to persuade him to leave the field, but he would not leave. He told me if every man left for a slight wound we would never gain a battle.”
Even non-Texans in the brigade identified with the Texans’ fierce state pride and comradeship. After the fight at Gaines’ Mill, James Lemmon of the 18th Georgia bought a silver star from a soldier in the 4th Texas and affixed it to his hat as a symbol of unity with his brothers.
Faith in the men beside them did not erase the Texans’ suffering, but it gave them the strength to work through their complaints and even, in the final months of the war, their fears of defeat. The men continued to write frequently of appalling conditions due to cold and a shortage of shoes, clothing and food. They occasionally questioned their ability to triumph in this struggle and even wrestled with the idea of deserting because their requests for furloughs were denied so often. Through it all, however, pride and an overwhelming dedication to cause, country and comrades kept them in the ranks.
The letters of General Robertson, commander of the brigade from November 1862 through the spring of 1864, indicate that morale was dangerously low during this period. His men were exhausted, depressed and homesick from their inability to visit family or even return to Texas to recruit replacements for their fallen comrades. In October 1863, James H. Kennedy of Company G, 1st Texas, confirmed Robertson’s observations when he complained that his furlough had been denied, again. “[I]f I was mean enough I could slip away and go home.” Yet, typical of a Texan, he added, “but to be marked as a Deserter I would rather die.” A year later, on October 21, 1864—after the fall of Atlanta—Kennedy was still optimistic and reported: “The health of the army is very good and in fine Spirits. With Such a man as R. E. Lee at there [sic] head they Could not be otherwise. General Longstreet has Taken Command of his Corps again the troops are glad to have him back.” This faith sustained Kennedy through the end of the war.
James Manahan expressed similar optimism in February 1864. Writing from the camp of Company E, 4th Texas, he reported: “Winter has come and passed, bringing with it the coldest weather ever experienced by the soldiers in this Army and taking everything into consideration we have made the hardest campaign we have ever went through. We have made several long marches over frozen grounds and nearly all of the men barefooted, myself included. We have had hard corn issued to us for rations but not withstanding all this the men are still in fine spirits and as sanguine of success as they were when the war began. We all know that the darkest hour of our nation’s troubles is now upon us but we put our trust in the God of battles and our own right army….”
Six grueling months later, Samuel S. Watson of the 1st Texas answered a friend: “You wished me to write if I thought we could whip the yanks or not—I think we can. We have done it every time we have fought them and I think will as long as they fight.” The following month J.D. Caddell of the 4th Texas reported to his parents that “times are quite lively” in the camp near Richmond, and he added, “I think by the 1st of January next the fate of the South will be decided.” But by February 1865, the true fate of the South seemed clear even to menbers of the Texas Brigade. Watson admitted: “Everything looks sad and gloomy at this time in and around Richmond, great many people have become dispondant and sum desertion, sum dissatisfaction in different ways. Sum for putting in the Negros to fight.” He added, “I do [wish] they will stop all thare foolishness and let the men go home.” And yet, despite the increasingly obvious outcome, Samuel Watson would continue to fight with his brothers in the Texas Brigade until their surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.
What They Didn’t Fight For
Amid all of the reasons the Texans give for fighting, it may seem puzzling that they made so little mention of the war’s seemingly inescapable issue: slavery. Throughout their letters and diaries the Texans and their Arkansan, Georgian and South Carolinian comrades rarely addressed the defense of the “peculiar institution” as a factor in their decision to volunteer or stay in the ranks. This fact does not necessarily mean that the men never considered the issue. They had dealt with it through their state’s popular referendum on secession (they were the only Deep South state to take such a vote) and through the increased property protections for slave owners in the new state constitution that Texas adopted in 1861. Still, the men of the Texas Brigade rarely referenced slavery in their letters home until late 1863 and 1864—unless they were referring to the Federal government’s attempts to enslave them.
However, the tone of the Texans’ conversation changed in late 1863—apparently in reaction to the Union Army’s use of AfricanAmerican soldiers. In November of that year, Jack Adam of Company C, 4th Texas insisted, “King Abe has the sword and the purse in his hands now; and, backed by the conscript law which puts into the field now about three millions of Yankees both white and black….One thing that I can truly say that the more they send against us the less will go back.” In a letter written on October 21, 1864, Samuel Watson described: “them Blooddy Negroes of Grants made a charge on us and a charge it was. They came rite up till you could See the White of thare Eyes. the boys litterley coverd the ground with Dead nigs. dont think that I am braging for it is so….”
Perhaps the men of the Texas Brigade never really believed that the North could destroy slavery. Perhaps they chose to face it only when it became clear that their world was drastically, uncontrollably and irreversibly changing.
The powerful determination and optimism of the men of the Texas Brigade remained with them in the fall of 1864 and well into 1865. Throughout this period, they continued to cite as abiding strengths the same motivations that had first inspired their service: honor, duty to the Confederacy, revolutionary concepts of life and liberty, and the exceptionalism of Texas. These factors, along with fearless leadership from their commanders, sustained the men in camp and in combat through four of the bloodiest years in history and helped earn them the well-deserved reputation as Robert E. Lee’s “Grenadier Guards of the South.”
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.