Green volunteers were transformed into one of the South’s elite fighting forces in a frigid camp along the Potomac.
The fall of 1861 found Charles Schadt far from his home in Galveston, Texas. He and his brother, William, were serving with the 1st Texas Infantry near Manassas, Virginia, an area teeming with Confederate volunteers. “This whole country looks like one camp,” Charles marveled, “and everything is alive with men.” Combat would claim Charles’ life, just as the lives of so many other Texans were lost to fighting and disease. But in 1861 all that lay in the future, as did the battles that would define their brigade. First the boys from Waco, Huntsville and countless other towns had to become soldiers, a process that took place during a cold and mostly forgotten winter on the banks of the Potomac River. It was there the Texas Brigade was born.
They began gathering near Richmond in July. The Texans had journeyed 1,600 miles by wagon, boat, rail and foot, moving in small independent groups that ranged from one to five companies in size. While Union and Confederate forces clashed at the First Battle of Manassas on July 21, more Texans were making their way through the Louisiana swamps, many of them away from home for the first time. In addition to homesickness, the volunteers suffered from accidents and illness as they headed east. Newly arrived in Virginia, they were not as green as they had been, but they were still an enthusiastic, rough-and-tumble lot who prided themselves on maintaining, even exceeding, their Frontier reputations as defenders of the Alamo and the Republic of Texas.
One of their first challenges came when the men were organized into units, and officials in Richmond appointed their regimental officers. Although the recruits knew to expect this, they insisted on having some say in the process. The 4th Texas, for example, refused to have R.T.P. Allen as their colonel—they had had enough of his martinet manners in their training camps back home. The 5th Texas took note of Frank Schaller’s pageantry, foreign accent and, perhaps, his Jewish heritage, though the men said nothing about it. But Schaller awoke one morning to find his horse’s mane and tail cropped and the girth cut from his saddle, and he promptly left camp. The 5th finally accepted as their leader, if briefly, Colonel J.J. Archer, though many remained suspicious of the “too-near-Yankeedom” Marylander. And they made such a mockery of Major J.Q. Quattlebaum’s name and habits that the man resigned, insisting “that if he had to associate with devils he would wait till he went to hell, where he could select his own company.”
Oddly enough, the Texans embraced Kentuckian John Bell Hood as one of their own, almost instinctively. Hood had served on the Texas frontier and adopted the Lone Star state as his home when Kentucky refused to secede, so perhaps it was his choice to become a Texan that endeared him to his new unit, though that too seems doubtful. The men could be even harder on native Texans like Austin newspaper editor John Marshall of the 4th Texas. Despite their grudging recognition of his bravery, in Marshall they saw a political appointee with poor military instincts.
The Texans warmed to Hood immediately. Josiah Duke of the 4th Texas declared them “all well pleased with him, he is a Texian himself and a good soldier and has the appearance of a brave man and that is just what Texians want is a man that will lead them on to victories or death.” Whatever sparked it, the men’s loyalty to Hood remained steadfast. As Sergeant Valerius Giles once mused, “It has always been a question among us whether Hood made the Texas Brigade or the Texas Brigade made Hood.”
In mid-November 1861, the newly forged units moved to positions near Dumfries, Va., on the Potomac River Line. There the green recruits got to know each other and bonded into a fighting force. The Texas Brigade served as infantry support that winter for a series of forts along the waterway, where Confederates worked to block Union shipping in and out of Washington. They spent the next several months digging fortifications, scouting across the river behind Union lines and puzzling over the observation balloon that rose above the lines of Union commanders Daniel Sickles’ Excelsior Brigade and Brig. Gen. Abram Duryée’s 5th New York Zouaves. They were fired on by cannons aboard Federal ships and on the opposite shore. One night a small force of Texans found themselves trapped in an abandoned house, surrounded by Union cavalry. Before they escaped, the men inflicted several casualties on the Federals while suffering only one of their own.
Most of the combat deaths during that period came from small but intense engagements, usually involving several dozen men. As one Texan, most likely Virginius Pettey of the 5th Texas, explained with some degree of exaggeration, by April 1862 they were “almost daily engaging some party, or company, or regiment of Federals, and invariably killing some, repulsing and beating them back….These skirmishers have performed many real gallant deeds until the Yanks dread them, believing them to be invincible. They have written on Pohick Church and other places…‘Death to all Texians.’”
That cold, lonely, miserable winter along the Potomac proved useful in preparing the men for war. Robert Gaston of the 1st Texas insisted that the worst of his assignments was walking picket: “We have to walk about four miles and then scatter along the river bank to guard it to keep the Yankees from landing and surprising us. We cannot have any fire and the wind blows very cold there on the beach and we almost freeze during the night.” Jack Glaze, also of the 1st Texas, wrote, “Sometimes I walk my lonely post and think of home and how much more comfortable it would be at home by your fire side. I have often heard talk of old Virginia but this part of it is hell.”
But their miserable circumstances seemed to inspire G.R. Thornwell, one of the South Carolinians of Wade Hampton’s Legion who served with the Texans. When he heard rumors of peace that winter, Thornwell claimed: “I don’t want to make peace until we have exterminated the whole Yankee race, then I will be satisfied. I want to pay them off for keeping me out here this winter….”
Most of the boys managed to find some humor amid all that gloom, as fighting men have done through the ages. They took pride in their ability to domesticate themselves, for example, with William Schadt boasting that his “Confederate Mess” included six men who were “all splendid cooks and washers, and as soon as we learn how to iron we will be ready for hire out.” John McKee of the 5th Texas claimed that he was “in the best mess in the company….We have four Testaments and one Bible and one songbook, and we are all named John but two, and they are named Bill….”
The men began constructing their winter quarters in January, a process that proved to be somewhat chaotic. The 1st Texas camped near Quantico Creek at “Camp Quantico,” while the 5th Texas took up position a little to the north along Neabsco Creek—fittingly at “Camp Neabsco,” and the 4th Texas camped just south of Powell’s Run at “Camp Hood.” The brigade’s primary mission was defending batteries at Freestone Point, Cockpit Point, Shipping Point and Evansport. They were all ranged along the eastern side of Telegraph Road, within marching distance to the river, but also ready to link with the 18th Georgia. The Georgians were camped on the western side of the road, to defend against any attackers coming by land from the north, who would first encounter Hampton’s Legion camped along the Occoquan Creek.
As the men of the 1st Texas laid out their camp, W.D. Pritchard explained that they were “some little distance back from the river but sufficiently near to protect the batteries.” According to regulations, each camp had to have “a street of about 80 feet between companies,” but aside from that they were apparently told to build as they pleased. “Consequently,” Pritchard mused, “there were scarcely any two houses alike.” Lieutenant Dugat Williams reported that the 5th Texas constructed their messes of pine logs in “hogpen fashion.” Some had doors, others had windows, and a few had both. Each company constructed 10 houses, as Williams noted, resulting in little company-size villages. Despite the haphazard results, the men took pride in their architectural creations.
“Ours is a nice little log cabin about 14 by 16 feet,” Mark Smither of the 5th Texas boasted. “We are very comfortably fixed now for the first time since we arrived in Virginia.” As Smither wrote, the scene around him could have appeared in any one of the messes along the Potomac: “J.W. Ewing frying bacon, [W.G.W.] Farthing lying in bed just recovering from camp fever, Barney Carrington bathing, Jim Harris dancing, and Billy Wynne just peeping over the top of his bunk having been asleep telling Ewing to put in a ration for him.”
Perhaps the most poignant image was penned by Dugat Williams, who captured the transition along the Potomac Line that winter as the green volunteers became soldiers and bonded into cohesive units. Looking around the fire in his mess one night, Williams wrote that he smiled at the captain
sitting in an awkwardly made seat, made by Peter [Mallory], and…smoking his pipe. He looks perfectly contented and has been laughing at some of Charley Brashear’s cooking. Lieut. Cobb is sitting by the side of the capt. with a shawl wrapped around him as though he felt the cold. He has just finished eating his dinner and from the smile on his face I judge he relished his rough food. Pryor [Bryan], as usual, is laughing. I can hear his voice above the rest and when they laugh he laughs the loudest. He is a jovial mess-mate and I don’t think we could get along without him. He is all life and is happy as a lark. Sometimes when he speaks of his wife his face grows a little sad and he often expresses a regret that he cannot see her, but as a general thing he is the most lively one of our mess. Charley Brashear is parching coffee and is learning how to cook very fast….Peter [Mallory] is a first rate cook and he takes charge of our mess box and everything else in general.
Scenes like this one unfolded all around their camps as the boys of Texas, Georgia and South Carolina bonded as a brigade. The men drilled and drilled and drilled some more that winter. Their hours revolved around answering roll call, which occurred three times a day, and standing picket duty every twelfth night. They accepted this monotony, for the most part, but they also chafed at their lack of contact with the enemy.
Their deadliest foe proved to be disease. Franklin Robertson of the 18th Georgia reported an outbreak of measles in camp early that fall, while Malachiah Reeves of the 1st Texas recalled that he went “through all the camp sicknesses” that winter: “measles, mumps, and one very severe attack of pneumonia.”
“We get better eating here than we did at home,” reported Captain A.T. Rainey of the 1st Texas, “but unfortunately there is a great deal of sickness such as measles, typhoid fever, chills and fever—I have now fifty men on the sick list….” Captain Rainey himself would soon be dispatched to a hospital in Richmond to recover from his bouts of illness.
W.J. Tannehill of the 4th Texas, who spent time nursing his messmates who were battling measles in their tent, mused that “I am in as good health at this time as I ever was in my life and as fleshy” and believed if he could “escape the measles I think I will get along very well.” Within days, though, Tannehill contracted typhoid fever. He spent the next eight weeks in a Richmond hospital, unable to leave his bed, and by Christmas he was “nothing more than skin and bone.”
As if their struggles with disease were not terrible enough, the soldiers’ trials were often compounded by overwhelming loneliness. When Oscar Downs and Sam Earle of the 4th Texas were roommates at the St. Charles Hospital in Richmond, Downs wrote: “The night is dark and lonely. The wind blows cold and hard, and the rain descends in dreadful torrents—Oh! My, how sad I am!” There were “poor sick soldiers…coughing and groaning all over the house. Sam is in bed sick and I am left alone to rejoice over some few events of the past, mourn over others, and look with the eye of hope to the future, which seems to me but a melancholy blank. Oh! would that I could approach my God and get relief from my troubled mind.”
The Texas Brigade’s officers suffered along with their men. Hood, the 4th’s commander, joined Rainey on the sick list that winter—and though they would recover, the 1st Texas lost its beloved commander, Colonel Hugh McLeod, to pneumonia in January. No regiment, no company remained untouched.
That winter many of the units followed the pattern seen in Company E of the 4th Texas, which saw 50 percent of its men hospitalized, averaging 64 days on the sick rolls per soldier. Company K of the 5th Texas lost 30 men (nearly 30 percent of the unit) to typhoid fever alone. As February faded into March, the men reported that conditions were improving, but disease remained one of their greatest foes for the rest of the war.
On March 8, the men broke camp and abandoned the “Wigfall Mess” and “Beauregard Mess,” along with the rest of their little village near Dumfries. As miserable as this time along the Potomac had been, the men would look back on their experiences with some fondness.
Decades later, Val Giles struggled to explain that first season of war: “The cold dreary wintery days…at old Dumfries…the snow-covered hills, the lofty pines with their evergreen boughs draped in crystal icicles, the old oaks leafless and black, the white tents, the rude log cabins, the picket post along the river, are scenes treasured away in the picture gallery of my memory.”
The men were not yet the unit that Douglas Southall Freeman would christen Lee’s “Grenadier Guard.” They would have to earn that name on the bloody fields of Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness. But it was during that cold, bleak winter along the Potomac Line that they took their first steps toward becoming the Texas Brigade.
Susannah Ural, who teaches history at the University of Southern Mississippi, has authored several works on soldier motivation and is currently writing a socio-military history of the Texas Brigade. Rick Eiserman, a retired U.S. Army officer, is a longtime student of Hood’s Texas Brigade who formerly directed the archive and photo collections at the U.S. Army Military History Institute. Ural and Eiserman are collecting “voices” from letters, diaries and other materials for their co-edited collection Voices of the Texas Brigade, forthcoming from the University of Tennessee Press.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.