Thursday, February 16, 2012

Atascosa County's Regiment in the Civil War - Part 8

The 36th Texas’ Colonel Woods and His Men

In Part 7 of this series, we heard from Private Joseph P. Blessington, of the 16th Volunteer Texas Infantry, about camp life at his encamp- ment in Austin County. Meantime back on the San Marcos, the 36th Texas’ frontiersmen-soldiers were perhaps a little less refined than Private Blessington’s comrades,. They were in general a cussing, gambling, horse-racing, fist-fighting, hell-raising (within strict military limits) bunch. Private Foster of the 36th, a young man whose sheltered life in the house of his Methodist minister father had not prepared him for the rough men he encountered in the military, wrote of his comrades:

They were the gamblingest, most profane group of men I had ever met. They would bet on the way a bird would fly. When we halted, they would [grab] off the saddles, stake the horses, spread out a sweaty saddle blanket and deal out hands from a pack of greasy, dog-earred cards.

But for all that, Carl Duaine writes, they were a deeply religious crowd. When Company K arrived at Camp Clark, Andrew Jackson Potter, a private and one of the company’s many parsons, noted that “it had an arbor, and had regular preaching.”1 And the soldiers were:

also, curiously, a gentlemanly group of men in that they were careful of their manners according to their own code. No man abused another, or called a man a liar, or reflected on his ancestry. Such behavior called for sixshooters and no man really wanted anything like that, especially the officers. All the men realized that they had their work cut out for them and, rough and ready as they were, a kind of courtesy by general agreement was observed and became part of each man’s behavior.


They would protest loudly anything that seemed unfair but went mater-of-factly about the distasteful job. . . . They were . . . always playing practical jokes, and in this each man was supposed to be a good sport and endure, thinking up something to spring on his own.2

Duaine says that at Camp Clark “Colonel Woods was separated from the other commands.” I don’t know what that means unless that back at Camp Salado (near San Antonio) there were additional regiments formed out of other volunteer companies that repaired to that mustering place. In any case, here by the San Marcos it was just him and his regiment and he would make of it what he could. He was a good man for the job. He would support the Cause, but he meant never to sacrifice any of the men in his command needlessly. As he was a doctor, he was perhaps more interested in saving lives than some other commanders.

The colonel was a singular man. He was a wealthy land owner – but his horse was worth only $150. His arms were a brace of pistols – but he didn’t bother to list them in case they were lost. He had a proper colonel’s sword – but left it in the wagons. He was a slave owner – but brought no servant to camp with him. He was close to his home – but he never left his command to go there.

He was, however, visited often by his wife, who brought him butter and coffee and news from home. On one visit she brought him her prized possession, a great stallion named Isaiah.3

The colonel put the regiment through a two-month program of training and preparation for whatever rigors might lie ahead. Since he was a doctor in private life, he would have relied on whatever professional military men he had on his staff to carry out the necessary training.

The troopers, organized and supervised by the senior staff, and put through their paces by the junior officers, would have received instruction and drills in military tactics, demonstrations in the care and handling of weapons, and practical exercises in understanding and responding to bugle calls. And they would have received training in horse maneuvers. These men of the frontier did not need to be taught how to ride a horse; largely the object of the training was the process itself – it was meant to inculcate discipline and unit cohesion, to teach them to obey orders when given. Still, some would have been sternly challenged by their training in equestrian military drill: how to present arms, how to form in company front, march in column of twos, column of fours, and column of squads. These maneuvers might have limited utility in the kind of warfare in which they might be engaged, but they learned to follow commands, vocal or bugle, and to ride in formation. It was all designed to turn a crowd of ranchers and stockmen and animal wranglers into soldiers.

In the end it was it was probably effective. But it was a kind of loose discipline the troop labored under. Colonel Woods allowed the men to go AWOL in quiet times, but he expected them back when their family business was taken care of. The troopers called their officers by their first names in the old Ranger style, but they trusted and followed them, and they developed a fierce loyalty to the Colonel-Doctor.4

Next time: While the 36th Texas Prepares for War . . .

Purgason, Howard. Calvin Turner, Texas Ranger
1. Graves, Hiram Atwell. Andrew Jackson Potter, the noted parson of the Texan frontier, 132
2. Duaine, Carl L.. The Dead Men Wore Boots, 28-29
3. Windle, Janice Woods. True Women, 262
4. Duaine, 28