Saturday, July 28, 2012

Atascosa County's Regiment in the Civil War - Part 12

Below the Nueces

October 31, 1862: Port Lavaca is bombarded by U.S. naval forces.
November 20th: U.S. naval action near Matagorda.
November 29th: General John Magruder assumes command of the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona with headquarters in Houston.
December 12th: Naval action against Confederate shore installations on Padre Island.1

The 36th Texas Cavalry, or any individual company thereof on patrol (unless they were going on to Corpus Christi), would have probably left the San Patricio Trail and continued more or less due south, headed for Brownsville. The “trail wandered through grassy plains and thickly covered, brushy flats . . .”

An 1855 map that was likely among those used by Woods’ Regiment on their march south described the lower half of the 36th Texas’ patrol area as “Grassy plains with herds of wild horses and cattle.” Only by now, in 1862, it is striped with roads. These tracks were many and they ran roughly parallel: cotton going down country to the Rio Grande – and a variety of merchandise, but mostly arms and supplies, heading north to the military depots and commercial hubs. “Wagon trains, ox cart processions, and single vehicles were seen at irregular intervals. . . . As a trail formed ruts which were too deep for comfort, the next train just pulled over a little. Each trail was clearly marked by the cotton lint that clung to the thorny brush.”

When the Pleasanton men, on their first trip down or on subsequent patrol rounds, passed below King’s Ranch they were surely painfully aware of the geographical implications of the old description of the area as “Wild Horse Desert.” Water became scarcer all the time and bad when you found it. The firmer soil of the prairie gave way to loose sand that was hell on teamsters and draft animals and no fun for individual cavalrymen. A Colonel Fremantle of the British Coldstream Guards visited Texas during the war and wrote a famous Diary of his experiences. The colonel, who crossed this blighted, desiccated area around this time, mentioned its heat and dry dust and scarcity of water. And he related a startling incident: he was awakened in his tent one night by the evil-smelling breath of a wild hog “blowing into my face” – javelinas had invaded the camp scrounging for food. General Phil Sheridan famously remarked of South Texas: “If I had my choice, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.”

Colonel Fremantle wrote of meeting some of the men of the 36th three days out of Brownsville. “Soon after we unpacked for the night, six Texan Rangers, of Woods’ Regiment, rode up to us. They were very picturesque fellows: tall, thin, and ragged, but quite gentlemanly in their manners.” And, “They wore the most enormous spurs I ever saw and had saddles very like the Mexican saddles.” But the colonel complained that those were uncomfortable and hard to ride in, and he especially disliked the stirrups being directly under him so that he exaggerated that he was forced to more or less ride standing up. He didn’t realize that these were generally cow ponies and the tack was the preferred style for working cattle – and for some others, running fights with Indians or banditos.2

On the Rio Grande

By the time the men of the 36th Texas Cavalry reached the Rio Grande they would have been tired, dusty, hungry, and thirsty; ready for a bath in the river, a shave, and a trip to town. The cantinas, gambling houses, and dance palaces of Brownsville, Rio Grande City, and the other river towns would have done a brisk business with each arriving outfit.

Some soldiers resisted temptation and stayed in camp – where there were the unfailing card games, of course. “Here was where every man who gambled learned the game of Monte. To be good at Monte bespoke a misspent youth . . . The endless games of chance were about as easy and cheap a pastime as could be arranged.”

Time could be profitably spent in seeing to your equipment and writing letters home. One of these apparently made reference to the trooper’s attempt “to learn to eat meat dishes well seasoned with chile picosos, the small peppers which grow wild in the shade of the mesquite thickets.” This suggests that the regimental (or company) cooks had hired some local women to cook for them while in camp. 3

The 36th Texas on Patrol

By the end of 1862, Fort Ringgold at Rio Grande City had become the primary station in the patrol area and more or less home base for the regiment. The fort, from the days of the Mexican War, was a preferred place for a cavalryman’s tour of duty. The town was friendly, and there was good fishing and swimming in the old Rio Bravo. And in case anything bad happened to you, Margaret Fitzgerald, now Matron of the Regiment, was still in charge of the hospital.

Most of Woods’ companies were probably by now on station in their assigned areas in the Corpus Christi-Brownsville-Eagle Pass triangle. Besides any units that were permanently stationed at Ringgold, companies or even detachments of the regiment were posted at “camps” distant from the fort – up country at Corpus Christi, downriver at Brownsville, up the Rio Grande to Eagle Pass, and far and wide out into the brush country, up as far as the Nueces. Their many challenges: maintaining order in the region, protecting the ports, keeping the Mexico trade open, interdicting deserters, and all the other missions noted above.4

The patrols were likely handled much as Henry McCulloch organized his in 1851 when the Texas Mounted Rifles were working the area: perhaps one officer and a half-dozen men. Maverick’s Company had two lieutenants, five sergeants, and six corporals – enough leadership for the work at hand.

Eleven years earlier the Ranger captain had sent out regular patrols in intervals from the various camps, thus covering the entire assigned area at least once each week. When encamped, sentries were posted, each required to stand two hours. On the trail, guards detailed in the morning were used as front and flank guards while on the march. The next day they constituted the rear guard and had charge of the pack mules and the wagons, if any were used. The other patrol leaders no doubt followed some of the same procedures.

Next time:  Feeding the Troops; 1862 Comes to an End . . .

Purgason, Howard.  Calvin Turner, Texas Ranger
1.   Gallaway, B.P., ed.  Texas: The Dark Corner of the Confederacy,
       Contemporary Accounts of the Lone Star State in the Civil War.
2.    Duaine, Carl L.. The Dead Men Wore Boots, 36, 37
3.    Duaine 34-37
4.    Duaine 37; Handbook of Texas Online, s.v.,

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