21. February 2012 · Comments Off on Mr. Cannon-Ball Was Not His Friend · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

Thomas William Ward was born in Ireland of English parents in  1807, and at the age of 21 took ship and emigrated to America. He  settled in New Orleans, which by that time had passed from French to  Spanish, back to French and finally landed in American hands thanks to  the Louisiana Purchase. There he took up the study of architecture and  engineering – this being a time when an intelligent and striving young  man could engage in a course of study and hang out a shingle to practice  it professionally shortly thereafter. However, Thomas Ward was diverted from his  studies early in October, 1835 by an excited and well-attended meeting  in a large coffee-room at Banks’ Arcade on Magazine Street. Matters  between the Anglo settlers in Texas and the central Mexican governing  authority – helmed by the so-called Napoleon of the West, General  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – had come to a frothy boil. Bad feelings  between the Texian and Tejano settlers of Texas, who were of generally  federalist (semi-autonomous) sympathies had been building against the  centralist (conservative and authoritarian) faction. These developments  were followed with close and passionate attention by political junkies  in the United States.

Nowhere did interest run as high as it did in those cities along the  Mississippi River basin. On the evening of October 13, 1835, Adolphus  Sterne – the alcade (mayor) of Nacogdoches – offered weapons for the  first fifty volunteers who would fight for Texas. A hundred and twenty  volunteers signed up before the evening was over, and Thomas Ward was  among them. They formed into two companies, and were apparently  equipped and outfitted from various sources: the armory of the local  militia organization, donations from the public, and ransacking local  haberdashers for sufficient uniform-appearing clothing. They wore grey  jackets and pants, with a smooth leather forage cap; the color grey  being chosen for utility on the prairies. The two companies traveled  separately from New Orleans, but eventually met up at San Antonio de  Bexar, where they became part of the Army of Texas.

They took part in  the Texian siege of Bexar and those Mexican troops garrisoned there  under General Cos – who had come into Texas earlier in the year to  reinforce Mexican control of a wayward province. Thomas W. Ward was  serving as an artillery officer by then; a military specialty which men  with a bent for the mathematical and mechanical seemed to gravitate  towards. The Texians and volunteers fought their way into San Antonio by  December, led by an old settler and soldier of fortune named Ben Milam.  Milam was killed at the height of the fighting to take the town by a Mexican sharp-shooter,  and Thomas Ward was severely injured; one leg was taken off by an errant  cannon-ball. The enduring legend is that Milam was buried with Ward’s  amputated leg together in the same grave. Was this a misfortune – or a  bit of good luck for Thomas Ward?

Not very much discouraged or sidelined, Thomas Ward returned to New  Orleans to recuperate – and to be fitted with a wooden prosthesis. He  would be known as “Pegleg” Ward for the remainder of his life. He came  back to Texas in the spring of 1836, escaping  the fate of many of his  fellow ‘Greys’ – many of who were among the defenders of the Alamo,  their company standard being one of those trophies captured there by  Santa Anna. Others of the ‘Greys’ were participants in the ill-fated  Matamoros expedition, or became part of Colonel James Fannin’s garrison  at the presidio La Bahia, and executed by order of Santa Anna after the  defeat at Coleto Creek.

Thomas Ward was commissioned as a colonel and served during the  remainder of the war for independence. Upon the return of peace – or a  condition closely resembling it – he settled in the new-established city  of Houston, and returned to the trade of architect and building  contractor. He was hired to build a capitol building in Houston – one of  several, for  over the life of the Republic of Texas, the actual  seat of government became rather peripatetic. When the second  President of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, moved the capitol to  Waterloo-on-the-Colorado – soon to be called Austin – in 1839, Thomas  Ward relocated there, serving variously as chief clerk for the House of  Representatives, as mayor of Austin and as commissioner of the General  Land Office. As fortune would have it, during an observance of the victory  at San Jacinto in April of 1841, Thomas Ward had another bit of bad  luck. In setting off a celebratory shot, the cannon misfired, and the  explosion took off his right arm. (I swear – I am not making this up!)  To add to cannon-related indignities heaped upon him, in the following  year, he was involved in the Archives War. Local inn-keeper, Angelina  Eberly fired off yet another cannon in to alert the citizens of Austin that  President Sam Houston’s men were trying to remove the official national  archives from the Land Office building. (Either it was not loaded with anything but black powder, or she missed hitting anything substantial.)

Fortunately, Thomas Ward emerged unscathed from this imbroglio. I  think it would have been plain to everyone by this time that Mr.  Cannon-ball was most definitely not his friend. He married, fought  against Texas secession in the bitter year of 1860, served another term  as Mayor of Austin, as U.S. Counsel to Panama, and lived to 1872 – a very  good age, considering all that he had been through.

(Thomas Ward appears  briefly as a character, along with Angelina Eberly and some other characters from early Austin, in Deep in the Heart.)

It might be a bit overused as an axiom, that civil wars are the bloodiest – or maybe it just seems that way because it seems to be so terribly personal. This is not some outsider, some foreigner, some alien stranger invading our neighborhood, destroying our towns and slaughtering – but our own countrymen, who speak the same language and usually share a culture and background, if not the same blood.

Just so was our own Civil War. To read of the wanton brutality and the wholesale slaughter and destruction, and the enthusiasm and energy which went into the dismemberment of our own country, and to know that many of those who led the fight had been comrades and allies not fifteen years before is to realize what a monumental tragedy it was. No wonder Abraham Lincoln looks about twenty years older, comparing photographs of him taken in 1861 and 1865. He was a melancholy and sensitive man; one wonders how the weight of the responsibility and the events of those years in office did not crush him utterly. The war over which he was able to exercise control was ghastly enough – the war on the fringes, fought by partisans in Kansas and Missouri – achieved abysmal depths of senseless brutality.

Kansas had been a particularly hot center of strife even before Southern artillery opened fire on Ft. Sumter. In an attempt to kick the can of ‘free state-slave state’ a little farther down the road, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 left the decision of whether those to states be enrolled as free or slave to those who settled there. And from that moment on, each side of the free-soil/slave-state debate enthusiastically aided and abetted the settling of Kansas with settlers who were adherents of one side or the other. The ‘Border Ruffians’, from slave-permitting Missouri, and the free-soil ‘Jayhawkers’ were already at each others’ throats from 1855 on. The first sack of Lawrence, the caning on the floor of the senate by Preston Brooks of South Carolina of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, John Brown’s raid on Pottawatomie –  the Civil War began to simmer in Kansas. Back east, they needed a while to get up to full speed, when it began to boil in earnest. In Kansas, partisan bands were all ready to ride – and to plunder and exterminate.

The most brutally effective of the pro-Confederate bands in Kansas was led by an Ohio-born former schoolteacher and teamster named William Clark Quantrill. He seems to have had an unsavory reputation even before the war, being associated with a number of unexplained murders and thefts in the Utah territory while working briefly there as a teamster and free-lance gambler. The eventual co-leader of his band, William ‘Bloody Bill’ Anderson had a similar pre-war reputation for horse thievery and murder, and a penchant for scalping his victims. He was reputed to wear a necklace of Yankee scalps into action – most people reading of his antics and behavior today would unhesitatingly call him a  psychopath and a war criminal.

By 1862, Quantrill and his men were considered outlaws by the Union authorities in Kansas – and Confederate commanders in Texas didn’t have all that much higher an opinion, especially after the Sack of Lawrence. Say what you would about Texas Confederates like General Henry McCulloch; he may have been a tough old Texas fighter – of Indians, Mexicans, bandits and whoever else was handy – but he was still a gentleman. Plundering a civilian town, burning it to the ground and executing civilian men and boys wholesale was not Henry McCulloch’s cup of tea. Neither was executing soldiers who had surrendered, as Quantrill’s men did after a fight with Union solders at Baxter Springs – but here was Quantrill and his men, looking for a place to rest and recoup, to purchase horses and generally get a break after a hard year of partisan war-fighting in Kansas. They had made Kansas too hot to hold them, and McCulloch was perennially short of men to guard the far Texas frontier against reoccurring Indian raids and to round up draft evaders and deserters. To the general commanding the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy forces, Quantrill’s appearance was a gift and McCulloch was ordered to make use of him to the fullest.

Although Quantrill and Anderson’s men mostly confined their Texas activities to Grayson and Fannin Counties, they left some bloody fingerprints in the Hill Country, too. Elements of their group were participants in the hangerbande or the ‘hanging-band’ – masked vigilantes who terrorized Gillespie and Kendall Counties by summarily lynching known and suspected pro-Unionists. It was often said bitterly after the war that the hangerbande killed more settlers there than the Indians ever did. Early in the spring of 1864, the hanging-band visited the Grape Creek settlement, a loose community of farms a few miles east of Fredericksburg. A man named Peter Burg, the owner of a fine herd of horses, was shot in the back and his horses confiscated. Three other men; William Feller, John Blank and Henry Kirchner were simply taken from their houses, taken as they sat with their families at the supper table. Kirchner’s house was searched and nearly $200 dollars in silver coin taken by Quantrill’s horse-buyer. It was rumored that Blank had recently received a letter from someone in Mexico.  Feller lived on a tract of land adjoining Kirchners and both had been involved in a land dispute with pro-Confederate sympathizers. These and other atrocities outraged the Hill Country German settlers  – more than that, similar depredations and robberies outraged Henry McCulloch and other Texas military commanders. Still, they were fighting on the Confederate side; perhaps they could go and do so where there weren’t any civilians to plunder and murder? McCulloch tried to send them to Corpus Christi, to stiffen the coastal defense. No luck with that, although McCulloch did his best to be rid of these uncomfortable allies.

Quantrill and Anderson had a falling out, about the time of the Grape Creek murders, and when Anderson indicated to McCulloch that he would testify against Quantrill as regards certain heinous crimes, the old Indian fighter hardly wasted time. He called for Quantrill to come to his HQ for a meeting, asked him to put his weapons on the table and informed him that he was under arrest.  But as soon as McCulloch’s back was turned, Quantrill grabbed his weapons, shouted to his friends that they were all liable to be under arrest and departed at speed and in a cloud of dust, heading north and back to Kansas. One imagines that Henry McCulloch was glad to be rid of them one way or another. Certainly they were not pursued with much enthusiasm, although their savage reputation may have had quite a lot to do with that.

Quantrill came to a sticky end, shortly afterwards – in Kentucky, having added Missouri to the list of places which he had made too hot to hold him. Elements of his wartime band lingered on, in the form of the James gang. But they in turn came to a sticky end in Northfield, Minnesota – the last little drop of blood from Bleeding Kansas.

 The summer of 1860 culminated a decade of increasingly bitter polarization among the citizens of the still-United States over the question of slavery, or as the common polite euphemism had it; “our peculiar institution.”  At a period within living memory of older citizens, slavery once appeared as if it were something that would wither away as it became less and less profitable, and more and more disapproved of by practically everyone. But the invention of the cotton gin to process cotton fiber mechanically made large-scale agricultural production profitable, relighting the fire under a moribund industry. The possibility of permitting the institution of chattel slavery in the newly acquired territories in the West during the 1840s turned the heat up to a simmer. It came to a full rolling boil after California was admitted as a free state in 1850 . . . but at a cost of stiffening the Fugitive Slave Laws. And as a prominent senator, Jesse Hart Benton lamented subsequently, the matter of slavery popped up everywhere, as ubiquitous as the biblical plague of frogs. Attitudes hardened on both sides, and within a space of a few years advocates for slavery and abolitionists alike had all the encouragement they needed to readily believe the worst of each other.

Texas was not immune to all this, of course. Of the populated western states at the time,Texas was closer in sympathy to the South in the matter of slavery. Most settlers who come from the United States had come from where it had been permitted, and many had brought their human property with them, or felt no particular objection to the institution itself. In point of fact, slaves were never particularly numerous: the largest number held by a single Texas slave-owner on the eve of the Civil War numbered around 300, and this instance was very much a singular exception; most owned far fewer.  Only a portion of the state was favorable to the sort of mass-agricultural production that depended upon a slave workforce. In truth while there were few abolitionists, there were  many whose enthusiasm for the practice of chattel slavery was particularly restrained especially in those parts of  North Texas which had been settled from northern states, in the Hill Country and San Antonio, similarly settled by Germans and other Europeans.

One of the subtle and tragic side-effects that the hardening of attitudes had on the South was to intensify the “closing-in” of attitudes and culture towards contrary opinions. As disapproval of slavery heightened in the North and in Europe, Southern partisans became increasingly defensive, less inclined to brook any kind of criticism of the South and its institutions, peculiar or otherwise. By degrees the South became inimical to outsiders bearing the contrary ideas that progress is made of. Those who were aware of the simple fact that ideas, money, innovation, and new immigrants were pouring into the Northern states at rates far outstripping those into the South tended to brood resentfully about it, and cling to their traditions ever more tightly.  Always touchy about points of honor and insult,  some kind of nadir  was reached in 1854 on the floor of the US Senate when  a Southern Representative, Preston Brooks of South Carolina caned Senator Charles Sumner following a fiercely abolitionist speech by the latter.  Brooks was presented with all sorts of fancy canes to commemorate the occasion, while Senator Sumner was months recovering from the brutal beating.

Even more than criticism, Southerners feared a slave insurrection, and any whisper of such met with a hard and brutal reaction. John Brown’s abortive 1859 raid on the Federal armory at Harper’s Ferry sealed the conviction into the minds of Southerners that the abolitionists wished for exactly that.

When mysterious fires razed half of downtown Denton, parts of Waxahatchie,  a large chunk of the center of Dallas, and a grocery store in Pilot Point during the hottest summer in local memory,  it took no great leap  of imagination for anti-abolitionists to place blame for mysterious fires squarely on the usual suspects and their vile plots. Residents were especially jumpy in Dallas, where two Methodist preachers had been publicly flogged and thrown out of town the previous year. The editor of the local Dallas newspaper, one Charles Pryor wrote to the editors of newspapers across the state, (including the editor of the Austin  Gazette who was chairman of the state Democratic Party) claiming, “It was determined by certain abolitionist preachers, who were expelled from the country last year, to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas, and when it was reduced to a helpless condition, a general revolt of slaves, aided by the white men of the North in our midst, was to come off on the day of election in August.”

The panic was on, then, all across Texas: Committees of Public Safety were formed, as so-called abolitionist plotters were sought high, low,  behind every privy and under every bed, and lynched on the slightest suspicion. Conservative estimates  place the number of dead, both black and white,  at least thirty and possibly up to a hundred, while the newspapers breathlessly poured fuel on the fires . . . metaphorically speaking, of course . . . by expounding on the cruel depredations the abolitionists had planned for the helpless citizens of Texas. When the presidential election campaign began in late summer, Southern-rights extremists seamlessly laid the blame for the so-called plot on the nominee and political party favored by the Northern Free-States; Republican Abraham Lincoln. Texas seceded in the wake of his election, the way to the Confederacy smoothed by rumor, panic and editorial pages.

 It turns out that the fires were most likely caused by the spontaneous ignition of boxes of new patent phosphorous matches, which had just then gone on the market, and the usually hot summer. But speculation and conspiracy theories are always more attractive than prosaic explanations for unsettling and mysterious events . . . and were so then as now.

(For your enjoyment – a selected chapter from the soon-to-be-released sequel to Daughter of Texas. Advance orders for autographed copies are being taken now, through my website catalog page.)

Chapter 19 – The Last of the Lone Star

 In the morning, Margaret rose at the usual hour, when the sky had just begun to pale in the east, and it was yet too early for the rooster to begin setting up a ruckus in the chicken pen. She had a house full of guests, even though most of them had not spent the night. One of the last things that Hetty had done before retiring for the night was to have Mose move the dining table back into the room where it normally resided, and return all the household chairs to their usual places. Margaret viewed the now-empty hall with a sigh, for the temporary glory that it had housed on the previous day – now, to see to breakfast for those guests who had remained. That breakfast should be every bit as good as the supper on Christmas night – for Margaret would not allow any diminution of her hospitality. She tied on her kitchen apron and walked into the kitchen, where she halted just inside the door, arrested by the expressions on the faces of the three within. Hetty bristled with unspoken irritation, even as she paused in rolling out the dough for the first batch of breakfast biscuits, Mose – who stood by the stove with an empty metal hot-water canister in each of his huge hands – had a nervous and apprehensive expression on his dark and usually uncommunicative face. Carl sat at the end of the kitchen table, interrupted in the act of wolfing down a plate of bacon, sausage and hash made from the leftovers of last night’s feast. He looked nearly as nervous as Mose, and his expression – especially as Margaret appeared in the doorway – appeared to be as guilty as a small child caught in the midst of some awful mischief, mischief for which he was certain to be punished.

Margaret took in each countenance in a lighting-flash, apprehended that something had happened in her household, and demanded, “What is the matter, then?”

Mose answered, in his thick and barely articulate mumble, “I took de hot watter to de gennelmun rooms, mam  . . .  an’ de Gen’ral, he still ‘sleep, mam  . . .  but he don’ chop down de bedpos’, mam.”

“What?” Margaret demanded, and Mose only looked more stolid. “He chop down de bedpos’, mam. Gen’ral Sam,” as Carl said, with an air of someone trying to placate an unappeasable fury, “He took an ax to the bedposts, M’grete. He  . . .  got a little merry last night, I guess – after you had gone to bed. Some of the others . . .  well, there was bottles bein’ passed. I didn’t think he would take to your best bedstead, though.”

Hetty looked from Margaret’s face to that of her brother, and the hapless Mose, and murmured, “Mother Mary save him, she’s got her Maeve face on, for certain.”

“There wasn’t anything I could do, M’grete,” Carl temporized, even as Mose returned to filling the canisters from the hot water reservoir at the side of the vast cook stove. ”He’s the General. I did not think you would object to the men getting a little merry on Christmas. You had wine with dinner, after all, M’grete.”

“I do not object to the drinking of alcohol under my roof,” Margaret answered, in a voice tight with suppressed fury. “I object when men drink of it to excess. And I object most strenuously to barbarous conduct, after they have drunk to excess. Little Brother, Mose. You may bring up the hot water later – for a now, each of you fetch a bucket of cold  . . .  from the spring-house, please.  . . .  Then all of you come with me.”

“I just put the biscuits in…” Hetty began to protest, but Margaret cut her off with a few curt words, as Mose and Carl obeyed. “This will not take a moment.”

The heels of Margaret shoes made a brisk tattoo on the floor, echoing in the hall as she swept imperiously up the staircase, in her fury outdistancing all of her acolytes. At the top of the stairs, the door to the best guest room stood slightly ajar: Mose had not closed it entirely on his departure. Margaret waited for the two men to climb the stairs, Hetty puffing in their wake. She took a deep breath, Mose’s words having prepared her for the worst. Well, now she knew why she had dreamed of someone chopping wood during the night. She opened the door all the way; oh, no. The room smelt faintly of stale drink, underlaid with odor of sweat and male toiletries. The slave man’s words and her own imagination had not prepared her for what she now saw. General Sam lay snoring in the middle of the bed, on top of the counterpane with his boots and coat cast carelessly aside on the floor amid splinters and roughly-hacked chunks of cherry-wood. All four of the tall and gracefully carved bedposts were roughly hewn down, almost level with the head and footboard. Margaret felt sickened by the intensity of her anger: her best bed, purchased at such a cost, from the earnings of hers and Hetty’s labor – a beautifully-wrought and cherished thing, deliberately mutilated. Behind her, Hetty gasped, horrified alike. They had both taken such pride in the new furniture, in the look of their best guest room. Now, Margaret was certain she would never look at it again, in quite the same way, now that it had been so desecrated.

“Carlchen,” she said, and her voice shook. “And Mose. I want you to waken the General with the cold water. And once he is awake, assist him in resuming his clothing. Assemble his luggage, too. Carlchen, you will see him conveyed to Mrs. Eberly’s without delay.” Carl hesitated, and Mose looked between them, and to the ruined bed with General Sam snoring in deep sleep.

“B’foa breakfast?” Mose ventured, and Margaret snapped.

“Yes. The water, Carlchen – it is how one rouses drunks, is it not?” Shrugging, Carl carried his bucket to one side of the bed, Mose to the other. They hoisted the buckets to chest-level, poised to pour them out onto the sleeping General Sam, while Margaret watched, hawk-eyed. “Now!”  More »

I suppose it does seem a little like magic, this storytelling thing. Explaining it even to yourself – much less to other people usually results in bafflement. Like the old joke about dissecting humor being like dissecting a frog – by the time you are done, there is nothing but a bit of a mess and confusion and the frog is dead anyway. My parents, as practical and hard-headed people,  were as puzzled by this aptitude as anyone else – they couldn’t for the life of them figure out how I came by the gift of spinning an enthralling story, of creating people on a page and making them so interesting and endearing that eventually they became quite invested in my characters.  More »