The Civil War in Texas: An Exhibit from the Texas State Library and Archives
Before the War 1860: Big Trouble Secession! 1861: Opening Act Dissent
1862: Fiery Trial 1863: The Tide Turns 1864: No Way Out End of the Ordeal Further Reading

1864: No Way Out, continued

Politics: Murrah vs. the Confederacy

W.J. Hutchins to Governor Murrah, May 1864

William J. Hutchins, a wealthy Houston railroad and cotton baron, was named head of the Texas Cotton Bureau for the Confederacy at the end of 1863. Hutchins' job was to seize Texas cotton and sell it to raise money for the Confederate Army. In this letter, Hutchins sets out the Confederate position, telling the governor, "What are our soldiers to do for clothing, shoes, blankets, and medicines, you have deprived me of the means of procuring them."

Mrs. B.M. Clarke to Governor Pendleton Murrah, November 1863

Dr. Richard Peebles, a founder of Hempstead who had helped care for the wounded at San Jacinto, was charged with treason for attempting to distribute a pamphlet calling for an end to the war. A civilian judge ordered his release but was overruled by the Confederate military, provoking a huge outcry in Texas. At the time his daughter wrote this plea for his release, Peebles had almost died of typhus in jail and lost the sight in his left eye. In 1864, Peebles was deported to Mexico; he returned to Texas after the end of the war.

With the rank of lieutenant colonel, Hutchins was made chief of the Texas Cotton Bureau when it was established, on December 1, 1863. Its task was the heavy one of obtaining cotton, getting it to foreign markets, and bringing back arms and supplies for the Confederate Army.

Elected to the governorship as a pro-war secessionist, Pendleton Murrah might have been expected to follow in the footsteps of Francis R. Lubbock, who had always rushed to carry out orders from the Confederate government or military commanders. However, Texas commander John Magruder and his superior, Trans-Mississippi czar Kirby Smith, soon learned that behind Murrah’s mild manners lay a fierce Texas patriotism that didn’t always translate into cooperation.

The first clash between Murrah and Magruder came over the touchy issue of slave impressment. During the Red River campaign, Magruder impressed African Americans to fortify Shreveport and Alexandria and to complete a rail line between Shreveport and Marshall. Because of the nature of the emergency, most slave owners complied without much grumbling. But a few months later, when Magruder rounded up more blacks to work on fortifications of the coast and the capital at Austin, grumbling turned to outrage and a genuine fear of crop failure. As newspaperman E.H. Cushing noted dryly, “I wish Magruder could find enough to do with fighting the enemy.”

Lubbock had been derided by his critics as a Confederate errand boy. Murrah was determined to be treated as a partner. He presented Magruder with a long list of demands before Texas would comply with the impressment order, including a requirement that Magruder justify the projects in writing, and allow overseers to accompany the slaves and ensure that they were treated decently.

A second hot-button issue was cotton impressment. Here, too, Murrah represented a defiant Texas attitude that at times turned violent. In May 1864, three Confederate impressment officers were lynched in Lavaca County. Murrah and the legislature crafted a Texas “State Plan” for cotton that undercut Confederate impressment almost completely. Instead of being forced to accept worthless Confederate money for their cotton, planters could send their cotton to Mexico in state-owned wagons, keeping half the profits for themselves while being paid for the other half in state bonds. Besides protecting planter interests, the state benefited by using the cotton proceeds to pay off treasury debt caused by the collapse of the Confederate currency. When Kirby Smith found out that cotton money was going to service Texas debt instead of being funneled into the war effort, he was outraged.

The third main conflict between civilian and military authority came over the issue of civil liberties. In October 1863, General Magruder had arrested Hempstead physician Richard Peebles and four other Unionists for distributing a pamphlet calling for an end to the war. The five men were charged with treason and thrown in jail. They petitioned the Texas Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. Justice George F. Moore ordered their release, writing that Magruder did not have the right to arrest someone just because he did not like what they said. However, in February 1864, the Confederate Congress suspended habeas corpus (something that Lincoln had also done in the North). Though Smith did not officially suspend habeas corpus in the Trans-Mississippi, he and Magruder proceeded to deport the men to Mexico over Texas protests.

In July 1864, Governor Murrah and General Smith met in Hempstead and seem to have come to a meeting of the minds. Murrah agreed to withdraw the state cotton plan, and he ceased to protest against Smith and Magruder’s dictates. The war was going badly, and Murrah himself had become seriously ill with tuberculosis. After this trip, he was never really a strong presence in Texas politics again.

Prisoners of War

Camp Ford, Texas

Camp Ford, Texas. From Harper's Weekly, March 4, 1865.
Prints and Photographs Collection, 1980/10-12.

Early in the Civil War, neither side accumulated large numbers of prisoners of war. As in earlier wars such as the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the two sides held frequent prisoner exchanges. A prisoner who was exchanged was paroled with the understanding that he would not participate again in the fighting.

This system broke down during the Civil War, primarily because the South did not honor the parole system and because the South refused to recognize black Union soldiers as enemy combatants. Instead, Confederate authorities put black prisoners to death or sold them into slavery; the white Union officers who commanded black troops were also subject to execution. In addition, the North had military reasons for letting the prisoner exchange system collapse. Callous as it may sound, the federal government recognized that they could replace their captured men quite easily, while the Southerners could not replace theirs.

Beginning in 1863, Texas was asked to house a significant number of Union prisoners of war. The first prisoners were the Massachusetts men captured when Magruder retook the city of Galveston. Soon after, prisoners began to trickle in from battles in Louisiana. The prisoners were first housed in a Houston warehouse, then moved to Huntsville prison. However, it was feared that they might find a way to sabotage the crucial clothing factory at the prison. By the summer of 1863, they were moved to Camp Groce, a temporary setup on a plantation in Waller County.

In the fall of 1863, the Confederacy established its primary POW camp in the Trans-Mississippi at Camp Ford, a former training camp just northeast of Tyler along Ray’s Creek. The authorities hoped that the remoteness of Camp Ford would deter any escape attempts and that the local residents could staff and supply the prison.

At first, Camp Ford had no enclosure, and just 71 militia troops under one officer were detailed to guard the 500 prisoners. In several cases, the citizens had to take cover while guards chased and shot at prisoners who decided to make a break for it. In other cases, the citizens took potshots at Yankees who wandered out of their designated area.

About 600 local African Americans were impressed to build a large prisoner stockade, which they completed in about 10 days. The prisoners themselves built huts for shelter and then went about the business of trying to keep busy. The most common recreations were making hand-crafted items such as pipes or simple furniture. Some of the inmates wangled supplies and baked cookies, pies, and doughnuts. There was even a Camp Ford newspaper, which consisted of one hand-printed copy that was then passed around.

Unfortunately, conditions at Camp Ford grew much worse after the arrival of the Union soldiers captured in the Red River campaign. By May 1864, Camp Ford was bursting with 4,725 prisoners. Shelter and sanitation both became a crisis. In addition, the adjutant in charge of Camp Ford, Lieutenant B.W. McEachern, was a tyrant who punished prisoners by such methods as hanging them by their thumbs and forcing them to stand out in the Texas sun for hours at a time.

With such an overflow of prisoners, oversight was poor, and it is estimated that about 10 percent of prisoners escaped and made their way back to Union lines. Late in 1864, prisoner exchanges resumed, and hundreds of Union captives were taken to the mouth of the Red River and paroled.

On May 13, 1865, the 1,800 remaining prisoners were told that the war had ended. Their guards then walked out and left the gates of the stockade open. However, the prisoners had learned that the citizens of Tyler were in an ugly mood, with armed men looting the Confederate stores and works nearby. For their own safety, they elected to remain in the stockade until Union transportation wagons arrived four days later to take them to Shreveport where they could arrange to return home. The stockade was destroyed by federal forces.

As dismal as conditions were at Camp Ford, they were actually better than most other Civil War prisons, both Union and Confederate. In the Northern prisons, the average death rate was about 12 percent, while in the Southern camps it averaged 15 percent (the infamous Andersonville was 28 percent). At Camp Ford, the death rate was 5 percent.

The Frontier Stands Alone

Bringing in Union Men

Bringing in Union Men in Texas. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Prints and Photographs Collection, 1993/202-5-5.

At the end of 1863, the legislature created a new unit for frontier defense called the Frontier Organization. The men serving in “the flop-eared militia” were exempt from Confederate conscription, a provision that greatly angered General Magruder and led to thousands showing up to enroll. To prevent the Frontier Organization from becoming a haven for draft dodgers, enrollment was limited only to those men who were permanent residents of a frontier county before July 1863. Further immigration into the frontier counties was prohibited for the duration of the war.

Henry McCulloch continued to command Confederate forces in the area. It was difficult to say whether Indians or deserters were a bigger problem for McCulloch and his men. McCulloch was increasingly outgunned by the emboldened deserters, and he estimated that at least 25 percent of the civilian population was aiding them. McCulloch simply didn’t have the manpower to arrest them (or shoot them, as General Magruder suggested). To add insult to injury, an outlaw even stole McCulloch’s horse.

Report of William Quayle, September 1864
William Quayle, a Texas state senator who had specialized in frontier protection issues, was appointed by Governor Murrah to command the complex and difficult affairs of the 19 counties on the northwest frontier. The immense job broke Quayle's health, and he requested to be relieved shortly after writing this report on violence in Parker and Jack counties. He would eventually recover and spend the rest of his life in Missouri, where he died in 1901 at the age of 76.

McCulloch’s efforts to organize the deserters for Indian defense also went nowhere. The so-called Brush Battalion caused so many disturbances that the unit was disbanded by March 1864. McCulloch noted in disgust, “I have never been in a country where the people were so perfectly worthless and cowardly as here.” His own side wasn’t any better. Confederate raider William Quantrill finally tore it with McCulloch when his band shot up the town of Sherman. When McCulloch issued an order for Quantrill’s arrest, the raider hightailed it for the Red River, thus ridding McCulloch of at least one headache.

The frontier counties passed an uneasy spring and summer in 1864. Small Indian raids kept everyone on edge. Rumors that the Frontier Organization had been infiltrated by Unionists led to a number of arrests and threats of another mass hanging. In the end only one man was lynched, but the outbreak caused a number of Unionists to head for Mexico.

Confederate and local authorities continued their war against the deserters in the thickets, with sometimes deadly consequences. Local militia were prone to shooting deserters on sight rather than rounding them up to be escorted to a Houston prison. McCulloch threatened to court-martial anyone who killed a prisoner, saying, “I do not desire men shot after they throw down their arms and hold up their hands.”

In October, the Kiowas and Comanches launched a major attack into Young County that became known as the Elm Creek Raid. At least 12 people were killed and seven women and children were kidnapped. The Frontier Organization proved to be too small and ineffective to protect the settlers or to give chase to the Indians. After Elm Creek, the settlers spent most of their time in forts and organized their own patrols.

Two major battles in West Texas would set the stage for the Indian Wars of the 1860s and 1870s. The First Battle of Adobe Walls, in November 1864, took place between Union troops under Kit Carson and Comanche and Kiowa warriors. The Indians suffered a substantial defeat in this battle. In January 1865, the Battle of Dove Creek occurred when Confederates and Texas militia attacked a peaceable band of migrating Kickapoos. In this battle, the Kickapoos proved the superior fighting force, killing more than 40 Texans.

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Page last modified: August 25, 2011