The North Carolina Regulator War


In the year 1700, around 200,000 people lived in the British colonies in North America.  In the next 100 years, the population doubled roughly every 25 years (except that migration to the New World slowed during the French & Indian War (1754 ~ 1763).  The majority of these new immigrants were Scots-Irish and German immigrants.  Around 50,000 were English convicts.  The only method of getting to the American colonies was by sea.

The Atlantic Passage

Discounting convicts and enslaved Africans transported against their will, there were essentially two classes of migrants to the American colonies: those wealthy enough to pay for their own passage (8 pounds sterling for an adult) and those who indentured themselves for transportation costs (estimated by some as 75% of the total number of migrants to the British colonies between 1700 ~ 1775).[1]  In many cases, the broker making such arrangements was the sea captain.

By any measure, no matter what the status of the traveler, the passage to the American colonies was treacherous.  Ship’s passengers were crammed into small wooden ships that were subject to the turbulence of an angry Atlantic Ocean.  Once aboard ship, they were trapped there until they reached their destinations.  Men, women, and children endured unimaginable hardships: there was aboard ship the constant smell of human waste and vomit, sea sickness, fever, dysentery, headaches, mouth rot, rotted food, food poisoning, and putrid water.  Untold numbers of people died during the average of seven weeks passage.  One passenger recorded body lice so thick the mites could be scraped off with a knife.

There was no time nor any inclination toward respectful burials at sea.  Dead people were simply cast over the side into the sea — and if they suffered from the pox, they went into the sea while still alive.  This wasn’t a heartless act; it was to prevent the spreading of the disease to others in those confined spaces.  There were no “isolation rooms.”  If a mother should protest such treatment of her child, she would likely accompany her child into the sea.  On one ship bound for Philadelphia, a passenger recorded the deaths of 32 children — all of whom became food for the monsters of the sea.

Once the ships arrived at their destinations (there were several ports), their captain would only allow fully paid passengers to disembark.  All others had to remain aboard ship until a client looking for indentured servants could inspect the passengers and decide whether to purchase their contract.  Of course, the sick or infirm always fared the worst because no one looking for an indentured servant was much interested in someone who was sick or otherwise unable to perform their duties from the very first day.  If someone was required to remain aboard ship due to illness, they would likely die aboard ship, never setting foot on America’s shore.

If a husband had lost his wife during the passage, the indentured husband would have to agree to serve indenture long enough to pay for his wife’s passage.  The same was true for a wife who had lost her husband during the passage.  Parents were often required to trade away their children like cattle — all children were required to work their indenture to the age of 21 years.  If a child’s parents died at sea, the children must stand on their own in paying off the indenture.  At the end of indenture, the servant was entitled to a new suit of clothing and, if stipulated, a man might receive a horse and a woman a cow.

Waves of Immigrants

In 1707, a new wave of Scottish immigrants began to make their way toward the Americas; it came as the result of the Act of Union between England and Scotland.  In earlier times, Scots tended to settle near seaports because making a living from the sea was how they lived in their home country.  People from the lowlands migrated to New York and the Carolinas.  Two years later, high-born Germans began arriving as refugees from war-torn France and Germany.  In 1717, the British Parliament legalized the transportation to the colonies of people convicted of felonies — the most common destinations were Maryland and Virginia.  A year after that, disaffected Scots began migrating in larger numbers to escape the tyranny of landlords.  These people tended to settle in western Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Migrations to the Carolina backcountry began in earnest in 1730; Colonial Georgia began in 1732.  The British began sending Jews to the colonies, which was the reason for their Naturalization Act of 1740.  After the Jacobite uprising of 1745, highlanders began migrating to the Carolinas in large numbers, most of whom found their way into the back (mountain) country.

Carolina governors

Initially, Carolina was a province of England (1663 ~ 1707) and Great Britain (1707 ~ 1712) until it was partitioned into North and South Carolina on 24 January 1712.  The Carolina province included the present-day states of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and the Bahamas.

In 1669, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina divided the colony of Carolina into two provinces: Albemarle in the north and Clarendon in the south.  Due to popular dissension over the governance of the colony and the distance between northern and southern settlements, a deputy governor was appointed in 1691 to administer Albemarle province.  In 1712, the two provinces became separate colonies: North Carolina (formerly Albemarle Province) and South Carolina (formerly Clarendon Province).

Carolina was the first of three English colonies in North America to develop a comprehensive organizational plan.  Known as the Grand Model, it was composed of a well-founded guide for settlement and economic progress — titled Fundamental Constitution of Carolina.  This remarkable instrument was drafted by none other than John Locke, working under the direction of Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury.

The disquiet that existed in Carolina between 1708 ~ 1710 was over two issues.  First, whether to establish the Anglican Church in the Province.  Second, Carolina citizens could not agree on a slate of elected officials — the result of which was that there was no recognized or legal government for more than two years.  Within those two years, Governor Thomas Cary refused to relinquish his office to Edward Hyde, prompting an event called the Cary Rebellion.  Political stability was challenged further by two major conflicts with native Americans: the Tuscarora Indians in North Carolina and the Yamasee Indians in South Carolina.[2]

Although the partition of the Province of Carolina began in 1712, it did not officially take place until 1729 — after seven of the Lords Proprietors sold their interests in Carolina to the Crown, making both North and South Carolina “Crown Colonies.”[3]  The Eighth Lord, Sir George Carteret, passed his interest to his great-grandson John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville.  Carteret retained ownership of a sixty-mile-wide strip of land in North Carolina adjoining the Virginia border — known as the Granville District.  Many land disputes erupted over this strip of land between 1729 and 1776 — quarrels that simply would not go away until finally, North Carolina’s revolutionary government seized the land.

A brief look at the seventh and eighth colonial governors of North Carolina is essential toward understanding the conditions under which migrants found themselves in new world settlements, particularly in relation to land costs, tax assessments, and the method of tax collection, debt, and debt-collection — all of which were issues that led to the Regulator War.

North Carolina Governor Arthur Dobbs (1689 ~ 1765) was a man of English stock born in Ayrshire, Scotland.  He was the eldest son of Richard Dobbs of Carrickfergus, County Antrim, the Sheriff of Antrim, and Mary Stewart from Ballintoy.  As an adult, Dobbs became an engineer and the Surveyor-General of Ireland.  As such, his primary responsibility was to supervise the construction of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin.  In 1720, Dobbs became the High Sheriff of Antrim and, in 1727, a member of Parliament for Carrickfergus — a seat he held until 1760.

Dobbs used his position as a member of parliament to purchase 400,000 acres of land in North Carolina at a very low price.  It was Dobbs’ intention to sell this land to Scots-Irish immigrants, whose migration he encouraged.  Following the death of North Carolina Governor Gabriel Johnson, Dobbs was confirmed to succeed him on 25 January 1753.  Dobbs, however, did not arrive in North Carolina until the following year.

Upon arrival in North Carolina, Dobbs decided to settle in Brunswick Town, named in honor of the Brunswick-Luneburg territory of Germany, then ruled by Great Britain’s King George I.  Brunswick Town became a busy port for exporting longleaf pine and the political center of the Cape Fear region and seat of the county of New Hanover.  The term “capital” of North Carolina only meant that it was where the governor resided.  Governor Dobbs wanted to establish a permanent capital in Honor of King George II, but his difficulties with the North Carolina Assembly impeded any progress in that regard.[4]

Dobbs’ tenure as governor occurred during the French and Indian Wars — and, some argue, at the very beginning of the American Revolutionary War.  It was the colony’s unsympathetic relationship with Native Americans and its expenditures on the French and Indian War that contributed to Governor Dobbs’ difficulty with the colonial legislature — that, along with several complaints about Dobbs’ caustic personality.  Dobbs sought to resolve his problems with the assembly by dissolving it in 1760 and ordering new elections.  Incensed, the assembly drafted charges against Dobbs and sent them to the King.  It was only the succession of King George III that saved Dobbs from further conflict with the assembly.[5]

In 1720, Arthur Dobbs married Anne Osborne, a widow.  Together, they had three sons and a daughter.  In 1762, the widowed 73-year-old married Justina Davis of Brunswick Town.  Justina was 15 years of age.  A few months later, Arthur suffered a stroke and relied on a wheelchair for mobility.  He suffered another seizure on 28 March 1765 and passed away.

North Carolina Governor William Tryon was born in Surrey, England, on 8 June 1729.  He joined the British Army in 1751 and was commissioned lieutenant and captain in the same year.[6]  In seven more years, he was a lieutenant colonel.  During the Seven Year’s War, he fought on European soil and received wounds in combat.

As a result of his family connections, Tryon obtained the position of Acting Lieutenant Governor of the Province of North Carolina in 1764.  William Tryon was a loyal Englishman and could not understand any man who aligned himself with the patriot cause in opposition to the Crown.  He was born as an aristocrat — and he lived as one for all his life.

Among Tryon’s priorities as governor was establishing the Church of England in North Carolina.  With Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, Tryon, having noted strong opposition, prevented the Colonial Assembly from convening until late November 1766.  Tryon claimed to oppose the Stamp Act but called for troops to enforce the law.  Ultimately, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act before the people could tear down the walls of British authority.  Tryon’s other priority was the construction, at public expense, of a new governor’s mansion.  The project required an increase in taxes.

Rebellions do have causes

The governments of the thirteen colonies in British America developed under the influence of the British Constitution.  The experience of colonial rule would eventually form and shape the various state governments of the United States.

All colonial governments all had an executive branch led by a governor and a bi-cameral legislative branch consisting of a governor’s council and a representative assembly.  But there were differences in the British-American colonies.

In Crown Colonies, the British government appointed a governor and council.

Charter Colonies operated under a corporate charter granted by the Crown.  The colonies of Virginia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts Bay were, at one time or another, Charter Colonies.  The Crown might revoke a charter and convert the colony to a Crown Colony.  Charters established the rules under which the colony was governed.  Charters issued to Rhode Island and Connecticut granted more political liberty than the other colonies.  These two states used their colonial charters as the basis for their state constitutions following the American Revolution.

Proprietary Colonies belonged to the British monarch, bestowed and divided at his or her will, so all such colonies were partitioned by the Royal Charter as proprietary, joint-stock, covenant, or Crown colonies.  These were mostly “commercial” grants to “proprietors,” who then selected the governor and other officials.

Colonial governors came from both military and civilian backgrounds, but they were all well-born aristocrats, wealthy in their own right, whose tenure in the colonies only made them richer.  Of course, colonial governors were the senior law enforcement officer of their respective colonies, so every government had a military title, even if only temporary.  Governors were also the most prominent people in the colony.  They represented the British monarch.  They spoke with the Crown’s voice.  Of course, not everyone was suitably impressed with their governor — or his extraordinary authority — but every challenge was met with overwhelming force to restore order.

The distances separating England from its American colonies, the pressures exerted on royal officials by American colonists, and the inevitable inefficiency of any large bureaucracy combined to weaken royal power.  During the 18th century, colonial legislatures began to exercise greater control over their own parliamentary prerogatives — including responsibility for legislation affecting taxation, defense, and the salaries paid to royal officials.

Provincial leaders also made significant inroads into the governor’s patronage powers.  While the governor theoretically continued to control the appointments of local officials, he most often followed the recommendations of provincial leaders within their localities.  Similarly, governor’s councils (theoretical agents of royal authority) came to be dominated by prominent provincial leaders — men who tended to support the interests of the leadership of the lower house rather than those of the British parliament.

By the 1750s, most political power in America was concentrated in the hands of provincial (rather than royal) officials.  Social and political problems arose when provincial officials began focusing more of their attention on their own interests (and those of their cronies) than on the interests of their constituents.  There was nothing new about this — selfishness is in the nature of mankind: economic standing determined the amount of one’s social prestige and political power, and in the American colonies, power (whether social, political, or economic) was controlled by a relatively few men.

The landowners, slave owners, and the so-called planter class dominated nearly every aspect of life in the middle and southern colonies.  Such people existed in the lowlands and in the backcountry as well, but most people living in the backcountry were recent Scots-Irish arrivals who had no interest in slave ownership.  They performed their own work, often struggling to make farming, dairy, or cattle ventures profitable.  Whether their efforts were profitable might depend on how much the tax man decided these hard-working people owed the colonial treasury.  It should be no surprise that the tax assessor was part of the cartel of wealthy planters, prominent merchants, bankers, and lawyers — men who dominated the two most influential government agencies: county courts and provincial assemblies.  

This extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of a wealthy few occurred despite the fact that a large percentage of the free adult male population participated in the political process.  It was a situation in which ordinary citizens deferred to those they considered their “betters” — to a point.

In the Carolinas, a small group of planters monopolized much of the colony’s wealth, and as in Virginia and Maryland, the planter class made up the social elite.  But as a rule, Carolina planters did not share the same traditions of responsible government as did the ruling oligarchs in Virginia and Maryland.  Many Carolina planters and officials were absentee landlords — choosing to pass most of their time in Charleston or in Wilmington/New Bern.

In the Carolina west, antagonism toward the eastern elite resulted in occasional armed uprisings.  The arrival of so many people from Scotland, Northern England, Wales, and Ireland — people with nary a cent to their names, presented problems for colonial officials and established citizens alike.  Following the French and Indian War, the population exploded in the inland section of the colonies.  Merchants and lawyers began moving west, which upset the social and political structure of colonial society — particularly among the Scots-Irish, who — given the political and social corruption of county sheriffs, county judges, lawyers, and merchants — had little regard for any of those men.

Simultaneously, backcountry communities experienced severe droughts, suffering a loss of crops, reduced income, increased debt, and conspiracies among government officials, lawyers, and merchants to seize the properties of highly perturbed Scotsmen.  Between 1755 – 1765, the number of court cases pitting debt-holders against debtors swelled sixteen-fold — an increase in the annual average of such cases from seven to 110.

In 1764, several thousand Carolinians began to display their dissatisfaction with the wealthy officials — people they considered cruel, arbitrary, tyrannical, and corrupt.  The arrival of William Tryon in the following year only made matters worse.  They were made worse by the fact that Tryon turned a blind eye to corruption in order to gain and retain the support of dishonest officials.


The Carolina Regulator Movement (also known as the Regulator Insurrection, War of Regulation, and War of the Regulation), was an uprising in Provincial North Carolina (1766 – 1771) in which citizens took up arms against corrupt colonial officials.  The movement did nothing to change the conditions that caused the uprising — and some scholars argue that it only worsened colonial life.  There is also the claim that the regulator movement was a precursor of the American Revolutionary War.  That argument is still debated.

On 6 June 1765, George Sims, from Nutbush, North Carolina (Williamsboro), gave an address to protest provincial and county officials and the fees they charged for performing their services.  Carolina scholars claim that the so-called Nutbush Address was the catalyst for the regulator movement in North Carolina.[7]

The effort to eliminate this corrupt system of government became known by several names, but it was essentially the North Carolina Regulator War.  The most heavily affected areas of contention were Rowan, Anson, Orange, Granville, Cumberland, and Dobbs Counties — a struggle between mostly lower-class citizens (who made up the majority of the Scots-Irish backcountry population in the Carolinas), and the roughly 5% of the affluent class who maintained almost total control of the government.

The regulators weren’t asking for much — just an honest government, fair court treatment, and reduced taxes.  The wealthy class, viewing this lower-class uprising as a threat to their power, relied on the golden rule: whoever has the gold makes the rules.

In 1768, armed Carolina regulators broke up a colonial court in session and dragged into the street those whom they saw as corrupt officials and enablers (including Edmund Fanning and Francis Nash[8]).  The regulators intended to force the presiding judge, Richard Henderson, to proceed with the trial without the presence of the corrupt lawyers, but Henderson escaped before they could take him into custody.  Meanwhile, regulators started a riot in town, which began with a good beating of Fanning.  Henderson later testified that Fanning was beaten so severely that one of his eyes was nearly removed.  Meanwhile, regulators destroyed the courtroom and Fanning’s home, his barn, all of his out-buildings, and worst of all, they drank all of his liquor.

The Battle of Alamance

Violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  In the Carolinas, small acts of violence had been taking place for over a few years — mainly out of resentment for their poor treatment.  The first organized resistance occurred in Mecklenburg County in 1765.[9]  Many of the local settlers around Mecklenburg were squatters who responded to the presence of county surveyors in a very threatening manner.  Such incidents were frequent in western Carolina, but the first serious clash occurred along Alamance Creek.

Motivated to end the regulator movement, Governor General William Tryon mustered 1,000 men at Hillsborough on 9 May 1771.  At the same time, General Hugh Waddell supported Tryon with a contingent of 236 men.[10]  Enroute to Hillsborough, Waddell chanced upon a much larger force of men under regulator Captain Benjamin Merrill.  Merrill’s larger force caused Waddell to fall back to Salisbury.

Two days later, on 11 May 1771, having received word of Waddell’s retreat Tryon sent a large force to support General Waddell.  Tryon intentionally chose a path that would lead his forces through Regulator territory, but he was adamant that his men should not loot or damage any personal property.  On 14 May, Tryon’s troops reached the location of Alamance Creek and set up camp.  Leaving around 70 men behind to guard the bivouac, Tryon moved the balance of his force in search of regulators.

Ten miles distant, a regulator force of around 2,000 men — intended as a show of force rather than an armed force (although these men were armed — as all men were back then) haphazardly organized without a central leader.  They simply wanted to “scare” Tryon out of his corrupt practices and urge him to treat all citizens of North Carolina (rich and poor) equally.

The first clash occurred on 15 May 1771.  A rogue band of regulators captured two of the governor’s militia.  Governor Tryon dutifully informed the regulators that by displaying open arms and rebellion, he was obligated to take action against them should they refuse to disperse. 

Today, scholars argue that the regulators did not understand the severity of the crisis or the danger they were in.  This is probably a valid point of view.  These poor, uneducated clansmen may not have understood the scope of their predicament — but in any case, they essentially ignored the governor’s warning.

Despite hesitation from his own forces, Governor Tryon initiated the main battle the following day, 16 May 1771.  When Tryon’s Redcoats shot and killed the rebel Robert Thompson, regulator resistance crumbled almost immediately.  It wasn’t much of a battle, actually.  Nine regulators died — including six men whom Tryon hanged as examples, three of whom were Captain Benjamin Merrill, Captain Robert Messer, and Captain Robert Matear.  Governor Tryon pardoned every survivor who participated in the “battle” in exchange for their oath of allegiance to the Crown.

At the time of the regulator defeat at Alamance, most Carolinians viewed the regulators as outlaws and rabble-rousers, and Gov. Tryon was viewed as a hero for stamping out the rebellion.  News articles spread the word of his victory from one end of the colony to the other.  After the initial excitement, however, newsmen in other colonies began to question the reasons behind the regulator rebellion and investigated further.  Several reasons were found to regard the destruction of the Regulators as an act of an oppressive government — most particularly admonished was Governor Tryon for his methods in putting down the “rebellion” and the lynching (murder) of citizens without due process of law.  Reports also surfaced, reflecting the presence of battlefield misconduct.  The allegation was that Governor Tryon gave rebels/farmers a two-hour advance warning period before starting the battle but then broke that agreement by bombarding them with artillery before the two-hour period had elapsed.

Many of the rebellion’s main leaders remained in hiding until 1772 when they were no longer considered outlaws. Governor Tryon was reassigned in 1771 to become the governor of New York.  After the battle of Alamance, many Regulators moved further west into Tennessee, where they established the short-lived Watauga Association in 1772.[11]  Unhappy Carolinians were also involved in creating the Free Republic of Franklin in 1784, an unrecognized proposed state located in present-day East Tennessee (west of the Appalachian Mountains).  In 1788, the government of Franklin collapsed, and the area reverted to the control of North Carolina.  North Carolina ceded the area to the federal government in 1789 as the Southwest Territory — the precursor to the State of Tennessee.[12]


  1. Haywood, M. D.  Governor William Tryon and his Administration in the Province of North Carolina.  Raleigh, 1903.
  2. Howard, J. B.    The Battle of Alamance: A re-analysis of the Historical Record.  North Carolina History Archive, 2009.
  3. Kars, M.  Breaking Loose Together: The Regulator Rebellion in Pre-Revolutionary North Carolina.  University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  4. Kay, M. L.  The North Carolina Regulation (1766 – 1776): A Class Conflict.  American Revolution, Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, Alfred Young, Ed., 1976.
  5. Kay, M. L.  Class, Mobility, and Conflict in North Carolina on the Eve of the Revolution.  Southern Experience in the American Revolution, Jeffrey J. Crow, Ed., University of North Carolina Press, 1978.
  6. Lefler, H. T.  Colonial North Carolina: A History.  Scribner & Sons, 1973.
  7. Sadler, S.  Prelude to the American Revolution: The War of Regulation — A revolutionary reaction for reforms.  The History Teacher, 2012.
  8. Stewart, C. J.  The Affairs of Boston in North Carolina’s Backcountry during the American Revolution.  University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  9. Waddell, A.  A Colonial Officer and His Times, 1754 – 1773: A Biographical Sketch of Hugh Waddell. Edwards & Broughton, 1890.


[1] In modern value, 8 pounds sterling in 1700 would be worth $1,803.32 in 2022.  Citation: Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency.

[2] The Tuscarora War was fought in NC between September 1711 and February 1715.  The Tuscarora were of the Iroquois Nation; the conflict involved territorial encroachment.  Related to the Tuscarora War, the Yamasee War evolved several other tribes, each of which had its own reasons for hostilities toward the Carolina settlers.  Eventually, European settlers overwhelmed local Indian tribes — but not without giving up hundreds of dead Carolinians.  

[3] The Lord Proprietors were the eight Englishmen to whom King Charles II granted joint ownership of the entire area of Carolina.  All of these men had remained loyal to the Crown or aided Charles’s restoration to the English throne.  The Proprietors were William Berkeley (former governor of Virginia), John Colleton, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, William, Earl Craven, John Lord Berkeley, Anthony Ashley Cooper, and Sir George Carteret.

[4] North Carolina’s capital was fixed at New Bern in 1765 and at Raleigh in 1792. 

[5] The succession of King George III actually increased the governor’s powers.

[6] Tryon was not advanced in rank through merit.  The practice of Army promotions in his time involved paying money for promotions.  Merit and seniority took second place to cash for commissions.  This system was abolished in 1871.  Tryon’s advancement to lieutenant and captain would have cost him (or his father) £2,500.

[7] On 6 June 1765, George Sims published his address to the citizens of Granville County, setting forth in graphic language the abuses of power that the people of the Piedmont Region were forced to endure under colonial rule.  Sims specifically mentioned excessive taxes, high rents, unfair fees, and fraudulent accounting of public funds.  Sims’ target was Sam Benton, a political kingpin of Granville County.

[8] Edmund Fanning was an American-born British Loyalist, military officer, attorney, colonial official, and supporter of Governor William Tryon.  He and Francis Nash faced charges of extorting money from local Carolina residents and were found guilty but was only required to pay a fine of one penny per charge levied against him.  Francis Nash later served as a Brigadier General in Continental forces and was killed in 1777.  Francis Nash is the POS for whom Nashville, Tennessee, is named.     

[9] Named in honor of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of King George III of England.

[10] Hugh Waddell was an Irish-born provincial military officer in Rowan County.  His career was well-served by close connections to several North Carolina governors.   

[11] Although Spanish and French explorers mapped the Tennessee territory in the 1500s and 1600s, the first encroachment by Virginia and Carolina long hunters didn’t occur until around 1750.  The Watauga Association (also the Republic of Watauga) was created in 1772 by Carolina settlers near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee.  It may have been the first attempt by British colonists to form an independent democratic government, but there is no evidence that the Watauga Association ever claimed its separation from Great Britain.     

[12] David Crockett (1786 ~ 1836) was born in Green County, Franklin.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, British Generals, Colonial America, Corruption, History, Indian War, North Carolina, Regulators, Society, South Carolina | 6 Comments

Battle of the Wilderness (1864)


It is possible to argue that the seeds of the American Civil War were planted before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution.  Fourteen signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves.  The founding fathers’ goal was to create a lasting union of states.  To accomplish that, the founders had to accept the reality of slavery in the plantation south — otherwise, there would not have been the United States of America.

The Civil War began somewhat in earnest on 12 April 1861 when the South Carolina militia fired upon and forced the surrender of the Union garrison at Fort Sumter.  By the early spring of 1864, the Union Army had made little progress in subduing the Confederacy in the eastern theater of operations.  Its greatest success was in the western theater, particularly at Vicksburg, where nearly 30,000 rebel troops surrendered to Major General Ulysses Grant.  Grant distinguished himself with victories at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Chattanooga.  A suitably impressed President Lincoln ordered Grant to Washington, promoted him to lieutenant general, and appointed him to command the Union Army.[1]

Lincoln and his generals

Abraham Lincoln never wanted a civil war and did everything he could to avoid it.  He was wise enough to realize that whoever fired the first shot would likely lose the war if hostilities accompanied secession.  He was right.  It wasn’t until after South Carolina fired upon Fort Sumter that the northern states threw their full support behind Abraham Lincoln’s call for an army to preserve the Union.

Yet, despite all the Union’s advantages, the failed strategy and incompetence of the Union’s generals produced a protracted series of mediocre Union victories and jaw-dropping failures.  Three years of failing to gain the upper hand produced a frustrated and psychologically depressed President Lincoln.  As Lincoln searched for that one commander who could fight, Union Army leadership became a revolving door of senior officers (tried, failed, replaced).  The longer the war went on, the more depressed Lincoln became.

The problem for Lincoln at the beginning of the war was that his generals were never his.  With only a few exceptions, the Army’s generals were more politicians than warriors and most politically prominent before Lincoln assumed the presidency.  And the generals knew that with only limited militia service himself years before, Mr. Lincoln was out of his depth in military matters.  Mr. Lincoln’s generals were a cross to bear; the president soon found that he had no choice but to rely on men who, in many cases, viewed themselves more as the president’s equals than his subordinates.  As a result, Union generals worked with Lincoln only when it suited them — and what suited many of them was to become president someday.

George B. McClellan, for example, frequently corresponded with his Democratic cronies.  It was said that McClellan spent more time dabbling in politics than he did fighting the war.  Joseph Hooker was known for his political intrigue, and William T. Sherman’s brother (and his in-laws) were prominent Republican politicians.  George Meade was always available to speak to members of Congress, and he constantly flattered the president’s wife at White House functions, seeking her favor and support.

Of course, Lincoln’s generals were West Point graduates, but that did not make them exceptional generals — it only made them exceptional aristocrats.  One prevailing opinion among historians is that whatever virtues possessed by Lincoln’s generals, militarily, they were disasters in gold-braided jackets.  There were exceptions, of course — Ulysses S. Grant being one of them.

Grant’s Strategy

Lieutenant General Grant was critical of fighting the war in multiple locations with independent army commands.  He wanted the Union army to fight together with only minor shifts in their objectives.  Grant had no interest in conquering territory.  He had but one focus: destroy the Confederate Army.  To accomplish this, he intended to use all the forces available to him simultaneously, thus reducing rebel movements from one battlefield to another.  His initial focus was the two largest Confederate armies: Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and Johnson’s Army of Tennessee.

Grant’s plan for Meade’s Army of the Potomac was to move south to confront Lee between Richmond and Washington.  He directed Butler’s Army of the James (River) toward Lee’s forces at Richmond and Petersburg.  Sigel’s Army of the Shenandoah would move through the Shenandoah Valley, destroy the railroad line (denying Lee reinforcements), and destroy farms and granaries used to feed Confederate armies.  Crook and Averell would attack the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, the salt and lead mines, and then move eastward to join Sigel.  Sherman would attack Georgia with similar goals.

Grant’s instructions to Meade were simple: pursue Lee wherever he goes.  Still, Grant was under no illusions about a quick victory — he was fully prepared to fight a war of attrition.  By 2 May 1864, Grant had four army corps positioned for his assault: (1) II Corps under Major General W. S. Hancock (four divisions of infantry); (2) V Corps under Major General G. K. Warren (four divisions of infantry); (3) VI Corps under Major General J. Sedgwick (3 divisions of infantry); IX Corps under Major General Burnside (four divisions of infantry, two regiments of cavalry, one regiment of artillery), and the Cavalry Corps under Major General Phil Sheridan (three divisions of cavalry) — around 100,000 combined troops.

Lee’s order of battle

General Lee commanded four army corps (three infantry with organic artillery and one cavalry) with three infantry divisions in each corps (except one corps had only two divisions).  Lee’s corps commanders were Lieutenant General Longstreet (wounded) and Major General Richard H. Anderson (1st Corps); Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell (2nd Corps); Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill (3rd Corps), and the Cavalry Corps under Major General J.E.B. Stuart, which included a horse artillery battalion.  In total, Lee’s army consisted of around 62,000 men.

Battle of the Wilderness

On 4 May 1864, Meade’s force crossed the Rapidan River at three points, converging on the Wilderness Tavern near Spotsylvania. Thick vegetation and uneven terrain soon hindered Meade’s progress and limited his artillery’s fields of fire.  There was limited visibility inside the dense forests, and Grant’s senior officers became worried that they were walking into a repeat of Chancellorsville. The size of the battle area was around 70 square miles in Spotsylvania and Orange counties.

Grant had no desire to re-fight an old battle, so he directed Meade to proceed to the open ground south and east of The Wilderness before initiating his assault against Lee.  Logistics, however, is a war-stopper, and General Meade’s supply train involved around 4,300 wagons, 835 ambulances, and a large herd of cattle.  To protect that logistics train, Meade had to either slow the pace of his advance or dedicate a protective force sufficient in size to keep enemy cavalry from destroying it.  Nor was it easy to cross the Rapidan River with wagons and cattle.  Circumstances required Meade to slow the pace of his advance.

Lee wanted to draw Grant into terrain favorable to him — the wilderness, where the hilly terrain and thick vegetation gave him a distinct advantage. On 4 May, General Lee had no idea what Grant intended, so to allow himself the flexibility to shift his forces where needed, Lee dispersed his army over an 18-mile front.  Lee ordered Ewell and Hill to restrict Meade’s advance while Longstreet moved directly into Meade’s right flank from the southwest.

Meanwhile, General Meade was receiving false intelligence reports.  Informed that his supply train was under attack from JEB Stuart’s cavalry, Meade directed Sheridan to investigate, which slowed his advance even more.  There was no rebel threat to Meade’s army or his logistics train.

Grant established his headquarters alongside Meade’s.  They arranged that Grant would concern himself with the strategy of the battle, and General Meade would focus on its tactical applications.  Accordingly, Meade sent his army unopposed across the Rapidan on 4 May, but it was no easy task because supply wagons relied upon Meade’s ability to construct pontoon bridges.  Additionally, in entering enemy territory without Sheridan’s cavalry, Meade’s advance was blind to enemy dispositions, particularly in the thick vegetation that impeded the Union’s forward-most elements.  Grant remained confident that Sedgwick, Warren, and Hancock could hold back any Confederate assault until the logistics train moved closer to Meade’s main body.

Observing the Union Army’s crossing at the Rapidan River, Lee knew what Grant was likely to do.  Lee believed it was imperative to draw Union forces into the Wilderness.  To accomplish this, Lee ordered General Ewell east to Robertson’s Tavern and General Hill to New Verdiersville.  The idea was to pin Grant down while Longstreet launched an attack against the Union flank from the southwest.

Battle Joined (5-7 May 1864)

The Battle of the Wilderness was General Grant’s first battle of the “Overland Campaign.”  Grant’s plan involved a relentless and ruthless drive to destroy Lee’s army and capture Richmond, Virginia.  This phase evolved into a bloody and inconclusive encounter, but the battle put the Confederates on the defensive and set the stage for Grant’s aggressive war of attrition and the Confederacy’s ultimate defeat.

As one might expect in a battle area as large as this one, the battle involved a series of engagements, each predicated on circumstances and events unique to a particular sector of the battlefront.

The Turnpike Fight

Warren’s V Corps advanced over farm lanes toward the Plank Road early on 5 May.  Ewell’s 2nd Corps appeared to the west.  Being advised of Ewell’s position, Grant ordered Meade, “If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into Lee’s army, do so without giving time for dispositions.”  Accordingly, having assumed that Warren faced a small group of Confederates, Meade ordered an attack.  Rather than commanding his force, Warren reacted to Meade’s orders without conducting a reconnaissance in force.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that Ewell’s men had erected defensive positions west of Saunders Field, and this, in turn, would have prompted Warren to prep the battlespace with pre-assault artillery.  He did not.

Warren’s front included Griffin’s division on the right and Wadsworth’s division on the left.  The force was insufficient because Ewell’s defensive perimeter extended beyond Griffin’s right; any advance by Griffin’s brigades would subject his men to enfilade fire.  Warren requested a delay until Sedgwick’s VI Corps could be brought up on Warren’s right, thus extending the line of advance.  By early afternoon, an exasperated Meade ordered Warren to advance without delay.  Meade’s blind insistence resulted in the bloody destruction of Bartlett’s Brigade.[2]

Cutler’s Iron Brigade[3]advanced through the thick wood and struck an Alabama brigade under Brigadier General Cullen Battle to the left of Bartlett’s Brigade.  Cutler’s men initially pushed the rebels back, but their counter-attack forced Cutler’s men to withdraw.

Further to the left, near Higgerson’s farm, the Union brigades of Colonel Stone and Brigadier General Rice assaulted Dole’s Georgians and Daniel’s North Carolinians.  Both efforts failed under heavy Confederate fire.  General Warren lost his artillery to an overwhelming Confederate attack involving brutal hand-to-hand fighting.  During this melee, the field caught fire, incinerating men from both sides, particularly among the wounded who could not escape.

When Sedgwick’s VI Corps reached the battlefield, Warren’s corps had quit the fight.  Sedgwick nevertheless attacked the rebel line.  After an hour-long series of assaults and counter-assaults, both sides disengaged to erect earthworks.  At the end of the day, Lee lost two generals (Brigadier Generals Johnson and Stafford).

The Plank Road Fight

The Union men of Crawford’s Brigade were the first to detect the approach of General A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps.  Meade ordered Sedgewick to employ Getty’s Division to stop Hill’s advance at the intersection of Orange Plant Road and Brock Road.  Getty’s use of Wilson’s cavalry succeeded in delaying Hill’s approach march, but the fighting evolved into mind-numbing hand-to-hand combat.

General Lee’s mobile command post was only a mile south of Hill’s position; Lee called for a war council, thinking the area was relatively secure.  Union cavalry surprised Lee, Stuart, and Hill in the middle of these discussions.  The Confederate generals ran in one direction, and the equally surprised Union troops ran in the opposite direction — missing an opportunity to end the war then and there.

As Hancock’s troops began arriving, Meade ordered Getty into the assault.  Around 1600, Meade ordered Hancock’s II Corps northward to support Getty’s division. These troops were almost immediately pinned down by Confederate General Heth’s defensive line.  Hancock sent his men forward into the line as soon as they arrived at the battle site, which forced Lee to commit Wilcox’s division, his reserve element, to reinforce Heth.  Fierce fighting continued until nightfall, with neither side gaining an advantage.

The Second Day

General Grant based his plan for the following day on the assumption that Hill’s corps was exhausted.  Accordingly, Hill became a primary target for Grant’s assault from the Orange Plank Road by II Corps and Getty’s division.  Concurrently, Grant ordered V and VI Corps to resume their fight with Ewell on the Turnpike to prevent him from coming to Hill’s aid.  Grant then directed Burnside to move his IX Corps through an area between the Turnpike and Plank Road and attack Hill’s rear echelon.  If successful, Grant envisioned the destruction of Hill’s corps and a reconcentration against Ewell’s position.

Lee was aware of the situation along the Plank Road and realized Hill’s force was exhausted.  He decided to replace Hill with Longstreet’s 1st Corps and ordered Longstreet to be in place before dawn on 6 May 1864.  Once Longstreet arrived, Lee shifted Hill to the left to cover the open ground.  General Longstreet received Lee’s order but estimated that he had time to rest his men, who on 5 May had spent most of the day on the march.  Longstreet did not resume his march until after midnight.  Night navigation is difficult — night movement is hazardous.  Unsurprisingly, Longstreet’s Corps lost its way enroute on several occasions and failed to reach its designated position as ordered.

Hancock attacked General Hill at 0500.  Wadsworth, Birney, and Mott (with Getty and Gibbon in support) successfully overwhelmed Hill’s Confederates.  General Ewell’s men attacked the Union forces in the east at around 0445, but Sedgwick and Warren kept the Rebels pinned down.  Despite excellent artillery support from Poague, the Yankees began pushing Ewell’s men back.  Ewell’s corps was near to collapse when Brigadier General Gregg arrived with his 800-man Texas brigade.  General Lee accompanied Gregg to a point so close to the forward edge of the battle area that the Texans refused to continue their attack until Lee withdrew to a place of relative safety.

Before Hancock could consolidate his new positions, Longstreet launched an attack with Major General Field on his left and Brigadier General Kershaw on his right.  Union troops fell back a few hundred yards.  Gregg’s Texans made a gallant charge, but Union forces badly chewed up the brigade.  By 1000, only 250 Texans were left alive.

Unknown to Hancock, an unfinished railroad bed south of the Plank Road offered an excellent avenue for an attack by four rebel brigades.  Leading the rebel charge, Brigadier General Mahone struck Hancock at around 1100.  The suddenness of the attack stunned Hancock.  At the same time, Longstreet resumed his primary attack, driving Hancock back to Brock Road.  General Wadsworth fell mortally wounded. 

Later in the day, General Longstreet accompanied Brigadier General Jenkins on a forward reconnaissance when the party encountered some of Mahone’s Virginians.  These men mistook Longstreet for a Union officer and fired into his party, wounding Longstreet in the neck.  Jenkins died instantly.[4]  Longstreet relinquished his command to General Field.  Soon after, the Confederate line fell into confusion; the resumption of the Rebel attack never materialized.  Lee appointed Major General R. H. Anderson to temporary command of I Corps.

Fighting at the Orange Turnpike was inconclusive for most of the day.  Brigadier General Gordon conducted a reconnaissance of the Union line at around 1000 and recommended that General Early authorize a flanking attack on Sedgwick’s right flank.  Early dismissed the idea as too risky, and Ewell lacked sufficient men for an attack until around 1300 when R. D. Johnston’s brigade arrived.  After the arrival of reinforcements, Early gave Gordon the go-ahead.

At 1800 hours, Gordon plunged his brigade into that of Union Brigadier General Alexander Shaler, forcing a union withdrawal.  Gordon’s men captured Shaler and Brigadier General Truman Seymour — along with around 300 Union troops, and Sedgewick himself was almost taken, prisoner.  The Union line fell back about a mile.  Darkness and dense foliage halted Gordon’s effort, and Sedgwick stabilized his line and extended his right flank to the Germanna Plank Road.

Reports of Sedgewick’s collapse caused great excitement at Grant’s command post.  Several of Grant’s staff officers moaned about not knowing what Lee might do next.  A short-tempered Grant snapped at the moaners: “Start thinking about what we’re going to do and worry less about what Lee might do.”

George Custer’s brigade arrived at Brock Road at daylight on 6 May and filled the gap between Hancock and Gregg.  Thomas Devin brought his brigade forward to join Custer, bringing artillery.  Confederates under Brigadier General Thomas “Tex” Rosser assaulted Custer’s position at around 0800, but Devin’s battery turned the fight to favor Custer, forcing Rosser’s withdrawal.[5]  Hancock, unsure of what Longstreet might do, kept two of his divisions behind the lines as possible reinforcements and/or surge troops.[6]  As the fighting developed, Custer vs. Rosser, Gregg vs. Wickham, the Brock Road was blocked, denying Meade the opportunity of seizing the Spotsylvania Court House.  At mid-afternoon, Gregg was withdrawn to Piney Branch Church, and Custer and Devin were redeployed to the metal works at Catharine’s Furnace.

The Third Day

On the morning of 7 May, General Grant reasoned that he had but two options available to him: he could either a frontal assault against strong Confederate defenses or maneuver his troops for a better effect.  He maneuvered his force southward on Brock Road toward the Spotsylvania Court House.  Grant reasoned that if he could place his army between Lee and Richmond, Lee would attack him across the ground more favorable to Grant.  With that in mind, General Grant ordered preparations for a night march toward Spotsylvania (ten miles southeast).  The distance wasn’t great but organizing 100,000 men to achieve it was no easy task. 

Once Lee understood what Grant was up to, he quick-marched his Army to Spotsylvania, arriving ahead of Grant.  By the time Grant’s Army approached the Court House, Lee’s men had already prepared their defense works.  The Battle of the Spotsylvania Court House was a much more protracted fight, lasting through 21 May 1864.

The Casualties of the Wilderness

In terms of casualties, the Battle of the Wilderness ranks among the top five of the deadliest Civil War battles.  The official Union after-action report listed 2,246 officers and men killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 captured or “missing.”  Union totals — 17,666.  The actual number may have been higher.  General Warren was later accused of deflating his Corps’ casualty figures.  Grant gave up six brigadier generals in the fighting: two killed in action, two taken prisoner, and two wounded in action.

Confederate casualties included 1,477 killed, 7,866 wounded, and 1,690 captured or missing.  Lee gave up three generals: Jones, Jenkins, and Stafford, killed, and Longstreet and Pegram were wounded/evacuated.

There was no “obvious” victor in the battle; neither side was driven from the field.  Lee’s only field initiative was to beat Grant to Spotsylvania — otherwise, Lee’s rebels pursued a textbook defensive strategy.  Grant never withdrew from the fight the way earlier Union generals had; he continued to press Lee and would not relent until Lee realized that the war was lost.  As it turned out, General Longstreet’s advice to Lee was prescient: “Grant will fight you every day, and every hour of the day, until the end of the war.”


  1. Carmichael, P. S.  “Escaping the Shadow of Gettysburg: Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill at the Wilderness.”  Chapel Hill, NC, 1997.
  2. Eicher, J. H.  Civil War High Commands,  Stanford University Press, 2001.
  3. Hogan, D. W.  The Overland Campaign, 4 May – 15 June 1864.  Center for Military History, 2014.
  4. Petty, A.  The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia’s Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield.  Baton Rouge, Louisiana University Press, 2019.


[1] Beginning in 1821, the title of the most senior Army officer was Commanding General, U.S. Army. 

[2] Brigadier General William F. Bartlett received his second gunshot wound in this fight, a head wound, and he was evacuated for hospitalization.  In a subsequent action at Petersburg, Bartlett lost the use of his prosthetic leg, and he was captured by Confederates and spent two months as a prisoner of war.  Bartlett eventually passed away in 1876 from tuberculosis, aged 37 years.

[3] A devastatingly effective brigade that took so many casualties during the Battle of Gettysburg that Cutler’s force in 1864 was mostly comprised of raw recruits.  Try as they might, the brigade’s experienced NCOs could not stop these youngsters from fleeing to the rear.

[4] This incident took place 4 miles from the place where Stonewall Jackson was also killed by his own men the previous year. 

[5] Rosser was a courageous officer and a brilliant tactician.  He was one of the few Confederate Officers to serve as a U.S. Volunteer flag rank officer after the Civil War. 

[6] Hancock was unaware that Longstreet had been wounded and removed from the field.  General Longstreet’s presence on the battlefield made every Union general nervous.

Posted in American Military, Civil War, Confederate States, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Virginia | 2 Comments

Frank Jones — Texas Ranger

No man in the wrong can stand up to a man in the right who just keeps on a-coming.

—The Texas Ranger Creed


The Texas Rangers began with ten men, appointed by Stephen F. Austin in 1823.  He enlisted these men as a punitive expedition against a band of Indians who threatened the Austin Colony.  In 1835, the organization was formally created with the enlistment of fifty-three men assigned to three companies.  Each company had a captain and two lieutenants.  The three captains answered to a major, whose responsibilities included recruitment, enforcing regulations, and imposing discipline.  Texas Ranger privates received a salary of $1.25 a day, but they were responsible for supplying and maintaining their own mounts, equipment, firearms, and rations.

There was no formal Texas Ranger uniform in those early days.  The men wore clothing suitable to themselves for life in the field.  Adopting the clothing style of Mexican vaqueros, a Texas Ranger likely wore a sombrero, loose-fitting trousers, worn boots, a heavy-duty shirt, a vest, and a bandana around his neck.  Some of the boys — well, maybe most of them — were scruffy.  They were unshaven, long-haired, and a bit smelly.

Also, there were no saints in the Texas Rangers.  Killing men who needed killing transformed impressionable boys into calloused men.  In all likelihood, they drank too much, chawed tobacco, and cussed like uncouth sailors.  They probably cheated at cards, paid women for intimate services, and occasionally broke the law.  On the positive side, they were hellacious fighters and reliable, and their courage and determination saving the lives of settlers was beyond reproach.

Texas Rangers have always been heroes to Texans, of course — but they also belong to America because Americans value such attributes regularly displayed by the Rangers: hardy manhood, stoicism, pluck, valor, and resolve.  When the going gets tough … the tough get going.

Meet Mr. Jones

Most of what we know of Frank Jones we learned from his father-in-law, Colonel George Wythe Baylor — and various snippets picked up from the Texas Historical Society and archive of the Texas Rangers.

Frank Jones was born in Austin, Texas, in 1856.  He was the son of Judge William Eastman Jones, formerly of the great state of Georgia, and his wife, Elizabeth Rector Jones of Tennessee.  Whatever Frank’s sterling attributes, he no doubt inherited them from his father.  Judge Jones and his wife raised five sons — three of whom served as Texas Rangers.

Frank enlisted in the Texas Rangers with Company A in 1873.  He was 17 years old.  A year later, he transferred to Company F and served under Lieutenant Pat Dolan.  Nine months later, he joined Company D, serving under Captain D. W. Roberts.  Roberts appointed Jones as company corporal.

After assuming command of the company, Captain Lamartine. P. Sieker promoted Jones to sergeant, later recommending him for promotion to second lieutenant and first lieutenant.[1]  When Sieker departed the company to serve in Austin, First Lieutenant Jones assumed command of the company.  Within a year, the Rangers commissioned Jones as a Captain, and he retained command of Company D. 

Throughout his service, Captain Frank Jones was recognized as one of the Texas Ranger’s foremost lawmen.  He was cool under pressure, fearless, and determined to see his duty through to completion.  He was well thought of by his superiors, contemporaries, and subordinates.  He treated his men with respect — part of that being the expectation that they would always do their duty.  In the Ranger’s entire history, few were as brave, as efficient, or as untiring as he in the performance of his duty.

Frank married Miss Grace O’Grady, the daughter of Irish immigrants John and Kate O’Grady.  Frank and Grace settled down in Kenner County and raised two daughters (Grace, named after her mother, b.1887, and Frances, b.1889).  Grace died in 1889, possibly in childbirth.  Her daughter Frances followed her in death in 1890.  In 1892, Frank remarried Miss Helen Baylor, the daughter of CSA Colonel George W. Baylor, a former major of Texas Rangers.  Frank and Helen had a son whom they named Frank Baylor Jones, who was born in 1893 — the year Frank Jones lost his life. 

What Happened

Outside El Paso, within the Rio Grande water system, lay a large island consisting of around 15,000 acres nearest the present-day town of Fabens.  The island formed due to a shift in the river’s course.  By the Treaty of Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, half of this island belongs to the United States, and the other half belongs to Mexico.  Its location presented some difficulty in policing criminal activity, which was precisely why outlaw elements from both countries utilized it.  Whether Mexican or American, it was a simple matter to flee across the dry riverbed into one country or the other, which made Mexico a sanctuary for murderers, thugs, rapists, arsonists, and thieves.

Pirate Island was the location of a gallery forest.[2]  One band of outlaws living on Pirate Island called themselves the Bosque Gang.  The gang’s leader was a fellow named Jesus Maria Olguin, who, along with his three sons, developed a particularly nasty reputation for their conduct toward Texans after Texas Rangers killed one of his relatives during the San Elizario Salt War.[3] 

By 1893, the Bosque Gang was doing whatever it wanted and to whoever got in its way.  The main focus of their attention was stealing American cattle and horses and moving them across the border into Mexico.[4]  Influential ranchers and county lawmen in south Texas began to demand help from the state capital, prompting the governor to send Texas Rangers to El Paso under the command of Captain Frank Jones.  After assessing the situation, and owing to the size of the Bosque Gang, Jones telegraphed the governor, requesting additional men.  Texas was always a miserly state, and owing to the cost of additional lawmen, the governor refused Captain Jones’ request and ordered him to move against Olguin with the men at his disposal.  Captain Jones had six men in his detachment beside himself.  According to Texas Ranger Sergeant John R. Hughes, “ … the Bosque Gang grew stronger and stronger — they laughed at the Gringos threatening to arrest them.[5]

In June 1893, El Paso County officials issued a warrant for the arrest of Jesus Maria and his son Severino for stealing horses and cattle, additionally charging them with assault with the intent of committing murder.  To serve these warrants, Captain Jones formed a detachment consisting of himself, El Paso Deputies Robert Edwards and Ed Bryant, and four other Texas Rangers: Corporal Carl Kirchner, Privates T. F. Tucker, J. W. “Wood” Saunders, and Edwin Dunlap Aten (Texas Ranger Ira Aten’s younger brother).  A young Mexican rancher named Lujan accompanied Jones to help search for some of his stolen livestock.

On the morning of 30 June, Jones and his detachment departed from El Paso and headed southwest along the Rio Grande toward Pirate Island.  The Rangers had searched several houses in the area and were returning to El Paso when they spotted two Mexican men on horseback coming down the road toward them.  As soon as the Mexicans became aware of the posse, they turned their horses around and began galloping back toward the small village of Tres Jacales.

The Jones posse gave chase.  Upon arriving at the outskirts of the village, Corporal Kirchner called out, demanding their surrender.  The Mexicans answered with a volley of fire that came from within a small canal along the road and from several positions in the surrounding brush.  On the first volley, a bullet ripped into Captain Jones’ thigh, knocking him off his horse.  Another bullet struck the magazine in Kirchner’s Winchester.  The Texans immediately dismounted and returned fire, forcing the Mexicans to seek better protection inside the village.  According to the later testimony of the Rangers, there were at least five Mexican attackers; some were gang members, and others were residents of the town.

Mexicans and Texas Rangers exchanged shots for the better part of an hour.  During this time, Private Tucker made several attempts to rescue Captain Jones, but Jones told him to save himself.  Just then, another Mexican bullet struck Jones in the chest, killing him.  Señor Lujan made his way to Kirchner’s position and informed him that the Rangers had unknowingly crossed into Mexican territory.  Lujan opined that it would be better to leave before locals reported their presence to the local Mexican army commander.

Kirchner, however, was unwilling to leave his dead captain and continued the fight for another hour.  It was then that Kirchner realized that the Mexicans were working to flank the Americans; if that happened, it was likely that they would all be killed.  Kirchner ordered a fighting withdrawal back across the Rio Grande to the town of Clint.  From Clint, Kirchner sent a message outlining his situation to El Paso Sheriff Frank B. Simmons.

In this fight, Captain Jones was the only American casualty.  Jesus Maria and Severino were both wounded in the fight.  Initially, Mexican authorities refused to return Captain Jones’ body to American authorities, but after some delay, Jones’ remains were handed over to El Paso law officers.  Then, in a rare cooperative move, Mexican Army officials joined with Sheriff Simmons in capturing a few of the outlaws at Pirate Island.

At first, Mexican authorities held the Olguins in the jail at Ciudad Juarez, but in a move designed to spite American lawmen, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz ordered the Olguins released.  There was very likely much celebration at Tres Jacales.

In the aftermath of the gunfight at Tres Jacales, some folks living in south Texas observed that Texas Ranger Sergeant John R. Hughes was ‘spitting mad about how President Diaz protected the Olguins.

There was never any evidence that John Hughes or any other ranger embarked on a vengeance campaign into Mexico — but over the next several weeks, every one of the Olguins died under mysterious circumstances.  The generally held belief was that the despicable bandits perished due to an acute case of rangeritis.  Note: The photograph at right was taken in 1894 of the members of Company D, Texas Ranger Frontier Battalion, Captain John R. Hughes, Commanding.  Kirchner and Hughes are seated on the far right.


  1. Alexander, R.  Winchester Warriors: Texas Rangers of Company D.  1874 – 1901.  University of North Texas Press, 2009.
  2. Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, 2017.


[1] Sieker was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1848.  He attended primary school in North Carolina and later attended the Washington Military Academy.  At the age of 15, he joined the Confederate Army in 1863, serving as an artillerist in Longstreet’s Corps.  Following the war, he migrated to Texas and joined the Texas Rangers.  He served as a private, corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant before being commissioned a captain.  In 1885, Sieker was appointed to serve as Quartermaster General of the State of Texas.

[2] A forest forms a corridor along a river or wetland area and projects into landscapes that are otherwise only sparse trees, such as savannahs, grasslands, or deserts.

[3] In Spanish, Jesus is pronounced ‘hay-soos’.

[4] This sort of behavior wasn’t a one-way street.  American cowboys routinely made off with Mexican cattle and horses, as well. 

[5] Spanish and Portuguese speakers use the word Gringo to denote a stranger or foreigner.  In Mexico, the term generally applies to Americans as a form of derision or mockery.  Click on the link for a summary of the life and times of John R. Hughes.

Posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Justice, Mexican Border War, Outlaws, Texas Rangers, Vengeance | 4 Comments

The Stones River Fight — Part 2

A Gathering Storm

As General Bragg struggled to manage his army at Murfreesboro, Major General Rosecrans prepared his plan.  Despite his curt response to Halleck’s orders to move against Bragg, Rosecrans got the message.  It was in his mind that he would move against Bragg as soon as his men received their much-needed supplies.  Operational planning began just before Christmas in 1862.  His army was well supplied, and his intelligence sources informed him that Bragg had been forced to send reinforcement troops to Vicksburg.  Rosecrans was also aware that Bragg was losing the cavalry of John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest.[1]  His every indication was that Bragg was settling into winter camp at Murfreesboro.  It was true.  In anticipation of the arrival of Rosecrans’ army, General Bragg ordered his rebels to establish defensive positions along the Stones River.

General Rosecrans called his war room together on Christmas Day.  He and General George Thomas briefed subordinate commanders on the plan of attack.  The Army of the Cumberland would advance toward Murfreesboro in three columns totaling around 44,000 men.  Rosecrans intended to leave less than half of his men in Nashville to protect the railhead and primary source of resupply.  General Thomas Crittenden would proceed straight down the Nashville Turnpike; General Alexander McCook and General George Thomas would advance on Crittenden’s right.  General Rosecrans mistakenly believed that Bragg’s force was scattered around the town.  He also took too few men.

As the briefing concluded, Rosecrans served his officers a little Christmas cheer.  Eventually, the brandy produced a lighter mood among the staff.  Suddenly, General Rosecrans pounded his fist on the table and loudly announced, “We move tomorrow, gentlemen!  We shall skirmish, probably as soon as we pass the outposts.  Press them hard!  Drive them out of their nests!  Make them fight or run!  Fight them!  Fight them!  Fight I say!”

Meanwhile, General Bragg’s camp enjoyed the holidays in grand style.  Oblivious to any possible threat, Bragg’s officers attended Christmas balls and parties.  The liquor flowed, and the officers danced the nights away while their men huddled for warmth in dark camps, feeling the emptiness of loneliness for families so far away.

If the enlisted men were miserable, the officers were not — and their non-stop merriment was noted by a Civil War memoirist named Sam Watkins, one of General Bragg’s infantry privates.  Watkins later wrote that during Christmas 1862, “John Barleycorn was our general-in-chief … [and] our generals, our colonels, and our captains had kissed John a little too often.”

On the morning of December 26, as the Army of the Cumberland moved south, an incident occurred that added to the continuing discord among Bragg’s commanders and the men of his army as well.  Historians claim that the ablest field general serving under Bragg (1862) was Brigadier General John Breckinridge, a former Vice President of the United States.  He was a popular and gifted commander.  As a native of Kentucky, Breckinridge was an essential part of Bragg’s fall campaign, and it was both the hope of Bragg and Breckinridge that thousands of Kentucky men would flock to the rebel side.  When that didn’t happen, Bragg became very bitter toward Breckinridge.  Bragg moaned in a letter to his wife that he had no use for Breckinridge or anyone else from Kentucky.  

Bragg also made no secret of his contempt for Breckinridge among the officers in his headquarters.  Because Kentucky rested in the hands of the Union, Breckinridge and his Kentucky brigade became known as the “Orphan Brigade.”  Bragg went out of his way to demonstrate his contempt toward Breckinridge.  On December 20, Bragg convened a court-martial to hear the case regarding charges of desertion against Private Asa Lewis of the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment (CSA), who left his post without permission to care for his family — there being some confusion about the term of his enlistment.  Breckinridge and his officers pleaded with Bragg to show the boy mercy, given that his father had died, and Lewis was now the family’s only means of support.  But Braxton Bragg was implacable and was determined to make an example of him.  A firing squad put Private Lewis to death on the day after Christmas.

General Joe Wheeler’s cavalry brought news of Rosecrans’ approach on the afternoon of 28 December.  Bragg moved to prepare to meet the Union threat, but Rosecrans’ three columns confused him, and he was uncertain where to expect the Union attack.  Bragg dispersed his army across all the approaches to Murfreesboro from Nashville, but his positions were set on rugged terrain and not particularly advantageous to either side.

The land was marked by limestone outcroppings, deep crevices, and large boulders, surrounded by dense, thick stands of red cedar.  The lay of the ground made unit cohesion difficult, with lush foliage limiting visibility in numerous places.  Additionally, with high wind, dense rain, and freezing temperatures, the weather was simply awful.

As the Union army approached Murfreesboro, Bragg’s cavalry slashed at the Union columns at every opportunity.  Rosecrans finally took up positions opposite Bragg on 29 December, deploying Crittenden’s men on the left flank, anchored on the river, and extending across the Nashville Turnpike.  General George Thomas moved in on Crittenden’s right, extending the Union line to the south, while General McCook took the far right, with his line arcing toward the southwest.

Bragg placed General Hardee opposite McCook, with Polk in the center facing Thomas.  However, the Confederate right was another matter.  Here, Bragg chose to put Breckinridge across the river, which separated his right-wing from the rest of the army.  It was not a sound placement by any means, and while his commanders urged a Bragg to reposition those troops, Bragg stubbornly refused their arguments.  This meant that both Rosecrans and Bragg envisioned an assault on the other’s right flank — and both intended to launch their attack on New Year’s Eve morning, December 31.

The night of December 30 was cold, wet, and miserable for the fighting men on both sides.  Sometime before evening tattoo, one of the Union’s regimental bands struck up “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia.”[2]  As the music drifted across the field, the Confederate soldiers listened quietly, and when the Union band had stopped playing, one of the Confederate bands answered with Dixie.

This friendly music exchange continued until a Union band started to play the bittersweet sounds of “Home, Sweet Home.”  Within minutes, a Southern band joined in, and the bands played together in a unique expression of mutual longing for home and family.  Within a short time, the two arms’ entire music played together.  One soldier from Tennessee remembered that “after our bands had ceased playing, we could hear the sweet refrain as it died away in the cold frosty air.”

New Year’s Eve Day dawned cold and gray.  The fog and dense drizzle obscured the battlefield.  Crittenden’s men positioned themselves on the Union left to move across Stone’s River to assault Bragg’s right.  Rosecrans was nearby to observe the fight.  Only the sound of men preparing breakfast could be heard to the south along General Thomas’ line.  On the far right, two of General McCook’s divisions were preparing for a fight.  General Phil Sheridan led one of those divisions.[3]

During the night, one of Sheridan’s brigade commanders, General Joshua Sill, brought him word that his pickets had spotted considerable Confederate activity to his front.  To him, it appeared as if they were moving toward the far right of the Union line.  Sheridan and Sill rode to wake and brief General McCook.  McCook quickly dismissed them and any possible threat and went back to sleep.

General Sheridan remained disturbed (not to mention highly irritated).  Upon returning to his headquarters, he ordered his staff to quietly rouse the men, give them a quick breakfast, and get them into the battle line.  Sheridan walked the line personally to ensure every regiment was in place and ready for what he suspected might be a Confederate attack.

As the black night turned gloomy gray, McCook received additional reports of enemy movement.  He finally issued orders to the other divisions to stand.  McCook’s orders no sooner left this command tent when the rebels attacked through their typical rebel yell.  Behind that yell came 11,000 troops under William Hardee.  They smashed into the Union right, shooting men down as they ate breakfast with their weapons out of reach.  Hand-to-hand fighting broke out, but McCook’s men began to flee in panic toward the rear.

Eventually, these men reformed some three miles behind the lines.  Some of the Union regiments stood to fight, but because of the Union panic, these hardy men were surrounded without any flank support.  They, too, eventually left the battlefield.  Within a half-hour, two of McCook’s brigades ceased to exist.

Nearby, General Sheridan and General Sill fought the rebels to a standstill … but with the loss of two brigades, they were eventually forced backward.  At about this same time, General Polk began his attack on the Union center.  Polk’s assault was a half-hearted affair, and General Thomas was able to turn them back, inflicting a large number of casualties.

From Rosecrans’ position on the field, he could hear the steady thumping of artillery to his right and a steady cascade of small arms fire.  The initial reports weren’t good, but Rosecrans seemed unconcerned.  It wasn’t until McCook requested immediate replacements that Rosecrans realized the magnitude of the disaster on the Union right.  He ordered Crittenden to stop his advance and release reinforcements to bolster Sheridan and Sill.

General Hardee continued to press Sheridan and Sill.  It wasn’t long before dead horses and men, abandoned rifles, and burning wagons littered the battlefield northwest of Murfreesboro.  The soldier’s spilled blood, ghastly to look at and sickly to the smell, lay in large puddles on the ground because the limestone did not permit the liquid to soak into the soil.

Sheridan was a man possessed on the battlefield, moving from position to position to direct his brigades.  This was soon a necessity.  Before 10:00 a.m., Sheridan had lost all three of his brigade commanders.  The Union line had been pushed back into a V formation, with the left facing east and the right facing west.  Sheridan’s division manned the apex of this reformed line, and, given that they formed a salient, the Confederate attacks now came from both sides.  Working tirelessly, he organized a withdrawal while maintaining a tight hold on Union units on either side.  While this V-shaped line was vulnerable to Braggs line, it also allowed Rosecrans to quickly shift his forces wherever they were needed, which he did with great energy and skill.

On horseback, Rosecrans darted back and forth on the battlefield, demanding reports, delivering orders, encouraging his men — showing the flag to calm everyone down.  Typical of this day, Rosecrans rode to Colonel William Redwood Price, one of the brigade commanders.  Price’s brigade was set I along the river.  Rosecrans shouted at Price, “Will you hold this ford?”

Price replied honestly, “I will try, sir!”

Rosecrans shouted even louder, “Will you hold this ford?”  Price replied, “I will die right here, sir!”

But still not satisfied, Rosecrans shouted once more, his voice filled with emotion, “Will you hold this ford?”  

The young colonel responded, “Yes, sir!”

By noon, Union apex had shifted to an area known as the Round Forest, a small limestone hill punctuated by dense cedar groves.  The Union right flank aligned along the Nashville Pike.  Rosecrans continued to strengthen his line, sending units where they were needed without respect for the name of their unit.  All the while, Union forces were killing rebels left and right.  Hardee’s assault petered out because there was no one left to fight.  Bragg ordered Polk to renew his attack upon the Round Forest.  At that location, Polk’s men were met by a devastating punch issued by Colonel William Hazen’s brigade.

Polk continued to hammer away at Hazen, but Rosecrans kept pouring reinforcements into what the men began to call Hell’s Half-Acre.  By 1:00 p.m., Polk’s men were exhausted.  They could not load another bullet.  Bragg called for Breckinridge to send him four fresh brigades from across the river.

General Rosecrans and General Thomas continued to reinforce the Round Forest by bringing in every available piece of artillery.  By 4:00 p.m., the first two of Breckinridge’s brigades began moving across the river.  As the brigades came online, their commanders awaited the arrival of the remaining two brigades and General Polk’s orders.  Bragg was beside himself, urging Polk to launch another attack with what he had available.

The men of Breckinridge’s brigades marched smartly across a field now littered with hundreds of dead men from the earlier fight.  Newly arrived Union artillery quickly opened fire, blasting huge gaps in the advancing line, but the Kentuckians maintained their advance.  General Hazen ordered his infantry to fire when the Confederate line reached a range of only 50 yards.  The result was devastating.  Breckinridge’s men fell by the dozens, and the entire attacking line staggered to a halt, then broke to the rear amid a hail of rifle and artillery fire.  One Kentucky regiment lost 47 percent of its men within ten minutes — many other units suffered more than 30 percent casualties.

One might think that such horrendous casualties might have convinced Bragg of the futility of another attack, but he refused to change his mind.  When General Breckinridge’s other two brigades arrived, he ordered Polk to sacrifice them as well.  To more than a few of Bragg’s junior officers, the general was utterly insane.

By that time, Union artillery in the Round Forest numbered more than 50 guns, and as the rebels renewed their assault, Union gun crews fired as fast as they could reload.  The second Confederate attack met the same fate as its predecessor.  All that was proven was that the Kentucky men knew how to die.

At one point, General Rosecrans and his staff closed on the action in the forward edge of the battle area.  With him was Colonel Julius Garesché (his aide and his closest friend from his cadet days at West Point).  As the fighting raged in front of them, a solid shot from a Confederate cannon roared past within inches of the commanding general’s head.  As it flew by him, it hit Garesché in the face.  He was immediately decapitated, and his headless body stayed in the saddle for 20 paces before pitching off the horse to the ground.  Rosecrans rode on, his uniform covered with Garesché’s blood (completely unaware of what happened behind him).  Later, when he was told about his friend’s death, he quietly said, “Brave men die in battle.  Let us push on.”[4]  

The sound of battle faded with sunset.  The prominent sound on the battlefield was the moaning and crying of the dying, and the frigid night was filled with the yellow blur of lanterns floating on the open field as medics from both sides attended to the wounded and dying.

That night, General Rosecrans held a commanders’ meeting to discuss the plan for the next day.  The general asked his men if they should retreat.  Thomas answered for everyone, saying, “This army does not retreat.”

Bragg was flush with victory in the enemy camp, certain that Rosecrans would limp back to Nashville.  He sent an urgent telegram to President Davis touting his triumph.  “God has granted us a happy New Year.”  So convinced was Bragg of his victory that he went to bed that night without making a single adjustment to his battle line.  As far as he was concerned, the Battle of Stone’s River had been settled.

With the dawn of the New Year, Bragg was astounded by the sight of lines of blue-uniformed infantry.  When his generals came seeking their orders, Bragg appeared paralyzed and in shock.  His only tactical order that day was to order Breckinridge to re-occupy his original position across the river.  That night, Bragg walked in the fields looking for signs that Rosecrans was withdrawing.  He found none.

On the morning of 2 January 1863, Bragg ordered an artillery bombardment to see if Rosecrans would respond.  Rosecrans lobbed twice as much artillery back at Bragg.  After throwing a tantrum, Bragg decided to relocate his artillery to the point of high ground east of the river in front of General Breckinridge.  Doing so would allow Bragg to pour devastating fire into the Union’s left flank — which might drive Rosecrans out of his positions.   To facilitate this, Bragg ordered a reconnaissance of the area.  When his scouts returned, they told him that the high ground he wanted for his artillery was already in possession of a Union division.

Bragg decided to order Breckinridge to take the Union-held ridge and summoned the general to his headquarters.  When Breckinridge learned of his assignment, he reacted with deep anger.  His men could not possibly take such a strong position.  Displaying his deep dislike for Breckinridge, Bragg opined that since his Kentucky soldiers had suffered the least thus far and now it was their turn to prove their worthiness.  The by-now seething Breckinridge protested again.  Bragg angrily ordered him to carry out his orders.

When Breckinridge returned to his men and informed them of their mission, General Roger Hanson, commanding the Orphan Brigade, exploded in anger and informed Breckinridge that he had every intention of going to Braggs headquarters and “shooting that son of a bitch.”  Breckinridge prevailed upon Hanson to prepare his men for an attack.

At 3:00 p.m., as Breckinridge massed his men for the assault, Rosecrans observed the activity and sent reinforcements across the river.  Equally important, he also moved additional artillery onto the west bank of the river, where they could cover the Union defenders.  By the time Breckinridge began to move forward, Rosecrans had assembled 58 guns on the high ground facing east.  Breckinridge’s line of march would take him over 600 yards of open ground into the mauling teeth of a Union infantry division.

The Union defensive fires were overwhelming, but Breckinridge’s line never faltered.  They marched into the Union line, pushing the blue-bellies backward out of their positions.  Breckinridge had achieved the impossible, but instead of halting and consolidating a defensive position, they foolishly continued their assault.  It was a fatal mistake.

As soon as the retreating Union troops were out of the line of fire, the Union’s 58 artillery pieces west of the river opened fire on Breckinridge’s still advancing line.  The guns fired about one-hundred rounds a minute, and the Kentucky boys fell by the dozens, and within minutes, the entire flow of the battle had changed.  It was devastating to Breckinridge; General Hanson lay mortally wounded.

That night, amid another cold, driving rain, Bragg called a meeting of his subordinate commanders and principal staff.  After a discussion of raised voices, neither Bragg nor his subordinates could offer a plan of action — except to say that General Bragg no longer commanded a combat-effective army.  At 10:00 a.m., on 3 January 1863, Bragg ordered a withdrawal, ending the Battle of Stone’s River was over.


Lincoln and the War Department hailed the fight as a significant victory for the Union; President Davis and General Bragg suffered defeat and embarrassment.  Bragg remained in command of the Army of Tennessee both because Davis could not stand the loss of face he would suffer if forced to dismiss Bragg and because there was simply no one to replace him.  Even so, Bragg and his subordinates continued to hate one another until Bragg was relieved of his command following the Union breakout at Chattanooga in November 1863.

Stones River was General Rosecrans’s career high point.  Lincoln ultimately fired him after the Battle of Chickamauga.  Success has many fathers — while failure is a bastard.


  1. Connelly, T. L.  Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee 1862 – 1865.  Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
  2. Cozzens, P.  No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River.  University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  3. Daniel, L. J.  Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army.  University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  4. Davis, W. C.  Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol.  The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
  5. Hess, E. J.  Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River.  University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  6. Lamers, W. M.  The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A.  Louisiana State University, 1961.
  7. Woodworth, S. E.  Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West.  University Press of Kansas, 1990.


[1] Confederate cavalry was organized in different ways within various rebel theaters.  In the Army of Tennessee, the cavalry was organized as one corps under a lieutenant general.  The corps may consist of two to four cavalry divisions.  Each division included from three to four brigades.  Each brigade supported two to three regiments.  Each regiment had three to four battalions.    

[2] Evening tattoo is an evening call played by both the British and American armies.  Originally, the performance  was played on the snare drum and was known as “tap too.”  The name later applied to more elaborate military band performances, which are known as “military  tattoos.”

[3] Alexander McCook served as a temporary major general; his permanent rank in the Union army was captain.  He was no more qualified to serve as a general officer than Custer was to lead a mess wagon.

[4] No matter Rosecrans’ words he was deeply affected by his friend’s death.  After the battle, he carefully cut the buttons from his uniform and placed them in an envelope marked, “Buttons I wore the day Garesché was killed.”  He carried that envelope with him for the rest of his life. 

Posted in Civil War, Confederate States, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Tennessee, The Union | 6 Comments

The Stones River Fight — Part 1


In 1811, the Tennessee General Assembly determined that the location for a new county seat for Rutherford County should be called Cannonsburgh in honor of Newton Cannon, a local politician.  A month later, however, those same politicians renamed the location Murfreesboro to honor the memory of Colonel Hardy Murfree, a Revolutionary War hero.  For eight years, Murfreesboro served as the Tennessee State Capital.

Between 29 December 1862 — 3 January 1863, Union and Confederate armies met at Murfreesboro to determine whether Tennessee would belong to the north or the south.  Although hardly anyone today remembers it, a great battle was decided there — at a tremendous cost in human lives.  The casualty rates at Murfreesboro were higher than any other major battle of the Civil War.

The men who fought that battle did so in the worst weather imaginable.  It was bitter cold, with stiff wind, rain, and driving sleet.  Of 80,000 men engaged in combat, 23,000 died or suffered a debilitating injury.  The historian will find admirable gallantry, despicable brutality, exceptional leadership, and gross incompetence at that place.

Some Civil War Background

All of the senior officers of the Confederate and Union armies attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and everyone served for some time in the uniform of the U.S. Army.  Many (not all) served together during the Mexican-American War.  This means that every senior officer, whether serving in the Union or the Confederacy, was educated by the same men, using the same textbook, and employing the same tactics under actual combat conditions.

Up to a point in the Civil War, the Confederacy was happy enough to defend Dixie, and in that sense, some would argue that the Confederacy held the moral high ground.  In the South, the Civil War was often referred to as The War of Yankee Aggression.  In the early days of the war, the Confederacy won nearly every battle because, as General James Longstreet would urge, the men would fight harder if they thought they were defending their homes/states.

President Lincoln wasn’t pleased with the performance of the Union Army, but there was a problem: Mr. Lincoln was out of his depth in military matters, and most of the Union’s senior officers were either back-stabbing politicians or bloody incompetent.  Lincoln ordered the Union Army into the field to solve the question of a divided land and nullification and to underscore the seriousness of the Emancipation Proclamation.  He signed the draft of this document in late September 1862; he planned to announce emancipation on 1 January 1863.  To do that, he needed a Union Army that could win battles.

Union Army

Early in the war, President Lincoln ordered three principal military commanders to the eastern theater of operations.  Lincoln ordered General Ambrose Burnside to confront the premier enemy commander, Robert E. Lee.[1]  By mid-December 1862, the rebels defeated Burnside at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and his generals were on the brink of open rebellion against him.  In the western theater, Union forces had won victories at Fort Henry, Shiloh, Corinth, and Perryville.  Vicksburg was turning out to be more difficult than anyone imagined — but Lincoln needed a substantial win, and he needed it before the first of the year.  Lincoln had hopes in his newly commissioned field army — the Army of the Cumberland, previously known as the Army of the Ohio.

Before the Battle of Perryville, the Army of the Cumberland had done a lot of walking but not much fighting.  After pursuing the Confederate Army of the Mississippi (newly renamed the Army of Tennessee) and defeating rebels at Perryville, Kentucky, the Army of the Cumberland was poised to take all of Kentucky and most of western Tennessee.  Most of central and eastern Tennessee remained solidly in Confederate hands —  and in the view of Lincoln, Tennessee was ripe for Union conquest.

Lincoln’s principal general in the west was Major General Don Carlos Buell — who fell out of Lincoln’s favor because of his lack of aggressiveness.  Like Burnside, General Buell was also the subject of unflattering criticism by his subordinates.  Buell was not in favor of secession, but he was also not enthusiastic about fighting a war in the southern states.  His wife was a slave owner.  When he planned an engagement, he struggled to ensure that any battles did only minimal damage to the local economy.  When Lincoln had had enough of this, he ordered Buell fired and replaced with someone else.

On 24 October 1862, Major General Henry Halleck, Commanding General of the U.S. Army, ordered Major General William Rosecrans to take command of Buell’s army and force Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of Kentucky and Tennessee to seize and occupy the rail hub at Chattanooga (linking Virginia with the deep south) — and complete these tasks as a matter of urgency.  To emphasize Lincoln’s and Halleck’s sense of urgency, Halleck ended his directive by writing, “Neither the country nor the government will much longer put up with the inactivity of some of our armies and generals.”

William Rosecrans (1819 – 1898) was an experienced 43-year-old military officer with service between 1842 – 1854 and returned to active service in 1861.  He served during the Mexican-American War but did not participate in it.  While somewhat unknown to the War Department, he had the reputation as an intelligent planner and aggressive fighter, but a man who much preferred maneuver warfare to self-defeating slug-fests. In battle, he was easily excitable, highly emotional, and prone to direct action. He was a hard drinker, quick to anger but even faster to forgive.

Yet, despite General Halleck’s fair warning, Rosecrans did not immediately leave Nashville to assault the rebel army of Braxton Bragg.  The Army of the Cumberland was disorganized, needed additional training, supplies, and logistics wagons, and had the least capable cavalry in the Union Army.  Rosecrans did not intend to march on Bragg until he was satisfied that his Army could win.

General Halleck, however, was under pressure from Lincoln to get a victory.  Halleck threatened Rosecrans with relief if he “didn’t get to it.”  Still, Rosecrans would not be bullied.  He answered Halleck, saying, “Everything I have done was necessary and absolutely so.  If the Government which ordered me here confides in my judgment, it may rely on my continuing to do what I have been trying to do.  As to threats of my removal and the like, I must be permitted to say that I am insensible.”  The problem, of course, was that no one in Washington understood the condition of the Army of the Ohio through the summer and at the end of Perryville.[2]

The Confederacy

Rosecrans had troubles, but Confederate General Braxton Bragg had even more difficulties.  After the battle at Perryville, Kentucky (8 October 1862), Bragg’s Army of the Mississippi withdrew to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where Major General E. K. Smith reinforced him with 10,000 troops.  Perryville was not that far away, but Major General Don Carlos Buell had no interest in pursuing Bragg or any other Confederate Army.

Braxton Bragg was also frustrated: his army was low on supplies, and he had no way of resupplying his men.  Logistical shortages prompted Bragg to withdraw from Kentucky and move his 38,000 men some 400 miles to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, through Knoxville and Chattanooga.  On 20 November, the combined armies of Bragg and Smith became known as the Army of Tennessee.

Bragg exercised command over two Army corps.  One under Major General William J. Hardee (which included the infantry divisions of major generals John C. Breckinridge, Patrick R. Cleburne, and John P. McCowan), and Major General Leonidas Polk (with infantry divisions under major generals Benjamin F. Cheatham and Jones M. Withers and a cavalry brigade under Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler).

Bragg’s field officers were (mostly) competent men.  In contrast, Bragg was perhaps the least likable officer in the entire Confederate Army.  He was ill-tempered, stubborn, intractable, overly sensitive to criticism, and more than a little paranoid — which, in his case, was justified because he was despised by nearly everyone, including the subordinates who challenged his every decision.  Some scholars have suggested that Bragg’s headquarters was more like a snake pit than a field HQ.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had known Braxton Bragg since the Mexican-American War; they had a long-standing mutual admiration and (to some) disgustingly similar personalities.  Davis viewed the public outcry over Bragg’s withdrawal from Perryville as a personal attack.  He believed that Bragg was being too harshly criticized in the Southern press and Confederate Congress because of his association with Davis.  Therefore, as he often tended to do, the Confederate president saw this as another example of his real and perceived enemies trying to gain political leverage.  In public, Davis was Bragg’s staunch defender.

Leading the charge against Bragg was General Leonidas Polk, a former Episcopal bishop from Louisiana (and also a close friend of President Davis). Privately, Davis had deep concerns about Bragg, and the primary source of these came from Bragg’s subordinates. General William Hardee, E. Kirby Smith, and Henry Heth supported Polk’s criticism of Bragg.  They believed Bragg had lost his mind and said so in writing.  Another of his officers defended Bragg, claiming he was perfectly sane — just grossly incompetent.

Late in October, Davis ordered Bragg to Richmond to discuss complaints against him and his performance as an army commander.  Bragg was surprised and angry with the insubordination, but he took a conciliatory tone with the president.  He admitted that he lost Kentucky but had inflicted many casualties on the Yanks and had managed to keep his army intact.  Bragg argued that his army was the only fighting force remaining in the west and the only Confederate Army capable of resisting the Union’s advances.

To save himself, General Bragg offered his president a new plan.  Not just to resist the Union Army but to take the fight to Rosecrans.  Bragg had earlier ordered Major General Breckinridge to move his division to Murfreesboro and establish a defensive work.  Bragg did this, he said, as a means of drawing Rosecrans to where Bragg could defeat him.  Afterward, Bragg said, he would drive his army to Nashville, seize the capital and threaten Grant’s rear in Western Tennessee.

This is the kind of talk President Davis liked to hear, so without giving the specifics much attention, Davis approved the plan and sent Bragg back to Tennessee.  Meanwhile, as Bragg returned to Tennessee, Davis promoted Polk and Hardee to Lieutenant General.  Thus bribed to put up with Bragg’s eccentricities, Polk and Hardee promised to help Bragg in his campaign against Rosecrans.

By 28 October, General Breckinridge was fully deployed to Murfreesboro.  Bragg faced numerous challenges in executing his planned offensive as the weeks passed.  First, there had been no solution to his logistical problems.  Winter was on the way, and forage was inadequate.  Then, in early December, President Davis ordered Bragg to reassign 7,500 of his men to Vicksburg, reducing the size of his army to around 40,000 men.  Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland had twice that many.

(Continued next week)


  1. Connelly, T. L.  Autumn of Glory: The Army of Tennessee 1862 – 1865.  Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
  2. Cozzens, P.  No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River.  University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  3. Daniel, L. J.  Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee: A Portrait of Life in a Confederate Army.  University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  4. Davis, W. C.  Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol.  The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.
  5. Hess, E. J.  Banners to the Breeze: The Kentucky Campaign, Corinth, and Stones River.  University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  6. Lamers, W. M.  The Edge of Glory: A Biography of General William S. Rosecrans, U.S.A.  Louisiana State University, 1961.
  7. Woodworth, S. E.  Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West.  University Press of Kansas, 1990.


[1] At the beginning of the Civil War, LtCol Lee served in Texas.  He did not support the secession of states but was conflicted about raising a weapon against his home state of Virginia.  General Winfield Scott recommended Lee for promotion to Major General and command of the U.S. Army.  When on 24 May, Lincoln advisor Francis P. Blair offered Lee command of the City of Washington as a major general, Lee replied, “Sir, I cannot draw my sword against my state.”

[2] How little has changed since 1863. 

Posted in American Military, Civil War, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Kentucky, Tennessee | 1 Comment

Civil War Christmas

Shown right, Christmas Eve is an illustration by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863.


There is no worse time to be a soldier than the dead of winter.  Young men, older than their years, so far from home and freezing cold, the men of the Union and Confederate armies often struggled to perform their duties, or even just survive, in the harsh weather.  Thousands of men died from exposure or disease throughout the war — to say nothing of the horses or mules that could make life just that much more difficult for the survivors.  Disgusted with the conditions on the front, many suffering young men turned their thoughts to home, and failing to return to their families by deserting, tried to replicate what they could with their comrades to keep back the melancholy and drudgery of winter.

The following story was written by Reverend John Paxton, a veteran of the 140th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  The story was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1886 — an account of Christmas Day just after the Union defeat at Fredericksburg.  Paxton was performing sentry duty when he and several other Union troops came upon a group of Confederate soldiers standing across the Rappahannock River, and instead of fighting, the two sides showed each other signs of Christmas cheer.

This would not be the last so-called “Christmas Truce” between the North and the South, and such truces would not be contained to the 19th century.  Paxton is not telling us about a single event, isolated as it may have been.  Similar things happened in other wars.  Paxton does remind us that war is such a terrible thing that we must avoid it whenever possible; the enemy is human, too, and that Christmas is for everyone who believes.

~Heavily borrowed from the National Battlefield Trust

Christmas on the Rappahannock

By Rev. John R. Paxton, D.D.

                “Gentlemen, the chair of the Professor of Mathematics is vacant in this college; permit me to introduce to you, Captain Fraser.” Rah! rah! rah! and away we went and enlisted – to go to Richmond.  It took us three years to get there.  No wonder; there were so many Longstreets to make our way through; so many Hills to climb; so many Stonewalls to batter down; so many Picketts to clear out of the way.  It was as hard as a road to travel as the steep and stony one to heaven.

                No preaching, sir!  Can’t you forget the shop?  Don’t you know that you have squeezed yourself into that faded jacket, and are squirming, with a flushed face and short breaths, behind that sword belt, which had caused a rebellion in media res?

                I started for Richmond in July 1862, a lad eighteen years old, a junior in college, and chafing to be at it – to double-quick it after John Brown’s soul, which, since it did not require a knapsack or three days’ rations or a canteen or a halt during the night for sleep, was always marching on.  On the night before Christmas 1862, I was a dejected young patriot, wishing I hadn’t done it, shivering in the open weather a mile back of the Rappahannock, on the reserve picket and exposed to a wet snowstorm.  There was not a stick of wood within five miles of us; all cut-down, down, even the roots of trees, and burned up.  We lay down on our rubber blankets, pulled our woolen blankets over us, spooned it as close as we could to get to steal warmth from our comrades, and tried not to cry.

                Next morning the snow lay heavy and deep, and the men, when I wakened and looked about me, reminded me of a church graveyard in winter. “Fall in for picket duty.  There, come, Moore, McMeaus, Paxton, Perrine, Pollock, fall in.”  We fell in, of course, No breakfast; chilled to the marrow; snow a foot deep.  We tightened our belts on our empty stomachs, seized our rifles, and marched to the river to take our six hours on duty.

                It was Christmas Day, 1862. “And so this is war,” my old me said to himself while he paced in the snow his two hours on the river’s brink.  “And I am out here to shoot that lean, lank, coughing, cadaverous-looking butternut fellow over the river.  So this is war; this is being a soldier; this is the genuine article; this is H. Greely’s ‘On to Richmond.’  Well, I wish he were here in my place, running to keep warm, pounding his arms and breast to make the chilled blood circulate.  So this is war, tramping up and down this river my fifty yards with wet feet, empty stomach, swollen nose.”

                Alas, when lying under the trees on the college campus last June, war meant to me martial music, gorgeous brigadiers in blue and gold, tall young men in line, shining in brass.  War meant to me tumultuous memories of Bunker Hill, Caesar’s Tenth Legion, the Charge of the Six Hundred – anything but this.  Pshaw, I wish I were home.  Let me see.  Home?  God’s country.  A tear?  Yes, it is a tear.  What are they doing at home?  This is Christmas Day.  Home?  Well, stockings on the wall, candy, turkey, fun, merry Christmas, and the face of the girl I left behind.  Another tear?  Yes, I couldn’t help it.  I was only eighteen, and there was such a contrast between Christmas 1862, on the Rappahannock, and other Christmases.  Yes, there was a girl, too – such sweet eyes, such long lashes, such a low tender voice.

                “Come, move quicker.  Who goes there?”  Shift the rifle from one aching shoulder to the other.

                “Hello, Johnny, what are you up to?”  The river was narrow but deep and swift.  It was a wet cold, not a freezing cold.  There was no ice, too swift for that.

                “Yank, with no overcoat, shoes full of holes, nothing to eat but parched corn and tobacco, and with this derned Yankee snow a foot deep, there’s nothin’ left, nothin’ but to get up a cough by way of protestin’ against this infernal ill-treatment of the body.  We uns, Yank, all have a cough over here, and there’s no sayin’ which will run us to hole first, the cough or your bullets.”

                The snow still fell, the keen wind, raw and fierce, cut to the bone.  It was God’s worst weather, in God’s forlornest, bleakest spot of ground, that Christmas Day of ’62 on the Rappahannock, a half-mile below the town of Fredericksburg.  But come, pick up your prostrate pluck, you shivering private.  Surely there is enough dampness around without your adding to it your tears.

                “Let’s laugh, boys.”

                “Hello, Johnny.”

                “Hello, yourself, Yank.”

                “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”

                “Same to you, Yank.”

                “Say, Johnny, got anything to trade?”

                “Parched corn and tabacco, – the size of our Christmas, Yank.”

                “All right; you shall have some of our coffee and sugar and pork.  Boys, find the boats.”

                Such boats! I see the children sailing them on small lakes in our Central Park.  Some Yankee, desperately hungry for tobacco, invented them for trading with the Johnnies.  They were hid away under the banks of the river for successive relays of pickets.

                We got out the boats.  An old handkerchief answered for a sail.  We loaded them with coffee, sugar, pork, and set the sail, and watched them slowly creep to the other shore.  And the Johnnies?  To see them crowd the bank and push and scramble to be the first to seize the boats, going into the water and stretching out their long arms.  Then, when they pulled the boats ashore and stood in a group over the cargo, and to hear their exclamations, “Hurrah for hog.”  “Say, that’s not roasted rye but genuine coffee.  Smell it, you’uns.”  “And sugar, too!”

                Then they divided the consignment.  They laughed and shouted, “Reckon you’uns been good to we’uns this Christmas Day, Yanks.”  Then they put parched corn, tobacco, and ripe persimmons into the boats and sent them back to us.  And we chewed the parched corn, smoked real Virginia leaf, and ate persimmons, which, if they weren’t very filling, at least contracted our stomachs to the size of our Christmas dinner.  And so the day passed.  We shouted, “Merry Christmas, Johnny.”  They shouted, “Same to you, Yank.”  And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening.

                We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm.  We were brothers, not goes, waving salutations of goodwill in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem on Christmas Day in ’62.  At the very front of the opposing armies, the Christ Child struck a truce of us, broke down the wall of partition, became our peace.  We exchanged gifts.  We shouted greetings back and forth.  We kept Christmas, and our hearts were lighter of it, and our shivering bodies were not quite so cold.                

~Christmas Number, Harper’s Weekly, 1886.

Posted in American Military, Civil War, History, Pennsylvania, Uncategorized, Virginia | 4 Comments

Master Spy


Major John R. Boker, Jr., U.S. Army (deceased), graduated from Yale University.  In May 1941, Boker accepted a commission to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Infantry.  After attending the Infantry Officer School, the Army detailed him to remain as an instructor, where he served until October 1943.  Boker then attended the U.S. Military Intelligence Training Center (MITC) at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, for the Interrogation Course.  He remained an instructor in the German Section until June 1944, when he received orders to report to the British Army Strategic Interrogation Office outside London.

During the closing days of World War II in the Eastern Theater of Operations (E.T.O.), Captain Boker formed and then commanded an independent counterintelligence detachment known as the 6824th Detailed Interrogation Center, Military Intelligence Services (also 6824 DICMIS) to handle the interrogation and debriefing of German Air Force intelligence personnel who had surrendered to the U.S. Third Army.  As the Allies closed in on the Nazis, high-ranking German officers and civilians fell into the hands of American units.  Two issues became apparent to Captain Boker: the Allied effort would soon dissolve itself, and there was a rising threat to U.S. security by the Soviet Union.  Today, we credit John Boker for being the first allied officer to realize this.  He was also the first officer to recognize the value of recruiting captured German intelligence assets to work for U.S. intelligence agencies during the emerging Cold War.[1]

Chief among the former German officers recruited by Captain (soon promoted to Major) Boker was General-Lieutenant Reinhard Gehlen.[2]  Gehlen was a central figure in German intelligence.  By establishing a personal rapport with the General, Major Boker recognized Gehlen’s potential value to the American intelligence effort.  As it turned out, the highly intelligent German P.O.W. had in his possession an almost unbelievable stockpile of intelligence files on Soviet civilian and military intelligence assets and a well-formed nucleus of an anti-Soviet intelligence network — in place — that he was prepared to offer the United States in exchange for the safety of himself, his men, their families, and their intelligence resources inside the Soviet Union.

In this case, Major Boker worked outside regular military and intelligence channels (with the knowledge and approval of his immediate superior) to gather important German intelligence personnel from P.O.W. camps throughout Germany.  The information these prisoners provided included Soviet military manuals, the complete Order of Battle of the Red Army, digests on Russian industrial and economic strength, and information about an existing espionage network in Eastern Europe.

The Gehlen organization’s files saved the American Intelligence Community years of work, replicating their efforts by providing a ready-made base of intelligence from which to work in the early years of the Cold War.  Although Major Boker left the Army in 1946, he remained a member of the Army Reserve until 1953.  Major Boker’s story is recounted in the memoirs of Reinhard Gehlen, The Service (1972).  John R. Boker, Jr., passed away on 12 April 2003.

Much of the following information comes directly from the Report of Initial Contacts with General Gehlen’s Organization by John R. Boker, Jr., dated 1 May 1953.[3]

General Lieutenant Reinhard Gehlen c.1945

General-Lieutenant Gehlen

Reinhard Gehlen (1902 – 1979) was born into a Catholic family in Erfurt, Germany.  His father was a former army officer who worked for the Ferdinand-Hirt-Verlag publishing house, specializing in publishing textbooks for schools.  In 1920, after Reinhard gained his abiturium (secondary certificate), he joined the Reichswehr, which was the remnants of the Imperial German Army following World War I.

There is not much information available about Gehlen between 1920 – 1935, possibly explained by these facts.  After World War I, the Allied nations forced Germany to disarm and reduce their military.  More than this, however, the Allied powers imposed severe reparations payments on the German government totaling $33 billion ($568 billion today), which did not allow any spending for an armed force.  Consequently, promotions within the Army were very likely relatively slow.  It is entirely possible that Reinhard Gehlen served as an ensign and lieutenant for 15 years before becoming eligible for promotion to Captain.  In any case, by 1935, Adolf Hitler had advanced to national prominence and was no doubt planning on re-establishing the German military forces.

After Gehlen completed training at the German Staff College in 1935, the high command promoted him to Captain and assigned him to the German General Staff.  He served there until 1936 when he was reassigned as a staff intelligence officer with a German infantry division.  He continued to serve in that capacity when the German Army invaded Poland in 1939.  Subsequently, Gehlen advanced to major in the German Staff Corps.

A short time later, Gehlen became a liaison officer on the staff of Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, German Army Supreme Commander, where he earned a good reputation for intelligence and thoroughness in his staff assignments.  In late 1940, the high command transferred Gehlen to the staff of General Franz Halder, Chief of the German General Staff.  Gehlen’s promotion to lieutenant colonel became effective in July 1941, after which he received orders to serve on the eastern front.  Upon arrival, his commander assigned him as a senior intelligence officer, Foreign Armies East (F.H.O.).

In the spring of 1942, Gehlen assumed command of F.H.O.  Realizing that the organization could not provide quality intelligence data to his field commander, he reorganized F.H.O. to include Russian linguists, geographers, anthropologists, lawyers, and junior officers who understood that the Russians were not Slavic monkeys, as many Germans at the time viewed the Russians.

In the summer of 1944, Colonel Henning von Tresckow, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, and General Adolf Heusinger visited Gehlen, asking him to join their plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Without entering the group officially, Gehlen remained in the background while authorizing the plotters to formulate their plans while he provided them with cover.  Fortunately for Gehlen, when the bomb plot failed, Gestapo agents overlooked the possibility of Gehlen’s involvement.

As chief of intelligence (F.H.O.), Gehlen was responsible for producing quality intelligence concerning the Soviet Army, frequently dismissed by Berlin as an example of defeatism.  Even though Hitler promoted Gehlen to General-Lieutenant in early 1945, he fired Gehlen in April.  This was Gehlen’s impetus for saving himself, his men, and his spy network inside the Soviet Union.  F.H.O.’s military and political intelligence collection were massive — more than enough to assure his survival in the post-World War II world of the Cold War.  This information was copied to microfilm, stored in watertight containers, and buried at various locations in the Austrian Alps.  Try to imagine fifty waterproof cases filled with microfilm material. 

General Gehlen surrendered to the Counter-Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.) in Bavaria and turned over to Captain Boker at Camp King.  Realizing Gehlen’s potential, Captain Boker removed Gehlen’s name and the names of all his men from P.O.W. lists.  Seven other former senior F.H.O. officers joined Gehlen.  Boker managed to locate and transfer Gehlen’s documents to Camp King without the knowledge of the Camp Commander.  Armed with this treasure, Boker received the support of Brigadier General Edwin Sibert, the intelligence officer of the 12th Army Group who, with the assistance of General Walter Bedell Smith, William Donovan, and Allen Dulles, evacuated Gehlen and his most-senior assistances to the American Zone in Berlin.

U.S. authorities released Gehlen in July 1946 and returned him to occupied Germany.  Operations against the Soviet Union began in December.  Gehlen and his men were known as simply the Gehlen Organization, or “The Org.” The service was composed of former intelligence officers of the Wehrmacht, the S.S., and S.D. headquartered near Frankfort and later near Munich.  None of those individuals was required to appear before a post-war tribunal.  Their “cover” was a fictitious agency known as the South German Industrial Development Organization.  Gehlen Org grew from 350 ex-intelligence officers to more than 4,000 anti-communist secret agents.

The Gehlen Organization

While working for the U.S. government, Gehlen was subordinate to U.S. Army G-2 (Intelligence).  It was an arrangement he deeply resented because the Army’s intelligence network and the people involved in it were, in Gehlen’s opinion, among the least competent in the entire world.  At the end of 1947, Gehlen arranged to transfer his organization to the Central Intelligence Agency.  The importance of this network within the C.I.A. cannot be over-emphasized.  Between 1945 – 1991, Gehlen’s agents were the only U.S. spy assets in the entire Eastern Bloc.

Between 1947 and 1955, Gehlen’s agents interviewed every German P.O.W. who returned from captivity in the Soviet Union and established close contact with anti-Communist Eastern European organizations and communities.  They observed rail systems operations, airfields, and ports inside the Soviet Union.  Gehlen’s secret agents penetrated every one of the Soviet Republics, including Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the security and efficacy of the Gehlen Org were compromised by East German security, who not only penetrated Gehlen but pumped much information back to the Soviet K.G.B.  Eventually, the moles were identified, arrested, convicted, and thrown into jail — but the damage was catastrophic because the K.G.B. had also infiltrated the American C.I.A. and Britain’s S.I.S. (MI-6).  Gehlen’s failures were resented by the British, more than likely because he was a former German officer and because the British press made its government’s officials miserable by publishing the entire story of the Gehlen Organization.

German Federal Intelligence Service (B.N.D.)

Eleven years after the end of World War II, the C.I.A. transferred the Gehlen Organization to the Federal Republic of Germany.  In this way, the Gehlen Organization became the nucleus of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (B.N.D.), with Gehlen serving as its head.  In 1968, scandals forced Gehlen out of office.  Gehlen’s refusal to correct reports with questionable content strained the organization’s credibility and reliability.  The B.N.D. had become corrupt.  At one time, Gehlen had sixteen family members on the organization’s payroll.  The fact that the BND could score some success despite interference from the East German Stasi, internal malpractice, bureaucratic inefficiencies, and political infighting was due entirely to certain staff members who took it upon themselves to step up to remedy the problem.

Lieutenant General Reinhard Gehlen died from prostate cancer on 8 June 1979.  According to a C.I.A. analysis of the Gehlen affair, “Gehlen’s descriptions of most of his so-called successes in the political intelligence field are, in my opinion, either wishful thinking or self-delusion.  Gehlen was neither a good clandestine operator nor a particularly good administrator.  And therein lay his failures.  The Gehlen Organization/BND always had a good record of collecting military and economic intelligence on East Germany and the Soviet forces there.  But this information, for the most part, came from observation and not from clandestine penetration.” ~Unknown

The criticism seems somewhat disingenuous, given that the United States had NO eyes on the ground in 1945 and had no idea whatsoever about Soviet intelligence operations.  General Gehlen and his organization fixed that problem.  We can certainly quibble about the correctness of using a former enemy to advantage the United States over the Soviet Union, but this is not the least of the U.S. government’s sins in the post-war period.

According to the C.I.A., whose unmitigated disasters would fill up the New York City phone book, General Gehlen did not meet their expectations.  Success has a thousand fathers; failure is a bastard.


  1. Boker, J. R. Jr., Report of Initial Contacts with General Gehlen’s Organization.  1 May 1952.
  2. Cookridge, E. H.  Gehlen: Spy of the Century.  Hodder & Stoughton, 1972.
  3. Hastings, M.  The Secret War: Spies, Codes, and guerrillas 1939-1945.  William Collins, 2015.
  4. Reece, M.E.  General Reinhard Gehlen: The CIA Connection.  George Mason University, 1990.
  5. The C.I.A. and Nazi War Criminals: National Security Archive Posts Secret C.I.A. History, information released under Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act.  Tamara Feinstein, Editor.

[1] General George Patton found himself in hot water with his superiors for making a public statement regarding the value to using captured German soldiers to put Germany back together again following World War II.  It wasn’t the idea that upset his superiors, it was the fact that Patton had unknowingly stumbled over the feet of Boker’s program. 

[2] General-lieutenant in the German Army was roughly equivalent to Brigadier General in the U.S. Army.  Once Germany promised to behave itself and was re-admitted to the family of nations, its military structure incorporated the generally recognized rank structure of NATO, and, in time, Gehlen was promoted to Lieutenant General in the new German Army.

[3] If keeping the Gehlen Organization secret from the prying eyes of the Soviet Union wasn’t difficult enough, Boker found himself in the center of a major internal war within the U.S. Army (ETO) and Army headquarters in Washington.  Truman, having been given poor advice by several senior Army officers (and his own peculiar biases), directed the “immediate” disestablishment of the Office of Strategic Services following Germany’s surrender on 7 May 1945.  It was not only a war for power and influence within the Army, but it was also an Army fight with the Navy over the issue of re-forming a national intelligence agency.  Complicating the problem, even more, was a full press effort by the K.G.B. to gain access to as many secrets (and German scientists) as possible before the Americans could counter their efforts.

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America’s Old Northwest

The history almost no one knows

Initially, the territories claimed by Great Britain in North America included all of present-day New England, extending southward along the Atlantic seacoast to the northern boundary of Spanish Florida and then westward to the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  Beyond the Appalachian Mountains lie the vast territory of New France, shown right. Officially, the British government prohibited travel beyond the Appalachian foothills — a policy that more than a few frontiersmen ignored.  But if the British believed their acknowledgment of French sovereignty west of the Appalachian Mountains would assure a peaceful coexistence with the French or their Indian allies, they were badly mistaken.  The British wanted a good trade relationship with Native Americans — and, of course, the French (having arrived first) stood in the way.

Beginning in 1601, however, and lasting for the next 150 years, British and French colonial militias fought with one another in a series of inter-colonial and international conflicts, beginning with the so-called Beaver Wars and ending with the Seven Years’ War in 1763. After the French & Indian War, France ceded its North American holdings and British territories, then extended to the Mississippi River.[1]  However, many French settlers remained in the northwest, and several Indian tribes, dissatisfied with British policies, initiated a series of conflicts against British settlements.

Still, the British were eager to avoid additional conflicts with the French or Indian populations and issued a Royal Proclamation (1763) and forged the Treaty of Fort Stanwix to resolve the boundary disputes between Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Indian inhabitants of the western lands.[2]  The discontent this proclamation caused among British colonial settlers was one of the sources of Lord Dunmore’s War[3] and the American Revolutionary War.

When the British allocated Indian land as payment for services to war veterans, tensions in the Ohio Valley increased — particularly among the land speculators. British authorities lacked the military manpower to forcibly remove Anglo squatters from Indian land. Later, British officials withdrew the military from the western territories to address problems with seaboard colonists, leaving Ohio Valley settlers unprotected.

In 1774, the British government determined that it could not honor land grants previously offered to colonial veterans (men who had invested heavily in land speculation). Many of these men lost their investments. In that same year, Parliament’s Quebec Act transferred land from southern Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and parts of Minnesota to the Province of Quebec — meaning that people living in these areas suddenly found themselves residing in a completely new British colony. Frustrated settlers formed militias and began attacking nearby Indian villages — people who had until then befriended the Europeans.

The rebellion we remember today as the American Revolution quickly escalated to involve Indian populations. Both British and American military forces attempted to recruit Indian allies. This behavior resulted in what may have seemed like a never-ending series of attacks, counter-attacks, and revenge killings all along the western frontier. In one example, the Miami tribe, divided in their allegiances during the Revolution, subsequently aligned themselves against the Americans and elevated a somewhat obscure Indian named Little Turtle to prominence among all the anti-American tribes.

After the American Revolutionary War in 1783, Great Britain ceded to the United States all of its lands as far west as the Mississippi River and northward to an area just below Upper Canada.[4]  The problem for the Americans in their victory over Great Britain was that in ceding western British territory, the British never consulted with the Indians who lived in the Northwest Territory. For the infant United States, its Indian problems were only just beginning.

Despite the Treaty of Paris, which settled American independence, strained relations continued between British Canada and the United States. The Americans faced several early challenges, including ongoing hostilities with natives, an unsettled government structure, and a large war debt. The Second Continental Congress drew up the Articles of Confederation on 15 November 1777, which granted no substantial powers to Congress to govern the whole. There was no executive authority, no judicial body, no ability to finance itself, nor any means of enforcing Congressional resolutions.

Long before the colonial rebellion, North America was a land of competing interests and diverse cultures. Neither the British nor any subsequent American official realized that Indian men/warriors were never obligated to follow the direction of their tribal chieftains. The chiefs may have signed treaties with the whites, but that in no way bound the individual brave to observe such treaties — which made the subsequent Indian wars inevitable. In this environment, then, despite the inherent weakness of the Articles of Confederation, the US Congress did its best to resolve conflicts among the states over the question of the newly acquired western territories without realizing that it was sowing the seeds of many more years of Indian hostilities.

In the years following the Treaty of Paris, with no power to raise revenue by direct taxation, Congress resolved to survey and partition the western lands and sell the land as its only means of income. The Land Ordinance of 1785[5] established the framework for western territorial expansion, a survey system, and protocols whereby Americans could purchase farmland. This Ordinance laid the foundation for America’s public land system and created protocols for the admission of ten new states from the land west of Appalachia, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.

Two years later, the Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory, the United States’ first organized incorporated territory, from lands west of Appalachia between British North America and the Great Lakes in the north and the Ohio River to the south. The western boundary of this territory was the upper Mississippi River and its eastern Pennsylvania. The First U. S. Congress renewed the Ordinance of 1787 in 1789.[6]

Few people today realize the significance of the Northwest Ordinance. It not only set forth the process for admitting new states but also established the sovereignty of the United States over all territories on behalf of the American public. It was an authority later confirmed by the United States Supreme Court (in Strader v. Graham, 51 US 82 (1851) — a power that did not carry over to states once admitted into the Union.

Another significant aspect of the Ordinance, which remains unacknowledged by many people today, was that it prohibited slavery within the Northwest Territory. The Ohio River became the United States’ geographical separation between slave and free states — an extension of the Mason-Dixon Line stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.[7]

Even from the earliest times, Americans have not been known for their patience. The system of creating territories and states was a good one — but still flawed. Before allowing any western settlement, government surveyors were supposed to mark off the land into townships, but Congress had no way to enforce its rules. Thousands of settlers were anxious to enter virgin land north of the Ohio River. Most of these people believed that Congress was taking too long. Consequently, these few thousand people rushed into the western lands, seemingly oblivious that tens of thousands of Indians already occupied these lands, which they fully intended to defend.

Not every senior British officer in Canada accepted the Treaty of Paris of 1783; several military governors believed another effort to restore British sovereignty over the Americans was worth doing. Consequently, the Northwest Indian War pitted territorial militia and the Legion of the United States[8] (and its Indian allies) against the Northwestern Confederacy (of Indians), who enjoyed the support of British Canadian military forces. The resulting Northwest Indian War lasted from 1785 to 1795. [9]

In the 1790s, the US government addressed these challenges in two ways: first, by sending military forces into the Northwest Territory, and second, by negotiating treaties with native Americans. In the Second Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1786), Iroquois Indians ceded their claims to the Ohio lands without consulting with other Indian tribes living in that region — who also happened to be enemies of the Iroquois. Those other Ohio Valley Indians did not agree to cede anything and resolved to push the whites out of their homeland. The resolve of these “other” Indians stiffened after the defeat of General St. Clair in 1791.[10]

Americans were (and remain) a land-hungry people. The problem for every westward-moving American was that most settlers had no cash to purchase cheap land. Those who had cash (the land speculators) purchased land from the government in large lots, often on credit, and then resold it to settlers in much smaller lots — also on credit. It was usury, of course, and the settlers complained to their representatives in Congress. They wanted to eliminate the intermediaries and deal directly with the government to purchase smaller lots, with a greater chance for families to make the land productive.

Few Americans could afford $640.00 to buy a wilderness property — even with a four-year note. Many settlers who took up land at the minimum allotment could not pay the note within four years. In 1815, half of the land purchased by settlers remained unpaid. This unhappiness resulted in the Harrison Land Act of 1800, which halved the minimum purchase to 320 acres but maintained the price of $2.00 per acre. The Land Act of 1820 abolished credit purchases but made it possible for anyone with $100.00 to purchase an 80-acre tract ($1.25 per acre).

Among those who earned, on average, $0.35 to $0.50 a day, $100.00 was a lot of money, so for many, the purchase of land was out of the question. Not able to purchase land, thousands of settlers did the next best thing — they squatted on the land and then refused to vacate it unless or until they believed it was to their advantage to move on further west — continuously further west, where the cycle repeated. The stories told by frontiersmen encouraged the westward-moving settlers. Soil-rich fields, bountiful forests, and pristine lakes were just on the other side of the next hill. It was paradise; all these people had to do to get it was risk their lives. Many settlers did just that.

On 4 July 1800, Congress organized the Indiana Territory from the western portion of the Northwest Territories — an area corresponding to present-day Illinois, Indiana, northeastern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the western half of the Michigan peninsula. What then remained was most of Ohio and the rest of present-day Michigan.

In 1803, Congress admitted the southeastern portion of the Northwest Territories as Ohio, transferring the rest of the territory to the Indiana Territory. In April 1803, the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.

In 1810, the only states west of the Appalachian Mountains were Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, with a combined population of about one million. By 1830, Mississippi, Indiana, Louisiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Alabama joined those states — the population of Ohio alone was one million people, close to 4 million people. To these were added Michigan and Wisconsin in 1837 and 1848.

Rapid economic expansion in the East came from industrialization, diversification of livestock, and southern plantation operations, which relied on slave labor. Small farmers couldn’t compete in this kind of economy, so they looked westward and, with time and much-improved roads and river transportation, moving west was both necessary and more accessible. Tens of thousands of Americans were doing just that. In 1825, the federal government began developing a system to help make western settlement possible — they called it their Indian Removal Project.

In 1836, John Mason Peck described three types of westward-moving migrants as being similar to the waves in the ocean — rolling inward toward the shore, one after another. The first wave of immigrants was the pioneer, the hunter, trapper, and mountain man who blazed the westward trail. He constructed crude cabins for shelter but left the land in its natural state. When the smoke from his neighbor’s chimney vexed his eyes, or the sound of human conversation disturbed him, he moved on.

According to Peck, the second wave were men who pulled down the old rustic cabins, cleared the trees and the underbrush, leveled the land for roads, bridged the streams, and built houses with rifle ports. Though his lifestyle remained frugal, the second-wave settler was the beginning of a civilized existence. The second-wave immigrant likely remained on his land for the balance of his years — the number of which averaged forty-seven. His offspring moved on.

The third wave consisted of men with money and an eye for investment possibilities and modernization. Third-wave homes were made from finished wood, brick, or stone and had glass windows. These men opened stores, livery stables, hotels, restaurants, and banks. They built sturdy cargo wagons and coaches to carry cargo and passengers from one town to the next. They were tanners and blacksmiths — they established newspapers and argued with others in the courts and legislatures. They became the industrialists, entrepreneurs, and small businessmen who fueled the engine of the American economy.

Onward they went — forcing the development of western territories, beginning with the Northwest Territory in 1787. But no matter what Peck tells us, westward migration was never an orderly progression.

The formation of western territories and the American Civil War are two of the most important events in US history in the nineteenth century — and yet, they are often presented as two separate events. It is understandable because, on the surface, there appears to be little connection between the creation of western territories and the battles fought (mostly) along the border with or in the southern states.  Still, the highly charged political debates and unmitigated violence within the western territories led the nation to war and provided a glimpse of what the violence of civil war might look like.[11]  No one was paying attention.

Notably also was the sneaky formation of a new state, West Virginia, from within one of the states in rebellion — and this newly created state became instrumental in the subsequent passage of the Civil War Amendments to the US Constitution. 


  1.  Chitwood, O.  A History of Colonial America. Harcourt Press, 1961.
  2. Clark, J.  Land Power, and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada. Queen’s University Press, 2001.
  3. DeVoto, B. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Houghton-Mifflin, 1953.
  4. Forstall, R. L.  Population of the United States and Counties of the United States: 1790-1990. United States Census, PDF Online.
  5. Purvis, T. L.  Revolutionary America 1763-1800. New York: Facts on File, 1995.


[1] There is an important distinction between British territory in 1763 and British-Colonial territory.  The British government intentionally restricted western settlement (beyond Appalachia) in deference to the territorial claims made by American Indian populations — although it may not have been a decision taken to preserve native culture as much as it was to preserve and maintain a robust fur trade.

[2] The Royal Proclamation of 1763 forbade all settlements west of a line drawn along the Appalachian Mountains which delineated an Indian reserve.  The proclamation created discontent between British and colonial land speculators and potential settlers.

[3] In 1774, the Governor of Virginia was John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, who asked the Virginia House to declare a state of war with the western Indian nations.  This conflict resulted from escalating violence between Shawnee and Mingo Indians and British settlers who, in accordance with earlier treaties, had begun exploring and moving into the area of present-day West Virginia and Southwest Pennsylvania and Kentucky.  Despite a treaty to end this violence, many Indians believed that since they did not sign such an instrument, they were not bound by it.  

[4] The term Upper Canada refers to that portion of Canada settled (at first) by the French as part of New France, (and later) as that portion of North America acquired by Great Britain following the French and Indian War (ending in 1763) above the Great Lakes.  The British ceded their Florida land to Spain.

[5] Proposed and drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1784.

[6] Without this framework, lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase would have been a far greater challenge to the federal legislature.

[7] A demarcation line separating four US states, forming part of the borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia (part of Virginia until 1863).  The line was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in an effort to settle a border dispute between Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware colonies.  Informally, the Mason-Dixon Line became the boundary between Northern free states and Southern slave states.

[8] The Legion of the United States was a reorganization and extension of the Continental Army (1792-1796) under Major General Anthony Wayne. 

[9] Historians also remember the war as The Ohio War and Little Turtle’s War.

[10] Arthur St. Clair was President of Congress when the Northwest Ordinance was passed.  In 1791, he served as Governor of the Northwest Territory.  George Washington, who wanted a resolution to Indians in rebellion, demanded a more vigorous effort from St. Clair.  Apparently, Washington did not realize the difficulty of pacifying such a vast area that was inhabited by very agitated people.  If we judge St. Clair’s campaign incompetent, the rampage of (then) LtCol James Wilkerson was even worse.

[11] The Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) played a prominent role in the march toward secession; Bloody Kansas gave the American people a glimpse of Chickamauga, Antietam, Shiloh, and Fredericksburg.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Military, Antebellum Period, British Canada, British Colonies, British Mandate, Civil War, Colonial America, History, Indenture & Slavery, Indian Territory, Indian War, Mountain Men, New France, Northwest Territory, Pioneers | Leave a comment

The Greatest Raid


Between 1700 – 1875, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Caddo, Bidai, Karankawa, Eastern Pueblo, and Apache Indians dominated a massive swath of land in the area of present-day Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  The Indians called it Comancheria — it was the unchallenged domain of the fiercest society of warriors that ever existed on the backs of horses.  They called themselves Numunuu — everyone else called them Comanche … a word meaning “enemy.”  The Comanche was everyone’s enemy.  How violent were these people?  The reputation of the Comanche warrior was terrifying enough to keep Spaniards from settling in Coahuila y Tejas for nearly 300 years.

In 1836, a Comanche and Kiowa war party numbering around 300 braves attacked the Parker settlement (known as Fort Parker) near present-day Mexia, Texas.  At the time of the assault, John Parker and most of the settlement’s able-bodied men worked in adjoining fields.  Unfamiliar with the Comanche, these men went to work without firearms.  The war party slaughtered the men and kidnapped several women and children, including Cynthia Ann Parker and Rachel Plummer.  While in captivity, Rachel gave birth to a half-cast child.  When the child was six months old, an Indian brave took the child from its mother and murdered it by dragging it behind a horse.  Cynthia became the wife of the Comanche war chief Peta Nocona and mother of Comanche war chief Quanah Parker.[1]

In 1838, Comanches kidnapped 14-year-old Matilda Lockhart and four children of Mitchell Putnam from a field surrounding the settlement.  Two expeditions attempted to locate Mattie and the Putnam children, but both ended in frustration.  During the year of her captivity, Matilda continually suffered physical and mental abuse.  Indian men raped her, and Indian women tormented her and burned her body, including burning off a portion of her nose, and the bottoms of her feet.[2]

On 10 January 1840, three Comanche emissaries surprised everyone in San Antonio by walking into the city and announcing that they wanted to arrange peace with the whites.  These emissaries met with Colonel Henry W. Karnes, who previously served as Sam Houston’s spymaster.  Karnes was 28 years old.[3]

As a demonstration of good faith, the emissaries released one of their white hostages to Karnes, a young teenage boy.  He was one of the Putnam children.  The Indians informed Karnes that they would return in 23 days to negotiate peace with the Texians.  Karnes listened to what these emissaries had to say and agreed to meet again at the prescribed time — and sternly informed these Indians that no lasting peace would be possible until the Comanche returned all of their white captives.  Karnes believed that the Comanche held between 13 – 16 other white prisoners.

After his meeting with the Indians, Colonel Karnes notified the Texas Secretary of War, 37-year-old Albert Sidney Johnson, of the impending negotiation.  Johnson ordered Karnes to proceed as follows: once the Indians returned, detain them until the Comanche returned all white hostages to their families.

On 19 March 1840, Comanche chieftain Muguara (Muk-wah-rah) led 65 Indians (including 33 other chiefs) and their families into San Antonio.  The Indians expected to bargain with the Texians for an exchange of their hostages for goods (blankets, muskets, gunpowder, food) and for Texian recognition of the Comancheria as the sovereign land of the Comanche.[4]

Under the terms of the January agreement, Muguara returned to the Texians in San Antonio the 15-year-old hostage named Matilda (Mattie) Lockhart.  Mattie was turned over to the care of Mary Ann Adams-Maverick, the wife of Samuel A. Maverick, who resided in San Antonio near the council house.  Mrs. Maverick recorded in her journal that Mattie was in a terrible physical condition and mental state.  Maverick bathed Mattie and dressed her in the clothing worn by Texian females at the time.  Maverick recorded that Mattie had been badly tortured and was utterly degraded as a human being.  She could not hold up her head.  Her head, arms, and face were full of bruises and sores.  Her nose was burned off to the bone with the fleshy end of her nose gone entirely and a great scab formed on the end of the bone.  Both of Mattie’s nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh.

Maverick recorded Mattie’s story — a piteous story of how dreadfully the Comanche had beaten her, how they would awaken her by sticking a chuck of fire into her flesh.  Her body contained many scars to validate the charges.  During her captivity, Mattie had learned to understand some of the Comanche languages.  She informed Texian authorities that the Indians still held 13 other captives and that they planned to bring them in one by one and bargain for each in exchange for ammunition, blankets, and other supplies.[5]  By the time Colonel Karnes and armed rangers met with the Indians at the Council House, no one was in the mood to show the Comanche any courtesy whatsoever.

The day following the Council House Fight, Texians released one of the Comanche female prisoners to carry a verbal message back to her band.  The Texians demanded that the Comanche release their 13 remaining hostages in exchange for the safe return of the Indian women and children in their custody.  A prisoner exchange was not what the Comanche had in mind, however.  They opted for revenge, instead.  The Comanche skinned alive all remaining white hostages and then roasted them to death over a fire.  Mattie’s sister was one of them.[6]

The Indian depredations were only the beginning.  According to long-held Indian traditions, “council” meetings were nearly sacrosanct.  Council was an opportunity for adversaries to meet in peace to discuss terms for ending hostilities.  No one violated council protocols without significant repercussions.  To avenge what the Comanche viewed as a bitter betrayal by the Texans, Buffalo Hump raised a massive war party of many Comanche bands.

Buffalo Hump was the Penateka Tribe’s First War Chief.  He had no intention to moan about the Texian’s betrayal.  With the participation of other Comanche bands, Buffalo Hump began planning what became the largest Indian war party in U.S. history — well over 1,000 Indians.  At the beginning of the summer, a war party consisting of between 400 – 500 warriors raided white settlements between Bastrop and San Antonio.  In mid-July, Comanche from the Nokoni, Kotsoteka, Yamparika,  and Kwahadi bands joined the marauders.  The raid, known in history as The Great Raid of 1840, began in West Texas and made its way to the Gulf of Mexico — to Victoria and Linnville.

On 6 August, even though Texas Rangers were shadowing the war party, a large group of Indians split off and headed for Victoria before the Rangers could warn the settlement of approaching danger.  The Indian onslaught commenced without warning; Indians rode through the town’s streets killing indiscriminately.  Terrified citizens hid inside buildings.  When armed citizens began shooting back, the Indians concentrated more on looting the town and stealing horses.  After the assault on Victoria, the Comanche camped for the night along Spring Creek.

The next day, the war party continued toward Lavaca Bay, camping that night along Placido Creek, 12 miles from Linnville.[7]  Early in the morning of 8 August, the Indians surrounded the small port settlement (then the second largest port in the Texas Republic).  Knowing that the plains Indians had no experience on the sea, terrified citizens prudently boarded boats and rowed offshore beyond the range of arrows and musket fire.  When the Indians finished looting businesses and private homes, they set fire to the entire settlement.  The settlement that was once located only 1.3 miles from present-day Port Lavaca ceased to exist on 8 August 1840.

One witness to the Linnville raid was the store owner named James Robinson, who noted in his diary, “Those the Indians made free with, and went dashing about the blazing village, amid their screeching squaws and `little Injuns,’ like demons in a drunken saturnalia, with Robinson’s hats on their heads and Robinson’s umbrellas bobbing about on every side like tipsy young balloons.”  The Indians retreated from the smoldering remains of Linnville in the late afternoon.

The word spread throughout East Texas and eventually, Texians began to flock toward the Texas Ranger companies.  Enough was enough.  Volunteers mustered from Gonzalez under Mathew Caldwell,[8] and from Bastrop under Ed Burleson.[9]  Ranger companies from east and central Texas combined to intercept the Indians.

They all came together at Plum Creek, near the town of Lockhart on 12 August 1840.  The Comanche, normally a fast and deadly light cavalry, were overburdened by their human captives and hundreds of pounds of plunder.  Contending with dozens of mules loaded with loot, many prisoners, and driving between 2,000 and 3,000 stolen horses, the Comanche had turned back toward the Comancheria.  Sated in their lust for blood and white man’s goods, particularly the horses, Comanche warriors rode for the high plateau.  They were in no position to resist a Texian assault.

Not far behind them, dusty riders pounded through the coastal prairie — every able-bodied man turned out, from Lavaca, Gonzalez, Victoria, and Cuero —  and a hundred widely dispersed independent farms all across East Texas.  Their captains were such men as Jack John J. Tumlinson, Ben McCulloch, Mathew Caldwell, and Edward Burleson.

One company of rangers pressed the Indians hard from the rear of their formation, firing into them at times, but they lacked the personnel strength, and firepower to close with or engage the Indians in sustained combat.  But the Indians ignored them for as long as possible.  While this was going on, other Texans rode toward the Colorado River settlements seeking additional volunteers.  The plan was for all volunteer defenders to gather at Plum Creek, two miles outside Lockhart, Texas.

On 12 August, Edward Burleson and a hundred men under Henry Jones, William A. Wallace, William P. Hardeman, Adam Zumwalt, and Clark Owen rode into Plum Creek.  They were the Bastrop militia.  Tonkawa scouts under Chief Placido kept the Texas Rangers informed of the Comanche’s positions.  They were moving slowly toward the Big Prairie and would cross over it near Plum Creek.[10]

As the Indian column began to pass by Plum Creek, the old Indian fighters, Caldwell, Burleson, and McCulloch, wanted to press their attack, but the less experienced General Felix Huston hesitated.  One hundred dismounted Texians concealed themselves in the dense brush along the creek and waited for their commander’s orders.  Finally, as the Indian cavalcade moved into the plain, General Huston, Colonel Burleson, and Captain Caldwell rode out from the bush, bringing with them two long lines of Texian horsed rangers.

One of the Bastrop men was John H. Jenkins.  He later described the feints and challenges displayed by the Indian warriors as a prelude to blood-chilling combat: “They arrayed in all the splendor of savage warriors and finely mounted, bounded over the space between the hostile lines, exhibiting feats of horsemanship and daring none but a Comanche could perform.”

Mr. Jenkins described it as a marvelous spectacle — so many mounted horsemen preening before a fight.  He was no doubt impressed, but the seasoned Texians were not.  They watched the Comanche with angry, determined, skeptical eyes.  Both Burleson and Caldwell knew what the Indians were doing: trying to delay the fight until they had moved their stolen herds ahead of them.  Even more important than the horses, however, was the stolen loot.  The horses, while highly prized by the Comanche, became a barrier to rapid egress; the horses forced the Indians to stay on the trail back to the Comancheria.

Finally, a Comanche war chief in magnificent attire rode out to challenge the Texians.  He shouted at them, dared, and taunted them.  Within a few moments, a Texian sharpshooter sent him into the promised land.  Caldwell urged — charge them, General!

When Huston gave his order, Texian cavalry spurred their horses into the Comanche flank, stampeded the massive herd, and dispersed the Comanche into disarray.  Horses and mules bunched up in a boggy stretch, trapping Indian horsemen and making the field a confusing mess.  Caldwell led his men around the left flank and began methodically killing every Indian in his path.

The fight started and went on, as a running battle, for nearly twenty miles.  The combat was close and cruel — more massacre than a battle.  The Comanche killed one Texan.  The Texans killed eighty Comanche.  Texian captives of the Indians were not as fortunate.  Several females were tied to trees and used as a sport for Comanche braves — their bodies were later found pierced with several arrows.  One prisoner, the wife of the slain customs inspector was shot as well, but her whalebone corset saved her life.

After the battle, Texians recovered great quantities of silver, bolts of cloth, jugs of whiskey, cuts of tobacco, and many horses.  The Battle of Plum Creek punished the Penateka severely and afterward, no Comanche ever attacked a Texas settlement within the coastal plain.  The raid, while understandable from the Indian’s point of view, made it less likely that any Texian would greet them in friendship — and the Texians remained deeply angry for many years.  As an illustration of these dark feelings, President Lamar dispatched Colonel John Moore and 110 men into the Comanche territory.  Within a month, Moore’s rangers located a Comanche village and set upon them.  When the shooting was done, thirty minutes later, 125 Indians lay dead.


  1. Bial, R.  Lifeways: The Comanche.  Benchmarks books, 2000.
  2. Brice, D. E.  The Great Comanche Raid: Boldest Indian Attack on the Texas Republic.  McGowan Books, 1987.
  3. Cox, M.  Texas Ranger Tales: Stories that need telling.  Republic of Texas Press, 1997.
  4. Fehrenbach, T. R.  The Comanches: The Destruction of a People. Knopf Books, 1974.
  5. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Open Road Books, 2000,
  6. Frazier, I.  Great Plains.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.
  7.   Wallace, E., and E. A. Hoebel.  The Comanches: Lords of the Southern Plains.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1952.


[1] Cynthia Parker was re-captured in 1860.  She passed away in 1871. 

[2] Mattie Lockhart (1825 – 1841) was the daughter of Andrew Lockhart who immigrated to Texas with her family from Illinois.  They settled in the DeWitt Colony on the Guadalupe River.  While in captivity, Mattie suffered so much abuse that she was utterly destroyed as a human being.  She died within a year of her return to San Antonio.

[3] Karnes’s youth was an issue; he was a 28-year-old colonel who was fuller of beans than brains.  He did not know enough about the Comanche to enter into a successful negotiation.  He did not know, for example, that the Comanche bands were independent entities that owed no allegiance to any other Comanche band.  Karnes’ demand that Muguara return white hostages that he did not control was ludicrous.  

[4] Importantly, a couple of high-ranking Comanche chiefs refused to attend the meeting: Buffalo Hump, Yellow Wolf, and Santa Anna.  They would not attend the council because they did not trust the white man.

[5] Mattie Lockhart did not survive her ordeal.  She died in 1841, very likely the result of her no longer having the will to live her life as a Comanche-damaged freak. 

[6] I do not know what the Texians did with their remaining Comanche hostages after the Council House Fight.

[7] Named for John J. Linn (1798 – 1885), a merchant, statesman, soldier, and historian.  In 1822, he set up his own goods store in New Orleans and became interested in Texas during a business trip to Mexico.  In 1829, he migrated to Victoria where he maintained his residence and business outlet.  In 1831, he established a small settlement along Lavaca Bay, naming it New Port, where he constructed a wharf and warehouse.  New Port later changed its name to Linnville in John’s honor.  Linn was fluent in Spanish and became an important liaison between Mexican and Irish colonists.   

[8] Caldwell (1798 – 1842) was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and a soldier in the Texian Army.  Known also as “Old Paint,” President Lamar appointed Caldwell a Texas Ranger Captain —

[9] Edward Burleson (1798 – 1851) was an experienced combat officer, a veteran of the War of 1812, and of Missouri and Texas militias.  He served as major general of Texas volunteers in 1835, and colonel of Texas regulars of the First Volunteer Infantry.  During the Battle of Plum Creek, then-Senator Burleson helped to coordinate the Texian response force.

[10] A branch of the San Marcos River.

Posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Comanche, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Texas | 1 Comment

The Case of Tom Horn


Old West history books are filled with stories about large cattle ranches, the cattlemen that ran them, the long and dangerous trail drives that took months to complete, and the conflicts between cattle barons and small farmers and ranchers.  The reason for so many stories is that frontier ranching was an industry like no other in U.S. history.  As with most stories, there were main characters, a supporting cast, heroes, anti-heroes, victims, and people caught in the middle of what became, in several areas, a series of murderous confrontations.  Some of these lasted for decades.

We generally do not know about heroes until someone tells their story.  In the post-Civil War period, some storytellers were dime novelists who churned out one story after another about old west characters.  The stories were highly embellished, of course — or, as some might say, an absurd demonstration of poetic license.  But there is little doubt that the reading public had an appetite for such stories.  In 1875, a dime was more or less equivalent to $2.50 today.  That doesn’t seem like much to pay for an exciting (albeit fictionalized) old west tale, but in 1875, back-breaking work only paid around $0.75 per day; ten cents was a lot of money.[1]

The hero of the cattle industry story (as decided by dime novelists) was the American cowboy.  Of course, the cowboy was the obvious choice because he was the fellow who spent his days in the saddle, doing back-breaking work, suffering the effects of stifling heat and frigid cold, who confronted swollen creeks and rivers, and who faced down hostile Indians and cattle rustlers.

There were several choices for the anti-hero role (depending upon what part of the country a novelist was writing about).  It might be the cowboy’s employer (the cattle rancher) or corrupt lawmen, judges, politicians, or townie businessmen — the people who could be bought for a few pieces of silver.  The victims of the drama were small-time ranchers and sodbusters — people who were always in the way of cattle barons.

Cattle barons had their champions — the so-called range detectives who were shootists and assassins.   And the victims of the drama had their defenders, as well: they were vigilantes, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves who thought of themselves as redistributors of wealth.   The stories occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Conflict over land was a common occurrence in the old west, but it was particularly prevalent in the late 19th century when wealthy cattle barons seized public land for selfish purposes and attempted to deny migrating families access to the land for farms and small ranches.  A loose association of cattlemen controlled this land for many years.   They didn’t own it, had no legitimate claim to it, and never paid taxes on it — but they did defend it in bloody confrontations.

Enter Tom Horn

One of the cowboys who played a notable role in this story was Thomas Horn, Jr.  Tom was born on 21 November 1860 in Scotland County, Missouri — the fifth of 13 children —  162 years ago today.   Tom’s abusive father guaranteed him a miserable childhood.  In 1876, Tom left home and traveled to the American Southwest, where the U.S. Army hired him as a scout.

In his life, Horn was an army scout, stockman, soldier, range detective, Pinkerton detective, and a shootist — believed to have murdered seventeen men on behalf of his employers — various cattlemen.  Tom’s life came crashing down when he was accused of the murder of Willie Nickell, a fourteen-year-old boy.

The Soldier

Tom signed on as a scout when he accepted employment with the U.S. Cavalry.  His immediate supervisor was the battle-tested Albert Sieber, a German-born Army scout, and guide who became Chief of Scouts under George Stoneman.  When Horn wasn’t scouting, he was a packer and an interpreter of Indian languages.  Tom had a sophisticated and much-appreciated work ethic, and within a short time, he earned the respect and appreciation of his troop.  Not long after joining the Army Scouts, Horn demonstrated his courage while under hostile fire.

On this first occasion, Horn’s troop was in the process of crossing Cibecue Creek when hostile Apache ambushed the soldiers from the high ground.  Enemy fire killed the officer commanding, Captain Edmund Hentig, which left his men penned down under overwhelming rifle fire.  In desperation, Chief Scout Sieber ordered Horn and fellow scout Mickey Free to break away, relocate, and fire on the Apache from a different position.   Horn and Free managed to break up the Indian assault without further casualties among the men.

Tom also worked for Sieber during the Battle of Big Dry Wash.  Horn became a hero when he and Lieutenant George H. Morgan slipped through the Apache line and provided devastating fire against the Indians, killing several hostile warriors.

From every account, we know that Tom Horn was a dependable scout and fearless in executing his duties.  He often conducted reconnaissance missions alone and was instrumental in tracking down Geronimo’s primary stronghold.  Horn became Chief Scout at Fort Bowie in 1885 — assigned to work for Captain Emmet Crawford.  During one operation (which took Crawford’s troop into Mexico in search of Geronimo), Mexican militia mistakenly attacked the Army camp killing Crawford and wounding Horn.  In September 1886, Horn was present at Geronimo’s final surrender to First Lieutenant Charles B. Gatewood.

Tom Horn left Army service after an incident that resulted in the death of a Mexican army lieutenant.  Horn and the lieutenant, both drinking to excess, got into an argument over a prostitute.   The lieutenant challenged Horn to a duel, which Horn accepted, and as it happened, Tom Horn was faster on the draw.

Going Dark

After leaving the army, Horn used his savings to build up his own cattle ranch in Arizona.   e had around 100 head of cattle and 26 horses and filed a claim for the Deer Creek Mining District.   t was a short-lived investment because cattle thieves relieved him of his herd, helped themselves to his horses, and stormed his homestead in the middle of the night, running him into the fields for safety.   The financial loss drove him into bankruptcy and became the reason for his hatred for thieves.   Afterward, he became a range detective, allowing him to shoot thieves wherever he found them.

Horn initially spent his time prospecting, working on a ranch, entering rodeos, and finally accepting employment as a shootist.  A shootist was a hired gun paid to watch over his employer’s cattle and arrest and detain anyone suspected of rustling cattle.   The terms “arrest and detain” would appear self-evident — but more often than not, the detainee was shot while trying to escape.

Tom Horn never regretted shooting a thief, and his reputation as a no-nonsense shootist gave him a tremendous presence on the range.  People obsessed with felonious thinking gave Tom Horn a wide birth — and he used this reputation to his advantage.  One rancher on the North Laramie River, a man named Fergie Mitchell, said of Horn, “I saw Horn ride by.  He didn’t stop but just went straight up the creek so everyone could see him.   Well, he wanted to be seen; his reputation was so great that his presence had the desired effect.  Within a week, three settlers in the neighborhood sold their stock and moved out.   And that was the end of cattle rustling on the North Laramie.”

The Pleasant Valley War was a dustup that lasted for ten years in the area of Pleasant Valley, Arizona.  The trouble began as early as 1858 but became more serious when one family introduced sheep into a traditional cattle ranching region.  The cattlemen countered by hiring gunslingers to sort things out.  Tom was one of those shootists.   No one today can say which side of the fight he was on — both sides suffered several killings, and no one was ever arrested or charged with any of those killings.   By “several,” I mean between 35-70 killings.  Some scholars insist that the Pleasant Valley War had the highest number of fatalities of any other range war in U.S. history — while other fights claim to be the bloodiest.  I’m not sure I understand that.

Tom Horn worked for a ranch owner named Robert Bowen.  While working for Bowen, Horn became a prime suspect in the disappearance of Mart Blevins (1887).  Horn always claimed he was a mediator in the conflict — always trying to prevent injury.  He even served as a deputy sheriff under Bucky O’Neill, Glenn Reynolds, and Perry Owen — all famous Arizona lawmen.  Horn was present when Reynolds hanged three “suspected” rustlers in August 1888.

Horn’s service as a deputy sheriff brought him to the attention of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  Pinkerton hired him as a tracker in cases investigated in the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado and Wyoming.  Horn was one of those people who always remained calm under pressure.  If anything ever flummoxed him, he kept it to himself.  Reputation-wise, Horn always found his prey, and no varmint wanted to find out that Tom Horn was on his trail.

During the Johnson County War, Tom Horn worked for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and for Pinkerton, who assigned him to work undercover in the county using the alias Tom Hale.  Scholars claim that Tom Horn is the likely shooter of Nate Champion on 9 April 1892 and the “prime suspect” of the killings of small-time ranchers John Tisdale and Orley “Ranger” Jones.

Eventually, Pinkerton forced Horn to resign from his position in 1894.  According to famed lawman Charlie Siringo, Pinkerton was convinced that Horn was guilty of murder.  It was a matter of good business; Pinkerton could not allow Horn to go to prison while employed at the agency.  In any case, according to Siringo, Pinkerton felt that there was something “wicked” about Horn.[2]

In 1895, Tom Horn was accused (and exonerated) of the murders of William Lewis and Fred Powell, which took place within six weeks of each other near Iron Mountain, Wyoming.  In 1896, a rancher named Campbell (known to have a large stash of cash) disappeared after being last seen with Tom Horn.  Later that year, Horn applied for a position with the Marshal’s Office in Tucson, Arizona — there was a matter of getting rid of the rustler gang of William Christian.  An unknown assailant killed William in 1897 and his associate, Robert Christian, disappeared in the same year.  It was probably a coincidence, but one shouldn’t have hired Tom Horn for help in getting rid of outlaws if they didn’t intend to get rid of outlaws.

Although Tom’s official title was Range Detective, he was, in effect, a hired assassin.  By the mid-1890s, the cattle business was changing in Wyoming and Colorado.  The problem was a massive influx of homesteaders and small ranchers.  Established cattlemen referred to these people as “nesters” or “grangers” and hired people like Horn to “get rid of them.”  Nine trappers were mysteriously murdered in Big Dry Creek; unknown persons lynched Luther Mitchell, and someone set fire to Ami Ketchum’s cabin, and he was burned alive inside his home.  After these incidents, the Colorado Range War began in earnest — lasting well into the 20th century.

Over in Brown’s Park

Tom Horn began working as a range detective for the Swan Land and Cattle Company in northwest Colorado.  His first assignment was to investigate the Brown’s Park Cattle Association’s leader, a cowboy named Matt Rash.  Horn began his investigation as Tom Hicks, and Mr. Rash was the target of Horn’s inquiries.  As one of Rash’s stockmen, Horn pieced together evidence that Rash was a rustler.  Horn placed a letter on Rash’s door warning him to leave the county within sixty days.

Matt Rash was two things: stubborn and stupid, as evidenced by his defiance to remain on his ranch.   When Horn’s employers gave him the “go ahead,” Tom Horn assassinated Matt Rash.  Now, is this information a known fact?   No.  Scholars claim that Horn was smart enough to remove all evidence of his involvement.  Ann Bassett, a neighbor, fingered “Hicks” as the murderer — but then, Ms. Bassett was also a known cattle rustler.

Tales of rustling, murder, and chaos on the range are legion today, so it is nearly impossible to separate fact from folklore.  It is probably safe to conclude that there is at least some truth in every old west fairy tale.  But the fact remains that while many old west characters rejected violence as a means of conflict resolution, others were highly independent small-time ranchers who subscribed to traditional notions of family loyalty, Old Testament justice, and immediate retribution of grievances.  Rustling, especially of stock belonging to outsiders, was generally accepted because they had no business settling down on land belonging to someone else, even if it didn’t.  Hardly anyone ate their own beef, yet nearly everyone rejected cold-blooded murder.

At about the time of Matt Rash’s mysterious demise, Tom Horn began to suspect another cowboy of cattle rustling — a fellow named Isom Dart.  Dart was of African descent and previously known to the world as Ned Huddleston — an employee of Tip Gault.  Gault was the so-called sagebrush king of Bitter Creek who led a gang of stock thieves in Utah.

Gault’s scheme involved cattle stealing and a con game.  Gault’s Hispanic lieutenant, a man named Terresa, kept a close watch on the immigrant trails for likely victims (waggoneers moving large numbers of cattle across the country).  During the night, Terresa and his cohorts would run the best animals off, and when the owners of these missing cattle went looking for them, Gault befriended the pioneers and offered to help them search for the missing animals.  The stolen animals were never found, of course.  And because time was of the essence — travelers had to get over those western mountains before the snow season.  Gault would offer to purchase the missing cattle, usually for pennies on the dollar, saying he would try to find the animals later.  In this way, Gault obtained legal title to the missing stock, which he later sold to miners or travelers.

Gault’s luck finally ran out when he crossed the trail with a hardnosed cattleman named Hawley.  Cattleman Hawley and his boys tracked down the missing cattle and found them in Gault’s possession.  It didn’t take long for gunfire to erupt — probably seconds because Hawley wasn’t interested in explanations.  Gault and Terresa were among the first to fall.  Gault gang-member Ned Huddleston jumped into an open pit and played dead until he could slip away in the night to become Isom Dart.  As Dart, Isom managed three indictments for rustling in Sweetwater County, Wyoming.  Horn started a rumor that Isom Dart was the likely murderer of Matt Rash.  The talk forced Dart to “disappear,” which he did by taking refuge in Rash’s cabin, where he intended to remain until the rumors died.  However, Horn tracked Dart to the place and learned that he was hiding with two other well-armed cowboys.

Horn set up a hillside ambush position hidden in a clump of trees.  When Dart and his friends came out of the cabin, Horn shot and killed Dart.  The next day, county lawmen discovered two .30-30 casings at the base of a tree where the assassin likely laid in wait.  The effect of Rash and Dart’s murders put fear into other area rustlers, and they began to scatter.  One story is that Horn pinned Rash’s sliced-off ear to a tree — as a warning to homesteaders and grangers.  There is no evidence that this actually happened.

The Short War

A short time later, Tom Horn also disappeared — he re-joined the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War and became Chief Packer (involving the transportation of supplies) within the Army’s Fifth Corps.  Horn and his men were not infantry or cavalry troop, but they were targets of Spanish infantry and exposed to great personal danger — not only from Spanish bullets but also from Yellow Fever.  Horn became bedridden toward the end of the conflict, but whether his problem was related to Yellow Fever, we don’t know.  Consequently, Horn was returned to the United States and discharged from further military service.

Back in Wyoming

Early in the morning of 2 June 1899, near Wilcox, Wyoming, a Union-Pacific train was flagged down before crossing a wooden bridge.  Armed men forced the train crew to separate the locomotive from the train carriages and move it across the bridge.  Once this was accomplished, the robbers destroyed the bridge with dynamite and helped themselves to the contents of the safe and other valuables on the train.  Union-Pacific reported the loss at around $36,000.

Following the train robbery, Tom Horn obtained information from Bill Speck suggesting that the murderer of Sheriff Josiah Hazen was either George Curry or Harvey Logan of the Wild Bunch Gang, both members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.  Horn passed this information along to his former Pinkerton colleague Charlie Siringo, who was working on the investigation for Pinkerton. 

Willie Nickell

On 15 July 1901, while working (again) near Iron Mountain, Wyoming, Tom Horn visited cattle ranchers Jim and Dora Miller.[3]  Miller and his neighbor Kels Nickell had not been on the best terms.  Whether true or not, Miller claimed that Nickell frequently grazed his sheep on Miller’s cattle land.[4]

While visiting the Millers, Horn was introduced to Miss Glendolene Kimmell, a young teacher at the Iron Mountain School.  Since both the Miller and Nickell families had numerous school-aged children (and whose children were the only students at the school), both families financially supported Miss Kimmell and the Iron Mountain School.  Miss Kimmell boarded with the Miller family.[5]

Young and impressionable, Kimmell was taken with Tom Horn, who regaled her with his adventurous stories.  Later in the day, Horn and several male members of the Miller family went fishing.  While fishing, Victor Miller and Tom Horn engaged in some target practice; both men used .30-30 Winchester rifles.

Three days later, Willie Nickell — the 14-year-old son of Kels and Mary Nickell, was found dead near their homestead property gateway.  A coroner’s inquest opened an investigation into the cause and circumstances of Willie’s death.  Meanwhile, more violent acts occurred during the inquiry — these were added to the inquest.

On 4 August, someone shot and wounded Kels Nickell, and some 60 to 80 of his sheep were found shot or clubbed to death.  Two of the Nickell children reported seeing two men leaving on horses, one a bay and one gray — which matched the description of two of Jim Miller’s horses.  On 6 August, Sheriff’s Deputy Pete Warlaumont and Texas-born U.S. Deputy Marshal Joe LeFors arrested Jim Miller and his sons Victor and Gus on suspicion of shooting Kels Nickell.[6]  Having posted a bond, the court ordered the release of the three men on 7 August. 

In January 1902, while pretending to talk to Horn about employment, LeFors began to ask him questions about the murder of Willie Nickell.  Horn, hung-over from the previous night, gave LeFors what the lawman believed was a confession of the shooting.  What gave LeFors that impression was Horn’s boast that “… it was the best shot I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done.”[7]

County Sheriff E. J. Smalley arrested Horn the following day.  The prosecutor assigned to the case was Mr. Walter Stoll — who announced that the case would be tried as a capital offense.  The trial was handed to Judge Richard H. Scott, who was running for re-election.

For his part, Tom Horn enjoyed the support of his long-time employer, Mr. John C. Coble. Coble’s money allowed him to create a defense team that involved former Judge John W. Lacey, T. F. Burke, Roderick N. Matson, Edward T. Clark, and T. Blake Kennedy.  Interestingly, in 1902, the men who benefitted most from Tom Horn’s range detective activities saw him as a threat to their long-term interests.  None of these men wanted to see Horn acquitted.  He knew too much.

Horn’s trial began on 10 October in Cheyenne.  The courtroom was packed with onlookers attracted by the notoriety of Horn.  The Rocky Mountain News noted the carnival atmosphere and great interest from the public for a conviction.  Even if Horn had not confessed, the people of Wyoming were convinced that he was capable of such an odious crime.  And, of course, Stoll introduced Horn’s confession almost immediately.  It didn’t matter that all other evidence was circumstantial.  Victor Miller testified that he and Horn had purchased .30-30 ammunition on the same day from the same merchant.  Otto Plaga testified that at the time of the shooting, Horn was twenty miles away.

The sticking point was Horn’s confession.  If that’s what it was.  Kimmell, who never testified during the trial, did testify during the Coroner’s Inquest — suggesting that both families were responsible for the feud.  She left Laramie County in 1901 and was not heard from again until after Horn’s conviction.

Thirteen days after the trial started, it went to the jury.  They considered the evidence and announced a verdict on 24 October: Guilty.  A few days later, a separate hearing sentenced Horn to death by hanging. Horn’s legal team immediately filed an appeal, and Tom Horn began writing his autobiography.  Horn had little to say in his writing about the trial or his part in the murder of Willie Nickell.

The Wyoming Supreme Court denied Horn a new trial, but convinced of Horn’s innocence, Miss Kimmell sent an affidavit to Governor Fenimore Chatterton insisting that it was Victor Miller who killed Willie Nickell.  Chatterton acknowledged receiving the affidavit, but he refused to act on it.  And in any case, the document “disappeared.” No one with more than $10,000 in their bank account wanted to see Horn released from jail or his sentence. Horn’s execution date was 20 November 1903 (the day before his 43rd birthday).

After Horn’s execution, John Coble paid for his coffin and a headstone.  Suddenly, people came out of the woodwork, claiming that there was simply “no way” Tom Horn would have killed that boy.  First, he made his statement while drunk, making it inadmissible even in Wyoming.  Even the Apache warrior Geronimo discounted Horn’s guilt.

During a mock trial in 1993, a Cheyenne jury acquitted Horn.  Well, it came ninety years too late — but that’s what happens to a defendant when everyone fears him. The debate continues.


  1. Ball, L. D.  Tom Horn in Life and Legend.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  2. Carlson, C.  Tom Horn: Blood on the Moon – Dark History of the Murderous Cattle Detective.  Glendo Press, 2001.
  3. Gatewood, C. B.  LT. Charles Gatewood & His Apache Wars Memoir.  University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
  4. Horn, T. and John C. Coble.  Life of Tom Horn: Government Scout and Interpreter.  Smith-Brooks Publishing, 1904.
  5. Krakel, D.  The Saga of Tom Horn: The Story of a Cattleman’s War.  Powder River Publishing, 1954.
  6. Nickell, P. G.  The Family Tom Horn Destroyed.  Real West, December 1986.


[1] In 1870, the annual base salary for a lawman was $200.00.  He made his money (up to $4,000.00 a year) by collecting a percentage of the fees assessed for such things as subpoenas, warrants, making arrests, serving court papers, issuing licenses and permits, and collecting taxes. 

[2] Charles Angelo Siringo (1855 – 1928) was a Texas-born stockman, lawman, detective, and bounty hunter who worked with Tom Horn in the Denver office of Pinkerton.  Charlie admired Horn but was always wary of the fact that Tom Horn had a worrisome dark soul.  Siringo is best known for infiltrating the outlaw gang known as Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch.  Charlie said of Cassidy, “He was the shrewdest and most daring outlaw of the present age.”

[3] This Jim Miller was no relation to the famed assassin of the same name.

[4] Whether true or not, it was not unusual for cattlemen to make accusations against sheep ranchers.  This same issue was what started the Pleasant Valley War.

[5] Miss Kimmell was aware of the feud between the Miller and Nickell families — and that some of this animosity played out among the Miller-Nickell children.

[6] Joe LeFors also played a role in the Wilcox Train Robbery investigation.

[7] To my knowledge, LeFors never had Horn make a written statement or sign any confession so that in the courtroom, it amounted to oral testimony by a lawman without the corroboration of Horn’s signature attesting to what LeFors said that he said.  There is also a question about the admissibility of a statement taken while under the influence of alcohol.  Noted lawman/investigator Charlie Siringo opined that LeFors was at best incompetent, and at worst, criminally so.  LeFors may have been as competent as James Comey in 2019.   

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