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Bartee Haile: Monument honoring Hood’s Texas Brigade dedicated at capitol

This Week in Texas History: A column

A monument honoring the courage and sacrifice of Hood’s Texas Brigade was dedicated on the grounds of the state capitol on Oct. 27, 1910.

COVER: Kentuckian John Bell Hood led a brigade of Texans that fought in six major Civil War engagements.

In the frantic weeks following secession, the Confederate government called upon its westernmost member to furnish 20 infantry companies. Texas responded with 32 combat-ready units, local and county militias that eagerly marched off to war half a continent away.

Enlisting en masse under names like the Knights of Guadalupe County, Five Shooters, Texas Invincibles and Polk County Flying Artillery, more than 4,000 Lone Star volunteers joined the Confederate Army. Instead of complete strangers assembled at random, the hometown detachments were made up of relatives and lifelong friends, who would stick together come hell or high water.

In frigid Virginia during the winter of 1862, the Texas Brigade was born. The First, Fourth and Fifth Texas Regiments formed the heart and soul of the fighting force, while the 18th Georgia and Wade Hampton’s South Carolina foot soldiers brought it up to brigade strength.

Serving as the warrior elite of the Army of Northern Virginia and Longstreet’s Second Corps, the Texas Brigade participated in 24 battles and innumerable minor skirmishes over a three-year span. Enlistment was for the duration, but tragically few Texans lived that long.

Brig. Gen. Louis T. Wigfall, a political appointee, resigned as the original commander in February 1862 to make way for an incomparably more qualified replacement, John Bell Hood. A Kentuckian and West Point graduate, the 31 year old Hood seemed a poor choice to ride herd over the rambunctious Texans, who made no attempt to conceal their contempt for spit-and-polish professionals with a parade-ground mentality.

But the fiery general and the raw recruits hit it off right from the start. No rearguard spectator, Hood risked his neck right along with the rank and file, a fearless trait that inspired respect. As a result and at the insistence of the soldiers themselves, they would be forever known as Hood’s Texas Brigade.

Just four months after Hood took command, the unit fought the first of six major engagements. At Gaines Mill in sight of Richmond, the Texans singlehandedly saved the Confederate capital from a Union invasion.

Braving the lethal crossfire that stopped two previous charges cold, Hood’s men successfully stormed the federal defenses perched atop a heavily fortified hill. Despite snipers and cannon which cut their ranks to ribbons, the Texans obeyed strict orders to hold their fire until the enemy trenches were overrun.

A hundred and fifty yards from the objective, the unwavering line trudged past the petrified survivors of the earlier assaults. Deaf to defeatist warnings to turn back, the Texans captured the contested summit and set the stage for the Rebel triumph.

For the battered brigade, the price of victory at Gaines Mill was sky high:570 officers and men dead, missing and wounded. But even bloodier battles lay ahead.

Less than 90 days later at Antietam, the First Texas suffered the worst one-day losses of any regiment on either side in the entire conflict. A scant 18 percent of the butchered contingent escaped the slaughter unscathed.

Chicamauga in September 1863 cost the brigade its popular leader, when Hood lost a leg to a cannon ball. In a valiant effort to fill his giant shoes, Gen. John Gregg took one chance too many and perished in action the next year.

Hood eventually recovered and was given command of the Army of Tennessee. However, on the heels of a disastrous setback at Nashville, he was sacked.

Meanwhile, his old brigade was fighting for its very life not against the relentless North but against a decision by President Jefferson Davis to consolidate the undermanned army. As part of a sweeping reorganization, Hood’s Texas Brigade was due to merge with several other casualty-depleted units.

Fearing the loss of their independence and proud identity, the Texans sent Major Howdy Martin to appeal directly to Davis. Gen. Robert E. Lee happened to be present and interceded on behalf of the Lone Star heroes. “Mr. President, before you pass upon the major’s request, I want to say I never ordered that brigade to hold a place that they did not hold.”

Clearly swayed by Lee’s heartfelt words, Davis said, “Major Martin, as long as there is a man to carry that battle flag, you shall remain a brigade.”

Of the thousands that fought as members of Hood’s Texas Brigade, only 557 lived to see the surrender at Appomattox. Walking home past the graves of fallen comrades, the survivors must have wondered if fate had shown the dead more mercy.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.