Saturday evening we went to see Free State of Jones. It’s a powerful and, in many places, a disturbing film. I may have more to say about it later, after I cogitate on it some. In the meantime, I’d encourage you to read both Christian McWhiter’s and Glenn Brasher’s reviews.
During the movie, watching the Knight Company grow and organize in the relative safety of the swamps, I was reminded of similar encampment that grew up here in Texas, deep in the Piney Woods, that I wrote about near the end of 2013:
Both desertion and men running from conscription was a big problem in Texas, as it was in other parts of the South during the war. I recently came across this account of using “Negro dogs,” bred and trained to hunt runaway slaves, to track deserters in East Texas. The place mentioned, Winter’s Bayou, runs through the Sam Houston National Forest, southeast of Huntsville. From the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, December 21, 1864, p. 1:
Walker County, Nov. 24, 1864
Editor Telegraph – It is, I believe, generally known that gangs of deserters and “jayhawkers” have for some time, been congregated in the immense recesses of the almost impenetrable “Big Thicket.” Recently, however, the security of these foes to the Confederacy has been most unceremoniously disquieted, and their organization broken up. About 40 more of the “reserve corps,” under I know not what officer, accompanied by that redoubtable old bear hunter and soldier – Richard Williams – who, with a pack of negro [sic.] dogs, was impressed for the occasion, came upon the lurking place of the patriotic gentry above mentioned. Their chief rendezvous was on Winter’s Bayou, about ten miles below Col. Hill’s plantation, in the center of a cane break over a mile in width. Here in the heart of a wilderness, 30 miles every way in extent, the “jayhawkers” and deserters had taken up their abode, built comfortable shanties, cleared lands, planted corn, erected a tan yard for making leather of the hides of stolen cattle, and surrounded themselves with many of the appliances of civilization. But, alas! In an evil hour for these expatriated cowards and enemies of the South, our “Leather Stockings” (Williams) with marvelous sagacity, has tracked their foot-prints through the cane brake and thicket, and the fierce cries of his dogs warn him that the wolves are “at bay.” Instantly the “reserves” are launched upon them. But, although the deserters may rob the passing traveler, and plunder houses protected only by women and children, they can’t stand the cold steel in the hands of these true men.
They make only a show of resistance, and then “scatter.” Our bold “reserves” are generally too quick for them. Twenty-four were captured; four only of that gang escaped. Pretty good for the “first drive” of the “reserves,” and the indomitable Williams (he is an old 1835 soldier), certainly deserves the highest praise. I talked with Williams yesterday. He says there are yet, at another place in the think about twenty more deserters & c.
Update, June 27: Kevin Levin has his own review of the film over at The Daily Beast.
Update 2, June 27: I just realized that Vikki Bynum recently published an essay on this, “East Texas Unionism: Warren J. Collins, Big Thicket Jayhawker,” in Lone Star Unionism and Dissent: The Other Civil War Texas, edited by Jesus F. de la Tejas. 2016.