Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Tracking Confederate Deserters in East Texas

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 25, 2016

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY stars in FREE STATE OF JONES

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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:

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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:
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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.
 
Your informant,
 
S.

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Update, June 27: Kevin Levin has his own review of the film over at The Daily Beast.

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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.

GeneralStarsGray

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18 Responses

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  1. Scott Ledridge said, on June 26, 2016 at 12:12 am

    I agree with Mr. McWhiter’s surprise at the inclusion of Reconstruction. From reading a Smithsonian article on Newton Knight, he was hired by the government to free children still enslaved. To me, this was more interesting than the way they treated what looked to be a one time incident to help a friend.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 26, 2016 at 12:15 am

      It’s hugely important that Gary Ross decided to run the story almost seamlessly from the war into Reconstruction. The latter period rarely gets much attention in film and television, but it shaped the region just as profoundly as the war itself did.

  2. bob carey said, on June 26, 2016 at 9:28 am

    I believe that the important thing about the movie is the fact that it was made at all. To my knowledge I don’t think there has been a movie about white dissension in the Confederacy since “Shenandoah” about 50 years ago. Most people today don’t realize how divided the South was during the War and the extreme measures that the Confederate government had to take to combat this divisiveness.
    As a history buff, I think that the best I can hope for from this movie is that it stimulates some interest in the Civil War and Reconstruction, but my cynicism tells me otherwise.

    • pedrog said, on June 27, 2016 at 10:00 am

      One could say that “Cold Mountain” was about dissension from the Confederacy and touched on some of the government’s unjust elements/actions.

    • Shoshana Bee said, on July 2, 2016 at 11:24 am

      I like that the movie and the subsequent discussion(s) is further breaking apart the old perception that “The South” was one entity with a united front and a singular mindset I as recently encouraged not to use the collective term “The South” when discussing the Civil War, and as I move along with study, it has become clear that the South was indeed a multifaceted entity that could not be spoken of as if to be a monolith.

  3. Leo said, on June 27, 2016 at 9:23 am

    This movie is challenging all the lost cause mythology so popular with the SCV and neo-confederates in general.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2016 at 9:29 am

      They’ve been reassuring each other that the Ross film is PC propaganda ever since the first trailers were released, months back, which effectively gives them permission to dismiss it out-of-hand. That’s pretty much how they deal with things that don’t conform — find some rationalization not to deal with it at all.

      • Leo said, on June 27, 2016 at 11:02 am

        You have those people pegged!

        • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2016 at 11:08 am

          I’ve been at this a while.

          • Jimmy Dick said, on June 27, 2016 at 12:33 pm

            This movie is driving a railroad spike in the Lost Cause lie!

          • Leo said, on June 27, 2016 at 12:47 pm

            I am sure and I do enjoy your insight.

            Have you noticed people in the various neo-confederate groups and heritage sites crowing about Brexit as if this somehow reflects a popular sentiment in the U.S. for disunion of the country? Lew Rockwell has recently come out advocating a “Texit” or Texas secession. It seems like every time some country has a vote relating to unification matters, these various groups crawl out of the woodwork like roaches and start blathering among themselves about leaving the United States. For all their talk and bluster, I have yet to see anyone in these groups attempt to get secession on a state ballot.

            • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2016 at 1:11 pm

              The excitement over Brexit is part of the confluence of “heritage” and modern politics. They seem to applaud breakaway/secessionist moves as de facto a good thing, whether it actually makes good political/economic sense or not. (I.e., they support secession for secession’s sake.) As with the folks who voted for Brexit and are now expressing regret over having done so, most of the secessionists I’ve encountered in this country don’t seem to think too hard about how a “Free South” (or wherever) would actually work; they’re too busy fantasizing about getting rids of the things (real or imaginary) they don’t like about the status quo.

              “For all their talk and bluster, I have yet to see anyone in these groups attempt to get secession on a state ballot.”

              Republicans here in Texas tried to get a call for a special session of the Legislature to consider secession from the United States written into the state GOP platform this year. They came short by (IIRC) two votes.

              Two.

              • Leo said, on June 27, 2016 at 2:10 pm

                “… Republicans here in Texas tried to get a call for a special session of the Legislature to consider secession from the United States written into the state GOP platform this year. They came short by (IIRC) two votes…”

                I had no idea. That’s crazy and a long way from the Party of Lincoln.

              • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2016 at 2:18 pm

                There’s all sorts of ridiculous stuff in the Texas GOP platform. For years, they’ve called on Congress to remove jurisdiction of the Supreme Court in any case involving Bill of Rights issues.

    • msb said, on June 29, 2016 at 4:34 am

      Impressive video – thanks for posting it.

  4. Leo said, on July 8, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    The SCV really has a problem with this movie.

    • Andy Hall said, on July 8, 2016 at 5:52 pm

      “He did not fight to free slaves!”

      No one that I’m aware of says he did. Of course, if he’d seen the movie (or read Vicki’s book) he’d know that.

      Same folks are congratulating themselves that Free State of Jones is not a big commercial success. They don’t mention that in its first two weeks it grossed nearly as much as Gettysburg did during its entire theatrical run, in constant dollars.

  5. Leo said, on July 8, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I’m not sure if you have seen this or not.

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/?no-ist


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