know nothing of the sort of strongly held if often illogical beliefs
that lead partisan factions, revolutionaries or nations to war, but
when federal soldiers occupied Texas
after the Civil War the flying blood suckers attacked the Yankees
with a vengeance.
One of the great Civil War-era “battles” fought in the Lone Star state
took place three months after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox,
VA. when swarms of mosquitos made life miserable for thousands of
newly arrived federal soldiers at a natural water body in Calhoun
County known as Green Lake.
First some perspective.
during the Civil War, Texas soldiers successfully repulsed Yankee
invasion attempts – one at Galveston
in 1862 and a second at Sabine
Pass near Beaumont
in 1863. But while Confederate forces had managed to fend off federal
troops in the midst of war, the Union military’s occupation of the
Lone Star state in the mid-summer of 1865 may as well have been called
Starting in July that year, troops began pouring into the state by
land and sea. By land, soldiers led by George Armstrong Custer crossed
the Sabine River from Louisiana. A larger number of troops arrived
by ship at Galveston
then Texas’s two most important ports.
The blue-coated contingent that came ashore at Indianola
was the largest armed body Texas had
ever seen – 10,000 battle-hardened soldiers. Gen. Antonio Lopez de
Santa Anna never had that many men in Texas
during the revolution. Neither did U.S. Gen. Zachary Taylor at the
start of the Mexican War in 1846. In fact, Texas would not see more
federal troops than the force that arrived at the end of the Civil
War until World War I,
when the army established several large training
camps in the state.
Retired Victoria College history professor Robert W. Shook did his
doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas on the post-war
federal occupation of Texas. In the course
of his research he found a long out of print regimental history that
provided interesting detail on Green Lake’s brief heyday as a U.S.
Union ships began appearing in Matagorda Bay in early July 1865. Elements
of the 51st Indiana Infantry arrived off Texas
on July 9, transported later that day to the water off Indianola
by smaller steamship. From there, since the tide was out, the soldiers
had to be rowed to the otherwise inaccessible pier. By 3 p.m., a process
that had begun at 5:30 a.m. had been completed, and the soldiers marched
to a point about a mile outside town where they stopped for supper.
After chowing down, they marched all night and the following morning
until they reached Green Lake, which lies in Calhoun
County about 20 miles from Indianola.
“This was a hard march on account of heat and no water,” one sergeant
wrote in a letter home.
Another member of the unit, Private William R. Hartpence (who in 1894
published a history of the regiment) described the lake:
“Green Lake was girdled by a beautiful green border of live-oak trees,
whose branches hung quite low, and spread out to a distance of 30
or 40 feet…furnishing a most umbrageous shelter from the broiling
sun. These trees were covered with vines, which produced grapes of
marvelous size and abundance, and of delicious flavor…”
That said, Green Lake in the middle of summer could in no way be considered
a vacation resort.
Grass burs “the size of beet seed,” Hartpence reported, had “prickles
so tough and sharp that they would penetrate our thickest ponchos.”
In addition, he continued, soldiers had to deal with “wicked” fleas
“as plentiful…as the locusts in Egypt.” Among the other enemies the
Union troops faced were tarantulas, centipedes and scorpions. (He
forgot to mention water moccasins and rattlesnakes).
The Indiana soldiers quickly came to believe that the best antidote
for any kind of bite or sting was whisky. At least, that was their
excuse for imbibing any distilled spirits they could get a hold of.
Still, a soldier had to be careful.
“One man recovered from the bite of a tarantula, by the copious use
of whisky, and the wound healed in two days; but [he] died of delirium
tremens,” Hartpence wrote.
According to Shook, who also wrote about the Green Lake camp in his
book, “Caminos y Entradas: Spanish Legacy of Victoria County and the
Coastal Bend, 1689-1890,” the Yankees came up with an innovative way
to fend off mosquitos at night: Music.
“They’d fiddle and dance through the night, trying to keep moving
so the mosquitos wouldn’t bite,” Shook said.
Despite all the dancing and whisky drinking, some of the soldiers
died from mosquito-borne disease, not to mention other medical issues.
The 51st remained at Green Lake for a month, marching for Victoria
on August 10. From there, they went to San
Antonio where they stayed until late November. A month later,
they were mustered out of service. By that time, the regiment had
lost 264 men since its organization – only 56 to Rebel fire, the other
208 men died from disease. Some of those casualties occurred at Green
Lake, their killers thoroughly unreconstructed mosquitos.
© Mike Cox
- July 9, 2015 Column
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