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Disjointed Stories
of the Civil War

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The old man sat leaning back in a wooden chair on the porch of his farm house, sleeping off Sunday dinner -- the meal later generations of Texans would call lunch.

While William Polk "Doc" Kyle dozed, two of his great-grandchildren amused themselves with a Victrola, marveling at the lively martial music emanating from a wax cylinder via the wind-up machine's horn-shaped "amplifier." Suddenly the white-bearded snoozer exploded into movement, jumping up from his chair and charging toward the kids and the wood and metal music box. As the gape-mouthed boys watched in disbelief, the oldster kicked the machine off the porch and into the air as if it were a fallen wasp's nest. The box landed hard well out into the front yard. The music had stopped.

When other family members came outside to see what all the ruckus was about, whoever picked up the pieces noticed what the label on the cylinder said: "Marchin' Through Georgia." The tune, composed in 1865 by Henry Clay Work, commemorated Union Gen. William T. Sherman's infamous (at least in the South) brutal push through the Peach Tree state toward Savannah, one of the darker episodes of the Civil War.

More than four decades had passed, but that conflict still affected Kyle. The fighting had ceased with Robert E. Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865, but in Kyle's head and heart, it had never ended. How much death and destruction he saw, even caused, can only be guessed at. Whatever he experienced, it had taken its mental toll.

Family stories are one form of memento kept by the survivors after the death of a beloved forebear -- something less tangible than a lock of hair, a locket containing a forgotten sweetheart's photo, frayed ribbons, or a moth-eaten woolen coat but just as meaningful. As time passes, all that survives of most people's lives are disjointed stories, mere fragments of a life. Today, that's all W.T. Rials of Sherman -- a surviving great-grandson Kyle's -- has. Just a small, figurative lockbox of old stories.

Kyle's parents and older siblings came to Houston County in 1845 from Alabama. (Some accounts say South Carolina). Along the way, they had stopped somewhere -- maybe Louisiana -- to make one crop before moving farther west. William Kyle came into the world on October 5 the year his family settled in East Texas.

In 1862, a year after the Civil War began, 16-year-old Kyle joined the Confederate cavalry under Col. D.A. Nunn. He served in Co. C of what was known as Morgan's Texas Cavalry Battalion. His three older brothers also donned the butternut gray.

"When he enlisted," Rials recalls, "all he had was a bay horse and a .38 pistol."

Two years later, when the war came about as close to Texas as it would get, Kyle fought in Avoyelles Parish, La. at Blair's Landing, a skrimish in the series of engagements that came to be called the Battle of the Red River.

During the fight, Kyle lost his brother John. When the shooting ended for the night, he walked over the battlefield near the river looking for his missing sibling. Finding him dead, he started to dig a grave for him. Now he fought tears, not bluecoats.

That's when a Yankee soldier walked up. He, too, had been searching the field for a missing comrade. The bluecoat could have killed Kyle as he worked to get his brother's body in the ground, and maybe Kyle could have grabbed his rifle and shot the Yankee, but neither soldier took any action.

What did happen was that the Yankee pulled an Episcopalian prayer book from his jacket and read aloud from it as the battle-hardened rebel teenager buried his brother. Only that act of respect remains of the story.

"The next morning," Rials continues, "they went to shooting at each other again."

Later, Kyle got captured and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war at Camp Douglas, near Chicago.

"They say Camp Douglas was even worse than Andersonville Prison," Rials says, referring to the infamous prisoner of war camp the South operated in Georgia.

After the war, Kyle returned to Houston County and stayed. He married in 1870, had seven children, and farmed for most of the rest of his life. Dying on Aug. 8, 1918, he's buried in the Dailey Community Cemetery 11 miles west of Grapeland.

Kyle's widow Mary Elizabeth, who lived on until 1940, received a small state pension for her husband's Civil War service.

"She proved her case with a letter from another old Confederate in Houston County," Rials says. "He wrote that he and Kyle 'fit [fought] together' during the war."

One of Kyle's daughters was Mary Jo Tucker. She taught school in Houston County for years, and told her extended family of her father's Civil War service. When Rials was a young boy, Mrs. Tucker showed him a photo taken of her father not long after he made it back to East Texas after the war.

"He was sitting in a chair," Rials remembers. "He had on a boiled white shirt with no collar, dark pants and a dark coat. You could see the handle of a pistol sticking up from his waist. He had a dark beard and looked mean."

Rials says Mrs. Tucker, who died in 1983, had promised to give him the photo some day but that never happened.

"I don't know where it is now," he says. At least Rials still has the stories.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 14, 2016 column
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