The Federals had made firm resolve to bring Texas into submission. But after the sound defeat at Sabine Pass and then being expelled from Galveston in the second battle this was clearly in question. However, they were relentless. President Davis had ordered all remaining troops in the Western Department to concentrate around Hempstead to protect the rail head from which the damn Yankees might spread by rail to San Antonio, Austin and beyond. It was our solemn duty to stop them here as we knew that they were like fiery locust spreading across Texas consuming all that they could and burning the rest. They had earlier in the month burned the salt works at Clear Lake and were attempting to flank Houston whose defenses were thought to be too great.
A salient had been made toward the Brazos, as it was still navigable by flat bottom boats and it was heard that raiding parties had moved into the area around Tomball. We had done our best preparing the defenses around Hempstead so as to protect the vital rail head. It was unclear when or precisely were the Federals would strike. It was known that only that they would attempt to force the line.
The morning broke with a cold chill in the air. Our breaths hung suspended in the air for a moment before the shallow breeze caused them to float slowly down wind. This battle like many began as an unplanned encounter of lead elements. Team Master Nathan Strak had been separated by bad timing and unfortunate luck from the Federal supply train. A broken wheel on his wagon caused him and the two last wagons in the train to fall behind the overall progress of the 134 other wagons that followed the Federals to the battle. Having fallen behind they missed the fork in the El Camino Real that linked up with the Montgomery Trace. Having failed to do so they moved south rather north to the Federal encampment. Several hours later they found themselves unwittingly moving from the thicket into a broad meadow at the edge of Leando Planation within sight of the Plantation House. Also unknown to them revetments had been erected on the south most part of the meadow.
Unseen to them was the Confederate Calvary who was drawn to the dust trail created by the mules and wagons. The first teas cavalry under the command of Lt. Mark Stauduf waited until the wagons were mid field before revealing themselves. Almost simultaneously Wagon Master Strak saw the revetment and started to turn back the way they had come when Lt Stauduf sprang his trap. His troop road out of the woods with a loud rebel yell sewing havoc among the startled mules. The lead wagon guard raised his shot gun to challenge the Calvary who simultaneously sprayed the wagons with a well-placed volley. Striking him mid chest he fell dead unceremoniously from the wagon. By now the mules had panicked and were nearly uncontrollable. Sadly, Madam Claudia Heidbererder, the cook, was thrown from her seat upon the rocks and was also lost. In short order the Confederate Calvary gathered up all the wagons and directed them to the rear. Their cargo of powder, hard tack and ball was a greatly welcomed as supplies to date had been poor.
No sooner than the wagons had made clear of the field a volley of pistol fire raked the Confederate Calvary. Unseen was Capt. Mark Horner’s 12th Cavalry which had swung wide to the right at the sound of gunfire to bring fire to bare upon the Confederate rear. They were the vanguard of the Federal salient aimed at the southern perimeter of the defenses around Hempstead. A counter volley by the 9th Texas Infantry at the revetments brought down several cavalrymen and caused them to withdraw to beyond rifle range.
It was nearly dusk and it was clear that this would be the start of a grand affair. Tomorrow would surely see a battle of which no one could know the outcome. Nov. 20 was to be a fateful and bloody day. That night the weather took a brisk turn toward winter. A blue northerner came in with the furry of the gods. Great heaps of clouds built up beyond our ability to see them. The night was lit up again and again by brilliant white flashes as the gods threw lightning bolts at each other. There was little rain which was more like sleet which tapered off by morning. Lightening had struck a massive walnut tree in the front yard of the plantation house splitting it into three great pieces and showing the home and nearby yard with countless shards of smoldering wood. This was thought to be a bad omen as that tree was considered to be the most honored on the plantation as many a young dandy sought the hand of a fine lady under its branches.
As the sun broke on the plantation it glinted off the sharp frost that clung to everything. Both Federal and Confederate hung close to their camp fires reluctant to leave the enveloping warmth. Shortly bugles called all men to arms as a muffled rustle of sounds wandered through the cold and silent woods. In short order the battle would be joined.
Just as the sun chased the dark shadows of night from the forest to the east, walking slowly across the meadow the Federals mounted their cannon. The Federal guns were too numerous to count. Most were Parrot rifles and 12-pound field pieces. Fortunately, this field was too small for them to have great effect as they had to be short loaded and aimed very low in order to hit the revetments. The First Texas Federal Navy Squadron had demounted from the USS Harriet Lane at Port Lavaca and advanced as flying artillery for the federal force. They fielded a 6 pound Dahlgren mounted on a field carriage. Commander John Burligh relished the opportunity to make contact in order to regain the honor of the Harriet Lane which had been captured by the Confederates at the first battle of Galveston and later recovered at the second battle of Galveston. They were supported by a detachment of Marines under the command of Capt. Mark Stolarski who were charged with the task of keeping the Calvary at bay.
At precisely 9 a.m. a synchronized volley by all guns ripped into the Confederate revetment with little effect much more than to unceremoniously rearrange the dirt and break down a few gabions. Several shots ranged wide and landed in the Plantation House yard causing no damage having been over charged by the cannonries. Much to our sadness the Federals had brought with them a top secret Gatling gun. This dishonorable weapon was capable of firing 200, .50 caliber balls a minute. If it were allowed to get close enough it would wreak havoc with our infantry.
When its presence was reported to Col Strybos he ordered an immediate Calvary raid to destroy that shameful gun. Without hesitation the 8th Texas Cav under the command of Lt. Billy Blow volunteered for the honor of making the attack. All haste was necessary as the Federals had not as yet completed their line and the bulk of their infantry was still making its way down the wagon track into the meadow. Within minutes the 8th Texas was mounted, split into three contingents and attacked the gun from different directions. The Federal Marine Unit who were charged with the protection of the gun were caught surprised just as they were deploying into line. The still managed to lay down substantial independent fire taking a great toll of the gallant men of the 8th. However, being horse mounted they were able to move much quicker than the marines. Rushing past them at a full gallop several bombs were thrown into the gun and it’s ammunition wagon. A horrific explosion followed obliterating the gun, its ammunition and 12 people in the immediate vicinity. A rapid advance to rear saved the remainder of the 8th as the marines being stunned by the explosion were slow to react to the retreat. A grand Huzah arose from the Confederate revetments as the ball of flame and black smoke rose into the air.
This having stirred up a Federal hornet nest they sent the 12th Cav into the fray chasing the Confederate Calvary back toward the revetments. The Confederates stopped just inside the range of the Confederate infantry, wheeled and let loose a volley upon the advancing Federal Calvary. They then split and moved to the east and west so as to allow the Confederate infantry to give a full volley which when finished left only a few panicked wounded horses running aimlessly across the field. Another grand Huzah erupted form the Confederate assembly. The first skirmish had gone to the Confederates.
Without pause the Federals ordered a full barrage from cannon of Joyce’s Battalion First Division which was answered in kind by the Confederate guns. The Confederate revetments were arranged at the south end of the field just in front of the plantation house which lay to the south west some half a mile beyond. It was configured in a double “W” plan so as to provide inflating fire by more than one gun. It was going to be a bloody thing to take this fortification. But take it they must if they were to advance upon the rail head in Hempstead.
The east end of the revetment was held by the 12th Texas Light Artillery Valverdie Battalion. The center and the west 2/3ds of the remaining revetment was held by the 7th Texas Light Artillery Company H. All together a 10-pound parrot, 3-inch ordinance rifle (capture from the Federals at Galveston), a 12 pound Dahlgren boat howitzer and a 2 ½ inch mountain rifle comprised the defenses at the revetments. Gabions and spiked poles were interspaced across the dirt to greet the Federal infantry. It was going to be a good fight.
The Federals deployed the 12th Arkansas Sharp Shooters to harass the line but much to our surprise they did not deploy skirmishers to determine the range of our guns. First Sargent Travis Ford was to be the first of his unit to be cut down as unknown to them Confederate sharpshooters were already positioned in the trees to the west. They had little chance and did little damage as they were unceremoniously introduced to their maker. Seeing this the Federal Commander order the 12th Calvary to their rescue but they were elegantly detained by the Confederate 38th Texas Calvary who rode faster steeds and scattered them before they could have any effect.
This got the Federal commanders blood up as he ordered a general attack all along the line. In good order the 4th US infantry on the right, the 173rd New York Infantry at the center and the 3rd Iowa marched forward like a blue tide intent upon overwhelming the revetments. Cannonades from both sides filled the air with an acrid smoke which confused their maneuvers. They bravely marched into the range of the cannon at the revetments and were torn to pieces by the crossing fire. Having made a valiant effort, they withdrew with a good number of their rank remaining dead and wounded on the field. After fifteen minutes and rearming they made a second attempt at attacking the revetments head on. This also ended with great loss and no effect.
A third attempt was organized after rearming a second time. But as they moved toward the revetment, the Confederates feeling they had the advantage over topped the revetment and formed lines to contest the field with the Federals. The 12th Texas Co A under the command of Capt. A. E. Fitzwater was on the left and the 15th Texas Infantry Co. D, Pettigrew Battalion under the command of Caption Bernie Hertan on the right. They made grand demonstration at the revetments as they topped it and took positions in front of the Confederate guns. The Federal cannon were making hey of the assemblage as it advanced to meet the Federal had on. Once in rifle range the 34th Texas Dismounted under the command of Capt. Matthew Meyers advanced ahead of the line to mark the firing range and to harass the as yet not completed Federal movement. They were joined at the center by the 12th TX Dismounted at the center and the 36th TX Dismounted under the command of Capt. Travis Tipton. The line advanced in good order wreaking havoc upon the Federal line. They were ordered to fire on the Federal guns so as to quite them and were successful in doing so to three guns until the 1st Texas Federal Navy flying artillery moved to inflate the line. Wisely the dismounted withdrew to the defenses of the revetments so as to remain as reserves in support of the infantry should they be needed.
By this time is was 2 in the afternoon and the sun was in full heat. Both the Federal and the Confederate infantry advanced to within 50 yards of each other and nearly simultaneously let loose of mutual volleys. For the next 35 minutes they maneuvered first on the right flank and then at the left flank but neither could make headway. A constant deadly array of hot lead flew back and force taking a goodly toll on both sides. It appeared that each side would run out of ammunition and be forced to retire shortly. Then unexpectedly 13th Mane Infantry suddenly appeared on the Confederate left as to inflate the entire line. Unknown to the Confederates the Federals had detailed the 13th Mane to swing wide right through the thicket and to make a surprise attack at the back of the revetments. But due to the greatness of the thicket and not being familiar with the deer tracks came up short and found themselves in an advantages position to inflict a crushing defeat upon the Confederates on the field although this was not the planned maneuver. Seeing this new development Col Strybos ordered the Calvary into the fray at the left. This caused the 13th US Mane to falter for a moment which gave the 12th Infantry time to refuse left and the Dismounted Cavalry to advance into the fray. This was enough to hold the like but it was clear that no advantage could be had at this time so the order was given to withdraw again under the protection of our guns and back into the revetments.
Seeing this Col Brignhurst, the Federal Commander decided to change tactics once again. He ordered all units to the center of the line except for the skirmishers who were to maintain a continuous fire upon the Confederate line so as to obscure their maneuver. The smoke from the cannon and rifles hung low upon the field trapped by the trees on the perimeter and held fast by the calm. He ordered the 3/4th of artillery to focus on a point in the center of the Confederate revetments where the 7th Texas Light Artillery had placed a small gun. The remainder of the cannon were to demonstrate along the line so as to confuse the enemy. As the Federal cannonade rained hell upon their targets he ordered all units into columns of fours and to advance at the quick step to the point where the Federal Guns had destroyed the pikes, gabions and reduced the revetment by several feet. They moved quickly into battle without stopping and advanced into a lethal volley of Confederate lead. However, after the third volley the Confederate fire slackened as the Federals pushed forward with fixed bayonets and pierced the revetments. There was a mad scramble of hand to hand combat as both sides fought valiantly for each yard of ground. Having broken the Confederate line, the Federals surged forward into the teeth of three 6-pound mountain howitzer that had been brought up to plug the gap. Without orders the Confederate’s guns to the right and to left belched fire and furry upon the advancing federals ending their charge. Those that remained scrambled back across the barricade and made an unceremonious retreat back to their lines. Shortly the Confederate dismounted and infantry filtered back into their positions, but seeing the great valor with which the Federals had made their attack they refused to fire on the few retreating Federals that remained.
Shortly the wind picked up and reviled a sea of blue strewn on the battle field and at the revetment. Shortly a white flag was shown on the Federal side and a parley arranged. The Federals asked for a truce to recover their wounded and dead. It was agreed upon and several of our number assisted so as to save as many as possible. Sadly, in the course of the tumult Lt. J. R. Wells was to find his son Pvt. Jamison dead at the foot of a howitzer. His son had been in Philadelphia at school and choose to join the Federal Army against his father’s wishes and this day was his last.
This had been a hard day for one and all. The Federals had spent great treasure and many lives to force the barricade and to move upon the rail head at Hempstead and they had failed. The following morning the Federals withdrew. Certainly they would regroup and redeploy elsewhere. But they were not to take the field this day and Hempstead was safe for now. We had done our duty and great honor is to be ascribed to all who fought on this hallowed field.
This report at my hand.
– Corporal Michael Bunch, 34 Texas Dismounted
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