On a late spring day in rural Arkansas, I followed a sun-dappled foot path through the woods. Soon, I stood in the deep forest shade near the marker for the Rifle Pits and stared through the trees. I closed my eyes, listening for the sounds of battle, imagining the chaos.
It was January 11, 1863, and cold; six thousand Confederates had dug in, ordered to protect Ft. Hindman from the Union onslaught. The garrison at Arkansas Post had been interrupting Union shipping on the Mississippi from its vantage point on the Arkansas River, and 32,000 Union troops had massed with the intention to wipe out the post and the men protecting it.
Great-grandpa James McCan was over there, to my right, hunkered down with the other members of the 24th Texas Cavalry (Dismounted) in the Rifle Pits. He was there with about a hundred other men from Montgomery County in Company B, along with their captain, Dr. Samuel D. Wooldridge of Danville. Several of them were related to me in various ways: John S. Collard, John L. Conn, Thomas M. Malone, Henderson F. Malone, James McCarley, M. A. McCrory, David Henry Parker, John Baker Reding, John D. G. Whitten.
The other nine companies of the Twenty-fourth were with them in the trenches. The day before, the Confederate spies had come with wide eyes to report that they had counted a hundred and three Union ships, including troop transports and gunboats, sailing up the river.
Throughout the day, the men in the rifle pits got pounded. Capt. Wooldridge and the other officers of the Twenty-fourth knew there was no hope. Even though their orders were to fight to the last man, someone in the regiment raised the white flag without orders from the general in command, Brig. Gen. Thomas A. Churchill. The Union forces overran the fort. The battle was over; and the Confederates, those who hadn’t been killed by Union fire, were taken prisoner.
I opened my eyes. I was standing on a peaceful trail in the Arkansas Post National Park on a balmy spring day, 2003, thankful that Great-Grandpa Jim was among the few Confederates who made it home to Texas at the close of the war. If he hadn’t come home, I would never have been born.
The official records of Great-grandpa Jim’s Confederate service have been in my files for at least twenty-five years. Long ago, the value of military and pension papers was impressed on me by my genealogy mentors, and I had acquired dozens of records on my ancestors and their kin.
Now retired, my husband and I were planning a trip to South Carolina last spring when I thought about Arkansas Post. I didn’t know anything about it, only that Jim and his brother-in-law Capt. Wooldridge, and several of my other family members, were captured there and transported to northern prison camps.
A short search with Google on the internet quickly brought me to the home page for Arkansas Post National Memorial; I was surprised that there was a memorial there! Then a quick glance at the atlas showed that the memorial was not out of our way. We planned our itinerary to include a stop.
We arrived there on a warm afternoon in May after a leisurely drive on the rural highways of Louisiana and Arkansas. We turned off Highway 165 onto the Park Road and drove across the swamp of the Arkansas River basin. The museum was set back in the trees in the well-kept park.
The friendly young ranger in charge, Eric Leonard, greeted us warmly; I told him that my great-grandpa Jim was captured at Arkansas Post.
He asked, “And do you know what regiment he was in?”
“Yes,” I answered, “Co. B 24th Regiment Texas Cavalry.”
I certainly didn’t expect the ranger to know anything about the 24th, so imagine my surprise when he responded with a big grin, “Oh, that is the regiment that threw up the white flags!”
Eric explained the battle to us, using the interpretive exhibits in the museum. While we watched a short movie about the history of the settlement of the Post of Arkansas by the French, he gathered materials for me to take home, including several published articles. He explained that the Confederates’ loss of Arkansas Post opened up the Mississippi River to the Union supply ships, and that some experts thought this directly affected the outcome of the war.
For many years, I had known quite a bit about the Civil War units that Uncle Sam D. Wooldridge had commanded. The Danville Mounted Riflemen was a militia or home guard unit, formed under the laws of the State of Texas, when the winds of war were blowing west. The Riflemen unit was incorporated in Montgomery County, and the approximately fifty men and officers were primarily residents of the county. Its official name was Danville Mounted Riflemen, Montgomery County, Seventeenth Brigade, Texas State Troops. Dr. Samuel D. Wooldridge, a physician, was elected captain.
The age range of the Riflemen volunteers was from about sixteen to sixty-five. Their first muster was in May of 1861, and they drilled about once a week, armed with shotguns and rifles. They were called out by the governor for the purpose of protecting the frontier, and about thirty left for active service. Twelve of the Riflemen were members of San Jacinto Masonic Lodge #106 at Danville (now meeting in Willis), and S. D. Wooldridge had been their second Master. Augustus Richards, First Lieutenant of the Riflemen, was the third Master of the Lodge.
About a year later, in April 1862, Col. George Washington Carter was authorized by the Confederate Secretary of War to raise a Cavalry regiment in Texas for the war effort of the Confederacy. He managed to raise three, and they were first known as Carter’s Lancers and later as the Twenty-first, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-fifth Regiments, Texas Cavalry.
There were ten companies in each regiment, each company including about 80 to 120 men. They furnished their own horses. They were mustered in at Hempstead and trained at Camp Carter. The Twenty-fourth Regiment was commonly called Wilkes’s, for the colonel who commanded it. Dr. Samuel D. Wooldridge was chosen captain of Company B, and most of the men in that company, more than a hundred, had roots in Montgomery County. Twenty of them had previously served in the Danville Mounted Riflemen.
The details available in the compiled muster records in the National Archives are sketchy, but those for Great-grandpa Jim and Uncle Samuel and for other members of my family did note the capture of the men at Arkansas Post and their being imprisoned in Federal prisons in the North.
I went to Arkansas Post for the purpose of seeing the spot where Great-grandpa Jim was captured and was sure that would be the end of it. I had no intention of getting more involved in the story of the battle or of the Twenty-fourth Texas Cavalry.
When we returned to Texas, I printed biographical sketches of Great-Grandpa Jim and Uncle Sam Wooldridge and mailed them to Ranger Eric Leonard for the museum’s vertical files. Then, I decided to do some internet searches to see what else I could learn about the story of the Twenty-fourth and the men who served under Uncle Samuel, Captain of Co. B.
I made several attempts to find information but learned that very little had been written or published on the Twenty-fourth Regiment, let alone on Company B. It then dawned on me that I had quite a lot of biographical material on members of the Riflemen and of Company B; it was stashed in my old files. And knowing that our daughter has promised to throw all that “old junk” in the trash upon my demise, I began feeling the necessity of sharing it.
I decided to create web pages and to post my material for the benefit of other researchers whose ancestors and their kin served with Captain Wooldridge. I did some additional searching, acquiring details about the lives of some of the other men. With the technical help of Janet Barrett Walker, capable web master of Barrett Branches, the history of the units and the biographies of many of the men are now on the internet. The project to acquire biographical information and to enhance the story of the men’s experiences will be ongoing.
As I stood above the rifle pits deep in the Arkansas forest last spring , I little expected that the experience would inspire me to dig so deeply into the lives and histories of Great-grandpa Jim and his comrades. Nor did I envision the project to share my findings with so many others. Sometimes life beckons us down paths we least expect, and we must follow those paths.
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© Karen McCann Hett All Rights Reserved 2003-2007
Content Used with Permission on © Barrett Branches
Counter June 16, 2007