Former Texas Slaves Serve in Civil War

Three Holland brothers—Milton, William, and James—were slaves born in the 1840s on Spearman Holland’s plantation near Carthage.  Apparently their father was Spearman’s half brother, Capt. Bird Holland.  Capt. Holland purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland served as a captain in the Mexican War (1846-48) until illness, probably cholera, forced him to resign and return home.  He became chief clerk and assistant secretary in the state department and in the 1850s he took his three sons to Ohio where they were enrolled in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

After Texas joined the Confederacy, Bird Holland was appointed secretary of state until he joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton was in Ohio and eagerly volunteered for the U.S. Army, only to be turned down because of his race.

Milton and his older brother, William, may have joined a group of blacks that formed the Attucks’ Guard, which was named for Crispus Attucks, the first man (who was also black) killed in the Revolutionary War.  The Attucks Guard marched to the governor’s mansion in Albany to offer their service, but they were turned down.  It was not until June 1862 that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton allowed black Americans to enlist and even then they had to serve in separate units commanded by white officers with less pay than white soldiers.  And, they were not allowed to rise above the rank of the non-commissioned officer.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

While Milton waited for his opportunity to join the military, he used the skills he learned at the Albany Manual Labor University to work as a shoemaker for the quartermaster department.  In June 1863 he joined the Fifth United States Colored Troops, and his older brother, William, joined the Sixteenth United States Colored Troops.

Although both brothers fought in several battles, it was Milton who rose to the rank of sergeant major.  In late September 1864 while engaged in hand to hand combat at Chaffin’s Farm and then at New Market Heights, Virginia, all the white officers were either killed or wounded. Milton and three other black soldiers led the troops in routing the enemy and securing a victory that opened the door to nearby Richmond.  Despite being wounded in the charge, Milton Holland continued to lead his men.  For his extraordinary service Milton Holland was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865, one of sixteen black soldiers in the Civil War to receive this country’s highest honor.  Although he had been promoted to captain

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

in the field, the U.S. War Department refused to honor the commission because of his race.  Ohio’s Governor David Tod offered to commission Holland as a captain if he would agree to be reassigned to another regiment as a white man.  Holland refused the offer, declining to deny his racial identity.

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor.  Courtesy of Rob Lyon

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon

During the war Milton’s father and former owner, Bird Holland, had risen to the rank of major in the Confederacy.  While serving during the Red River Campaign as head of his regiment in the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, Bird Holland was killed.

Milton mustered out of the army and settled in Washington D.C. where he worked as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department and studied law at Howard University, graduating in 1872.  He established a law practice, remained active in Republican politics, held offices in two black-owned banking businesses, and founded the Alpha Insurance Company, one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the country. After his death from a heart attack in 1910, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

William Holland

William Holland

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas and taught in several Texas schools, and held a position at the Austin post office.  After moving to Waller County, he was elected to the fifteenth legislature where he sponsored bills establishing Prairie View Normal College (now Prairie View A&M University) and The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth, where he was superintendent for eleven years.

Born into slavery, both brothers served the United States with honor as freedmen.

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Saga of Sophia Suttonfield Aughinbaugh Coffee Butt Porter

Two official Texas historical markers sit on the shore of Lake Texoma, the enormous reservoir separating North Texas and Oklahoma.  One marker commemorates Holland Coffee’s Trading

Texas Historical Markers for Coffee's Trading Post and Sophia Coffee Porter

Texas Historical Markers for Coffee’s Trading Post and Sophia Coffee Porter

preston1Post, now under the waters of Lake Texoma.  The neighboring marker calls Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere.  The colorful lives of Sophia and Holland Coffee came together in 1837 probably while Coffee served in the Congress of the Republic of Texas.

Sophia was born a Suttonfield in 1815 on the remote military post at Fort Wayne (present Indiana).  As a beautiful dark-haired girl of seventeen, she ran away with Jesse Aughinbaugh who had been the headmaster at her school.  The twosome split up in Texas—Sophia said he deserted her—in 1836 and Sophia, who told many stories about herself, said she was the first woman to reach the battle site at San Jacinto on April 22, 1836, the day after Texas won its independence from Mexico.  Although there is no record of their relationship in Sam Houston’s published letters or biographies, Sophia claimed she nursed the wounded general back to health, and they did remain friends.  Some historians believe she was a camp woman who sold her services to the general.

Holland Coffee established his trading post in the early 1830s on the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma) side of the Red River and moved it to the Texas side of the river in 1837.  The historical marker says Coffee traded with the Indians for many white captives.  Some historians think Coffee was out to make money and that, like many of the stories Sophia told of her exploits, not as many rescues took place as later generations have been led to believe.  Coffee did ransom a Mrs. Crawford and her two children by paying the Indians 400 yards of calico, a large number of blankets, many beads, and other items.  In later years, Mrs. John Horn wrote that when Comanches refused to trade for the release of her and her children, Holland wept and then gave her and the children clothing and flour.  Although he was accused by settlers of trading whiskey and guns to the Indians for cattle and horses they stole from the whites, his neighbors must have forgiven him because they elected him as their congressman.

14165345_114780775898Apparently Sophia and Holland met in Houston, one of the early capitals of the new republic.  When Sophia failed to get a divorce from Aughinbaugh through the courts, she petitioned the legislature to intervene on her behalf.  After several attempts to get a bill through the legislature that was more concerned with passing a Homestead Exemption Law, Sam Houston finally used his influence and the petition passed both houses with Holland Coffee as a member of the House of Representatives voting aye.

Coffee and Sophia took a 600-mile honeymoon on horseback through Anderson in Washington County, to Nacogdoches and along the Red River, stopping at several locales to attend balls in celebration of their marriage.  Coffee settled with his bride at his trading post, a popular place for Indians and for drovers heading north with their cattle.  Coffee’s wedding gift to Sophia was one-third league of land, about 1,476 acres—only the first of her many acquisitions.  In her later accounts of life on the Red River, Sophia said her nearest neighbor was twenty-five miles away and that to protect against Indian attack, Texas Rangers guarded their trading post, the horses had to be watched while slaves plowed the fields, and firearms were stacked nearby for easy access during preaching services.

Because of the constant threat of Indian attacks, the Republic of Texas built a protective line of forts along the western edge of the frontier and connected them with a Military Road from Austin to Fort Johnson on the Red River near Coffee’s Trading Post.  The military base bought supplies, clothing, tobacco, gunpowder, and tools from Coffee, which injected new life into his business.  He opened a ferry at a crossing on the Red River and he and Sophia bought land and slaves.  New settlers arrived in the area, and in 1845 Holland sold town lots on his land for the new town of Preston.

In 1845-46 Holland Coffee hired Mormons traveling from Illinois to Central Texas to build Glen Eden, a home that expanded over the years into the most impressive house in North Texas and where Sophia entertained lavishly.

Glen Eden

Glen Eden

By her own account, she entertained such notables as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant (no record exists that either men were there), and Sam Houston.  Men from nearby Fort Washita in Indian Territory seemed always to be guests at Glen Eden.  Stories vary about how Coffee died in 1846.  Some say it began when Sam Houston was scheduled to dedicate the new county courthouse in nearby Sherman and planned to stay with the Coffee’s at Glen Eden.  Coffee’s niece had married Charles A. Galloway who offended Sophia by commenting about her former relationship with Sam Houston.  She demanded that Coffee horsewhip his new nephew.  When Coffee refused to publically air the family problems, Sophia said she had rather be the widow of a brave man than the wife of a coward.  Coffee started an “Indian duel,” a fight to the death, with Galloway who killed Coffee with a Bowie knife.

A rich and charming widow of a brave man at age thirty-one, Sophia managed the 3,000-acre slave plantation, tended her extensive gardens, and continued to host grand parties.  On one of her regular visits to New Orleans to sell her cotton crop, she met Major George N. Butts, who returned with her to Glen Eden to manage the plantation. There is no record of a marriage in either Texas or Louisiana, but the relationship was Sophia’s happiest—Butts enjoyed the niceties of gracious living—and they paid for their lifestyle with the sale of their cotton and land.  They enlarged Glen Eden, filled it with fine furnishings and china from New Orleans.  She became known for her rose garden, an orchard of more than a hundred fruit trees, and grape and berry vines for jams and wines.  She grew a magnolia tree in the front yard from a seedling given to her by Sam Houston.  Albert Sidney Johnston brought catalpa seeds from California, which she planted, in a line down the driveway.

In 1863, William Clark Quantrill with his group of Confederate guerrillas from Kansas and Missouri moved into Sherman and began robbing and killing anyone who did not agree with his brand of Confederate support.  Although Sophia and Butts were southern sympathizers, Butts got into an argument with one of Quantrill’s men and was ambushed one night as he returned from a cotton-selling trip to Sherman.  Sophia garnered the sympathy of Sherman residents against Quantrill and got him arrested; he later escaped.

Some historians say the historical marker story calling Sophia Coffee Porter a Confederate Lady Paul Revere may not be altogether accurate.  Several tales surround this claim, most of them encouraged by Sophia herself.  One says that when James Bourland, commanding a Texas frontier regiment, stopped at Glen Eden on his way back to Fort Washita, he warned her that federal troops were following him.  When the Yankees arrived, Sophia fed them dinner and then took them into her wine cellar where they proceeded to get drunk. She locked them in the cellar and then, riding a mule, forded the treacherous Red River to warn Bourland of the Union’s plans, thus preventing the invasion of North Texas.  Another version of the story says she stripped to her underwear and swam the river and then whistled to get the Confederates’ attention.

At age fifty, toward the end of the Civil War, Sophia found the Red River country too dangerous.  She packed her gold in tar buckets and took her slaves with her to the safer environment of Waco in Central Texas.  There, she met Judge James Porter, a Confederate cavalry officer from Missouri.  Rufus Burleson, president of Baylor College performed their marriage on August 2, 1865 and the Porters returned to Glen Eden.  With her slaves freed, Sophia’s net worth dropped, but she and James Porter began buying land at sheriff’s auctions and reselling it quickly to increase their holdings.

James Porter apparently influenced Sophia’s desire to “get religion.”  She attended a camp meeting and rushed forward throwing herself at the feet of the preacher.  In front of the entire congregation the minister said she must wait for twelve years because “the sun, moon, and stars were against her being a Christian.”  The Methodist preacher in Sherman, however, welcomed her into church.  She gave a section of land to Southwestern University, a Methodist institution at Georgetown and land for a Methodist Church at Preston Bend.  “Aunt Sophia,” as she became known in later years, apparently earned the respect of her neighbors.  When the Old Settlers Association

in Sherman was founded in 1879, one of the speakers at the first meeting was Sophia Porter who entertained the crowd with the stories of her life as a pioneer woman along the Red River.

Glen Eden continued to be a social center, but Sophia no longer allowed dancing.  She and James Porter continued giving money or land to churches in the area until his death in 1886.  For the next eleven years Sophia and her long-time friend and companion Belle Evans searched the shops in nearby Denison and Sherman and ordered from catalogues new fashions that would restore Sophia’s youth.  Mrs. Evans also applied Ayer’s Hair Dye each week to maintain Sophia’s black locks that had attracted so many suitors over the years.  On August 27, 1897, when Sophia died quietly at the age of eighty-one in her fine home of fifty-four years, the man at her side was Reverend J. M. Binkley, the Methodist preacher from Sherman who had accepted her into his congregation.

Sophia Porter in later years

Sophia Porter in later years

SUTTON-TAYLOR FEUD

William Sutton was the only Sutton involved in this feud, but he had a lot of friends, including some members of Governor E. J. Davis’ State Police.  The Taylor faction consisted of the sons, nephews, in-laws and friends of Creed and Pitkin Taylor.  Creed apparently did not join the fight and Pitkin, an old man, became involved when Sutton supporters lured him out of his house one night by ringing a cowbell in his cornfield.  Shot and severely wounded, he lived six months before he died in 1872.  At his funeral, his son and several relatives vowed to avenge the killing. “Who sheds a Taylor’s blood, by a Taylor’s hand must fall” became the mantra.

Lawlessness ran rampant in Texas after the Civil War and resentments flared with the arrival of the Reconstruction government including Carpetbaggers—Northerners, some of whom took advantage of the impoverished conditions by paying back taxes on land to acquire farms belonging to Confederate soldiers–and black Union soldiers assigned to keep order.

Evidence of the building tensions appeared in 1866 when Buck Taylor shot a black sergeant who came to a dance at the home of Taylor’s uncle.  Hays Taylor killed a black soldier in an Indianola saloon.  Then, in 1867 Hays Taylor and his brother Doby killed two Yankee soldiers in Mason. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

William Sutton’s first foray into the “troubles,” came in 1868 while he served as Clinton deputy sheriff.  In an attempt to arrest horse thieves, Sutton killed Charley Taylor and arrested James Sharp.  When Sharp “tried to escape,” a recurrent problem with prisoners during that period, Sutton shot Sharp in the back.  A few months later, Buck Taylor and Dick Chisholm accused Sutton of dishonesty over the sale of some horses.  They settled the matter with guns, which resulted in the death of both Taylor and Chisholm.

Then, William Sutton did the unthinkable by joining the hated State Police force under Captain Jack Helm.  Historians discovered not all of the State Police were corrupt or politically motivated, however, the faction working under Jack Helm apparently used “Reconstruction,” as an excuse to terrorize large sections of South Central Texas.  For example, Helm’s men arrested sons-in-law of Pitkin Taylor on a trivial charge, took them a short distance from home, and killed them in front of one of their wives.

After several incidents came to light regarding Jack Helm’s misconduct, the State Police dismissed him, but to the chagrin of many people in the area, Helm continued serving as DeWitt County Sheriff.  It was not long before Jim Taylor and John Wesley Hardin, (see recent blog) the notorious murderer, killed Jack Helm.

With Helm gone, William Sutton became leader of the group.  After old Pitkin Taylor, mentioned above, was lured out and killed, his son Jim and several relatives wounded William Sutton when they fired at him through at saloon door.  After a second unsuccessful attempt to kill Sutton, they settled for killing a member of Sutton’s group.

The murders continued to terrify the countryside.  Residents of the region were forced to take sides and lived in constant fear of being pursued or ensnared in a trap.  No one felt safe from the rampage.  Finally, William Sutton moved to Victoria and got married.  When his wife was expecting a child, he decided they should leave the country.  Gabriel Slaughter accompanied them on the train to Indianola.  On March 11, 1874, as Sutton and Slaughter boarded a ship with their wives, Jim and Bill Taylor shot and killed both men.

In retaliation, the Sutton faction arrested three Taylors for cattle theft, and put them in the Clinton jail.  Despite probable innocence, they were taken out of jail on the night of June 20, 1874, and hanged.

After being arrested for the murder of Sutton and Slaughter, Bill Taylor awaited trial in the Indianola jail in September 1875.  Eager to witness the trial involving a member of the notorious feud, a huge crowd from all over the state converged on Indianola.  Instead of a trial, they witnessed a devastating hurricane with winds of 110 miles an hour.  When water began filling the jail, Bill Taylor and the other prisoners were released.

The murders continued when John Wesley Hardin killed the new leader of the Suttons.  The next month, a gunfight left Jim Taylor and two of his friends dead.  The Texas Rangers finally stepped in and arrested eight suspects after masked men executed four prominent citizens.  When no one dared testify, the trial ended with only one conviction and that man, after twenty years of legal maneuvering received a pardon.

The Sutton-Taylor Feud ground to an exhausted halt.  Known as the longest and bloodiest feud in Texas history, the confirmed death toll in the Taylor faction reached twenty-two.  The Sutton group lost about thirteen.