THE BLIND MAN’S TOWN

In 1854 Adam Rankin Johnson, a twenty-year-old from Kentucky settled in Burnet County on the edge of the western frontier. He fought Indians, which could be expected since he worked as a surveyor and Indians believed the surveyor’s compass was the instrument that

Adam Rankin Johnson (1834-1922)

was pushing them off the land. In 1854, Johnson stood on the banks of the Colorado River and a dream took shape as he viewed a waterfall cascading down fifty feet over a series of three limestone formations. He had found the spot for building an industrial city.

“Quaker Guns” made with a charred log and a stovepipe set between wagon wheels.

During the Civil War, Johnson went back to Kentucky to enlist as a scout. He rose in the ranks as his Rangers fought behind enemy lines, harassing Union supply centers. In July 1862, Johnson’s men were outnumbered by federal troops guarding supplies at Newburgh, Indiana. He had his men construct two “Quaker Guns,” using a stovepipe and a charred log which they anchored between wagon wheels. Placing the assemblage on a hillside, the Union troops believed they were looking down the barrel of two cannons. Johnson led his band of about thirty-five guerillas across the Ohio River and captured the Union supplies without firing a shot. From then on, his men called him “Stovepipe Johnson.”

His exploits during the war eventually earned him the rank of brigadier general by June 1864. However, two months later, in a battle in Kentucky, Johnson was accidentally shot by his own men, permanently blinded, captured by the federals, and imprisoned until the end of the war.

General Adam Johnson came home to his wife and family and set about fulfilling his dream. Although he could no longer see, he had not lost his vision. Some accounts say he directed from memory one his sons to drive his carriage about the county as he made land purchases.

In 1881, General Johnson’s land ownership suddenly took on new importance when the Texas state capitol burned. In the rush to rebuild, the planners discovered that the intended limestone for the capitol’s exterior was inferior. It so happened that Johnson’s land lay within a mile of Granite Mountain, and the owners of the 180-acre batholith that rose above the landscape offered to give the granite for the capitol if the state constructed a railroad from Austin. General Johnson immediately set about getting the land donated for the right of way.

Granite Mountain provided for Galveston’s seawall and many state buildings.

When the railroad arrived to begin hauling what was eventually 4,000 flatcars of granite for construction of the Texas capitol, General Johnson and his partners were ready to lay out their town. Within a week Johnson held a public sale of lots from a grandstand in the center the new town. Although many people called it “The Blind Man’s Town,” the official name of Marble Falls finally took root.

The Old Mill overlooking the limestone series of falls

Johnson’s dream of harnessing the Colorado River kept meeting setbacks until 1893 when The Ice, Light and Water Company provided power for the city and the nearby textile plant. But it was 1951 before The Blind Man’s Dream was fulfilled in a different form. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) completed a series of six dams beginning at a site on the river that General Johnson had marked in 1854 as the perfect site for industrial development. Buchanan Dam is the first in the chain of dams that create the Highland Lakes, known not for industry, but for hydroelectric power, flood control, and recreation.

Max Starcke Dam, the fourth in the chain, created Lake Marble Falls, which covers the old limestone outcropping that General Johnson gazed upon in 1854. The city he dreamed of building has become the center of a vast recreational region.

General Adam Johnson’s other legacies include one son, Rankin Johnson, Sr. who became a Major League pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals.  General Johnson died in 1922 and is buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin next to his wife Josephine and near his grandson, Judge George Christian Sr., and a great-grandson George Christian Jr., White House Press Secretary for President Lyndon Johnson.

Adam Johnson standing before the old mill.

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Indianola Survived and Thrived After the Civil War

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA, tells the story of immigrants operating a boarding house in the thriving Indianola seaport. They arrived with hope for a new life and were thrust into the political choice of supporting a land that had welcomed them or standing for their principles that did not include slavery.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

The Civil War came to Indianola with the federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, which halted supplies coming through Pass Cavallo, the narrow channel from the gulf into Matagorda Bay. By October 1862, when a federal fleet made a foray into the bay, the family had already offered their sons to the war. Residents of the Stein House watched from the upstairs porch as Indianola officials refused to sell supplies and beef to the waiting Union ships. Cannons exploded in a brief battle that resulted in the death of one Union and two Confederate soldiers. The Federal troops looted Indianola, sailed up the coast and looted Lavaca, then moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The waiting game began. It was only a matter of time before Federal forces would make another push to invade the middle Texas coast to stop the movement of cotton—the Confederacy’s means of exchange with Great Britain and other European countries.

Efforts to move cotton through the Gulf blockade quickly proved inadequate, promoting dependence on the Cotton Road, a route through the central part of Texas and across the Wild Horse Desert, the untamed and unpoliced land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. At Brownsville, freighters ferried cotton across the Rio Grande and then hauled it along the Mexican side of the river to Bagdad, a port at the mouth of the river. There, hundreds of foreign ships anchored in neutral waters off the Mexican coast to exchange the precious cotton for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and equipment desperately needed by the Confederacy.

News of the war was scarce but word came of Confederate troops putting up little resistance when Federals attacked Galveston. General John Bankhead Magruder, convinced that Texas would be invaded along the coast at Indianola, ordered a scorched earth defense––burn bridges, destroy lighthouses, dismantle the railroad out of Lavaca, and burn the warehouses and wharves at Indianola. He met bitter resistance from the locals who refused to destroy their own infrastructure. In war, they expected the enemy to destroy property, not their own officials. There would be time enough when the Yanks made a move. Then spirits lifted on hearing that Confederates had retaken Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863.

In November Brownsville fell, cutting off the shipment of cotton into Mexico. Confederates moved the cotton crossing on up the river to Laredo and as far west as Eagle Pass.

Indianolans waited as Federals began a relentless march from the Rio Grande up the Texas coast. They captured town after town until they reached Indianola in December 1863. Residents of the Stein House stood again on the upstairs porch to watch the brief battle. Within hours, troops descended on the property, camped in the yard, and took over the upper floors of the boarding house.

The occupants of the Stein House foraged for food, fed families of men who were off fighting, educated the children and waited for word from their men.

On March 14, 1864, less than three months after they arrived, the Federal forces began to depart. As they watched pontoon boats carrying men to the waiting ships, one of the boats took on water and began to sink. People along the shore rowed out to the rescue only to see twenty-one men drown in the shallow water. In gratitude for their help, the commanding office donated military clothing that the women of Indianola dyed and refashioned for children who had become threadbare.

The sudden troop withdrawal led to speculation that an invasion of Texas was imminent. In fact, the Yankees planned to invade from Northwestern Louisiana near Shreveport. When the Red River Campaign failed on April 8, 1864, Union forces made no further effort to control Texas.

With the troops gone, Indianolans started rebuilding their destroyed homes, filled in the rifle pits that scarred the landscape, and replanted gardens that had been stripped bare. The legislature allowed residents who had no money to pay their taxes in goods or articles that were redistributed to destitute families. When the war ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, hope returned for a future of peace and prosperity.

The Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico ended in June, swinging wide the gates of commerce. The Chihuahua Road reopened and hundreds of wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver, copper, and lead from the mines in Mexico rumbled into the port. Lumber and manufactured goods, which had been halted by the blockade, flooded through Indianola. Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, reclaimed and rebuilt his ships that had been confiscated by both sides in the war. He intended to regain his lost shipping empire, and Indianola benefited.

The arrival of the Army of Occupation that came to maintain order and see that the freedmen were not harmed, sent shivers through Indianola and the wary residents of the Stein House. A young Yankee lieutenant took a room at the Stein House and soon eased the tensions of Reconstruction and tempered the anger generated by the government requirement that citizens sign amnesty oaths, and the denial of the right to vote for anyone who had any political or military association with the Confederacy.

Indianolans continued to look to the sea for their survival. Ships brought in everything from groceries to building materials and exported cotton, wool, hides, and even beeswax. Ice, cut from the ponds of New England, arrived during the warm months. They repaired bridges, constructed roads, and built houses next to the grading for the future railroad that had been stopped by the war.

Indianolans believed that getting their economy and their seaport back in operation and maintaining a working relationship with all the country was in their best interest. The seaport thrived––even rivaled Galveston––until 1875.

Next week: Storms that Created a Ghost Town.

Drumbeat for Civil War

Indianola sat on the middle Texas coast––a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. The vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north in the rich bottomlands of Texas’ rivers. The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and despite the law against freedmen living in the state without Congressional approval, they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off. However, the arrival of a gentleman who was accused of being an abolitionist prompted city authorities to force him onto an outbound ship and appoint a “vigilance committee,” to maintain order.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

The news of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas. Residents threw caution aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade. An owner of one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas. Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candles or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. A judge gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action. Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens. While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution. After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with the support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood. The dye was cast.

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Texas in the Civil War, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede. First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor. Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores. Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered. But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual. The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition. The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic. Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

My award-winning book includes this story. STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA has just been republished by Sunstone Press. The cover image is of Union troops in the streets of Indianola, a wood engraving by Thomas Nast published in the New York Illustrated

From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

News, April 6, 1861.

First Lady of the Confederacy

Lucy Pickens was a contradiction—an outspoken, determined, and forceful woman who was ahead of her time and a southern-belle, a beauty, and a charming hostess who was very much a part of her time. She graced the stage of the Russian Czar and Czarina and the grand

Lucy Pickens
Wikipedia

plantations of the South. She sold her jewels to outfit a Confederate Army unit that bore her name, her image appeared on the Confederate one-dollar and the one hundred dollar bill, and she served as the first lady of the Confederate state of South Carolina.

Born in 1832 on the family plantation outside LaGrange, Tennessee, Lucy Petway Holcombe was named after her paternal grandmother, Lucy Maria, who claimed to be a distant relative of Marie Antoinette. Lucy clasped her connection to nobility and spent her life feeling slightly elevated and entitled to whatever was best for her.

While Lucy and her sister were away at the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, their father, Beverly Holcombe, made a series of bad investments, which forced the girls to leave school and the family to move to land outside Marshall, Texas. Determined not to allow his family to forgo the luxuries to which they were accustomed, Beverly Holcombe managed to recoup some of his losses and to build a grand brick mansion named Wyalucing. As a further show

Wyalucing Plantation
Wikipedia

of wealth, he constructed a second home, Westover on the plantation, and created a street between the two houses that was lined with cabins for the slaves.

Despite her husband’s flair for displaying their wealth, Lucy’s mother, Eugenia, continued to stress her Christian ethic of hard-work and benevolence. She emphasized to her daughters that to whom much is given, much is required. Each day she made her rounds to the slave (she called them “servants”) quarters delivering liniment and salve. She also made sure her servants owned Bibles and learned to read and write, a practice that was against the law and one she claimed in her diary did not sit well with other people in her community.

Lucy was eighteen years old when the family arrived in Texas, and she was determined to realize all her dreams for a fine life of wealth and prestige. The manners and social skills learned in her youth, combined with her extraordinary beauty, perfect figure, and flowing auburn hair came together in a creature constantly surrounded with admiring suitors. Using her wit and charm, she managed to convince each admirer that he was special as she moved quickly into the important social circles that spread across the South.

Unknown until almost a century after her death, Lucy was writing The Free Flag of Cuba or the Martyrdom of Lopez: A Tale of the Liberating Expedition of 1851, a novella published in 1855 under the pen name of H.M. Hardimann. It was a romantic story favoring the actual filibustering efforts of Gen. Narciso López to free Cuba from Spanish rule and establish a slave state on the island. The book encouraged U.S. support for the cause, and the characters and situations they encountered paralleled Lucy’s own life. The men were brave, the women were lovely southern belles, and the slaves were happy servants. Some historians believe Lucy had been engaged to Lt. William Crittenden who was killed in the expedition and that the book was her reaction to her own lost love.

Very soon, however, another opportunity arose. Lucy met South Carolina’s U.S. Congressman Francis Wilkinson Pickens, who was twenty-two years older and had three children from two previous marriages. Pickens fell immediately in love with Lucy and quickly asked her to marry him. Despite Pickens offering most of what Lucy was looking for in a man––handsome, wealthy, respected and well established—she turned him down. She said if he had accepted the offer of the ambassadorship to England that his good friend, President Buchanan, had recently offered, she would have married him. Pickens hurried back to Washington to see if the offer was still open. The position had been filled but Pickens agreed to become the Ambassador to Russia. The couple married within a few weeks and began immediate preparations for the journey to St. Petersburg.

Upon their arrival in the summer of 1858, they saw St. Petersburg’s marvelous architecture at its best. Pickens’ position as the American Ambassador swept the couple into the upper echelons of Russian society. Lucy’s knowledge of French and Russian, her elaborate wardrobe, and her willingness, despite the cultural shock, to learn the customs associated with her new lifestyle, soon made the couple favorites at court. In her letters home she wrote that the manners of the aristocracy reminded her of those of the Southern planter class. The friendship that developed between Lucy and Czar Alexander II and his wife the Czarina resulted in the Czarina insisting when Lucy was expecting her first child that she move into the Imperial Palace to be waited on during the last stage of her pregnancy and be attended during the birth.

Upon the birth of the daughter, a formal salute was fired to announce it to the citizens of St. Petersburg. The child was given a name that combined the southern family tradition and the Russian addition: Francis Eugenia Olga Neva Pickens with the added “Douschka,” which is Russian for “little darling.”

By 1860 Lucy longed to return to the South to raise her daughter, and Francis, concerned about the political turmoil stirring between the North and South, felt he needed to get back to South Carolina. Thrust immediately into the upheaval, Pickens had to choose between his deep friendship with President Buchanan (who was soon replaced by President Lincoln) and loyalty to his state of South Carolina that was leading the push for secession. As Pickens traveled across the state, he realized if he wanted to serve as governor, he would have to support secession. On December 17, 1860, Francis Pickens was sworn in as South Carolina’s governor, and three days later the state became the first to secede from the Union without clear assurances that other southern states would follow. Despite wanting desperately to return to her family in Texas, Lucy stood firmly behind her husband’s decision and saved her doubts for the letters she wrote to her family. In the following months, thirteen other southern states followed South Carolina. After a brief trip back to visit her family in Texas, Lucy recognized that she was the face of the southern cause and returned to her husband whose health was declining.

In keeping with her duties as the governor’s wife, she entertained lavishly at the governor’s mansion in Columbia and at the family plantation near Edgefield. The Confederate elite was impressed and fascinated that even her servants were dressed in the finest Russian fashions. She sold her exquisite jewels that had been gifts from the Russian Czar and gave the proceeds to outfit a legion from Charleston composed of seven infantry companies and one cavalry. In a gesture of gratitude, it was named the “Holcombe Legion.” Known as “Lady Lucy,” she frequently addressed the soldiers and presented the legion a flag she designed that bore her name, the South Carolina palmetto, and the lone star that represented her Texas home.

As a further symbol of appreciation for the support of such a beautiful lady, the Confederacy placed her image on its one-dollar note in June 1862 and on its $100 note the following December. At the end of his term in 1862, Pickens’ poor health forced him to return to their Edgewood plantation where Lucy continued to entertain. With Pickens too weak to accompany her, Lucy traveled all over the South to show her support for the Confederacy.

$100 Confederate Note
Wikipedia

After General Robert E. Lee surrendered, the life Lucy had always known came to an abrupt end. Many of their freed slaves stayed as servants. Just before Pickens passed away in 1869, he called the servants to whom he felt closest and asked them to watch over Lucy. True to their former master, the servants served as pallbearers at Francis Pickens’ funeral.

Lucy joined the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which worked to preserve George Washington’s former home. On August 8, 1899, at the age of 67, the Queen of the Confederacy passed away.

In 1880, former slaves of Marshall and Harrison County purchased Wyalucing for use as the President’s House at Bishop College. After the college moved to Dallas in 1961, the old house was sold and then demolished.

Emma Edmondson, Union Spy

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Emma Edmondson, Nurse

Born in 1841 as Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmondson, the future spy grew up as the youngest of five children on her family’s farm in New Brunswick, Canada. To please her father, who apparently wanted a son, Emma dressed and worked on the farm like a boy. When she faced an unwanted, arranged marriage in the late 1850s, she ran away from home, and changed her name to Edmonds. She dressed as a man when she reached the United States and began calling herself Frank Thompson as she traveled about the country selling Bibles.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, she continued her masquerade as Frank Thompson and enlisted in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry. Military records indicate that Private Thompson served as a nurse and regimental mail carrier. The 2nd Michigan saw its first battle at Blackburn’s Ford, Virginia. Emma worked as a nurse at Manassas and helped procure hospital supplies at the Battle of Yorktown.

Although the military record does not say Emma served as a spy, several notations of “absent on duty” coincide with her spy missions. In her first clandestine adventure, she put on a black wig, used silver nitrate to dye her skin black, and pretended to be an escaped slave employed on the earthworks at Yorktown where she identified a Confederate spy. At least twice she went behind Confederate lines “disguised” as a woman, including a time when she worked as a black laundress for the Confederates. On another occasion she dressed as an Irish peddler named Bridget O’Shea and sold apples and soap to Confederate soldiers. During one of the missions she began having “chills,” the first sign of the malaria that would grow steadily worse.

Emma saw plenty of action when the 2nd Michigan participated in the Battle of Williamsburg. She served as an orderly for a general in the Battle of Hanover Courthouse and in the Battle of Fair Oaks she observed the use of the Intrepid, a balloon that successfully reported Confederate troop movements. In the summer of 1862, while working as a regimental mail carrier, Emma made a round trip of about 100 miles, often sleeping on the side of the road.

Private Franklin Thompson

Private Franklin Thompson

Several campaigns followed, including the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg, before the 2nd Michigan moved to the Western theater of operations. By mid-April 1863, as the malaria grew worse, her request for a furlough was denied. Fearing discovery of her secret identity if she were hospitalized, she deserted.

She resumed life as a woman and worked as a female nurse for the United States Christian Commission. During this time she wrote her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, which captured the nation’s imagination, becoming a best seller at 175,000 copies. She donated the profits to soldiers’ aid organizations.

Emma married a fellow Canadian, Linus H. Seelye, in 1867, and after moving several times they settled with their five children in LaPorte, Texas.

For several years Emma gathered affidavits from 2nd Michigan veterans in an effort to clear the charge of desertion from the record of Franklin Thompson. Finally, on July 5, 1884, an Act of the 48th Congress granted Emma Edmonds Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson, an honorable discharge and allowed a pension of $12 a month.

The General George B. McClellan Post of the Grand Army of the Republic on April 22, 1897, invited Emma into its membership, the only woman known to be a member of a Civil War veteran’s organization.

Continuing bouts of malaria caused her health to deteriorate and on September 5, 1898, Emma Edmondson, Union Spy, died. On Memorial Day 1901, her body was moved to the Washington Cemetery in Houston and given military honors.

Former Texas Slaves Serve in the Union Army

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 who purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform, c. 1863 or '64 Wikipedia.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform, c. 1863 or ’64
Wikipedia.

County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland freed his three sons in the 1850s and enrolled them in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school in Ohio that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

Bird Holland, who had served as Texas Secretary of State, joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton 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 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, receive less pay than white soldiers, and be commanded by white officers. And they were not allowed to rise above the rank of non-commissioned officer.

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

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon c. 1865

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon
c. 1865

service he 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. He was promoted to captain in the field, but 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.

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

Milton Holland 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.

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas, 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.

Houston’s Civil War Hero

A handsome, redheaded Irish saloonkeeper lead a group of forty-six Irish dockworkers in a Civil War battle that Jefferson Davis called the most amazing feat in military history.

Lt. Richard "Dick" Dowling

Lt. Richard “Dick” Dowling

At the outbreak of the war, Richard “Dick” Dowling, joined the Davis Guards, and soon became the company’s first lieutenant. After gaining a reputation for its artillery skills in the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates regained control of the island, Dowling’s company was assigned to Fort Griffin, a nondescript post at the mouth of

Battle of Sabine Pass

Battle of Sabine Pass

Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border.

The twenty-five-year-old Dowling showed leadership beyond his years by keeping his rowdy men occupied with artillery practice—firing the fort’s six cannons at colored stakes placed on both sides of a shell reef that ran down the middle of the pass dividing it into two channels. The east side of the passage led along the Louisiana border and the west paralleled the earthen embankment of Fort Griffin.

On September 8, 1863, Dowling’s Company F watched a Union navy flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men approach the pass. Waiting until the first two gunboats entered the parallel channels, the little band of forty-six Irishmen opened fire with all six cannons, striking the boiler and exploding the Sanchem on the Louisiana coast and then striking the steering cables of the Clifton on the Texas side of the pass. With both channels blocked by disabled ships, the Union force sailed away.

In less than one hour Dowling’s men captured both Union vessels, killed nineteen, wounded nine, and took 350 prisoners without suffering a single casualty.

Dick Dowling rose to the rank of major before the end of the war and he returned to Houston as its hero, hailed as the man who stopped federal forces from coming ashore and marching westward to capture Houston and Galveston. Jefferson Davis presented a personal commendation, calling the Sabine Pass Battle the “Thermopylae of the Confederacy.” The ladies of Houston presented Dowling’s unit with medals made from Mexican coins smoothed down and inscribed on one side with “Sabine Pass, 1863.”

Dowling claimed genuine Irish roots. Born in County Galway, Ireland in 1838, he moved with his parents and six siblings to New Orleans to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845. Orphaned by the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic that took the lives of his parents and four siblings, Dowling finally made his way to Houston and within four years opened his first saloon.

By 1860, the mustached Irishman with a good sense of humor owned three saloons; the most popular, called “The Bank,” sat on the square with the Harris County Courthouse and became Houston’s social gathering place. Dowling also immersed himself in Houston’s business community–investing in local property, helping set up Houston’s first gaslight company, and installing gaslights in his home and in “The Bank.” He helped found Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company fire department and the city’s first streetcar company.

After the war, Dowling returned to his earlier business interests and expanded into real estate, oil and gas leases, and ownership of a steamboat. Unfortunately the 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which swept across Texas from the Gulf coast, ended Dowling’s life on September 23, 1867.

Survived by his wife Elizabeth Ann Odlum and two children Mary Ann and Felize “Richard” Sabine, Dowling was honored by the city of Houston’s first public monument, which stands today in Hermann Park.

Dowling statue at entrance to Houston's Hermann Park

Dowling statue at entrance to Houston’s Hermann Park