covered with spacious, expensive houses, the cedar-studded canyons on the western
edge of Austin used to be Central Texas’ version of Appalachia.
and hard to reach in the days of horse and wagon travel, the hills west of the
Capital City were peopled by scattered families who came from the mountains of
Tennessee and Kentucky and settled there because the terrain reminded them of
But not all of them hailed from the South. The Will Preece clan
had come to Texas from Illinois, and when southerners started talking about leaving
the Union, the Preece’s brooked no interest in the concept. In fact, old man Preece’s
cousin was Tom Lincoln, father of the man recently elected president.
That set of circumstance led to a long-forgotten series of gunfights and ambushes
in the hills of Travis County, a Civil War conflict for which no historical markers
stand in commemoration. Texas’ Battle of Bull Creek hardly compares with the Battle
of Bull Run, but the partisan feelings that triggered the fight went as deep.
Generally lost in most Civil War stories is the fact that not everyone in the
South, particularly in Texas, favored secession. In fact, Travis County voted
to stay in the Union.
The late Harold Preece, a Travis County native who
heard the stories from his father and other relatives, wrote a slightly fictionalized
account of the Battle of Bull Creek for a long-defunct pulp Western magazine,
Real West. Preece intended to include the story in an autobiography, but his book
never made it to print.
The first movement in the battle came shortly after
the secession election results became known. A squad of Confederate recruitment
officers, “flushed with good bourbon and electoral victory,” rode into the hills
to enlist “mountain cowboys” for the CSA cavalry.
As the rebels approached
Will Preece’s cabin, which stood in the vicinity of Bull Creek, a rifle bullet
cut the bridle of one of the riders. A second shot from another of the Preece
family removed the eyebrow hair from another secessionist.
More lead followed,
but none of the rebels caught any. Since the Preece’s provisioned their larder
with deer and squirrel they shot, the misses may have been intentional, mere warning
The riders turned and rode back to Austin. Four months would go
by before the bombardment of Fort Sumpter, but the Civil War had started in Texas.
That June – Preece did not give the day – 20 Travis County Unionists calling
themselves the Mountain Eagles ambushed more than twice that number of Confederate
cavalrymen on their way to the pro-Union German settlements farther west.
The half-hour gun battle near Martin’s Well claimed nine “Secesh” as the hill
men called the Southerners. Another six men suffered wounds in the battle.
In response to the attack, the governor commissioned a special Ranger company
to root out the pro-Union element west of Austin. The Southern partisans scoured
the hills, giving young men the choice of conscription in the Confederate Army
or a permanent draft deferment at the end of a rope. Those considered incorrigible
did not get the military option.
By Jan. 1, 1862, only 40 of the Mountain Eagles remained in the hills. Their ammunition
supply low, the men had holed up in a makeshift piled-stone fortress atop a prominence
offering a good view of all approaches.
Opting not to celebrate New Year’s Day, state forces attacked the Unionist stronghold.
Preece wrote that his uncle claimed 30 “Secesh” and 3 Unionists died in the battle
near Bull Creek but admitted that “half that number for Confederates and double
that figure for the Eagles would probably be a less biased estimate.”
In truth, the numbers likely came to even fewer than that or the battle site would
have been better remembered. But the location of the fort did come to be called
Dead Man’s Peak.
fight ended the mini-war in the hills west of the Capital City. The surviving
Mountain Eagles rode to Mexico, four of the Preece’s ending up in New Orleans.
After the war, their loyalty to the Union never having wavered, they returned
to Bull Creek.