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Fort Clark Barely Misses Being Start of Civil War

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

If the odds had been a bit more even on that March day in 1861, the first battle of the Civil War would have been at Fort Clark, Texas, not Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

The history books accurately report that the opening shot of the Civil War came with a pre-dawn muzzle blast on April 12, 1865 when Confederate artillery began shelling Federal forces in Fort Sumpter in Charleston Harbor.

But relations between the U.S. Army and forces supporting the South had been deteriorating well before that April morning in South Carolina.

Halfway across the continent in Texas, federal troops occupied a string of frontier forts intended to protect travelers and settlers from hostile Indians. One of those posts was Fort Clark, established in 1852 on Las Moras Springs across from Brackettville (they just called it Brackett back then) in what is now Kinney County.

Texans generally appreciated the stationing of federal troops between them and the Apaches, Comanches and Kiowas, but as sectional tension built up between the northern states and the south, they began to think that Texas – and like-minded states – could take care of themselves.

By March 1861, troops under Texas control, which is to say loyal to the South if not yet duly constituted Confederacy, were in Brackettville face to face with the Union garrison.

As the officer in charge of the Texas soldiers negotiated with the commander of the fort for the surrender of the post, soldiers of one U.S. infantry company set fire to their quarters, which were destroyed. Another infantry company trashed its quarters, smashing windows, doors, the inner walls of their barracks–even destroying iron bedsteads and burning their water barrels.

On the night of March 17, soldiers from the fort tried to burn down a private residence in Brackettville, presumably the property of a southern sympathizer. The soldiers also, in the parlance of the day, “attempted to ravish (the) wife and daughter” of the owner.

The Southerner soldiers were outnumbered, 18 men against four Federal companies. And most of those dozen-and-a-half Texans were a couple of miles from the fort when the federal troops began destroying property. The rest of the 96-member Texas company was scattered at various outposts.

“If all of my company had been here there would have been a conflict,” Capt. Tervanion T. Teel reported a couple of days later.

Before open fighting between North and South broke out at the remote border post, the two sides agreed on a face-saving federal surrender. The U.S. troops won the right to fire their two artillery pieces as the Stars and Stripes were lowered from the Fort Clark flagpole. Then they would march off and let the Texans take over.

The change of guard ceremony began as planned, but then the federal officer in charge cheated. When the U.S. flag went down, the federals cut the halyard and pulled the rope off the pulley in an attempt to keep the Southerners from hoisting the Texas flag over the fort.

“Upon reaching the flagstaff with my detachment,” Teel reported to Austin, “I sent up four...men to the cross top and with a large rope, lowered the top mast, run the halyard through the pulley, hoisted it to its proper position, and run up our colors with a salute of the guns before the Federal Troops were out of sight.”

If Texans is not known as the place where sectional rhetoric finally turned into bloodshed in 1861, the last battle of the Civil War did happen in the state. But that’s another story.




© Mike Cox - October 23, 2014 column
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