Primary Source Adventures
Charging into Battle with Hood's Texas Brigade
Students will examine the first experience in battle of one of these Texas volunteers, Joseph B. Polley, who fought with the Fourth Infantry Regiment in the famed Hood’s Texas Brigade.
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Charging into Battle with Hood's Texas Brigade
by Justin S. Liles
Many Texans believed that the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States in 1860 represented an unacceptable challenge to the institution of slavery, and that in order to protect the institution it was necessary for Texans to join the citizens of the other six states of the lower South in seceding from the Union by the spring of 1861. Texas contributed mightily to the cause of the Confederacy, both in men and materiél. While the vast majority of Texas troops served west of the Mississippi River, many also saw action in the larger battles of the Eastern Theater.
Governor Sam Houston’s attempts to avert secession proved futile, and Texas voters approved the referendum confirming the Secession Convention’s recommendation to secede by a three to one margin. Texans responded quickly and in large numbers to defend their new nation, but the motivations that led these men to enlist varied. Only one in four citizens of the state lived in a family that owned slaves. The vast majority of the enlistees therefore fought for some reason other than the protection of their slave property. Historian Richard Lowe writes that these new soldiers seemed to identify the Confederacy with home, family, and continuity, and the Union with unwelcome, threatening change. Protection of their families and communities from Yankee domination and from the supposed horrors of slave emancipation was tied up in their minds with the success of the Confederate army1.
By the end of 1861 roughly 25,000 Texans enlisted in the Confederate army, two-thirds of these serving in cavalry units. In all, just over half of the military age population of the state served in the various military units. Two out of three Texas soldiers served directly in defense of the state or in expansionist moves into New Mexico. Texans also played a prominent role in the major battles of the Eastern Theater, however, and the contributions of Hood’s Texas Brigade are perhaps among the most famous examples.
The Confederate government organized Hood’s Texas Brigade in October 1861 in Richmond, Virginia. It comprised the First, Fourth, and Fifth Texas Infantry regiments as well as regiments from Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina at various periods. John Bell Hood became commander of the brigade in February 1862, and although he served only six months as its leader, permanently lent his name to the force. Hood and his regiment established a reputation for hard fighting at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, the battle experience described by Polley in this exercise. The unit served in twenty-four major battles, including Antietam and Gettysburg. Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and James Longstreet all praised Hood’s Texas Brigade as one of the finest units of the Confederate Army, and Lee personally led the Texans in a charge at the Battle of the Wilderness. The unit reached a maximum strength of 4,400 men during the war, but numbered only 600 officers and men at the close of the conflict.
John Bell Hood (1831-1879) earned a reputation as a hard charging battle leader. Historian Mark Mayo Boatner claims “the Gallant Hood was without peer as a combat leader at the brigade and division level. He loved to fight and he knew how to make men follow him.”2 He displayed extraordinary courage at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill and was rewarded with a promotion to Major General, commanding the division that included his namesake brigade. At Gettysburg he suffered a wound that incapacitated his left arm for life, and his right leg was amputated at Chickamauga. Despite these injuries Hood continued to lead troops, while strapped to his saddle, until he requested to be relieved of his command following a series of defeats in Tennessee in late 1864.
Hood’s Texas Brigade received its baptism by fire at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. This was the third of the Seven Days’ Battles in which Robert E. Lee, who had only recently assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia, compelled Union General George McClellan to abandon his invasion of Virginia. On June 27, 1862 Lee’s army conducted a series of uncoordinated attacks on a Federal position behind a swamp north of the Chickahominy River. At dusk, Hood and his men successfully stormed the Union lines, which had repelled Confederate thrusts throughout the day. They routed the defenders thereby saving Richmond for the Confederacy in 1862.
Joseph Polley (1840-1918) was among the roughly 3,000 troops of Hood’s Texas Brigade engaged in the battle. Polley’s father came to Texas as one of Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” and the son was born near Bailey’s Prairie in Brazoria County on October 27, 1840. He enlisted with the first wave of recruits for the duration of the war. Polley received a head wound at Gaines’ Mill, and his foot was amputated at the Battle of Darbytown Road near Richmond in 1864. Following the war Polley read law and passed the bar in 1868, but did not begin to practice until 1876. He also served in the 16th Texas Legislature in 1879. Polley published two works relating to his service in the war. Hood’s Texas Brigade, a memoir of his wartime experiences published in 1910, is considered a classic of Civil War Literature.
A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie, published in 1908, is purported to be a series of letters to a friend of the author that “tell a plain, unvarnished, and true story of the observations and experiences, the impressions and feelings, of a soldier.” Polley claims that Nellie was “the friend of one more than a friend” to whom he wrote throughout the war but never met until March 1865.3 Some scholars doubt, however, that the book is actually the Civil War letter cycle it is alleged to be, and believe that it was written after the war and based on a diary that his daughter claims he kept.4 Because of this speculation, A Soldiers Letters to Charming Nellie should probably be viewed as a postwar memoir, rather than a primary source written nearer to the time it describes.
In addition to writing these examples of Civil War literature, Joseph Polley also served as the commander of the Texas Division of the Union of Confederate Veterans, and was a frequent contributor to its publication Confederate Veteran. Due to his involvement in these endeavors, the reader might expect Polley’s account of his first experience in battle to be bombastic in its description of the Southern fighting spirit and glorification of Lost Cause mythology. In fact, Polley’s description of the famous charge of Hood’s Texas Brigade at Gaines’ Mill demonstrates an unexpected frankness about the fear Civil War soldiers dealt with on a regular basis.
The soldiers of Hood’s Texas Brigade gained the respect of comrades and foes for their valor and sacrifice in the name of cause and country. Their country has long since expired, and the cause is viewed with disdain by most twenty-first century Americans. Perhaps, in assessing the historical position of the southern soldier Abraham Lincoln’s attitude toward the predicament of southerners in general is instructive. He told a northern audience in Peoria, Illinois in 1854 “I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation.”5
1Richard Lowe, Walker’s Texas Division C.S.A.: Greyhounds of the Trans-Mississippi (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 18. Polley gave no indication as to his own motives for enlisting in either published source.
2Mark Mayo Boatner III, The Civil War Dictionary (New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1959), 408.
3Joseph Polley, A Soldier’s Letters to Charming Nellie (New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1908), 13.
4Josephine Polley Gholson, Bailey’s Light; Saga of Brit Bailey and Other Hardy Pioneers (San Antonio: Naylor, 1950), 109.
5Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2: 255.