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Lynn R. Bailey
The military record of “Curly the Cowboy”
Sat Aug 5, 2017 07:45

At outbreak of the Civil War sixteen-year-old William Hanks Graham enlisted for twelve months with the 18th Regiment of Texas Cavalry, raised by Nicholas H. Darnell, an advocate of Texas frontier defense and a Dallas County politician. Christened “Darnell’s Rangers,“ this regiment was composed of cavaliers from Karnes, Bexar, Travis, Bosque, Erath, Wise, Denton and Dallas counties. The latter county contributed two companies. Considered an elite unit, no “weak individuals” were accepted into the regiment. The unit was well mounted, and armed with double barreled shotguns and twenty-inch Bowie knives forged from saw blades and scythes. These bone-crushing, fricasseeing instruments were supplied by M. Guillet of Dallas. The troopers were promised Navy Colt revolvers (manufactured in Texas) and British Enfield rifles at a later date. The unit had good blankets and superior tents. But the regiment was a homespun outfit, the blue-gray uniforms being produced by families and friends.

Mustered into service at Dallas on March 15, 1862, Private Graham was assigned to Company K. His unit was drilled twice a day for weeks at the community fairgrounds. In the morning cavalry tactics were pounded home. Infantry maneuvers as prescribed in Gilham’s Manuel of Instruction for Volunteers and Militia (the standard authority for Texas) followed in the afternoon. “Darnell’s Rangers“ left Dallas 1,200 strong at end of March 1862. Assigned to the “Army of the West,” commanded by Brigadier General Henry E. McCulloch and Colonel Allison Nelson, respectively, Darnell’s regiment was part of the First Brigade, Second Division. The unit campaigned in Indian Territory, skirmishing with advancing Union forces and Jayhawkers from Missouri. In the fall Darnell’s unit was dismounted and transferred to Arkansas to garrison Fort Hindman, also called Arkansas Post.

Arkansas Post was situated on the Arkansas River forty miles from the stream’s confluence with the Mississippi. Embracing an area of about an acre, the earthen fortification was well-placed--on the north bank of the Arkansas River where the stream makes a horseshoe bend. Surrounded by a ditch, the post’s main armament consisted of two siege guns (84 and a 95 pounder) besides several small caliber pieces. The garrison consisted of about 5,000 troops with their arms and equipment, among them the 6th, 10th, 15th, 18th, and 24th Texas cavalry regiments, and Alf Johnson’s Spy Company. The post was commanded by Brigadier General Thomas J. Churchill, an efficient and gallant commander. Arkansas Post had several drawbacks. It was situated adjacent to a swamp, and poorly drained. As a result its garrison was ravaged by dysentery and respiratory ailments. Col. Darnell came down with typhoid which progressed into pneumonia. He was taken to Pine Bluff for treatment. With the constitution of an ox, William H. Graham escaped the contagion, only to participate in a ferocious siege.

At two o’clock p.m. Friday the 9th of January cavalry pickets reported the appearance of three Federal gunboats and a flotilla of transports six miles below the fort. General Churchill immediately mobilized his command. Brigades were ordered to move down river and occupy trenches which had been prepared to resist an enemy’s advance by land. Other units were deployed above and in the rear of the fort. Nothing of moment occurred during the night of the 9th, the troops lying on their arms. On Saturday morning everything was quiet until eight o’clock, at which time Federal transports began disembarking infantry; about 30,000 men were landed. Shortly thereafter the gunboats moved up river and commenced shelling the fort. The post‘s artillery responded. In the meantime Union troops overrun the trenches, forcing the rebels to retreat to the fort. The post’s ditch was bridged and the parapet stormed. The battle raged until five o‘clock the succeeding evening. Failing to receive reinforcements, General Churchill surrendered the battered post and its garrison.

Regardless of the defeat, the poorly armed Confederates put up a strong resistance. They killed several thousand Federal troops; rebels lost only forty to fifty men killed. A large segment of the 18th Cavalry (Darnell’s) Regiment escaped. About 500 men, including William H. Graham, vacated their position, swarm the bayou at the rear of the post, and made their way to other Confederate units. Enlisted men captured at Arkansas Post were imprisoned at Camp Douglas near Chicago and at Johnson Island in Lake Erie. But the fight was not over for Darnell’s men.

In February 1863 the Confederate War Department through Lieutenant General Kirby E. Smith ordered N. H. Darnell “to collect all men who escaped from Arkansas Post.” In response, Darnell on June 3rd ordered those men to report to the nearest general enrolling officers. In mid-July these men, William Graham among them, drifted in. They were consolidated with fragments of the 17th Texas Cavalry. Now armed with British Enfield rifles and bayonets, this reconstituted unit was augmented with survivors from the 12th and 16th Texas Cavalry. The men were placed under command of Brigadier General Albert Rust who had orders to halt a Federal advance upon Little Rock, Arkansas. The opposing forces met at Hill’s Plantation in Woodruff County on July 7, 1862. In what was called the Battle of Cotton Plant, the poorly led Confederate unit was repulsed by the Union force. This was William Graham’s last engagement in Arkansas.

Shortly thereafter, Graham and the 17th Texas Cavalry were assigned to the celebrated Army of Tennessee, commanded by Braxton Bragg. This unit saw as much hard fighting as any in the Confederate army. Over the course of the next thirty months private Graham participated in thirty engagements, including the Battle of Chickamauga, the Chattanooga siege, and the Atlanta campaign. The 17th Regiment suffered heavy casualties, and it’s a wonder William survived the war. Fewer than 125 enlisted men and officers were present at the unit’s surrender at Durham Station in North Carolina on April 26, 1865. According to family sources William H. Graham came through the war physically unscathed; but the conflict’s wolfish ferocity and cruelty scarred him.

(Sources: William Hanks Graham, U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865. Provo, UT: For history of 18th Texas Cavalry consult The Handbook of Texas on line. Formation, training, movement, and battles of the 17th and 18th Texas Cavalry are easily followed through the pages of the Dallas Herald, particularly issues of October 4, 11, December 20, 1862; February 4, 11, 17, 18; March 25, June, 3, July 8, 15, 17, 1863; September 17, 22, 1864; July 22, 29, 1865. For an overview of the Arkansas campaign see Col. Thomas J. Snead, “The Conquest of Arkansas,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. III, Part 2, pp. 441-461.)

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