There Are Not Less Than 1000 Deserters
Bonham Daily Favorite, June 27, 1993
When General McCulloch arrived in Bonham to take command of the Northern Sub-District, not only did he discover that the command post was in almost total disarray and faced with a shortage of men, ammunition, and stores, but he also found a problem facing the citizens of the area in the form of lawlessness and crimes committed by deserters from the Confederate army. In addition, many of these deserters had teamed up with conscripts, for the army, who had refused to report for duty, and had chosen instead to hide from the authorities.
Although nothing in the way of official records confirm the fact, it has remained a tradition of the area that these men chose for their hideouts various sections of the immense thicket which ranged along the Fannin, Lamar, Hunt, and Collin County borders. Depending upon the locale these thickets had and still today retain the names Jernigan's Thicket and Wildcat Thicket. Practically nothing is left of these areas since more than a hundred years of agricultural brush clearing has effectively removed most traces. But we know from past descriptions and activities that these sometimes impenetrable thickets served well those persons who wished to hide from the forces of the law.
Once McCulloch was made aware of the problem his first move was to see that word was spread throughout the area that those men who would turn themselves in would be treated with some degree of leniency. His official orders do not survive but in various dispatches to State Headquarters references were made to the situation.
It was also strongly believed, at the time, that those guerrilla bands from the North, called Jayhawkers, were in the area with the threat of surprise attacks on the populace. In an October 21, 1863 communique to General Magruder, McCulloch stated, "I am now perfectly satisfied that there are not less than 1,000 deserters, from the army, conscription, and the militia, in the woods, ready to take to the brush in this sub-district. The largest number in any one place is 30 miles from here, where there are from 200 to 400 at three camps, within 10 miles, all of whom can concentrate within two hours. They keep every road picketed that goes into their vicinity so perfectly that not a man, woman, or child goes near them that they don't know it.'
"They have sympathizers all through this country, and if they can't be induced to come out peaceably, we will have trouble, and bloodshed enough in this section to make our very hearts sick, and a war of the most wretched and savage character will be inaugurated."
He also reported to Assistant Adjutant-General Turner that, "My pacific policy with regard to deserters has not so far succeeded as well as I had hoped for, but I could not have pursued any other course very well, as I had not, nor have I yet, force enough of a reliable character to arrest them successfully. It is reported that they are increasing daily in numbers, and just as soon as it is possible to move on them I shall commence operations."
Shortly after these two reports, McCulloch wrote again to Turner, "A good many of Colonel Quantrill's command have come into this sub-district, and it is said that he is now within it. He has not reported here, and I do not know what his military status is. I appreciate his services, and am anxious to have them; but certainly we cannot, as a Christian sanction a savage, inhuman warfare, in which men are shot down like dogs, after throwing down their arms and holding up their hands supplicating for mercy."
Within weeks of the reported arrival of Quantrill's men, the number of robberies and other crimes increased in the area and suspicions immediately fell on Quantrill's band. On several occasions leading citizens from both Fannin and Grayson Counties approached McCulloch insisting that something be done before the situation should grow worse.
The existing official records and correspondance from McCulloch grow silent at this point, at least in terms of dealing with the Quantrill situation. Other more pressing demands seemed to have occupied the General's time.
Finally after the murder of Major Frank Butts near his Glen Eden plantation in the early winter of 1864, McCulloch was forced to face the situation. He was still experiencing problems with the deserters and conscript-avoiders who had taken refuge in the area. According to later reports from some of Quantrill's men McCulloch sent word to the guerrilla leader asking him to report to headquarters at Bonham to assist in dealing with the problem.
When Quantrill finally appeared at McCulloch's office in the Fannin County Courthouse, the General ordered his immediate arrest. At this point in history it is impossible to determine exactly what course of action McCulloch had planned. On the face of the events it seems plausible that the arrest of Quantrill was nothing more than a sop to the complaints of the citizenry.
Placing only two guards on Quantrill and one at the door to the courthouse, McCulloch went for his evening meal Almost immediately Quantrill was able to retrieve his sidearms which had been carelessly left on a cot, lock the two guards in the room, and deal with the lone guard at the door. Signalling to some of his men who were waiting across the street, Quantrill and the men spurred their horses south from the square until they reached Powder Creek. They then turned back to the northwest and galloped toward Red River.
When McCulloch was apprised of the escape, he sent Major Martin and some men in pursuit, but the escapee was too far ahead to be captured. Quantrill and his group finally reached Colbert's Ferry and crossed into Indian Territory escaping McCulloch's jurisdiction.
With Quantrill out of the way, McCulloch could turn his attention to those matters he deemed more important, namely the problem of the deserters and the conscripts who had failed to report for duty. Late in the autumn of 1863 before he had had his confrontation with Quantrill, McCulloch had received a communique from Lt. General Kirby Smith doubting McCulloch's plan to act in a conciliatory manner toward the wanted men. Smith again suggested that McCulloch use Quantrill's band of "Missourians." Smith stated, "They not being from the State will make them more effective. They are bold fearless men, and moreover, from all representations, are under very fair discipline.
Finally McCulloch was able to report that, "the deserters and absentees came out from the brush in a body, and reported 303 strong. Besides the 303 who came in a body, 335 have reported at the office through the influence of some leading men of this section. I have made concessions to these men that they did not deserve, but I have done it for the good of the country."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas