Custer's Men Not Impressed with Area
By Wanda Bobinger
On Aug. 8, 1865, General Custer and his men left Alexandria, La. for Texas. A village of tents was taken down and folded as 3,000 in a long line of mounted cavalry said farewell to the land of bayous, alligators, bugs, flies and mosquitoes.
The second day, the men only marched 11 miles. They observed women and children watching in utter bewilderment, wondering where the "Yankee parade" was coming from.
After four days, the army had arrived at the Sabine River. They made their crossing at "Bevil's Ferry," in the northeast corner of Newton County. The men put a pontoon bridge across the river and for the first time stood on the chivalric soil of the "Lone Star State." As the last of the command crossed into Texas, the American flag was unfurled for the first time in four and a half years.
Custer's men marched on, then camped by a frog pond near the county seat of Jasper County, almost uninhabited wilderness. They marched again before daybreak and passed through the town of Jasper just as the sun was rising.
The men reached the Angelina River about 15 miles from its confluence with the Neches before nightfall.
Officer Browne, a member of General Custer's staff, kept a journal in which he wrote, "We've seen no good country in Texas as yet. Pines and deer, bugs and snakes inhabit the whole face of this place. This country today looks as if it is uninhabited by man, and as if even God himself has abandoned it. There are pines before us, pines behind us, pines on each side of us, nothing but pines."
On Sunday, Aug. 20, 12 days after the departure from Alexandria, the men reached Swartwout's Ferry on the Trinity River in Polk County. They forded the Trinity and camped shortly after noon, immediately on the west bank. Tents were put up just at the edge of the steep banks, about 30 feet above the water. The camp was named "Camp Rattlesnake" by the men, as they killed several dozen. Browne's journal said. "One could hardly put their foot down without walking on a snake. We killed one with 14 rattles on his tail and more than six feet in length. Swartwout's Ferry is just a little town, really, too little to mention. We remained in the camp there and dreamed of snakes,"
The men were in their saddles at 4 a.m. the following morning. Browne's impressions of the country began to improve very decidedly. "We made a long march of 27 miles without any water, but on this day we passed through two beautiful villages of Cold Spring and Waverly, the only towns that I have seen yet in Texas worth mentioning, after traveling some 150 miles in the state."
On Saturday, Aug. 25, after a tedious march of 18 days and some 300 miles, the army arrived at Hempstead, where they would receive new supplies. Most of the men were broken out with heat as thick as one with the measles. "It felt like I was being pricked with a million pins, or being sprinkled on bare skin with hot ashes. The itch is not a circumstance to the heat. If you lay down in the pine woods, an army of vermin will come in a moment to bite, scratch, sting and gnaw you all at the same time," wrote Browne.
The army continued on from Hempstead, finally arriving at their destination of Austin.
After the Civil War, reconstruction was the first item of business for the union. In Texas, General George Armstrong Custer was the federal military commander for the union in charge of a cavalry division.
Custer's home in Austin was a two-story limestone Italianate style residence which also served as his headquarters from 1865 to 1866. The ever ambitious Custer transferred to the northwest. The building he occupied later became the state school for the blind and today houses the University of Urban Issues Program.
It is interesting to imagine the theatrical and flamboyant Custer with his long golden curls, dressed in one of his fancy 'special uniforms, leading his men into Polk County for their brief stay at Swartwout.
Visit the Polk County Museum site at www.livingston.net/museum
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