Camp Chase Gazette

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That Battle of the Powder Mill

Posted on Friday, July 1, 2016 at 7:30 am

Powder MillAfter the second battle of Galveston the Federal army moved on Houston, Texas in an effort to knock her out of the war.  Federal skalleywags had been marauding through the countryside for some months, causing havoc and taking advantage of the citizencery.  On June 19 it became clear that they would make a salient in froce from Hempstead via the Hempstead trace toward Tomball, Texas.  Their apparent target was the black powder mill and the train station located there.  The Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad was instrumental in the delivery of gun powder and food stuffs through Houston and beyond to the front.  Now it was about to be raided by Lincoln’s Boys who had no love for the gallant Confederate defenders.  Not since Master William Hurd made his stand against the Commancies in 1839 had there been a more serious threat to the city and the people who lived on this rich agricultural land.  Scallewags had been marauding through Galveston, Fort Bend, and Austin Counties after having been blunted by General McGruders stand at Galveston the year before.  This time the Federals had decided to circle west and then north to avoid the redoubts and cannonade position to stop their advance into Houston from the south.  They had moved though the villages of Alvan and Manvel like locusts. There was a brisk fight to be had at Richmond / Rosenburg but it was hopeless as most of the young men had joined Terry’s Texas Rangers and moved to the front in Virginia many years ago.  Only the home guard was avaliable and despite being ill equipped and out gunned they managed to delay the attack on Rosenburg and deflect the Federal salient further west and further south where they expected little resistance as they moved through the flat land to the town of Fulshear.  When they arrived it was undefended and summarily burned.  From there they moved north and west following the Brazos River attacking and burning 18 plantations located on its banks.  With them they brought the Emancipaiton Proculamation which greatly excited the darkies causing them to rebel and to follow the Federals in a long train in the wake of their destruction.  Simonton was bypassed and the Federals had easy passage across the flat lands in the Brazos valley as they moved toward Hempsteand and then on to Waller receiving little resistance and burning everything or economic value that they came across.

This day finds the Federals moving caustically down the Tomball trace which parallel the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad. They moved with dispatch, stopping only to burn bridges and tear up rails every five miles or so, leaving the railroad in complete ruins.  It was horrible as neither woman or beast was safe when the skalleywags were out marauding.

On June 19th we find the Federals had worked there way sufficiently west and north of Houston to attempt a salient into the city down the Tomball trace.  Much of the home guard had been disbursed through the county scouting their movements in order to find a suitable place to make contact.  When word came that the Federals were consolidating north and west of Tomball trace the order was issued by honorable General Jack Cagle to concentrate near the powder mill so as to protect it.  Soon troops of both armies were moving inexorably toward a conflict that would determine the fate of the powder mill and the surrounding farms and villages.  As most battles do, this one began with an incidental contact between pickets and scouting parties.  The initial clash occurred at 11 a.m. just as the Federals began to move out of the thicket to the northeast of the bridge, crossing a deep tributary of Spring Creek, joining the trail to the Hempstead Road and then eastward to the mill.  The Federal line was anchored on the west and on the east by deep thicket but limited by the narrow road entering into the broad meadow near the center.  The confederates set their line at the Hempstead Road and opened with a glorious cannonade.  Capt. Ronnie Mathews, commander of the 12th Texas Artillery opened the volley with their two 3 inch ordinance rifles which thundered to life at precisely 11 a.m.  In short order Capt. Buster Horn’s Keys Battery six-pound field guns roared into action.  These two pieces were graciously provided and provisioned by the honorable matron of the Tarleton Plantation, Ms. Richard Tarleton. All four of the guns did excellent work as the Federals rushed into the opening in some disarray.

Major Richard Tarleton in command ordered the Federal guns placed along the north most edge of the meadow with Sweats Battery’s two three-inch mountain howitzers covering the entry of the infantry at the center of the field.  Soon they provided a spirited defense of the cannonade delivered by the Confederate guns.  Shortly the First Texas Federal Naval Squadron under the command of Lt. Junior Grade John Burleigh deployed their flying artillery to the right of the Federal howitzers.  Included with the gun was a squad of marines who were eager to revenge the taking and later the sinking of the USS Harriet Lane the year before at the battle of Galveston.  They had to be visibly restrained as they were eager to join in battle to reclaim their honor.

Simultaneously the Capt. Mathew Meyers ordered the 36th Texas Dismounted under the command of Lt. Ken Meyers to advance to the center of tributary of Spring Creek, which was dry at this time of year, and served as a natural trench line, although very crooked.  The Texas 12th Infantry was placed on the left and the 36th Texas dismounted under the command of Capt. Pouch Amy.  Rapley’s Sharpshooters of the 12th Arkansas under the command of Sargent Bradly Ford was ordered to the right and to wreak havoc on the Federal artillery.  Seeing that at the moment the bulk of the Federal troops were trapped in a long train on the narrow road they were required to use to enter the field, Capt. Mathews order a general attack along the entire line which resulted in the Federals withdrawing to the thicket from where they came, only barely saving their artillery in the process.

By this time it was nearly noon and as is the customary this time of year in this area the heat was unbearable.  The temperature had risen to 102 degrees and the humidity was nearly 90 percent.  It was all that our troops could do to rest in the field before all had to stop to be watered.  Capt. Mathews ordered an orderly withdrawal back to the creek bed, as to remain in the current position would leave both the right and left of his line exposed should the Federals discover the deer trail he knew to exist just beyond the thicket into which they had retreated would allow the Federal troops to circle behind our boys and inflate them without quarter.

The sharp shooters were shifted to the left so as to protect the bridge and the entire battalion was settled in the creek bed, watered and re-provisioned with ball and powder for the counter attack which was soon to follow our victory in the initial skirmish.  All had gone well with no artillery casualties and 2 killed and 12 wounded on the field.  Judging from the blue uniforms still on the field it appeared that the Federal casualties were substantially greater.  Medical units were deployed into the field to assist the wounded who were in great distress due to the oppressive heat and their wounds.

Shortly before 2 p.m. the crack of artillery erupted from beyond the thicket.  The Federals were on the move again.  It appeared that they had brought some long range guns into play and shells were falling directly where our boys would have been had Captain Meyers not ordered a withdrawal to the creek bed.  After ten minutes shelling the Federals advanced onto the field at the double quick.  Within a few moments their artillery had been arrayed as before and the infantry spread between their guns to a large oak tree on their left.  The navy boys on the right made a spirited rush for the bridge but were held a bay for a time by our sharpshooters.  Only when they moved their flying artillery into range of the bridge did Rapley Sharpshooters withdraw as they were out ranged and had no defense for such large shot.  At the same time the 4th Federal Infantry advanced in good order toward the center of the field.  Capt. Meyers ordered a general volley along the line then independent fire so as to thwart their movements.  Much to his surprise, Maj. Tarleton ordered the infantry to split left and right leaving a large gap in his line at the center.  Capt. Meyers sensed a trap and did not order an advance into the gap as his troop numbers were not strong enough to sustain any advantage that might be gained by such a move.

Then, unbelievably, a hail of lead raked through the trees and brush along the center of the Confederate line at the creek bed.  Our gallant men were cut down like sheaves of wheat and those who did not volley down did not survived.  This was unbelievable the fire seemed to be coming out of nowhere.  No troops could be seen at the Federal center but still some 300 round a minute raked the center of the Confederate line.  Simultaneous the Federal right and the Federal left charged into the chaos, bringing the fight to bayonet range.  The melee lasted a mere 10 minutes before the Confederate colors were struck and orders were given to withdraw our artillery lest it be lost as well.  Just as the dust from the withdrawing guns filtered across the line a white flag was raised and terms were requested.

Fortunately, our cannon were able to escape so as to set up a second line of defense closer to the powder mill.  But the carnage this day was breathtaking.  Maj. Tarleton was offered Capt. Meyers sword, which was gallantly refused and the remainder of the Confederate troops were disarmed and held in the gully until transport to prisoner of war camp could be organized.  In discussions between the commanders Capt. Meyers asked how the Federals could have generated such an overwhelming rate of fire at the center of the line with no battalion visible.  Maj. Tarleton informed the good Captain that a new top secret weapon had been deployed.  It was called a Coffee Mill Gun, an Agar machine gun.  Unseen by the Confederates as the Federal right had moved on to the field, the Agar had been rolled up to the oak tree behind them and hidden with canvas.  When the Federal line to split orders were given it was ordered to rake the center of the Confederate lines.  With one hundred times the rate of fire of the average infantry there was little that could be done but to withdraw.  The entire 36th Texas Dismounted had been obliterated and nearly half of the number of the 12th Texas Infantry.  There was no defense against such a shameful weapon.  What was to be done?  Few posited an answer.  The only consolation to be had that day was that the mosquitoes were so veracious the Federals were sure to suffer mightily all the way to the Mill.  There we will make our last stand.

-By Michael Bunch