Fernland, Texas wasn’t much of a place. Barely a town, well sort of, it was just getting started. It was in a large meadow near a spring surrounded by dense pine and oak forest. The Huton family had built a home here in 1832 and started growing corn and beans. They had a pretty hard time of it back then as the Comanches ranged the woods and thought little of these new white faced invaders. Over the course of several years and repeated raids by the Comanches well, they sort of came to an understanding that each would leave the other alone as neither could make much headway against the other during the Indian attacks. The Comanche using little more than tomahawks and bows could not out gun the settlers as they were well equipped with 58 caliber Hawkins rifles and other rifles. They had built their homes more like a small forts with firing slits in all of the windows and doors that were laid out with a wide range of coverage. The Indians stood little chance once they entered the clearing as a clear shot would ring out from any number of the window and door ports pushing them back into the woods for cover. In 1839 the Crane family came to the clearing and also built their home. Along with them they had brought several once ferial long horn cattle which promised to produce a fine herd one day. Three years later the Jardine cabin was built in 1852. Then the Arnold and Simonton families moved to the small town. It was not long before Anna May Arnold and Jedidiah Simonton caught each other’s eye and like any 13 year old of the day it was soon to be a happy marriage. Their parents built an extension between their two houses so that they could be close to each other.
Reverend Prichard of the Independent Episcopal Methodist church, a circuit preacher, found refuge in the assemblage regularly as he made the long ride from Montgomery to Hempstead to Snook and back every three weeks or so. By this time there were even plans to build a church on the site once a few more people came into the county.
Montgomery County had been a hot bed of rebellion against the Mexican government during the war for Texas Independence and the men stock had been sorely depleted at the massacre after the battle of Goliad, when the Mexican Army summarily executed those who surrendered. It would take a number of years before the population was to grow strong enough to justify a proper church. But Montgomery County could take great pride in being the birth place of the Lone Star Texas National Flag and having sent a good number of her sons to its defense.
And now it seemed that times were once again conspiring against Fernland. The damnable Yankees had stirred up a new war which had been waged across much of the South these last four years. Things had not gone well for the gallant men of the South. Lincoln’s boys were now raging across much of Alabama and Georgia burning everything that they touched including the sacred homes of our gallant troops. This is shameful, a utterly shameful thing. They ranged in a swath 60-90 miles wide tearing up railroad tracks, cutting telegraph lines, burning salt mines and manufacture works. Why they even lined up abreast and trampled down the wheat and set fire to the cotton and corn fields before they moved on. They ringed the apple trees so that they would die and stole everything that was not nailed down or well-hidden in the ground. They were shameless and little more than a marauding group of scallywags, braggarts, thieves and marauders. They may have called themselves an army but they acted more like bandits then men of honor. Shame upon shame is heaped upon them for their repeated cowardly acts and their shameless robbery of the good citizens of the South.
General McGruder, the hero of the Battle of Galveston, had ordered all the troops in the western department to assemble around Hempstead to protect the vital rail head from Houston to Austin and beyond. By February of 1865 there were some 45,000 troops encamped in and around the city of Hempstead. It looked like there was to be one final battle and with luck Lincoln’s boys could be whipped again and hopefully Texas would regain its independence once more. The Yankees were tired of the fight and this was to be our last grate hope if not for the South for the State of Texas.
It was thought the Yankees were at least two months forced march from the coast and it was hoped that more artillery might be shifted from Decatur, Waco or Ft. Worth for the battle. Dispatches had come from Houston indicating the Federals were likely to blockade their port again, but our boys were ready for them after having pushed them out in Beaumont and retaken the city for Texas.
Several men of the 42nd Texas Dismounted Calvary had been given leave after their gallant service on the eastern front. Pvt. Bunch, Capt. Matthew Meyers and his distant cousin, SSgt Ken Meyers, were determined to attend the county fair being held on the weekend of the 17th of October so as to reawaken old acquaintances and get a break from the carnage they had seen at Cold Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain and Resaca. You cannot blame them as their unit had virtually ceased to exist when the casualties overwhelmed the available men from this part of Texas to support the unit with replacements. The ride form Hempstead, some 45 miles, was to be leisurely and hopefully uneventful.
It was always wise to travel in groups of three or more as Comancheros and Comanches still lurked in the area. They generally would not attack larger groups, especially if they were well armed. And brandishing sabers, carbines and pistols these men were clearly not an easy target. They set out at sunrise on the morning of the 12th with the intent of making town by the evening of the 16th. Although the lay of the land was relatively flat the country was blanked with thicket and deep forest. The Natchez trace was available to them for nearly half the distance, but the rest of the trip had to be made helter skelter following cow paths until the Montgomery Trace could be found some 25 miles beyond which would lead them to Fernland Township.
The first day’s trip was uneventful. The early fall in these parts is quite passible. The cool days and chilly nights were a welcome change from the stifling hot of the summers. At least it kept the mosquitos at bay. They made good time down the trace. That night they made camp along Clear Creek; although nearly dry it did provide some water for the horses from the shallow spring. In fact there was enough of a rough stew made of me-haw berries and one hapless scrawny rabbit. Then there was what was called euphemistically coffee, (chicory root and dried roasted peas) as the Federal blockade had long sense stopped the importation of coffee. After a meager meal and well less than satisfying coffee, all laid down for the night on a bed of pine needles, covering themselves up with their great coats for some well-deserved rest.
In the night a gentle drizzle began to fall but it was barely noticed by the bone tired men and the horses simply shrugged it off. It did make for a particularly bright morning and bit of a shivering breakfast. Corn meal, parched acorns and bacon grease were mixed and roasted over a bayonet. Once eaten they were off again down the trace anxious to make a good days ride toward Fernland.
Along about noon they got a surprise. Pvt. Bunch was bringing up the end of the line when a panther leapt from a high limb of a large oak tree upon the back of the pack mule. The mule instinctively lurched back rearing up. It was so unexpected and fast that Pvt. Bunch was unceremoniously unseated from his saddle as he held tight to the reigns of the mule. Utter chaos broke out immediately as he landed on this south side with a loud teeth jarring thud so hard as to knock his hat off. The mule was in full fury fighting for its life. In a twirl of dust bucking, braying and hooves it scrambled to knock the panther off its back. The panther for its part was surprised by the ferocity of the mule’s response and it dug its claws into the canvas cover over our gear and hunkered down for the ride of its life. The mule bucked wildly gyrating right and left and back and forth all at the same time. It was everything that Private Bunch could do just to get out of the way and to not be trampled. He scampered on all fours as fast as he could to the nearest pine tree and hid behind it for safety. Simultaneously Capt. Meyers’ horse, smelling the cat bolted, slamming him against a tree and unseating him as he became entangled in the wait-a-minute-vines. Only SSgt Meyers was able to wheel his unsteady horse quickly enough to respond. In one smooth motion he withdrew his carbine and took aim at the floundering, kicking, bucking, braying furry behind him. But wisely he held his shot for fear of hitting the mule. In short order the mule moved toward a large tree nearly obscured in the brush, smashing the panther against a low branch dislodging it. The cat, uncharacteristically did not land on its feet, rather hit squarely on its back with a thud. Without a second to waste the mule spun completely around and proceeded to pummel the now less than majestic cat with its front hoofs. After several well placed strikes the panther decided that he had had enough. As the cat was making an unceremoniously fast retreat the mule stampeded after it until the cat disappeared into the thick underbrush, wiser for the day but still hungry.
All of this action took less than five minutes, but seemed like a week. Sgt. Meyers could hardly contain himself laughing at Pvt. Bunch, covered in dust as he sauntered from behind the tree to retrieve his very crushed hat. When he noticed that the captain had been unhorsed his laughter stopped and he immediately went to his aid is befitting a gentleman. It took nearly an hour to gather up the scattered camp equipment, to calm the mule and to resume the trip. All agreed that the panther must have been a young one or it would have known better than to attack the loaded fully grown mule. All agreed that it had been quite a morning and that we were lucky that nothing more than our pride had been hurt by the mornings events. The rest of the day was relatively uneventful much to everyone’s delight.
That night they rested by Upper Ponds Creek and knew that it was not much farther to Fernland, which rested near the spring that fed the creek. But now there was fresh fish for dinner. They were small but they were quite welcomed as it had been some time since any of the assemblage had eaten fried fish or otherwise and all were tired of fried corn meal. By 10 o’clock the following morning they were in Fernland. And what a sight it was after all these miles and these many years of one battle after another. Everyone welcomed the thought of having a rest where there would be little to worry about other than what was to be eaten that day.
Pvt. Bunch was especially anxious to arrive as his father had made arrangements with Master. Wil Amacanim to take the hand of his daughter, Jennifer, as soon as he was able to return from the front. Although they had never met, because the Amacanim plantation was rich and prosperous it had been decided by their parents they would be a good match and they should marry this spring. All that remained was for the formal introduction and the posting of the intentions at the village square.
The meadow was uncharacteristically busy this day. Normally everyone would have made their way to work the fields by now and would be busy hoeing, watering, chopping and weeding. But this day everyone was in a festive mood. The county fair was to be held tomorrow. Local farmers were setting up their vegetable stalls, prize animals were being groomed and there was a great hubbub as everyone busied themselves in preparation for the next day’s events. To be honest, the hominess of the scene sort of brought a large lump to the throats of all the men as it had been quite some time since they had seen such a wonderful placid scene. Though honorable as it was, military service, for so many years, had left a deep longing in their hearts of these for the simple things of hearth and home. None of them could hardly believe their eyes – they were home. The thoughts of military camp, drums, military drills, roll calls and the thunder and smoke of battle quickly failed into the smells of cooking fresh bread and the sights of animal husbandry all around them. All three of them just sat in their saddles for a moment drinking in the scene wishing that it would not end and half vainly hoping that they would not have to return to the front. Yet they knew deep in their hearts that honor demanded this be only a short respite and in a week they must and would make their way back to the encampment near Hempstead.
Then without notice, the tranquility was shredded by the sound of gunfire coming from the edge of the forest. Without thinking and almost like a machine our gallant men dismounted and formed a skirmish line to return fire. The farmers, the children and the women were screaming and scurrying everywhere looking for safety behind a tree or rushing into a building. Before long a second rain of lead fell upon the meadow and there was not one person to be seen. Everyone had disappeared into the buildings or the woods beyond. Our gallant men advanced abreast toward the fire coming from the woods. A blue belly rifle fell from a tree. If there was to be a fight with these boys today and our men were not going to shirk their duty. Quickly reloading and laying prone each picked off one blue belly before they could form their line. Federal Corporal Kenneth Stewart lay dead at the base of a large tree and Private Bob Mennell would never see his mother again. War had come to Fernland.
By this time each of the homes had turned into a veritable fortress. The windows had been boarded and closed and the doors barred. Through each port a long gun or pistol pointed outwards toward the offending Yankees. Shortly, there was grand roar as each in turn took aim and let loose smoke fire and lead at the attackers. Several other blue bellies fell out from the brush upon the meadow writhing in pain and screaming in agony. A Yankee officer, courting death stood back to the field, raising his sword in both hands above his head to form a line. Captain Connor was unceremoniously cut down. As soon as he fell the sergeant at hand managed to organize the squad, who let loose an ill aimed volley which rattled through the trees above the heads of our gallant defenders. One bullet clipped SSGT Meyers on the brow sending him reeling backwards and nearly spinning him completely around. But the massive fire coming from the homes was too much for the Yankees. The last volley cut down two more of their number and sent them screaming back into the woods from where they came. SSGT. Meyers was not seriously hurt and regaining his balance he advanced in line on command to push the Yankees all the way back to New York City if necessary. The Yankees were learning the lessons that the Comanche’s had learned so many years before, that these farmers were determined and able to defend themselves and their homes.
By the time our small line reached the center of the meadow the civilians poured out of their homes and started to join our number and before long we were 25 strong stretching the full width of the meadow with all firing under the command of our gallant captain. There was little the Yankees could do but to run for their lives. Some of them dropping their weapons and others trying to steal horses with which to ride to safety. It was not long before the scrap was over as the smoke hung low over the meadow. After some searching it was determined that these were not regulars but scallywags, looters and camp followers who advanced with the Yankee army. They left seven of their number dead on the field and we were able to recover 17 Springfield muskets, one saber, two pistols and there was a remarkable new Henery repeater. All in all it had been a good scrap as we had only two slightly wounded and one stolen horse.
We were of course surprised by such a cowardly attack upon our women but we were elated that the scallywags had been routed. The captain as well as both of us knew what this meant. It meant that the Yankees had advanced further into Texas much faster than anyone had expected. It meant that they were on the verge of attacking our command. We sadly knew that duty called again. We knew that we must immediately return to the command as a battle was coming and every man would be needed to defend the rail head and the honor of Texas. There was not time to be lost. So after making sure that the assemblage was safe, that the scallywags were certainly gone, we ate a swift but hardy meal, mounted up and rode as quickly as we could back to Hempstead and the battle we knew was waiting for us.
Fernland is located near downtown Montgomery, Texas. Fernland Historical Park is a unique hands-on educational park, bringing samples of early Texas architecture together with examples of early Texas life. The log homes and cabins presented within the park are some of the oldest remaining structures within Texas. The park is open for self-guided walking tours during daylight hours. Docent Hours: AClosed on Mondays. 11-6 Tuesday – Saturday. 12 – 4 Sunday. Each year the second weekend of October a Heritage Fest is organized with demonstrations from the Texas War of Independence and the Civil War. There is ample food and interesting demonstrations for all. If you are in these parts next year Ya’ll come visit. http://www.fernland.org.
-By Michael Bunch