In late 2010, having volunteered to assist Drum Barracks Civil War Museum in Wilmington, California, with research in pro-secession activity in California, director Susan Ogle handed me a list of names, places and events for possible investigation. One of those names was that of Dan Showalter, a California politician turned Confederate cavalry officer of whom I'd never heard.

Becoming fascinated just after reading the barest outline of Showalter's life, the next year found me hunting down everything I could find about this largely forgotten character. When I had finished my research -- which included the discovery of several previously unpublished items as well as obtaining the only known photograph from a Showalter descendent -- I had so much material that Susan exclaimed, "You've got a whole exhibit right here!"

And with her guidance, on November 5, 2011, co-curated by myself and Susan Ogle, my "Dan Showalter: California's Arch Rebel" exhibit went on display at the Drum.

Now being slated for removal in August 2012 in that ongoing round of ever-successive new exhibits that mark good museums, I've started this website as a place where, over time, I can memorialize and expand upon all the material accumulated on this remarkable Californian.

Hope you'll return often as this website expands and enjoy!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What Really Happened at Palmito Hill

If you search for material on Dan Showalter online, you generally come away with the idea that, regardless of how he might have begun his military career, he ended up a dissolute and drunken marauder. But once you dig a bit deeper, particularly when reading Col. RIP Ford's account, sketchy as it is, of Showalter's court martial following his retreat from Palmito Hill on September 9, 1864, questions arise as to just how justifiably was Showalter brought up on charges.

In my last posting, I argued the position that, in reality, Showalter's reputation -- as well as the reputation of his 4th Texas Cavalry itself -- may have been undeservedly damaged. Even though Ford's assessment of Showalter's character later in life was qualified by saying "When not under the influence of liquor," there seem too many loose strings to draw such derogatory conclusions as to his character as have generally been drawn.

But then, the wonder of the Internet is that new material continually arises. Over the last few months -- yes, I still periodically hunt down whatever new information I can find on Ol' Dan -- I came across the tremendous find of a contemporary Texan newspaper which sheds all sorts of new light on that fateful day at Palmito Hill.

Witness the Weekly State Gazette published in Austin, Texas, on October 19, 1864 (above). Although a good chunk of the paper is missing in the bottom left corner of its front page, the article starting in the lower first column and continuing well into the third deals with "The Battles of San Martin and Palmetto Ranch (sic), Fought Sept. 9th, 1864; Extracts from the Journal of a Murrah Ranger, on the Rio Grande." That "Palmetto Ranch" is none other than the same Palmito Hill at which Col. Showalter and unit were besieged and for which he was subsequently court martialed, and the Murrah Rangers were one of the Confederate units ultimately brought up to reinforce Showalter's position after his troops had fled in retreat.

While we know that Mexican revolutionary general Cortina had opened fire on the 4th Texas Cavalry from across the Rio Grande, what we really don't know is that this cannonading came at a time -- and apparently in collusion with Union troops from a discussion in Ford's memoirs -- when Showalter's position was already under concerted attack by Union forces. To quote the article above:

Half an hour later a courier arrived from our front, from Lieut. Col. Dan E. Showalter, bringing the astonishing news that the Yankees, in strong force, with infantry, cavalry and artillery, were pressing upon his front and left; and that Cortinas (sic) was shelling him from the other side of the river.

So contrary to the impression that comes from Ford's minimal account, in addition to the cannonading, Showalter was already fully engaged with multiple Union units. And keep in mind that this would be from the landward side of his position, so already pushing Showalter's men up against the river -- only now to receive cannon fire from that direction as well!

Showalter's dispatches to Ford from this date are still available in Col. Ford's papers (see example in my August 8, 2012 posting). It is notable that the only dispatches sent to Ford have to do with Cortina's involvement and not Yankee engagement. Given this evidence of his heavy engagement, if anything one would expect that Showalter felt his unit was holding its own until this Mexican barrage began -- something that seems unlikely if he had been too drunk to exercise command, as charged later by Col. Ford under duress from Gen. Drayton.

So what then happened? Did the 4th Texas Cavalry just turn tail once the cannonading began and run? The Weekly State Gazette article continues:

Col. S. called for immediate relief. The order was immediately given for 300 men to saddle their horses, and go to his assistance. Unfortunately, however, our horses had all been out to grass, and at least two or three hours must elapse before they could be brought in.

At this point we hit the missing part of the article, but we now know that relief was unable to get to Showalter's men for a considerable amount of time.  In spite of the break in the text, Showalter's name is mentioned at the top of the second column, so we gain more information -- including this comment:

,,, 200 Yankees, in two bodies, had flanked him from the Point Isabel road and that he had with difficulty brought off his men."

So by this time we know that Showalter had been attacked literally from all sides, could not retreat other than to attempt escape in the direction of the Union lines because of the river, and that, apparently having gotten at least some distance from his trapped initial position, he was still battling some 200 enemy soldiers.

As if that's not bad enough, add this from the article:

Dispatching some messengers to inform this stampede company that we were not Yankees, we proceeded down the telegraph road in such a rain as has not fallen before since the days of Noah. The water along the prairie was up to our saddle-girths...

So now we not only have Showalter and men being completed surrounded with backs up against the river and with no way to go except into the Union lines -- we have torrential rain and, apparently, flood conditions!

The article goes on to describe how the Murrah Rangers engaged Union and Mexican soldiers for another extended period of time until, finally, troops under Col. Giddings arrive and stop the Yankee drive from Palmito Hill and behind Showalter's troops. Note that it is Col. Giddings who is cited in Ford's very sketchy memoirs of this date as having been sent to regroup Showalter's troops and stop the retreat. But now we know that Col. Giddings' success came only hours after Showalter's attempt to hold his position and after even the first arriving supporting troops, these same Murrah Rangers, had been driven back as well.

Given this evidence, the extremely difficult weather conditions, the 360-degree assault without open escape, and the several hours over which this whole scenario took place, can one really argue that Showalter was unable to exercise command? Perhaps especially if he had been drinking? Doesn't this account rather argue that Showalter was in a nearly impossible situation and made the most, only after hours of engagement, out of the very limited chance of removing his troops to safety?

I don't know much about Gen. Drayton, but now having come across this evidence I can't help but think that his ultimatum to Ford that either Showalter be court-martialed or Drayton would himself court-martial Ford reeks more of finding a scapegoat for what Drayton probably considered an embarrassment -- whether that be the "retreat" from Palmito Hill or perhaps a dislike of drinking officers. If nothing else, this speaks volumes of Ford's recounting that absolute outrage with which Showalter reacted to the charges against him.

The more information I find and the more I consider it, the more I become convinced that both Dan Showalter and his 4th Texas Cavalry, Arizona Brigade, were completely undeserving of the reputation they have come to have of being drunken desperados and marauders. On deeper examination, everything in his life speaks to Showalter's strong character and sense of principle, purpose and honor. 

We must keep in mind that such events in his life as the killing of Charles Pearcy in a duel, advocating secession from the Union, embracing the Confederacy and its slaveholding policy were at that time accepted as true and virtuous principle and honorable by not only the Southern third of the country, but by a significant number residing in the "Union states." Although we now may disavow those principles and that sense of honor, we must assess those who lived at that time by their own standards -- from which it would seem more and more that Dan Showalter and his companions in arms did not deviate.

The digital file of the newspaper cited may be found at the Texas Digital Newspaper Program of the University of North Texas.