In honor of today’s release of her latest book, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, Dale Center co-director Susannah Ural reflects on a new approach to writing unit histories.
by Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.
In the summer of 1863, Josephine “Josie” Scott walked into Isaac Cline’s photography gallery in Palestine, Texas. Her features and attire in the image Cline captured that day are unremarkable. What stands out was Scott’s decision to hold an ambrotype of her husband while Cline made an ambrotype of her.
Josie Scott’s husband was Lt. John G. Scott, a member of the 1st Texas Infantry. Serving in the Texas Brigade in Lt. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the 1st Texas was known for aggressive fighting that had won them an unwanted honor the previous September at the battle of Antietam. They suffered the most casualties of any regiment on either side in the war in that bloody fight. But even 87 percent losses (higher than the 82 percent often quoted) had not broken the regiment, though it had made a host of women like Josie Scott widows. Perhaps it was with this in mind that she decided to send her husband a subtle message that, even though he was a thousand miles away, he was with her, just as she was with him.
Josie Scott’s image highlights the strong familial bonds that sustained a hard fighting unit like the Texas Brigade through four years of war. By the time she had the ambrotype made, Hood’s Texans, as they were known, were already famous for helping to roll back Union forces at the battles of Gaines’s Mill and Second Manassas, for their astonishing bravery at Antietam, and for seizing the first if not the second of their objectives at the Battle of Gettysburg. The men of this unit had raced to be among the first to reach Virginia when the war began because it was there that they believed they could best contribute to Confederate victory. They could have fought just as honorably closer to home, but not, they argued, as effectively. So they remained in the east, year after year, suffering such astonishingly high casualties that they earned another dubious honor. Most Civil War soldiers were twice as likely to die from disease as they were in combat, but by the end of the war, the opposite proved true for the Texas Brigade.
Hood’s Texans became a textbook unit in lessons of leadership and soldier ideology, and rightfully so. But too often overlooked is the significant role that their families played in helping their men sustain that determination to fight. This unit reminds us that when we study units to understand what made them effective or ineffective, we need to more closely consider the contributing role played by their immediate families. While some Southern wives, mothers, and fathers were telling men that they needed to come home or writing to governors to insist that soldiers’ families receive the care they were promised, astonishingly few letters like this came from Texas Brigade families. This may be because many of them had the financial stability to offset the hardships caused by the war, to help other brigade families, and to raise funds for their men in Virginia. But families’ letters and diaries also indicate that they shared their volunteers’ belief that sacrifices were necessary to secure Confederate independence.
Texas Brigade soldiers and families continued to face hardships together, as a unit, long after the fighting stopped. When veterans opened businesses, for example, they were more likely to cite their service in the Texas Brigade than anything that had to do with their new enterprise. When Dr. R. J. Breckenridge, who ended the war as chief medical examiner for the Army of Northern Virginia, opened his practice in Houston, he advertised his original position as a surgeon in Hood’s Texas Brigade to attract patients, not his training or prominence in Lee’s army. By 1870, five years after they returned home, those connections helped to ensure that two-thirds of the veterans and families of Hood’s Texas Brigade were more financially secure than their friends and neighbors in the same county. They waged the peace of Reconstruction together as a unit just as they had waged the war.
Josie Scott’s ambrotype reminds us that it is only by studying the full picture of a military unit — the men at the front and their families at home — that we can begin to understand what drove them to war, how they fought and endured it, and how they navigated the rocky peace that followed.
Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D. is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of four books on the U.S. Civil War, including the latest: Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit. Ural credits the Blount Professorship in Military History, which she held from 2013-2015, for giving her the time and support she needed to complete her decade-long study of this unit.