Custer's army disliked East Texas

By Bob Bowman
Special to the Journal

When General George Armstrong Custer and his men were massacred at Little Big Horn in 1876, they may have gone to their graves with a piece of East Texas.

In 1865, eleven years before the massacre, General Custer was assigned to Texas as a part of the reconstruction of Texas following the Civil War.

Custer's mounted cavalry, totaling 3,000 men, left Alexandria, Louisiana, in August in 1865. Crossing the Sabine River at Bevil's Ferry in the northeast corner of Newton County, the troops were headed for Austin where Custer would become the federal military commander of a cavalry division.

Passing through the Newton County community of Survey, now a ghost town, Custer's men saw eleven pair of hand-knitted socks hanging on a line to dry. Needing socks, they proceeded to take them.

We know that Custer and his men died with their boots on at Little Big Horn, but history doesn't tell us if they died with Newton County's socks on.

However, thanks to research by Wanda Bobinger, curator of the Polk County Memorial Museum at Livingston, we do know how Custer and his men felt about East Texas as they passed through on their way to Austin.

A member of Custer's staff, known as Browne, kept a journal during the march from Alexandria to Austin.

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 if even God himself has abandoned it."

On August 20, eight days after entering Texas, Custer and his men reached Swartwout Ferry on the Trinity River in Polk County. They forded the river and camped on the west bank.

Encountering dozens of rattlesnakes on the bluff, they dubbed the site "Camp Rattlesnake." Browne reported: "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. We remained in camp...and dreamed of snakes."

In their saddles at 4 a.m. the next morning, the cavalry marched 27 miles without water before coming to "two beautiful villages of Cold Spring and Waverly." Browne said they were "the only towns that I have seen yet in Texas worth mentioning after traveling some 150 miles in the state."

During the march through East Texas, Browne apparently had an aversion to pine trees. He wrote: "There are pines before us, pines behind us, pines on each side of us, nothing but pines."

Browne also commented on East Texas' heat. "Most of the men are broken out with heat as thick as one with measles. It felt like I was being pricked with a million pins, or being sprinkled on bare skin with hot ashes."

Browne also complained: "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."

Maybe Browne and the rest of Custer's men should have stayed in Texas. Even the East Texas vermin would have been a lot less painful than what they encountered at the Little Big Horn.

Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 30 books about East Texas and the author of a forthcoming book on forgotten towns of East Texas. He can be reached at bobb@consolidated.net

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