It seemed like a good idea at the time. A leisurely drive across Texas, hitting some of spots, high & low, of my family history to give our sons a touchstone to their heritage. The boys, then ages 15 and 10, thought it sucked.
I dangled the prospect of visiting two Civil War battlefields in Louisiana where my great-grandfather, Thaddeus K. McLemore, and his brother, Felix, has fought. They had joined the 17th Texas Infantry Regiment in Guadalupe County in 1861. As part of Walker’s Division, they had marched across three states and fought in several battles, most notably at Sabine Cross Roads and Pleasant Hill in Louisiana. But no matter how historical or well-intentioned, any drive across any part of Texas is never leisurely. It’s long. And monotonous.
The lure had also been to see McDade, a small dying village east of Austin where my great-grandfather had been lynched. Nothing inspires a kid like having a distant relative who died in a disreputable manner. The boys were also impressed that Great-grand Pa Thaddeus had been pulled out of the old rock saloon (now named appropriately The Old Rock Saloon) on December 24, 1883, by vigilantes and hanged with two other men on a lonely tree north of town. The saloon, sun-baked red stone, was now a museum of McDade’s founding. It was also closed. I drove on the old old north for about two miles, the general location of where the hangings had occurred, according to historical records. The hanging tree is long gone and what remains is a cleared pasture with cattle. Disappointment was palpable in the back seat. We returned to town, bought over-priced soft drinks at an old general store. The young clerk met questions about the hanging with total disinterest. We read a nearby plaque about the Christmas Eve hanging, then climbed in the car and drove east.
A brief drive-through in Longview, where I spent the first three years of my life, was viewed with disbelief. “You lived here? Why?” It was an excellent question. We drove on, pulling into Louisiana late in the day, too late to make the first battlefield. The decision to stay in Shreveport drew protests that we just go home.
“Battlefields, remember?” I said.
Ginny had my back. “It’ll be fun,” she said. My wife, who is not that fond of long, tedious drives, had been fully supportive of this family trip idea. But I noticed a sharper edge had crept into her voice. We found a place to stay and had a late supper.
We rose early, leaving Shreveport and driving south on Interstate 49, turning off on LA Hwy 179, which tracks the old pike road that winded down to Mansfield. Four miles south lies the state historical park commemorating the battle of Sabine Crossroads on April 6, 1864, when Confederate forces clashed with Yankee troops in a high-water mark of the Union’s Red River campaign.
We had the place to our selves. We walked in among the dark pines where the Confederate soldiers had formed up their battle lines. We read the monuments and the accounts of death and suffering that occurred that lovely spring day. Confederates and Union casualties totaled about 1,600. It was recorded as a rebel victory, since it drove Banks’ troops down the road toward Pleasant Hill. The significance of the battle and who won or lost can be discussed ad infinitum by historians. For me, the battle’s paled as I concentrated on part of what is now someone’s farm field on the west side of the old road. There, Thaddeus stood next to his brother and others in the 17th Texas, waiting in the sun for the signal to run screaming toward Union guns. The sight of my sons on that field, only slightly younger than Thaddeus when he stood there, is still a haunting memory twelve years later.
We drove toward the 18 miles south to the site the old town of Pleasant Hill, where rebel and Yankees clashed again three days later. This time, more than 3,000 young men bled in a day-long battle that roared through the old town and into its cemetery. At the end of the day, both sides withdrew to tend their wounds. The Union army marched back to New Orleans. The Confederate returned toward Shreveport. We climbed in the car and begin the trek back to San Antonio.
The boys were quiet. They asked a few questions, about the war, about Thaddeus and what happened afterward.
One, I forget which, allowed that the visit to the battlefields had been fun. “But why did we start where he was hanged? We went backwards,” he said. Our other son snorted with derision. “That’s how you travel in time, stupid.” The discussion escalated and by the time we approached the state line, they were arguing who was going to climb on the “Welcome to Texas” sign for the family photo.