An Arch Rebel Like Myself

A review of “An Arch Rebel Like Myself;” Dan Showalter and the Civil War in California and Texas, by by Gene Armistead and Robert D. Arconti (North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2018).

Discussion of the War for Southern Independence often includes facts about who were the last to lay down their arms.  It is commonly argued that Gen. Stand Waite’s troops were the last to surrender, on June 23, 1865.  But new research reveals that another unit of soldiers outlasted them by one day.  That unit was a command of Texas, of the 4th Texas Cavalry, Arizona Brigade (there were more than one command, sometimes confused).  They never surrendered.  Knowing Gen. Lee’s glowing assessment that his best troops came from Texas, this should be no surprise.  But it may take one aback that much of the regiment and the commander himself—were from California.

The commander was Col. Dan Showalter.  Culled from a host of previously unused sources, Showalter’s first comprehensive and scholarly biography has just been released by McFarland of North Carolina.  Co-author Gene Armistead has a long list of historical titles in his vita, and Robert D. Arconti seems to have spearheaded the project after being recruited by staff at a state park owing to his background as an editor.  Commendably, the work is free from politicized distractions.  Its consistency of accuracy and objectivity makes it refreshing to read.  Its historiographic achievement fills in many gaps in the history of the West during that devastating war.

Col. Showalter distinguished himself in a number of battles, including the Battle of Galveston, where he fought at close quarters, sinking an enemy ship, and at the Battle of Sabine Pass.  He also served, as he wrote in a letter back home to California, “in several engagements in Arkansas and the Indian Nations;” and also at the two Battles of Palmito Ranch, ending the war.

Now what some might consider extraordinary is that although he had cousins in Virginia, Dan Showalter was born (ca. 1829) and raised, and then college-educated, in Pennsylvania.  The book is complete with genealogical research; the name Showalter comes down from Swiss and Alsatian settlers of the eighteenth century who intermarried with their Scotch-Irish and English neighbors.  Drawn by the report of gold discoveries produced by the U.S. military governor of the California Republic in 1848 (Col. Richard Barnes Mason of Virginia), Showalter bought passage aboard ship by way of malaria-infested Nicaragua, arriving at San Francisco in 1852.

Showalter prospered, bought a ranch near Horseshoe Bend in Mariposa County and quickly made friends.  Soon after, Showalter was elected to the California Assembly, taking office in 1857.  After the true nature of the Know Nothings came to light, the K.N’s and other neo-Whig parties self-destructed, and the conservative Democratic party held sway.  At the time, the patronage was contested by two wings, by a minority associated with Tammany Hall based out of state in New York, and the home-grown majority known as the Chivalry Democracy.  From the name, one could infer not only the horseman’s respect for women but more particularly the Christian moral of restraint in the exercise of power over others.  The term reflects something of Showalter’s character; the authors note a consistent pattern of restraint in his voting record, in which he held to fiscal conservatism by voting down funding for projects concerning internal improvements.

The electoral election of 1860 hit California like an earthquake and the edifice of democracy shook as Northeastern troops stuffed ballots all over the state, often openly.  Although the Chivalry Democracy had not retreated, the three-way split of the Democracy made plausible the accession of a minority candidate of the new “false Republicans” that replaced the failed neo-Whigs.  The authors of An Arch Rebel do mention in passing a little of the electoral fraud in regards to Dan Showalter’s career.  For example, Charles Piercy, a newly minted Republican, was propped up and sent to Sacramento with more votes than there were residents in his district.  A chill fell over the statehouse.  Legislation floundered as debate became fierce over the most petty issues, while avoiding any meaningful action over the war in the horizon.

Although only hinted at by the authors, it should seem apparent that legislators feared arrest.  And indeed before the War ended, state and local leaders would be assigned a new home in Alcatraz, while Northeastern troops smashed printing presses up and down the state.  Northern-controlled papers back east gloated that the first use of the fort guarding the Bay, which Jefferson Davis had built, would be to hold his compatriots.  Since the Spanish days, order in the Californian frontier was kept by the military, continuing during the US protectorate of the California Republic.  After admission as a state, these troops occupying the West were increased to “protect” the Indians.

Despite this climate, Showalter, did well and rose to the position of Speaker pro tem.  Near the end of the legislative session, resolutions were proposed to recognize the Confederacy and the just independence of the South.  The matter was tabled and later replaced with a tepid promise not to provoke the new Northeastern regime.  When a permanent Speaker was chosen, a resolution was proposed to commend Showalter for “the efficient, dignified, impartial, and courteous manner in which he discharged his duties as Speaker.”  The resolution carried unanimously.

Despite that unanimity, freshman Charles Piercy rose to challenge Showalter, claiming that the proposed resolution supporting the South had used language “susceptible of being construed into a personal insult.”  The Assembly disagreed, and Piercy resorted to the “code duello.”  Piercy’s backers boasted that this would put Showalter in an impossible situation.  If he declined the challenge as pointless, he would be discredited.  But if he accepted and won, they would brand him a murderer.  Showalter did accept, while Piercy’s backers made no effort to protect him; Piercy was killed.

Showalter left office for the greater conflict now at hand.  From his position of prominence, Showalter proposed that state militia be broken into smaller units, in order for them to cut through occupation lines and cross the desert to the main theater of war back east.  Thus, it appears that Showalter became the most visible recruiter for the Californian war effort.  This is corroborated by sources outside the book, which describe how militia units were outfitted and armed at state expense before vanishing from the official records.

Not in the book is that the recruitment drive was successful owing to the state Adjutant-General who superintended it all, native Californian, Gen. Don Andrés Pico.  Beginning in 1864, Pico would lose his status as the alleged “richest man in the world,” after Lincoln confiscated his home hacienda at ex-Mission San Fernando, and after the US Supreme Court confiscated the rest of his substantial land-holdings through years of exhausting litigation.  During the war, individuals who could not afford the journey east indicated their desire to participate with the South.  Then while miltary units from the Northeast were reconfigured as “Californian,” the new regime relegated westerners left behind to regional Guard duty, policing Indians to meet conscription demands, which is not an indication of trust.  Lists of regular volunteers and their Confederate units were smuggled back through the occupation and published in the remnant free press.

Eventually, Showalter himself, at the head of a troop of cavalry (Californians were famous horsemen), headed east.  However, his popularity made his journey to war impossible undetected, and he and his company were captured.  Nevertheless, they bided their time and escaped south through Mexico—after raising more volunteers.  About this time, occupying troops addressed the military training camp near El Monte (outside Los Angeles), which was operating out in the open.  The camp relocated to the mountains, not far from the Overland Trail leading east.

In all, there were about eighty-eight battles, mostly small, in the war in California.  Some regular volunteers chose to ride on overland all the way to the main theater of war; others, such as Showalter, chose to fight closer to home.  These signed up with Texas, joining existing units as other Californians did in the east, or joining new units as they were created and named for California (such as Capt. Jeff Standifer’s) or Arizona.  By April, 1862, Showalter was serving as aide to Gen. John B. Magruder.

In 1863, after the Battles of Galveston and Sabine Pass, Showalter was back on the frontier, his element.  There, as lieutenant colonel, he helped create the 4th Texas Cavalry, Arizona Brigade.  The brigade was split into smaller, independently operating units and Showalter organized his own command.  War on the frontier was particular difficult.  Far from the supply-lines, food and provisions were hard to come by.  Showalter was supplied with destitute volunteers, home-smithed weapons, and rawboned mounts.  Correspondence with his superior officers reveal that they were unable to do better.  But Showalter did succeed with what he had, and his troopers would later finish the war with world-class arms and horses.  During one provisioning, as last as July of 1863, a paper in Texas, wrote regarding his troopers, “A short time since a brigade of Arizonans composed mostly of loyal Californians, passed through San Antonio, Texas.  Being in want of clothes and other things, some of them went about among the hucksters and shopkeepers of the town, displaying an unusual amount of coin.”

The 4th Arizona headed south near to Brownsville on the Rio Grande at the southernmost tip of Texas.  The battle of First Palmito Ranch began when a combined force of Northern infantry and cavalry, with artillery led by a mutineering Mexican officer, attacked Confederate soldiers guarding cattle, who fell back to the 4th Arizona garrisoning the ranch.  For two days, Showalter’s 250 men, with no artillery and no reinforcements, withstood the onslaught of 800 enemy who had two batteries of artillery.  The 4th Arizona returned fire with rifles until decimated and the attackers withdrew.  Showalter survived with half his command dead.

Other units on the frontier did not fare so bravely.  For example, while Col. Showalter, was in the neighborhood of Houston, the original colonel of the 4th Arizona, Spruce M. Baird, formed a new command—the Frontier Expedition—which was assigned to newly promoted Lt. Col. Milton W. Sims on the Red River in northern Texas.  As the war was coming to a close, some men in that unit lost discipline, committing a number of crimes against civilians, “as if a regiment of the enemy troops, and not our own, had invaded us,” said the local paper.  However, ill-informed commentators have mistaken the Frontier Expedition for Showalter’s regiment.  The authors carefully correct that to note that Showalter and his troopers were on the other side of the state.

While summarizing Showalter’s successes, a letter published November 4, 1864 in Houston’s Tri-Weekly Telegraph says that Col. Showalter, “than whom no more gallant officer lives,” had gathered enough notice to receive envious criticism.  Moreover, the letter-writer commends the performance of his troopers who stood their ground against great odds, noting that soon after, the survivors were on the battlefield again for two more fights back to back, ending with them being “twenty miles in advance of any other force.”

On May 12 and 13 the following year was the Second Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last of the war.  The 4th Arizona Regiment of Cavalry was still ready for action until the 16th, when a last meeting of the regiment was called, Col. Showalter presiding.  The meeting issued a Resolution, published in Houston’s Triweekly Telegraph on May 19, 1965.  The Resolution attributes the War by which the Northern regime had torn away “most, if not all, of our essential cardinal rights as sovereign States ruthlessly,” to “sectional and fanatical legislation” and “the military edicts and proclamations of the President of the United States.”

It was resolved that “the members of the 4th Arizona Regiment of Cavalry, comprised of Californians, Missourians, and Texans… relying on the justice of our cause” and

in view of the surrender of the troops of the Trans-Mississippi Department, we do not hold that we are bound to any stipulations which may compromise our Liberties, and as free agents and as true Southern soldiers we will maintain our freedom at all hazards—remain in open warfare against any Yankee rule, and fight the enemy as long as life lasts—follow our commanders into the last trench—denying the right to be surrendered to the hateful foe who is now approaching our sacred threshold for the sake of confiscation, tyranny, and death.

Thereafter, they left for Mexico.

—————

Astutely, An Arch Rebel Like Myself avoids political commentary.  I believe that that tack preserves objectivity and helps retain a broader audience.  Even so, I would enjoy reading future works by other researchers who would make informed political connections.  For example, the authors speculate on why Showalter, who was born in Pennsylvania would unhesitatingly sacrifice everything to volunteer to help lead the defense of the South.

The authors note Showalter grew up just miles from Virginia, which lay to the west and south from his birthplace.  Some residents in southern and western Pennsylvania note a continuum with the South in the regional phrase, “Mason-Dixon.”  Showalter had cousins in the Shenandoah (who by the way are my family).  But I do not believe that this adequately explains his convictions.  Putting together research presented in this biography, I feel his underlying motivation in liberty should not be underestimated.  Fourth Arizona’s Resolution, for example, underlines a regret for the loss of the voluntary union as it was.  At least, that was a common expression out West during and just after the war:  “The Constitution as it is, the union as it was.”  Moreover, Showalter’s voting record in the Californian Assembly is consistent with an understanding of constitutional restraints on power.  The Resolution alludes to the free association of sovereign states in the union as it was; this voluntary partnership, it purports, was dissolved by war and decree.  In other words, Showalter’s loyalty to the South can be better explained by his beliefs of liberty, than by where he was born.

Perhaps some of his motivation can be explained by his adoptive home, the West.  Accurately described as “wild and woolly,” the population was spread out over immense distances from established civilization.  Forced to rule themselves in isolated communities and self-sufficient ranches, they maintained the essence of democracy—the self-ruling power of small, rural communities (δήμος—rural community, κρατία—power).  An intensive school of authentic democracy, those who came out west and panned for gold or ran the thousands of cattle on a thousand hills learned to fend for themselves.

The dry West, lacking water or large-scale irrigation necessary for intensive cultivation, slavery was neither economically or politically viable.  At the same time, pioneer trails stretched from east, due west.  While the urban Northeast, protected by the Great Lakes, drew a dedicated labor force into its burgeoning cities, the Southern settler conquered the soil where it was:  in the open country way out West.  On occasion, western leaders were accused of supporting the expansion of slavery.  For example, California Chief Justice David S. Terry was once charged by a Northern sympathizer with supporting it, but the accusation proved unsupported.  Of course, views supporting the old American democracies of the countryside were common throughout the union with exemplars among “copperhead” Nathaniel Hawthorne or the Swamp Yankee of Connecticut.

But while the undeveloped West became a symbol of freedom, the military presence never completely left.  As populations rounded up into new cities, the old ways went underground.  Yet, it was no so long ago that Richard Nixon’s speeches referred to the “silent majority,” and the political control of the “Northeastern establishment,” winning him a landslide and the hatred of his political backers.  Although the careers of men like Col. Showalter may come as a surprise to us today, they were not exceptional.  Other well-known sons of California fit that mold, such as Gen. George S. Patton, who as a boy was entertained by the Grey Ghost on a visit, or E.J.C. Kewen, a fire-eater who survived the filibuster in Nicaragua.  Gen. Albert S. Johnston, the first commander of the Confederate armies, identified his home as California; he left behind his family in Los Angeles, where his eldest son and Confederate officer came on leave, to be killed in an accident that made front-page news.  Western swing band leader Spade Cooley, who repented in prison of his terrible sins, called California home, as well as Gene Autry, conservative Ronald Reagan, Buck Owens, native-born Clint Eastwood, and contemporary Country Music singer Jon Pardi.  And of course there is that rodeo clown and film veteran, Slim Pickens, a loyal native of Merced in northern California.

These are authentic representatives of California, which history records as the place of the first attempt of a region to secede.  By 1859, southern California had fulfilled all domestic hurdles for secession from the north, prompted by unequal taxation and by the insurrection in San Francisco led by Northeastern bankers a few years before.  I have seen the most wonderful, well-drilled Remembrance Day held recently at a large, public cemetery and afforded front-page coverage in the local paper.  I have seen the graves of pioneer settlers from Tennessee and Kentucky all over the state, along with folks from Texas, Missouri, Mississippi.  I have traced the paths of migration from east to west of the Southern settlement through ancestry and family trees.

Showalter, then, was no exception.  I urge a proper attention to the writings by Dr. Roger McGrath (a legend at UCLA where he taught), and a new scholar, Matt De Santi, who has contributed to the Abbeville Institute.

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