On July 31, 1861, Columbus Williamson Holbrook — “C.W.” to family and friends — left the little town of Mt. Vernon, in the piney woods of east Texas, with a small group of young, local men. They called themselves the “Mt. Vernon Grays.”
The Grays were headed to Springfield, Missouri, almost 400 miles away. There, they would rendezvous with the Third Texas Cavalry, which was readying for battle at Wilson’s Creek. Holbrook, then a merchant in his mid-20s, would join Company H. So would his friend, George Stringfellow, a merchant from neighboring Hopkins County.
Upon leaving home, Holbrook wrote in his diary:
On the 31 day of July 1861 our Little company of nine left our lovely homes in the town of Mt. Vernon, Titus Co., Texas, tore ourselves from our Fathers, Mothers, Brothers, and Sisters and numerous near and dear friends to join the army of the Southern Confederacy.
In “The Third Texas Cavalry in the Civil War,” author Douglas Hale, professor emeritus of history at Oklahoma State University, writes, “In each case, the departure of the local company from its little hometown was attended by a huge assemblage of well-wishers: patriotic speeches, the formal presentation of a company ensign, and frequently a barbecue formed the program.”
From Holbrook’s description, the same might be said of Mt. Vernon:
We left Mt. Vernon at 10 oclock A.M. amid one of the most affecting senes I ever saw. We left as cheerfully as the circumstances would admit of, and to disipate the deep gloom that hung over us we laughed and talked all the evening, and a passer by would not observed anything gloomy in our company this evening. We marched about seventeen miles to day and camped near Trents crossing … at a very beautiful lake where we had a fine time. The band gave us music till midnight when we placed our blankets on the grass and tried to sleep, but there was not much sleep for us thinking of our weeping family that was left behind and the long twelve months before we could see them again.
Holbrook must have been well-liked in Mt. Vernon, a town that in 1861 had only about 200 residents. Before he rode out of town that morning, friends penned patriotic farewell letters in the diary.
One eloquent missive was written by Mollie Mann, a schoolteacher and a member of the town’s prominent Fanning family:
C.W. Holbrook: Life — it seems — is but a varied prospect of lights and shadows — and alas! — how often we find the latter predominate — that fair landscape which gay fancy so brightly wrought marred by the rude listings of sober reality. This great national calamity which has befallen our country has probably produced more anguish of heart than can easily be conceived. When we contemplate the once happy, prosperous and peaceful condition of our country, and the benign influence of the government which was a nation’s pride — realizing that its glory has departed and the present aspect of our country portending a fearful contest of millions of civilized men, what mind could be susceptible of any other emotion than that of deep and painful regret. We are called upon to relinquish our beloved friends — to prepare them for deadly conflict — embracing them perhaps for the last time, as they wave us a long, sad farewell — leaving us all the heart holds dear and hasten to the scene of carnage. But believing that we have Divine approval in the cause you espouse, we bid you go. And tho we are not unmindful of the hardships and perils of a soldier’s life — this is no time for frail hearts — this is a period for heroes, for hearts brave and true, and while you are the objects of our tenderest sympathies and most fervent prayers — remember that Liberty is the sweetest boon of life and dearer far — that we would rather weep over a soldier’s grave, than dwell under the oppressor’s sway. Then, go bravely go, and teach the cowards how to claim our rights and pervert our liberties, and may you happily survive the conflict. “Your honor calls you hence, then go and all the gods go with you, upon your sword sit laurel victory and smooth success be strewed before your feet.”
This farewell letter was written by another friend, E.G. Patton:
Mr. Holbrook! Goodbye, for a few days past we have been deeply interested in your contemplated departure and now as the last privilege of expiring friendship, I am requested to subscribe myself in your journal among the favored ones you cherish as friends. You go to participate in the unhappy crisis of the day — and tho’ you have our fondest wishes and our never ceasing rememberance, we will not cloud your departure with regrets. But bid you go — go join the brave valiant Sons of the South and nobly defend our rights. We bid you Heavenly smiles and a joyous return to your cherished home and much loved friends you now bid adieu.
After leaving Mt. Vernon, Holbrook wrote about how the Grays were received in towns they passed through on their way to Springfield:
Aug 1: … When we marched into town, we were cordially received by the good Citizens of the place, every one wanting to do us some favor. We were conducted out of town by Mr. Frank Simms whose kindness of himself and family [will] long be remembered by our little company. We had a very pressing invitation to attend a dansing party to night but declined.
Aug 6: … found some good watermelons, the owner of which was patriotic enough to charge fifteen cents a piece. The citizens in this portion of the count[r]y would have you believe they are very patriotic but they love to charge too well to suit me. We traveled sixteen miles in the fore noon today, got our din[n]er and fed our horses at Mr. McDanels spring, had some fine buiscuits baked, eat heartily and some of the boys took a snoose in the after noon. We traveled fifteen miles and camped out at Mr. Lanes when Georg Stringfellow was a little sick. Mr. Lane had two son in laws to the war. We saw their wives. They showed us their husbands daguerreotypes and said they were man enough to fight themselves.
Next week, we’ll see that Holbrook, a typical young man (even by today’s standards), spent a lot of time thinking about two things: food and women. Until then.