William Watson
1st Sergeant 3rd Louisiana Infantry
Pelican Rifles

 

 

When Life in the Confederate Army was published in England in 1887, the Boston Sunday Herald proclaimed it "the best story of the Southern side yet written. It has been reserved for an unknown and comparatively unlettered writer---an English civil engineer---to furnish a better account of the condition of the South at the time of the secession, and a better sketch of life in the Confederate Army than has hitherto been written by any one." This "unknown and comparatively unlettered writer"was William Watson, one of a number of foreign-born Confederates whose courage and capabilities enriched the Confederate cause and whose memoirs have enlightened generations of Civil War historians. In many ways, however, Watson was atypical of the citizens of the world who bore arms for the South. Fitzgrald Ross, an English cavalry officer observing the Civil War, quoted Jefferson Davis as stating that "our service offers but little inducement to the soldiers of fortune, but a great deal to the man of principle." However, according to Ross, such foreigners as did take up the southern cause "almost without exception, distinguished themselves highly." Ross was speaking of professional soldiers such as the knightly Prussian dragoon Heros von Borcke, who became Jeb Stuart's chief of staff, and Armand Polignac, the French prince who helped to save north Louisiana from Þederal occupation in 1864. These soldiers, serving in the tradition of Lafayette, de Kalb, and Steuben, brought with them considerable military experience and training, adding a much-needed element of professionalism to the Confederate cause. William Watson was not such as they. Neither a knight-errant nor a mercenary, Watson was innocent of formal military education, never held a commission, and confessed that he "could never lay claim to extraordinary courage, and could never be accused of exposing myself needlessly and recklessly to the fire of the enemy, and I may say that I was always on the whole happiest when I was out of danger." Furthermore, Watson confessed that he "never was a very strong sympathizer with the South" and "was much opposed to the secession movement, and would have done anything I could to have prevented it." Nevertheless, Watson's service to the Confederacy was both loyal and courageous, and his year with the 3rd Louisiana Infantry, while uncommonly colorful, was also fraught with hardship and danger. Perhaps his greatest service to the southern cause, however, was his memoir Life in the Confederate Army, which at once captures both the spirit and the details of secession-era Louisiana and of day-to-day existence in a volunteer regiment.

William Watson was born in 1826 in the Scottish village of Skelmorlie, some twenty-five miles west of Glasgow on the Firth of Clyde. His father, Henry Watson, was an Englishman by birth and a landscape gardener by trade who came to Skelmorlie in 1820 to lay out the grounds of Ash Craig, the estate of Andrew Donaldson Campbell. William Watson's mother apparently died soon after William's birth, for Henry Watson shortly thereafter married an Ayrshire native and remained at Ash Craig as gardener for forty years, building a cottage named Halketburn where he raised a family of eight. But William, as the parish historian affirmed with remarkable understatement, became "something of an adventurer." Perhaps through the influence of his father's employer, a former West Indian sugar planter, William Watson immigrated in about 1845 to the Caribbean Islands, where he was employed as a civil engineer and sometime ship's captain. In about 1850 he moved to Louisiana, and by 1860 was part owner of a "sawmilling and wood factory" and a coal and steamboat business at Baton Rouge, "a dry, clean town, and a somewhat pleasant place to live in." As an expert mechanic he often did repair and installation of the sugar mills and refineries of the surrounding country, coming to know such planters as P. G. T. Beauregard, Braxton Bragg, and Louisiana's future governor Thomas Overton Moore, and thus acquiring "ample means of observing the working of the political system." As an alien observer of the crisis that was inexorably impelling the nation into political division, Watson was well placed to deliver an expert and unbiased opinion.

To a degree, his sympathies lay with his adopted region. "The Southern planters," he believed, "were the real producers of the country," bearing the toils and privations of backwoods life as well as "the odium of being slaveholders," while the North, in Watson's opinion, "was pocketing the lion's share of their labors, living in ease and luxury, and maintaining an exterior of virtue and sanctity." However, Watson's was at best only "a sort of veneration for the South." He was never, for example, a believer in the merits of what he derisively referred to as the "'Divine institution' for the amelioration and enlightenment of the negro race," and from his long residence in the British West Indies had come to believe that the free black could be "an industrious and faithful labourer." Further, Watson was a bitter and often outspoken opponent of secession. As a southern Unionist, he watched extremists on both sides take the fate of the Union out of the hands of moderates, and he felt "cast off and abandoned" by the "imbecility" of the Buchanan administration and by a "shuffling and deceitful" Lincoln and his cabinet during the Fort Sumter crisis. After their states had seceded, southern moderates refused to be "whipped back into and under a Government which," Watson considered, "had forfeited all claim to their respect or allegiance." Thus "disgusted and indignant at the action, or rather inaction of the Federal government," the expatriate Scot reluctantly shifted his allegiance to the Confederacy.

When secession came to Louisiana, as a member of the Baton Rouge militia company, he fulfilled his duty and took part in the seizure of the Federal arsenal at Baton Rouge. Secession, Watson comments with some sarcasm, "would not be worth the name of revolution, and our independence not worth having if it was not baptized in blood," and so he became one of the tens of thousands of young southerners who rushed to the new colors. As a resident alien, Watson need not have cast his lot with the Confederacy-or at least need not have joined its army. But "when the North declared war, I was in a position that I could not well withdraw from," he wrote. As public opinion strongly favored the southern cause, Watson believed it prudent to volunteer. More strongly, he felt his honor and that of his native Scotland to be at risk if he left his volunteer company or failed to follow it into the army. Not the least of his motivation, however, was provided by his love of adventure and glory, and he hoped to achieve both in what he assumed would be a brief and successful war. Watson regarded the men of his own company, all recruited from East Baton Rouge Parish, as "a pretty fair sample of which the Southern army was composed," and thus generalized from their experience to paint a portrait of the composition, motivation, attitudes, and day-to-day activities of the volunteer soldier of the Confederacy. The Pelican Rifles were "chiefly of men of good and high standing," sons of planters, merchants, bankers, and other businessmen, professional men, and "students in abundance." Nevertheless, of the eighty-six men in the company, only thirty-one were slaveowners or "were in any way connected with or interested in the institution of slavery." They were "fine spirited young fellows," Watson boasts, who soon became "hardened and finely trained by the wild outdoor life, privations, toil, and excitement." These observations, however, applied only to "that respectable class of volunteer regiments" formed at the outbreak of the war. Later units composed of conscripts, he insists, were "in point of discipline, efficiency, bravery, and general worth" far inferior to the volunteers who entered the army in 1861.

On April 29, 1861, less than three weeks after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Pelican Rifles left Baton Rouge for Camp Walker, on the Metairie Race Course near New Orleans. At this camp of instruction, named for Confederate secretary of war Leroy Pope Walker, Watson's company studied Hardee's Tactics, elected officers and noncommissioned officers, and officially mustered into Confederate service as Company K, 3rd Louisiana Infantry. The company elected John P. Viglini as captain and Watson to the "onerous position" of first sergeant. Several times during the following year Watson was offered higher rank but could not hold a commission unless he became a Confederate citizen. As he had determined never to "forswear or renounce allegiance to Queen Victoria," however, he remained untempted by promotion. Elected colonel of the 3rd Louisiana was Louis Hebert, an 1845 West Point graduate. Samuel M. Hyams was chosen as the regiment's first lieutenant colonel and William F. Tunnard as its first major. On May 17 the newly formed regiment received orders to "strike tents, pack up, and prepare to march." In response to Governor Moore's fears that Louisiana was in peril of invasion by Þederal forces in the Indian Territory, Secretary of War Walker assured him that Brigadier General Ben McCulloch, an illustrious Texas Ranger, "forty-niner," federal marshal, and veteran of the Texas Revolution and the Mexican War, was building a Rebel army in northwest Arkansas to guard against such a move. Walker then called upon Moore for a regiment of Louisiana infantry to bolster what would become the Army of the West. Moore designated the 3rd Louisiana to join McCulloch at Fort Smith, Arkansas.

The regiment, now 1,060 strong, was delighted to bid farewell to Camp Walker "with its broiling heat, bad water, and mosquitoes," but the men, having anticipated being ordered to Virginia, were considerably disappointed to learn that they were to be shipped to a relative backwater. By the time they arrived at Little Rock, however, they were "better satisfied," Watson recorded. "We were more like a family, or rather a moving community; our home was the regiment, and the farther we got from our native State, the more we became attached to it." Moreover, wrote Sergeant Willie H. Tunnard, the men "were eager to see their future leader, already so famed as a Ranger on the Texas frontier," and soon the Louisianians were to become the Old Guard of the Army of the West and one with which McCulloch shared a mutual love and respect comparable to that of Lee with Hood's Texas Brigade or Jackson with the "Stonewall Brigade." The distinction was well-earned. Although Captain John J. Good of the Texas artillery battery characterized the Louisianians as "turbulent" and "desperately fond of whiskey," he conceded that they were "good fighters" and that the regiment's officers were "very clever gentlemen." Moreover, one Arkansas soldier vowed that "there was not a braver regiment in the entire Confederate Army than the Third Louisiana," and even Good admitted that in battle he would "rather be with them than any regiment in the service." After eight days at Little Rock, the regiment pushed on to Fort Smith, headquarters of McCulloch's Army of the West. Near the old fort, McCulloch's men constructed a camp of instruction, and as volunteers came in from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, the surrounding countryside filled with tents and the parade ground swarmed with the drilling of horse, foot, and guns. After a brief period of organization and adjustment to army life, McCulloch led his command out of Fort Smith on July 5, across the Arkansas River to Van Buren and north to Maysville, Arkansas. "I do not know as yet where Old Ben McCulloch will take us or what the plans of his operations are," Captain David Pierson of the 3rd Louisiana wrote to his father, "but I can give you a guess and will do so." Pierson and his messmates believed that they were bound for a showdown battle with Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon's army near Springfield. Although hampered by logistical nightmares and a total disagreement over strategic objectives with Missouri general Sterling Price, with whom he had been ordered to cooperate, McCulloch moved into southwest Missouri, where on August 10, 1861, the Army of the West and its ally, the Missouri State Guard, won an impressive victory over Lyon at Wilson's Creek, or Oak Hill, as the Rebels called it. There the 3rd Louisiana experienced its finest day of the war, routing a battalion of United States Army regulars and overrunning a Federal battery at the point of the bayonet." Watson's vivid account of this action is briefly interrupted when, as he writes, "a ball took me in the pit of the stomach, and for a few minutes I remembered no more." The bullet had passed through his canteen and dented his large brass belt plate. Earlier in the day he had suffered a slight wound on the wrist, a sword cut received while attempting to capture a Union flag. Unfortunately for the South, the strategic fruits of Wilson's Creek went ungathered due to McCulloch's continuing inability to come to personal or strategic accord with Price, "whose masterpiece in military tactics," Watson complained, "was retreating." This lack of unity of command was, in Watson's opinion, "disastrous to the Confederate cause west of the Mississippi and led to the abandonment of its defence by the Confederate Government." First, however, Jefferson Davis attempted to salvage the situation by appointing Major General Earl Van Dorn to the command of both McCulloch's and Price's armies. Van Dorn, Watson conceded, "was no bejeweled, gloved, or carpet officer, and whatever he might lack in the way of forethought, prudence, or military skill, he certainly did not lack in courage or personal daring." His career as commander of the Army of the West, however, was catastrophic for the Confederate cause. In February 1862, Van Dorn launched an "ill devised and still worse conducted" campaign to drive the Federals from Missouri and capture St. Louis. He was able to flank Union major general Samuel R. Curtis out of a strong position along Little Sugar Creek in northwest Arkansas, cutting his line of communication to the north. McCulloch, commanding the Confederate right wing in the ensuing battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, enjoyed early success, but as Federal resistance stiffened, rode forward through the thick underbrush to determine the location of the enemy line and was shot, dying instantly. Almost immediately, the Confederate right---including the 3rd Louisiana---began to fall apart, and Colonel Hebert was captured along with a large part of his regiment." With his right in a shambles and his left, under Price, unable to make headway against the Union line, Van Dorn ordered a general withdrawal. Watson admirably recounts the nightmare retreat across Boston Mountain to Van Buren. From there, he reported, "our regiment was too much cut up and crippled" to accompany Van Dorn on his march to join Albert Sidney Johnston's Army of Tennessee east of the Mississippi, and so was sent to garrison Fort Smith until stragglers returned, wounded recovered, and prisoners were exchanged. Once partially recuperated from its hammering at Pea Ridge, the 3rd Louisiana evacuated Fort Smith on March 28, arriving at Memphis on April 18. There it joined "a large body of troops who, like ourselves, did not know where they were going." From Memphis, Watson's regiment proceeded to Corinth by rail, arriving too late to take part in the battle of Shiloh. By this time, Watson recorded, "our time in service was drawing to a close, and the boys were speculating upon what they were going to do when their time was out." Before leaving Arkansas, however, the men learned of the Confederate conscript act---officially, the "Act for the Better Provision of Public Defense"---recently passed at Richmond, which required all troops enlisted for short periods "to be continued in the service."

With the waning of martial enthusiasm by the end of 1861 and the consequent decline in the number of volunteers, the Confederate government was reduced, for the first time in American history, to relying upon conscription. In April 1862, the Confederate Congress declared all able-bodied, unmarried white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five liable for the draft. One-year volunteers already in the army were required to serve for two additional years but were allowed to elect new field and company grade officers. As they had all volunteered for one year only, news of the act "very much dampened the spirits of the men of our regiment." Although Watson was certain that every man of his company would be willing to serve "any length of time as volunteers," he was equally adamant that his companions would not serve a day "in the degraded position of a conscript." Furthermore, the veterans of Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge felt that "men forced compulsorily into service were of little value and would only be an incumbrance" and, in fact, "protested against the admission of conscripts into their corps. So far as his own position was concerned, Watson learned that the conscription act stipulated that aliens "shall not be subject to military duty, and shall be discharged at the expiration of their original term of enlistment." Thus, his term of service would be completed on July 15. As he intended to leave the army, Watson did not stand for reelection to first sergeant, but also refused to serve in the ranks during his few remaining weeks in service. As a compromise he was given the grand-sounding title of "acting assistant adjutant general of the brigade" "simply a sort of clerk," he wrote.

On May 6, 1862, Watson and his regiment took part in the battle of Farmington, Mississippi, falling on the Union left and driving it in. But this fight "was of no great proportions," Watson recorded, "and has been very little noticed." Finally, on July 19, 1862, Watson was discharged at Tupelo, Mississippi. Noted in his discharge papers was the fact that he was "endebted to the Confederate States $3.25 on account of shoes." Baton Rouge was by this time in Union hands, having fallen to Farragut's fleet in late July, but Watson sneaked through the picket line at his own "wood factory," on the Mississippi River just upstream from the present capitol grounds, and after three days visiting friends, took a steamer down river to New Orleans. There he reported to the British consul, who issued him a certificate as a British subject, granting him neutral status. "I then looked around a day or two to see the state of things under Butler's rule," he wrote. What he found was "a perfect reign of terror."

While in New Orleans, Watson was arrested for "treasonable language," having made a joke about Major General George B. McClellan's recent retreat down the James River, and was taken before Major General Benjamin F. Butler himself for trial and judgment "a most extraordinary and unaccountable circumstance," he wrote. According to Watson, he was let off with a warning; the episode apparently hastened his return to Baton Rouge. Life was no better there. In mid-August 1862, following the battle of Baton Rouge, Union forces burned the business district of the city to provide clear fields of fire for their gunboats in the event of another Confederate attack; all of Watson's property burned with it. "There was no kind of occupation in civil life to which I could apply myself---all business suspended," he found, and so concluded that "the best and safest place to be was in the army." Accordingly, Watson rejoined the 3rd Louisiana as a private. The regiment had remained in northern Mississippi when the Army of Tennessee began its invasion of Kentucky under General Braxton Bragg and on September 19 had taken part in the battle of Iuka. There it had borne the brunt of the Federal assault, sustaining 40 percent casualties and earning Sterling Price's high praise: "No men have ever fought more bravely or more victoriously than they, and he who can say hereafter, 'I belonged to the Third Louisiana' need never blush in my presence." On October 3, 1862, within a day of his arrival in camp, Watson took part in the battle of Corinth, where he was wounded in the leg and was captured when the Confederate assault collapsed. Sent to a Union field hospital, he quickly recovered and, through the good offices of a Scottish major in Major General William S. Rosecrans' army, was soon paroled.

Leaving the army once again, Watson made his way to West Baton Rouge Parish. In this sugar-producing region, Watson found offers of employment from planters whose levees and sugar mills were in need of repair. An unusually high river that fall, however, broke through the levees and flooded the sugar country, again putting Watson out of a job. With no prospect of work in Baton Rouge, and believing the cause in which he had "unwittingly, and somewhat unwillingly, got mixed up" to be hopeless, Watson ventured down to New Orleans, where he "determined to make an effort to get out of the country." Also, he confessed, his "stirring and adventurous life" in the army had "somewhat unsettled" him, making the "quiet routine of ordinary life less congenial." Watson had seen service as a seaman in Scotland and the West Indies, had "a fair nautical education," and claimed to be "a tolerable navigator." In June 1863, therefore, he secured command as well as part ownership of "a small, low-hulled schooner," the Rob Roy, and made his way down the Mississippi and out of the Confederacy to become a blockade runner between Galveston, Havana, Belize, and Matamoros. The wartime dearth had produced a "cotton mania" in Europe, and "the very name of cotton sounded like magic in the ears of speculators." Thus, extraordinary prices were paid for any consignment that made its way safely out of the South. In exchange for its cargoes of cotton, the Rob Roy would typically return to Texas with Enfield rifles, ammunition, blankets, shoes, and clothing, thus breathing new life into a strangling Confederacy. In addition to these necessities, Watson found it "good policy" to bring in such luxury goods as tea, coffee, cheese, spices, needles, and thread. Alcohol was legally forbidden but was "received with great thankfulness if given as donations for the use of the hospitals." "Blockade running," Watson wrote in his second memoir of wartime America, "was not regarded as either unlawful or dishonourable, but rather a bold and daring enterprise." As much as his life as a Confederate soldier had been, Watson's life as a blockade runner was filled with excitement and danger. "Confound the permission," became his motto. "A good breeze and a dark night is all the passport I want." Despite such bravado and what was obviously a most lucrative trade, Watson learned to his regret that blockade runners were "generally men more capable of contending with the seas and enemies than holding their own with shrewd and sometimes not over scrupulous men of business." Typical of the men who defied the Union fleet, Watson left blockade running no richer than he had entered it. Upon summing up the profits of the three voyages of the Rob Roy, Watson found that he had barely broken even.

Returning to Scotland after the war, Watson built a house in Glasgow, where on April 11, 1871, he married Helen Milligan, the thirty-two-year-old daughter of a local baker.



Extracts from OR's Union and Confederate Navies regarding Watson and his schooner "Rob Roy"

Report of Acting Volunteer Lieutenant Sherrill, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. S. Stars and Stripes, regarding the running ashore and firing of the schooner Rob Roy by her own crew.

U. S. S. STARS AND STRIPES,
St. Marks River, March 12, 1865.

SIR: I have the honor to report that the schooner -Fox (a tender to this vessel), while lying at anchor at Deadman's Bay on the 2d instant, discovered a strange schooner at anchor on the south side of the bay near the shore. An armed boat was sent to attempt her capture, from which she endeavored to escape; but unable to effect this, was run ashore and fired by her crew. The flames spread with such rapidity and had obtained such a control by the time the boat's crew got alongside that it was found impossible to extinguish them. She proved to be the Rob Roy, of Belize, Honduras. A small portion of the cargo was saved in a damaged condition. The saved portion consisted of a lot of cavalry sabers and farming and mechanical implements. The Rob Roy was of about 60 tons burden. The articles saved will be sent to the prize court at Key West for adjudication. I enclose herewith a complete list of the officers and crew entitled to share in the above capture.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

JOHN SHERRILL,
Acting Volunteer Lieutenant, Commanding.


Hon. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy.

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HER MAJESTY'S CONSULATE,
Galveston, October 3, 1863.

GENERAL: I herewith transmit for your consideration a copy of a letter which was yesterday placed in my hands by Mr. Watson, the owner of the Rob Boy, a British vessel, which has lately entered the port of Velasco. With reference to this order of Colonel Bates, permit me to remark that, relying on the integrity of your intentions, and, if my memory be correct, at your request, I transmitted to her Majesty's Government copies of your proclamation of the 20th of January last, in which you declare that the ports of Lavaca and Velasco have ceased to be actually blockaded, and at the same time invite friendly neutral nations to resume commercial intercourse with those ports. The publication of this proclamation has induced many British vessels to enter these ports, and it would be an act of deep deception should they be induced to enter these ports, to be thereafter forcibly detained for the purpose of aiding in your military defenses. I have also to direct your attention to the condition in which the crew of the Rob Roy are now placed. From the treatment to which British seamen, who have found themselves in this State, have hitherto been exposed, I must infer that but slight regard will be paid to their rights as neutrals. In January last I was informed by Colonel Debray (and I at the time believed the information to be worthy of credence) that the three British seamen on board the merchant ship Cavallo, captured in this harbor on the 1st of January, should be sent home by the way of Red River. I now learn that they have been forcibly impressed on board the gunboats at Shreveport, and that one of them, George Don, after more than eight months' service, four of which were passed in close detention on board the Cavallo, has been discharged without remuneration and cast adrift in a penniless condition to find his way home as best he may, the officer in command having only discovered at the expiration of eight months, when his services were no longer required, that he was not 18 years of age. Of Abram McLean and William Carney, British seamen, the former the subject of my fruitless and unacknowledged remonstrance to Major Watkins, of the 31st of March last, I learn that, instead of a proper investigation into the cause of their forced enlistment, which I might reasonably have expected, they were forcibly removed to Shreveport, where the life of Carney has been sacrificed, and McLean discharged with his health injured and constitution shattered from the effects of exposure to an unhealthy and uncongenial climate. I regret that I am compelled to refer to these events, but as my let-tens to Major Watkins and Captain Turner have remained unnoticed, or turned over to other departments, from which no redress can be obtained, I consider it proper to state to you that it has been my duty to report to her Majesty's Government that my remonstrances have been fruitless to effect a due observance of the rights of British subjects in this State.
I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

ARTHUR T. LYNN,
Her Britannic Majesty's Consul.

Major-General J. B. MAGRUDER,
Commanding District of Texas, etc.

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