The First and Second Battle of The Walls
by Keith Price
Many Texans are familiar with the battles of the Texas Revolution, especially the tragic siege of the Alamo as well as the glorious victory at San Jacinto six weeks later in April 1836. A lesser known, yet historically significant, battle and siege are part of the history of Texas’s prisons. In the heat of the Civil War, during 1863 and 1865, Texas prison officers in Huntsville had to contend with attacks from marauding soldiers looking for supplies.
The Republic of Texas never created a prison system during its short existence from 1836 to 1845. But in 1848, just three years after statehood, Texas opened the Huntsville Penitentiary and thus established the Texas Prison System. The system consisted of just this one penitentiary—commonly known simply as “the Walls”—until after the Civil War.
From 1848 until the 1883 the Texas Prison System met the demands of Texas criminal justice with only the Huntsville Penitentiary. The goal of making the prison system profitable, or at least low cost, along with a dedication to the Auburn System of prison management (based on a model pioneered in New York State), brought industrialization to the Walls. In fact, shortly before the Civil War the U.S. Census Bureau reported the Walls cloth factory to be the largest industrial operation in Texas.
In 1861, Texas, along with ten other southern states, seceded from the United States to form the Confederate States of America. During the war, the cloth factory located in the Walls produced thousands of dollars’ worth of cotton and woolen products. This revenue helped keep the Texas government afloat during the difficult Civil War years.
In 1861 Texas prison officials signed a contract to sell one-half of the cloth produced by the factory to the Confederate Army. This contract was very unpopular in Texas as many parties had financial interests in prison cloth production. A number of politically-connected Texas capitalists had been very successful in the prison cloth business. The contract was quickly cancelled, but the factory at the Walls continued to send large amounts of cloth products to the Confederate Army throughout the war.
By 1863 the stress of war had taken a heavy toll on the Confederate Army. In addition to the loss of many thousands of soldiers, the army’s supply issues had reached a critical stage. December of that year found the Second Texas Cavalry Regiment camped near Huntsville, the home of the Walls. It was a harsh winter and the Regiment had few supplies and no tents. These conditions, not surprisingly, had demoralized the Regiment.
Two enlisted soldiers from the Regiment sought a solution to the terrible conditions. The troopers rode to the Walls in nearby Huntsville and met with the Prison Financial Agent, John Besser. They requested cloth material in order to construct thirty tents for the Regiment. Besser responded in good bureaucratic fashion and told the men to go through the proper channels.
The next day the Regimental Quartermaster went to the Walls to renew negotiations with Besser concerning cloth for tent construction. Keenly aware of the prior failed negotiation, the Regimental Quartermaster brought reinforcements to strengthen his request. Upon Besser’s second refusal 250 mounted and armed troopers drew into battle line in front of Besser’s residence. Shots were fired and Besser and his family feared for their safety. The troopers then forced their way into the Walls cloth warehouse and seized six bales of cloth goods. In the aftermath of the affair the Regimental Commander of the Second Texas Cavalry returned some of the cloth goods; however, no trooper was ever tried in military or civilian court for the armed robbery.
Two years later, the Second Battle of the Walls was actually a siege. Thomas Carothers, Texas Prison Superintendent at the time, had learned a valuable lesson from the 1863 battle. By September 1865 the Civil War was over. As one might expect, the defeated Confederacy was in desperate condition. In this setting a group of returning Confederate soldiers and jayhawkers (war-time marauders) began a siege of the Walls in order to plunder the penitentiary and especially the cloth factory. Carothers armed the officers of the Walls and they successfully defended their penitentiary for the six weeks of the siege against the outlaw invasion.
In contrast to the legendary confrontations at the Alamo and San Jacinto, few students of Texas history know of the 1863 Battle of the Walls that ended in defeat and theft. Nor do they know of the 1865 Siege of the Walls that ended in victory as prison officers fought and protected their penitentiary. The history of Texas prisons, it turns out, has a fascinating military history, too.
1Paul Michael Lucko, “Prison Farms, Walls, and Society: Punishment and Politics in Texas, 1848-1910,” Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Texas at Austin, 1999, 113-114.