Friday, June 11, 2010

Joseph P. Blessington: Irish Immigrant and Texan

Among the immigrants arriving in New York City in 1857 was Joseph P. Blessington, age 16 and a native of Ireland. Three years later, he embarked on another remarkable journey this time to Texas. One year later he started on another adventure when he enlisted in the 16th Texas Infantry, a regiment that served for much of the war in Walker’s Texas Division. Blessington served as a private soldier for most of the conflict, but spent some time as well on Brigadier General William R. Scurry’s staff. A combat veteran, Blessington fought in the battles of Mansfield, Pleasant Hill (where he was wounded), and Jenkins’ Ferry. Blessington remained in Texas after the war ended and was living in Austin when his book The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division was published in 1875. Why did he write the book? In the preface, Blessington stated that he wanted “to rescue from probable oblivion the deeds and prowess of ‘Walker’s Division’ of Texas troops of the Confederate States Army” (p. 9). To Blessington, “the task has been a labor of love” (p. 9), and his pride in the accomplishments of this Texas division shows in every chapter of the book. You may have noticed an unusual feature of his book already; it is about an entire division. Although much has been written about the loyalty that Civil War soldiers exhibited toward their regiments, John G. Walker’s Texans were one group of soldiers whose primary loyalty was to their division.

Clearly based on a diary, Blessington’s chronicle is a day-by-day one in several sections. He is at his best in describing camp life and the many marches that Walker’s Texans were involved in, but he is weakest in the chapters about battles. As a “modern” historian, his occasional use of purple prose and generalities in battle descriptions can be annoying and yet there is much emotion, drama, and an eye for detail in his descriptions of battle events. Here are some quotes from the section on the battle of Mansfield:

“On the right of the division and about fifty yards in advance, was our favorite leader, General Walker, surrounded by his staff officers, eating their lunch before they enter the conflict” (p. 186).

“When the gallant Louisianians learned the certainty of their idolized chieftain’s [Mouton] death, many of these lion-hearted men threw themselves in wild grief on the ground, weeping scalding tears in their bitter sorrow” (p. 187).

“As we approached a narrow skirt of timber, and about six hundred yards from the enemy’s position, we beheld General Walker, mounted on his iron-gray horse, with his field-glass to his eye, taking observations of the enemy’s position. His actions and features were a study for the closest scrutinizer of physiognomy. Not a quiver on his face—not a movement of a muscle, to betray anxiety or emotion, notwithstanding the shower of balls whizzing around him” (p. 187-188).

There are many similar nuggets scattered throughout the book showing that Blessington had a keen eye for the dramatic. When I researched my history of the 28th Texas Cavalry (dismounted) I relied heavily on The Campaigns of Walker’s Texas Division and came away with a great appreciation for this fine work.

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