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Armed Conflicts

Confederate soldier survives Civil War’s worst, only to die in dispute over steer

Among the treasures of the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine is a homespun, butternut-colored Confederate soldier’s uniform coat. The left sleeve is slit open from the cuff to above the elbow.

The one-armed coat belonged to a 13th Mississippi Infantry soldier named Henry Harrison Powe. The sleeve was slit when Powe’s wounded left arm was amputated below the elbow after the Third Battle of Winchester, Virginia, on September 19, 1864. Afterward, Powe wore the coat with the sleeve folded and stitched together.

Powe saw the worst of the Civil War. He survived the first and second battles of Manassas and lived through the slaughters of Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor and Petersburg, only to be shot down in a pasture on the Leoncita Ranch in Brewster County in January 1891 during an argument over the ownership of a steer.

Fatal arguments over water holes, fence lines and unbranded cattle were fairly common in the Big Bend during the final years of the 19th century, but the one that was lethal for Powe is especially well-known.

Alpine lawyer Wigfall Van Sickle first told the story in the Galveston News in 1896. Carlysle Graham Rhat included it in The Romance of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend Country, the first history of the Big Bend, published in 1919. Since then, the story has been repeated with varying details and embellishments by Barry Scobee, Virginia Madison, J. Frank Dobie and many others. It gained even wider popularity in 1960 when the well-worn and highly polished narrative served as the basis for an episode in the television series Rawhide, starring Eric Fleming and Clint Eastwood.

The core of the story is this: After the Civil War, Powe married and brought his family to Texas. In the 1880s, he came to the Big Bend and established a ranch in the Davis Mountains north of Fort Davis.

On January 28, 1891, he joined a group of ranchers at a roundup in northern Brewster County with the goal of branding calves that had been missed in the earlier fall roundup. In addition to the ranchers who had organized the roundup, a man named Fine Gilliland was there, representing the interests of the Dubose and Wentworth Diamond Tail Ranch southeast of Alpine. Gilliland was not taking part in the roundup work but was there to claim any Diamond Tail cattle that might have gotten mixed in with the 2,000-plus head gathered for the event.

Powe’s son, Robert Marvin Powe, who was there helping with the work, reported that the roundup boss, Eugene Kelly, told Henry Powe that there was an unbranded brindle yearling bull in the herd that belonged to one of his cows, although the mother cow was not in the herd. Powe cut the bull out of the herd. Gilliland interfered, demanding to see the mother, and when Powe told him that the mother was not present but that Kelly had seen him with her, Gilliland turned the bull back into the herd. Powe cut him out again, and soon both men were off of their horses and on their feet shooting at each other. Powe had his reins wrapped around his one good arm, while his horse, frightened by the gunfire, was pitching and rearing, throwing his aim off. Gilliland’s fifth shot killed Powe.

With a dozen witnesses to his misdeed, Gilliland jumped on a horse and took off for the Glass Mountains. Two days later, he was tracked down and killed in a gunfight.

The shocked cowboys roped the bull, dragged him to the branding fire, and with a running iron burned the word “murder” and the date “1-28-91” on his flank and turned him loose. Powe left a widow and nine children behind.

One of those children, Lucy Powe Wilson, donated her father’s Confederate uniform coat to the Museum of the Big Bend in 1936. Mary Bones, the museum’s curator of exhibits and adult education, says he was wearing the jacket when he was killed. “Powe carried on the long-standing and still current tradition of using former military wear in civilian use,” she said. “He wore his jacket to that fateful roundup.”

Two years after making the donation, Powe Wilson once again experienced the effects of Big Bend violence. On December 3, 1938, in an eerie reprise of her father’s murder, her husband, Thomas Meade Wilson, was shot and killed in an argument with two neighbors over a herd of cattle and a fence line.

Lonn Taylor, former historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, lives in Fort Davis.