Letters from “Post Aransas”

by John Guthrie Ford

You might think “Post” is a misprint of Port, but it is not. Post Aransas on Mustang Island was home during eight months of the Civil War to Federal (U.S.) soldiers hailing from Iowa. How did these men, and their leader William G. Thompson, get so far from home?

Major Thompson commanded the 20th Iowa Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 20th Iowa, about 500 strong, was part of a large Union force that landed on Mustang Island and captured a Confederate fort on Nov. 17, 1863. The Federals quickly pulled out to attack another fort on Matagorda Island, but not before leaving troops on Mustang Island to prevent the Rebels returning to the fort. It was bleak and boring garrison duty that no one wanted, but the 20th Iowa got the order. It did because Thompson was not a real major.

A lawyer and politician, Thompson helped create the regiment in August 1862, and for that he was made an officer (that is how things worked during the Civil War). Having no military training, Thompson proved an incompetent commander. This was obvious when the Federals force-marched up Mustang Island they landed at Corpus Christi Pass — to attack the Rebel fort. Thompson’s men were complaining about the deep sand, the fast pace and their heavy loads. Rather than spurring them on by leading by example, Thompson agreed the march was very hard work, and he even slowed down with the regiment as it fell to the rear. The officer who commanded Thompson later wrote him up for “unsoldierly conduct,” and punitively ordered him and the 20th Iowa to garrison Mustang Island until further notice.

<br /><br />
This Rebel flag flew over Fort Semmes.<br /><br />
Image courtesy PAPHA
This Rebel flag flew over Fort Semmes

Thompson wrote letters to his wife, never revealing the true reason he was stuck on a desolate Texas island. He embellished things by inventing impressive letterheads, one being, Headquarters, U.S. Forces, Post at Mustang Island, Texas. He eventually got more real and used “Post Aransas.” Thompson made trivial outings sound like significant military missions. On Nov. 26: “I was put in command of [Thompson put himself in charge of] an expedition and put aboard a ship [small sailboat at best] and sent 20 miles above this post to a point known as Live Oak Point. We went for wood and beef and got to the point at about 5 in the evening, and at 2 the next morning we had the wood on board and just as we had finished a blow came up and sent the ship ashore.” Thompson had seen his first Texas norther.

Dec. 6: “I caught a five yearold mustang stallion. Black as a crow and very heavy main and tail. My negro boy Billy went at him and they had it up and down for about two hours, but the darkey beat it out of him and rode him.” (A unit of African-American soldiers was attached to the regiment, and one of them was serving as Thompson’s batman, an officer’s personal attendant).

Being in a backwater of the war began to wear on Thompson. Jan. 22, 1864: “I do not know what the news is in any place, for we are here on the island playing Robinson Cruso (sic). We have nothing to do but drill and guard.”

Thompson filled his men’s time having them scout the surrounding area. Feb. 15: “I sent a boat expedition up the Bay to scout and see what they could. They took the town of Le Marr [Lamar] and drove out a lot of rebels and took some prisoners. Also got enough lumber to build a commissary building 24 feet wide and 80 feet long.” Thompson failed to inform his wife that his men tore down civilian businesses and residences to get the lumber for Post Aransas.

The 20th Iowa Infantry Regiment left Mustang Island on June 24, 1864. It was near Port Isabel until mid-September, at which point it sailed north and was involved with campaigns in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama.

(First published in the Port Aransas South Jetty November 14, 2013)[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]