Getting away with murder during the Civil War! Part Two
The battlefield claimed many a brave officer, but there were a few others who met not-quite-so-honorable ends
George Wythe Baylor was not a man to trifle with. A strapping 6-foot-2-inch Texas frontiersman, he had killed more than his share of men. Baylor harbored a psychopathic hatred of Indians, once boasting that he had "killed and scalped six Indians one morning before breakfast." He listed his occupation as "Indian killer" in the 1860 census and chronicled his deeds of mayhem in a local newspaper.
When the war broke out, Baylor was reputedly the first man in Austin to raise the Confederate flag. He served briefly as General Albert Sidney Johnston's senior aide-de-camp. After Johnston's death at Shiloh, Baylor returned to Texas as lieutenant colonel and commander in Henry H. Sibley's Second Battalion. He commanded a cavalry regiment in the Red River Campaign of 1864, twice receiving commendations for gallantry.
In 1864 Baylor found himself under the command of Maj. Gen. John Austin Wharton. A Texan since infancy and an educated and cultured man, Wharton had distinguished himself as a lawyer and plantation owner, and had married the daughter of the governor of South Carolina. Baylor's biographer describes Wharton as a "wealthy and arrogant orator and jurist," but he also was a brave soldier. When the war began, he enlisted as a captain in Company B, 8th Texas Cavalry—the famed Terry's Texas Rangers—and was soon commissioned a colonel. Wharton fought courageously at Shiloh and Murfreesboro, sustaining wounds in both actions. After distinguishing himself at Chickamauga, he was promoted to major general and given command of the Rebel cavalry in the Trans-Mississippi Department in Louisiana.
John Wharton almost made it through the war alive, but shortly before Lee's surrender at Appomattox, fate brought him together with George Wythe Baylor. The trouble began when Wharton dressed Baylor down for failing to attack a Union line—an allegation the prickly Baylor vigorously denied. Next day, a number of the brigade's colonels—including Baylor—were treated to another of Wharton's tongue-lashings. Around this time, Baylor discovered his wife was deathly ill, and he requested leave. Generals Edmund Kirby Smith, John G. Walker, Walter P. Lane and John Bankhead Magruder gave their approval, but Wharton wrote on the request, "I know nothing of Mrs. Baylor's health. Colonel Baylor is needed with his regiment." Baylor interpreted this as a challenge to his veracity. "Here was a pretty broad hint," he later wrote, "that I had lied to get an extension of my furlough!"
Then came the final affront. Baylor saw no reason why he should remain a colonel when he had commanded a brigade throughout the campaign. He put his case to Wharton, who—according to Baylor—promised him a promotion to the rank of brigadier general. Wharton then proceeded to "dismount" Baylor's regiment—reduce them to the status of infantry, a serious insult to the Texas horsemen—and placed Baylor under the command of David S. Terry, a junior colonel to whom Wharton had also promised a generalship. Terry, a known scoundrel, was Wharton's close friend and a particular personal enemy of Baylor.
Baylor's ego could take no more. He sent word to Wharton that he would see him in hell before he served under Terry. He then set out for Houston to put his case before General Magruder. Unfortunately, Baylor ran into Wharton, who was passing by in General J.E. Harrison's carriage, and a battle of words commenced. Baylor accused Wharton of doing him an injustice and called him a demagogue; Wharton responded by calling Baylor a "damned liar." Baylor lunged at Wharton, and after a brief exchange of blows, Baylor stepped back and half-drew his Navy Colt. Harrison attempted to drive away, but Wharton restrained him. After a few more harsh words, the combatants agreed to direct their hostility at the enemy and settle their differences after the war.
John A Wharton
Baylor, enraged and frustrated, sought out Magruder in his private quarters at the Fannin Hotel. Magruder attempted to calm his furious subordinate, then left for a few moments, whereupon an angry but unsuspecting Wharton—also seeking Magruder—entered the room in the company of General Harrison. The war of words began anew and quickly escalated. As Baylor later recalled, Wharton "struck me a glancing blow on my cheek, throwing me on my back on the bed," from which position Baylor raised both feet and kicked the general in the stomach. Harrison jumped between them, whereupon Baylor drew his revolver and shot Wharton in the side; he died almost at once. Harrison braced Baylor and said, "Colonel, he was totally unarmed!" Baylor, writing later, claims to have fired on the assumption that Wharton was armed, or "I should never have used my pistol." More likely Baylor simply drew and fired in the heat of anger, with no thought as to whether his adversary had a weapon.
Baylor was arrested on the spot. Wharton's friends were rumored to have formed a lynch mob, but nothing came of it. The war ended before a court-martial could be convened, and Baylor's case was transferred to the civil courts. John Wharton had been an only child, and his wealthy and embittered mother did everything in her power to see Baylor convicted. The case dragged on for three years, ending in a hung jury, and six months later, in an acquittal.
After the war, George Baylor worked at a number of professions before finally re-joining the Rangers and resuming his chosen calling—Indian fighting. Baylor was permanently scarred by the murder of John Austin Wharton and spent the rest of his life either justifying the deed or expressing his sadness over it. In 1898 he wrote that Wharton "struck me in the face and called me a liar. He ought to have known I would resent it at once, for he had seen me in battle." Yet friends and relatives noted he could not mention the incident without tears. "I trust everyone who knows me personally," he wrote, "will believe me when I say the whole thing was a matter of sorrow and regret to me."
picture source: Ron Moody, Google Images
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