THE STORY OF CAPTAIN SAM WILLSON
COMPANY F, WOODVILLE RIFLES 1ST TEXAS REGIMENT CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY
Samuel Andrew Willson was born on January 9, 1835 in San Augustine, Texas. He was the sixth and last child of Dr. Stephen Pelham Willson and Mary (Polly) Richardson Davis. The family moved to Peachtree Village in northern Tyler County in the late 1840’s where Dr. Willson was one of the county’s five medical doctors. By 1850, young Sam was the only resident child of the Willsons.
At the age of 15, he began studying law in Woodville and was a protégé of Mijamen Priest, who later became a judge in Woodville and again in Rusk. The Texas Senate enacted a special legislation to allow Sam Willson to be admitted to the bar in 1852, at the age of seventeen. He was a junior member of the firm of Priest and Willson and he married Mr. Priest’s daughter, Susan, in 1853. In 1856, Sam became the District Attorney for the Fifteenth Judicial District. In 1858, at the age of 23, he was re-elected to the position of District Attorney. In January of 1861, Phillip A. Work was chosen to be one of two Tyler County representatives at the Secession Convention. Several weeks later, he returned to Woodville to organize the Woodville Rifles and his friend, Sam Willson, was selected to replace him during the Adjourned Session of March 2, 1861 to March 25, 1861. His signature is last on the Texas Ordinance of Secession.
Sam was probably the only native born Texan at this convention and perhaps the youngest. On May 28, 1861, Sam was elected 1st Lieutenant of the Woodville Rifles, serving under the first captain, P.A. Work. It was at this time that the Rifles were assimilated into the 1st Texas Infantry Regiment as Company F in Virginia. One year later, Phillip Work was promoted to Lt. Colonel, commander of the 1st Texas and Sam was elected as the new Captain. This unit served the remainder of the War with distinction as one of only three Texas regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia. They made up the core of the Texas Brigade. Captain Willson was on active duty in most major engagements of the ANV, including Sharpsburg where the 1st Texas sustained casualties of 82%, the most ever for a regiment in the entire War. Sam was badly wounded in one arm and returned to Texas for medical leave after he was released from the hospital. Therefore, he missed Fredricksburg and returned to duty in January 1863.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, Company F fought proudly and participated in the capture of two Federal cannons on July 2nd. Lt. Colonel Work gave permission to Captain Willson to select some men to move the cannons off the field of engagement. On the following day, July 3, 1863, the 1st Texas witnessed the artillery duel prior to Pickett’s Charge. During this time, they were assaulted by Yankee cavalry who made a sudden charge into their ranks and captured Sam along with Pvt. T.D. Rock.
Sometime between early October and mid December, Captain Willson escaped from the POW camp, Ft. Delaware. He crossed enemy lines and returned to Richmond, Virginia. His escape was planned from the time of his capture when he disguised himself as a private. Had the Federals learned that he was an officer, he would have been sent to Johnson’s Island, where he might have languished for the remainder of the War or died in confinement. One of the prisoners at Ft. Delaware, (Judge) John W. Stevens, Co. K, 5th Texas Infantry, wrote a book in 1902 and said, “No one but my own company men knew him, and we always addressed him as Sam and never as captain. I fed him a stolen ration every night. I had known him from boyhood---a brave and gallant man”.
Dr. and Mrs. S.P. Willson did not survive the War and neither did one year old Frank Sexton Willson, born to Sam and Susan, while he was in military service. Two of his brothers-in-law died in the summer of 1862 at Camp Douglas in Chicago, Illinois. Sam’s only brother, Hiram, served in the 27th Texas Cavalry (and later in Texas State Troops) and his first cousin, Frank Sexton, was one of two Texans to serve in the Confederate Congress for the duration of the War.
At the end of the War, the Captain returned to Woodville and he was elected District Judge again in 1866. Then came Reconstruction. In 1868, Sam had enough of the harassment, directed primarily at former officers and government officials. He refused to take the Loyalty Oath, considered it to be un-Constitutional, and moved to Rusk where he held brief occupations as a banker and owner of the newspaper. The Radical Republicans eventually lost power and Richard Coke was elected governor in 1874. The new governor selected Sam to serve on the special 5-man committee that codified the law for the new (and current) Texas Constitution. In 1882, Sam was appointed to the State Court of Appeals by Governor O.M. Roberts and won the following election. His publication of Willson’s Criminal Forms was adapted to the Criminal Codes of Texas and was still in use as a textbook at the University of Texas Law School in 1955.
Sam Willson was active in the Baptist Church and refrained from using alcohol. He had undying devotion for his brothers-in-arms and he helped organize the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association on May 14, 1872, where he served on the original board of directors. These veterans held 62 reunions until the last in 1933. In early January 1892, Judge Willson developed pneumonia following a trip by horseback, in the snow, from his home in Rusk to the Cherokee County Courthouse where he was scheduled to hold court. He died on January 24th at the age of 57.
On January 11, 2003, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, including the P.A. Work Camp (Woodville Rifles) participated in a military grave marker dedication for Captain Willson at the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Rusk, Texas. There were 17 riflemen, two 6 pounder cannons, a drummer, a bagpiper, and two trumpet players.
Attached is a poem written for Sam by his father-in-law, Judge Mijamin Priest. It is interesting to note that Judge Priest was pro-Union during and after the War though he was a slave owner and three of his sons served in the Confederate Army. That includes the two afore-mentioned who died at Camp Douglas. Priest was a Republican and served in the Texas Senate during the Dark Years. Sam was a life long Democrat, but the two never let their political differences keep them from being close friends. Both men have portraits in the Tyler County Courthouse. There is another portrait of Judge Willson on the second floor of the Cherokee County Courthouse.
TO THE SURVIVORS OF HOOD’S BRIGADE
Brave men, the remnant of a host, Who fought through fire and blood,
Until the last, last hope was lost, Firm to the lost cause stood.
Though beaten, yet the future age, Will not forget your story,
You’ll dazzle the historic page, With deeds of martial glory.
As long as shines the Southern sun, Your deeds will be remembered,
Yes, till what has been thus begun, This government dismembered.
The government may pass away, As others have before it,
And others live to see the day, Look back, and still adore it.
But your brave deeds will never die, Will live while nations perish,
Both friends and foes alike will vie, Your gallantry to cherish.
The Captain Sam A. Willson Chapter of the UDC was officially chartered on June 16, 2007 in Woodville, Texas.
Addendum May 23, 2010
Society researchers working from microfilmed NARA records pertaining to Fort Delaware only did not come across his name. However, I examined his Compiled Military Service Records and found the following pieces of information.
(1) Samuel A. WILLSON was enrolled as 1st Lieutenant in Captain P. A. Work’s company of Texas volunteers at New Orleans on 28 MAY 1861. This company became Company F, 1st Texas Infantry and WILLSON was elected Captain of the company on 28 MAY 1862 when they re-enlisted for 3 years or the war.
(2) He was appointed AAAG to Brigadier General E. B. Greer, Chief of the Bureau of Conscription for the Trans-Mississippi Department on 30 APR 1863 but never received the orders. He was commanding Company F at Gettysburg.
(3) Federal POW records are at best confusing. All three records show him as a Private, Company F, 1st TX Infantry. Two records put him at Fort Delaware.
(a) The first shows that he was captured at Gettysburg on 3 JUL 1863, confined at Fort McHenry on 5 JUL 1863, and sent to Fort Delaware “in July 1863”.
(b) The second shows that he was paroled at Fort McHenry and sent to Fortress Monroe for exchange on 8 JUL 1863. But, there is no delivery receipt record confirming that he was ever delivered to CSA authorities at City Point.
(c) A third record shows that he was captured at Gettysburg on 3 JUL 1863 and received at Fort Delaware in the time window 7/12 JUL 1863. In the remarks section is the notation “escaped” without any date or other information provided. This appears to be the record that you cited in posting your query.
(4) The company muster roll for July & August 1863 (status as of 31 AUG 1863) shows him absent and still missing at the Battle of Gettysburg on 3 JUL 1863. The company muster roll covering September & October 1863 (status as of 31 OCT 1863) shows him absent having been taken prisoner at Gettysburg. The roll for November & December 1863 (status as of 31 DEC 1863) shows him absent with leave. This authorized leave of absence is confirmed by a record card citing Special Order No. 308/15 dated 29 DEC 1863.
(5) General and Staff Officers records for Samuel A. WILLSON, Captain, AAAG contain a type written summary of his career as a Confederate staff officer by the US War Department circa 1900. The following passage addresses his escape:
>>> Captain Willson was on duty with his Regiment when appointed and was never notified. At the Battle of Gettysburg, he was captured. He escaped and reached Richmond about the 25th [of] December 1863. He was then ordered to report to General Greer, where he arrived January 1864. <<<
(6) One of our University of Delaware undergraduates recently did a survey of the literature for a history course and did not find any published post-war escape narrative featuring Captain Samuel A. WILLSON.
He was successful in concealing the fact that he was an officer – he would have been sent to Johnson’s Island if they had discovered this fact – and passed himself off as a private during his imprisonment. As of 31 AUG 1863, he was still absent from the company and his whereabouts not known. As of 31 OCT 1863, the company knew that he was a prisoner of war but were unaware of his escape. The Staff officer records memo states that he “arrived in Richmond about the 25th [of] December 1863.” He was granted a leave of absence and sent home to Texas beginning 29 DEC 1863. All of this would seem to put the time of his escape in the fall of 1863.
That is as much as we know at the moment about Captain WILLSON’s escape from Fort Delaware. If you have any family stories, or know of any published accounts of his escape, we would welcome hearing about them. Any chance that you have a photo of Sam WILLSON? We would like to add him to our Photo Display Board.
Fort Delaware Society
Date: Sunday, 23 May 2010, 10:09 pm
In Response To: Re: Attn. Hugh (Joe Allport)
I see that Samuel A. Willson has a page in: The Handbook of Texas Online, and is also listed in: Find a Grave Memorial. Willson is likewise mentioned in: Recollections of A. C. (Alfred Cuthbert "Cub") Sims - a Private in Company F of the 1st Texas, which can be found in the Brake Collection at the Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Sims writes that before leaving the vicinity of Devil's Den (at Gettysburg) on the night of July 2, 1863, Captain Willson requested of Colonel Work that he, with help, be allowed to move captured cannon off the field. These were the three Parrotts belonging to Smith's 4th New York Battery; the fourth gun had fell off a precipice where it was stuck among some large rocks and could not be recovered. Sims goes on to relate that Captain Willson (he spells it Wilson) and Private T. D. Rock of Company F sat down just before the regiment met the enemy (Farnsworth's Cavalry) on July 3, and when the Yankees made the regiment, captured them. /// Willson was unlucky to be taken prisoner, as the Union cavalrymen got the worst of it by far on that occasion, Farnsworth himself being killed in their ill-fated charge that had been ordered by Kilpatrick late in the afternoon against the Confederate right flank west of Big Round Top. A good article on the 1st Texas' role in this charge was authored by Paul M. Shevchuk in issue no. 2 of The Gettysburg Magazine, In this article, a citation is made from Confederate Veteran Magazine, vol. 30, p. 185, in which Private Bradfield of Co. E mentions that Captain Wilson (wrongfully identified as from Co. D) was ordered by Major Bass to take a man from each company (12 in all) and go after water for the regiment from Plum Run. The available evidence suggests that it was this isolated water detail, led by Captain Willson, that was captured as the Union cavalrymen were riding around behind the Confederate lines.
Stone Fort Camp
Sons of Confederate Veterans
Adjutant: Dudley Mosele