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Charles Edward Travis

 

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William Barrett Travis (left) stands next to Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett as the immortal Texas heroes who defended the Alamo to the death in the cause of Texas Independence. Bowie and Crockett stand out in the popular conscience as the fierce frontiersmen who fought to the last. Travis is forever remembered for commanding the Texan garrison and drawing his famous line in the sand. Those two things are usually as much as anyone knows about Travis, but research a little further and you will find he was a man, not just a legend and he had a family. He was married and had two children, Susan and Charles, but left them behind in Alabama to settle in Texas in 1831. He bought land from Stephen F. Austin and his short story in Texas began. Charles barely knew his father and Susan never knew him at all, she was born after he left for Texas.   

Even though he never really knew his father, Charles and William Travis had at least one thing in common. Charles Edward Travis died young, just like his father, but not covered in laurels and legend. He died in 1860 of consumption (Tuberculosis) in Washington County at the age of 31. Charles was just five years older than his father when William died at the Alamo. He died at his sister’s house in Brenham. Travis was buried in a Masonic cemetery in an unmarked grave at the time, though he has a marker today. How could the son of the commander of the Alamo die in such obscurity? He should have had a bright future ahead of him with his name alone. It carried a lot of weight in Texas and when he moved to Brenham in 1848 it seemed like his future was bright indeed.

He made his way to Caldwell and Hays Counties after being admitted to the bar and represented both counties in the Texas Legislature in 1853. He served as Captain of Company E in the Texas Rangers in 1855 and the same year he received a commission as a captain in the United States Cavalry. His future did indeed seem bright. The United States Second Cavalry was called “Jeff Davis’s Own” because most of the officers were handpicked by the future President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War in 1855 and had free reign to chose and promote whom he saw fit. The Second Cavalry officers list is practically the Confederate All-Star Team. Eleven future Confederate generals came out of that regiment alone. Albert Sidney Johnston (pictured below) commanded the Second while Robert E. Lee served as a lieutenant colonel. Other officers of note were John Bell Hood, Edmund Kirby Smith and George H. Thomas. These men were the crème de la crème of the United States military and all but Travis and one other man were West Point (The United States Military Academy) graduates. Travis was not a West Point man and was an outsider before he even joined the unit.  

Apparently, Travis rubbed everyone the wrong way almost as soon as he joined the Second. Johnston’s wife wrote Travis was “a mean fellow...no one respects or believes a word [he] says." Granted she’s a bias source, but she voiced what the rest of the officers thought about Travis. He put his foot squarely in the fire ant bed when he told a fellow officer that he thought a certain Lieutenant Wood had stolen money from him. This Lieutenant Wood was the nephew of Jefferson Davis, the man who had handpicked the unit, the man who each officer in the unit (aside from Travis) owed his position to. It was not a wise thing for Travis to do.

Johnston had Travis arrested and confined to quarters for “conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman,” as soon as the Second was stationed at Fort Mason. He was arrested on three charges: slander, being absent without leave and cheating at cards. All of these charges were very serious, being accused of cheating at cards by itself usually ended in someone getting shot. Travis's very future was at stake, if he were found guilty, his reputation and future would be ruined.

At Fort Mason Travis’s meteoric rise hit a brick wall. The trial lasted about a month from March 15, 1856 to April 11. The trial was the most sensational thing to happen in the state in 1856 and everyone paid attention. Travis was doomed from the beginning, practically all the officers testified against him including Johnston and Lee. He was found guilty on all charges and in May he was dismissed from the service.

Back in Texas, he rallied what supporters he could and the Texas Legislature convened a joint committee to look into the charges and the findings of the court martial. The Legislature was outraged, they looked over the evidence and testimony and thought Travis was wronged and the charges spurious. Former Supreme Court Justice Charles S. West sat on the committee and read their findings into the official record. The Legislature petitioned President Franklin Pierce to order a new trial. Pierce did not order a new trial. Travis and his allies saw conspiracy where plain old politics was to blame. In reality, Travis was a small fish. The country was already on the brink of Civil War and Jefferson Davis was a powerful man. Had Pierce ordered a new trial it would have been a declaration of hostilities between the president and his own cabinet member.

Travis whiled away the next few years trying to regain his lost honor as the country and the Second Cavalry marched on to the Civil War. Travis contracted tuberculosis and eventually died at his sister’s house in Brenham in 1860, forgotten by all but a handful of people. Would Travis have measured up to his father during the Civil War had he kept his mouth shut? Who knows? We do know the only Travis history remembers is William Barrett, not Charles Edward.

- Will Erwin