The Ballad of Johnny Mather Sloan

[Sing to the tune of the "The Yellow Rose of Texas."]
Young Johnny Mather Sloan
Lived on the Texas range.
Stole a horse when six years old;
His brother thought him strange.

Y’all never heard the tale of the boy soldier from the heart of Texas. Damn shame. That boy and his story are as big as the state itself. There oughtta be statues of that boy and holidays with his name and songs all about him–a true Texan in the spirit of Austin, Travis, Houston, Bowie, and Crockett. Why, he was written up in books and papers right after the War. Thirteen years old, that boy. As good a horseman as any in old Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, but all they do is talk about them fellers from Virginia and don’t say nothin about War in the West and the heroes that stood up to Grant. No, sir. Ain’t no one wanna talk about Mr. Ulysses S. Grant. Mr. Unconditional Surrender. The Hero of Shiloh. The Hero of Vicksburg. The villain, the vandal, the butcher. The murderer of that boy, my son.

Don’t start in on me about Crockett and Bowie. Stephen F. Austin wudn’t from Texas neither. Truth be told, ain’t hardly nobody from that era was from Texas. That ain’t what makes you a true Texan. They say it all the time round these parts: I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as quick as I could. I myself was from the Carolinas, but look where I settled: near Navasota in Grimes County.

Y’all don’t know none of that neither, do ya? Now, see here. Navasota is right next to Washington on the Brazos where Stephen F. Austin came in with the first white settlers to Texas. Grimes County? Named after Jesse Grimes. Y’all don’t know him neither. Why, he only signed the Texas Declaration of Independence. Yes, sir. One of the fifty-nine hardheaded men who wouldn’t settle for what Mexico was offering then. Y’all all think Texas is just full of itself and its own stories. There wouldn’t be no California in the United States if it wudn’t for those men. There wouldn’t have been no California gold rush, which put the country at the top of the wealth ladder, neither. Nah. Y’all can all thank Texas for that. Thank Jesse Grimes whose name our county bears to this very day. Know what is enshrined in that great document? Does any of this sound familiar? The right of trial by jury, that palladium of civil liberty, and only safe guarantee for the life, liberty, and property of the citizen. Or how about this? Our arms … are essential to our defense, the rightful property of freemen, and formidable only to tyrannical governments.

Y’all see, right? America really is just a bigger version of Texas. And our boys been livin and dyin for Texas and for America and for all they represent from the beginning. I say “boys,” and I mean it. Now, take for example the Alamo. My boys loved the story of William Phillip King. Young William’s father, John, was fixin to ride with the relief force from Gonzalez to the Alamo when William tole him that his wife and family needed him more than William Travis did. William offered to replace John. His dad consented. William went to the Alamo, manned a cannon, and died a hero. Why, they even named a county after William Phillip King years after. But that was after the War of Northern Aggression. Well after my boy added fame to the great state of Texas.

Y’all should at least know the basics same as how everyone has heard of the Alamo. But y’all don’t, right? What I should be telling y’all is the parts y’all hadn’t heard–what he was like when he was little, how he came to be such a great rider, how he came to be such a great shot, why he’d ever ride off with the Rangers.

His older brother Thomas wudn’t a thing like Johnny. Y’all know the story of the prodigal son, right? Thomas was that older brother kind–responsible, quiet, always checkin on his mama, makin sure the young’uns was okay, up five minutes before everyone else in the house. And always, always coverin for Johnny. Now, Johnny wudn’t into no serious mischief. But when he snuck out at age six and took Ole Blue out for a ride on the range and outside the stable, well, Thomas tried to tell me it was okay cuz he was with him and wouldn’t let nothin happen to Johnny and besides it was his idea anyhow cuz Johnny had gotten good at ridin. Ok, son. So of course I couldn’t well whip Johnny when Thomas was astandin there takin the fall, and I couldn’t whip Thomas when he was willin to take the whippin for his brother. So of course, I tole em that the next time it happened, they’d both get a whippin. Of course, it happened again, and of course, ain’t no one got a whippin.

Johnny found his Pa's gun
When he was only seven.
Met himself a coyot’
And sent him straight to heaven.

When he was seven, Johnny learned hisself to shoot the ole long gun I had. What do you want from me? I had Thomas out helpin me run the plows. Johnny’s mama would tell him to run the laundry down yon to the creek, and he somehow snuck the musket out. How’d we ever find out about it? Well, he brought back a gopher that he had shot through the eye and tole his mama that dinner was on him. Seven years ole. Swear on a Bible. That’s exactly what he done.

Years later, I was thinkin on that and asked Thomas how Johnny learned hisself to shoot like he did, and Thomas shrugged. “Coulda just been him. Or coulda been one of the negro farmhands. Lotta them was pretty good shots.”

“No kiddin,” I said.

“You remember, Pa. You used to let them use the gun to get themselves a squirrel or a duck or a gopher or even a deer now and again.”

“Reckon I did,” I said. “Food I didn’t have to give em myself.”

Soon enough, Johnny was the best varmint shooter on the whole place. And the best protector of the livestock. Learned himself a mean coyote call–could fool them suckers from miles around, bring em right on up to his hidin place where they had a friend, and he’d pop em one right in the ribs. I tole him once not to be out wastin my gunpowder and balls. Smart ass reaches in his pocket and pulls out one of them balls, holds up to me, and says, “You know what this is?”

“One of my musket balls.”

“That’s what it looks like to you, Pa. But this right here, this right here is your next hat, Pa. Keep you right warm when the next blue norther hits.”

Sure enough, a few days later, that boy brought me the skinned hide of a beaver. “There’s your ball,” he said. “I spect you’ll wanna do your tannin thing to it and all.”

“What happened to the rest of it?”

“Gave the meat to the coloreds,” he said. “A couple of crows too.”

Kid mighta been eight or maybe nine when he done that. A boy like that, ain’t no good tryin to teach him to manage the field hands or do his own plantin. He can’t sit still long enough–always gotta be in the saddle, lookin for the next threat or meal or hat or fur-skin coat. So by ten, I didn’t fight him none on it. He went out in the mornin, came home at night to tell me about the ‘yotes he scared off or killed, the gophers he done plunked to help out the corn or sweet potatoes. My wife got awful good at cookin his game, and the field hands took a likin to him with all the meat he brought em.

Of course, we all knew what had happened to the Parkers in these parts just a few years before when they whole family was killed and Cynthia Ann was hauled off by the savages. We was close enough to town that we tried not to worry as much, but Comanches was Comanches. So yeah, the boy worried me, but he could shoot and he could ride and if any white kid could outrun or outshoot the Comanches, it’d be him.

When the tyrant “Honest” Abe
Sent his vandals to invade,
Young Johnny took his gun
And flew to his country’s aid.

The Comanches don’t roam alone, though. So when Johnny didn’t come home one day, we all thought they had found him, that he had finally met his match at such a young age. The horse was gone, too, along with the gun I had gotten him. For two days, we wondered about him, his mother mourning. And then his brother found a note in the hay loft near the pitchfork his brother always used. Only he could have found it, and he would only find it when he tended to the loft.

Dear Ma and Pa,
No need to look for me. I joined the Rangers. Im the best shot in the county. Gonna fight the injuns and the yanks. I’ll make you proud.
John

How could the Rangers take a boy? How’d he know where to go? Where was he now?

We all had heard about Manassas. All the young men were swept up. They all went off to join up. But Thomas hadn’t said a word, I was too old, and Johnny hadn’t brought it up either. He was just gone. So I had to leave Thomas and Mary in charge of the servants and the farm and the livestock and head out after him.

In town, they said a small body of young men had come through. They was headin north and pickin up any other men along the way who was plannin to join up. That’s probably who he fell in with. So I headed north. By the time I reached Grayson County, they was gone. The people tole me the boys was 9th Texas Cavalry now and headed to Indian country to fight. Wudn’t no good tryin to follow there by myself–too dangerous. So went back home and waited word.

When Johnny met the foe,
He used his trusty gun
And dropped the Yanks in place
Till they turned and run.

The first word we got was that the 9th had been fightin in Indian country, and some had been killed. Had to wonder if Johnny was one of em, but a letter came a few days after.

Dear Ma and Pa,
Had a few scraps with the Injuns. All ok. My shot’s as good as ever and the men appreciate it. Im keepin out of trouble. Love to my brothers and sisters.
John

The days passed one after another, same as the day before, but now and again, we’d hear about something else the 9th was up to. And then there was Shiloh. The 9th wudn’t at Shiloh, but lots of kin of people were and lots of them were gone. And then, we got word that Mr. Unconditional Surrender’s men was marchin on Corinth, and the 9th was headed there to help hold em off.

Corinth wudn’t Indian territory. So I got on trains and wagons and I worked at it until I got myself there. The town was flooded with the wounded, with people fleeing the blue wave, our boys coming in on trains to collect and meet the foe. Even with all that, it wudn’t hard to find him. Some men tole me where the 9th had been fightin and where their wounded was goin. And when I met one of those men, I tole him my boy’s name, and he says to me, he says, “You’re Johnny Sure Shot’s pa? Everyone knows him.”

“I reckon so,” I said. “He’s that sort.”

When they was a-runnin
One final shot flew.
It hit young Johnny’s leg,
And now his life is through.

“Well, I hate to tell you, friend, but he’s at the Old Tishomingo Hotel. He probly got four or five blue bellies first, but one of them got him in the leg. I hear tell that leg’s come off now.”

“His leg’s off?” I said.

“That’s what I hear.”

“Boy’s only thirteen,” I said.

“Thirteen?” said the soldier.

“Thirteen,” I said.

“Figured him for sixteen at least,” said the soldier, and he scratched his beard. “Maybe even seventeen or eighteen. I’m real sorry, friend. You’ve given a lot for the cause.”

“Ain’t done nothing for the cause,” I said. “He done it all.”

I tole some folks my boy was wounded and they got me a wagon ride to the Old Tishomingo Hotel. That’s where I met Nurse Kate Cumming and joined up with Johnny.

Johnny’s leg was indeed gone, well, just above the knee anyway. Of course, Johnny bein Johnny, he says to me, “Ain’t nothin, Pa. The Yank that got me missed. I promise you, when I was shootin, I didn’t miss.”

A feller next to him tole me, “Kid ain’t lyin. He gave worse’n he got. He got himself at least five of them blue bellies during our fights. Maybe even ten. I can tell ya, none of them crawled or walked away.”

Johnny positively beamed at me.

“I says to him once,” said the other soldier, “I says, ‘who learned you to shoot like that, Boy?’ And he says to me, ‘My Pa.’ So I guess I’m in the presence of two legends.”

I couldn’t tell that poor feller that Johnny was alyin. But I spose I had somethin to do with him bein what he was. I think that’s why Nurse Cumming wrote us up in her book, sayin that Johnny was perfectly happy like he was at home playin with his brothers and sisters and that I was proud of what he done. Of course, I never tole her that Johnny never was much for playin—more about huntin and shootin and wanderin.

That’s where it ends for most folks. Y’all mighta heard about the boy who got his leg shot off and was okay with it. Course, that ain’t the true end of his story. I stayed with him that night and all the rest of his nights.

Mighta been that night or another. I heard sniffling. That don’t make him lesser, mind you. But I heard it and I asked, “You ok there, Son?”

Heard a bit of rustlin as he nodded his head. It was quiet then for a few more moments, and then he said, “I aim to ride again, Pa.”

“I spect you will,” I said.

“And when I ride again, I’m gonna go get me some more Billy Yanks. They ain’t got no call bein here and takin my leg. I’d be poppin coyotes or injuns if it wudn’t for them.”

“You sure would.”

He was quiet another few moments. “Hey, Pa?”

“Yeah, Son?”

“I ain’t never been no good about listenin to you and Ma. Or anybody, really.”

“That’s all right, Johnny.”

“If I die from this, you reckon Ole Scratch’ll come for me?”

“Who said anything about dyin?”

“Look around, Pa. Ain’t you noticed how many men here lost a limb?”

“Can’t say that I have. Just you is all I can think of.”

“That’s right, Pa. The rest is dead. They cut somethin off and a few days later whatever was makin em sick puts em down for good.”

I took a deep breath, then said, “You’re special, Son. I ain’t much for prayin and the good book and all, but it seems to me the Lord has a plan for you. And if you die young, I can’t see why Ole Scratch would be the one to get you.”

“Ok, Pa,” he said. “One more thing.”

“What’s that?”

“If I don’t make it, don’t let Thomas get any big revenge ideas. This kinda life ain’t him and he won’t never find the guy that got me anyhow.”

“I reckon you’re right about that.”

Days went by with news of the Yanks gettin close, troops heading out to meet them, and shells falling in the streets. Finally, word came that the wounded who could be evacuated were to be taken away. The rest would have to be left to the Yankee doctors.

Johnny hadn’t improved much—still felt pain, and his wound seemed on the edge of infection. But they judged him well enough to be taken to Oxford.

I think the ride mighta did it. When I caught up with him there, he was feverish and seein stuff, callin out to men in battle, hollerin his brother’s name. He had one moment of clarity one night where he sat up and said, “Now look here, Thomas. I’d tell you to look after Ma, but you done that your whole life. So be you, my brother.”

Then it was back to the fever dreams. A few hours after that, his breathin got raspy and short, then stopped.

What I shoulda done then is I shoulda made him a box and took him home. Shoulda buried him where all the Sloans wound up, but I didn’t on account of there not bein no more wood in town. That’s what the other wounded tole me—they had run outta wood to bury the dead weeks ago, so you got wrapped in anything they could lay hands on, put you in the ground, and carved you a wooden headboard. At least, that’s what they did if you had friends around. If no one knew you but the hospital folks, well, you got put in a hole in the ground and never marked, kinda like you never existed.

Not Johnny. People loved that boy, and by then, they all knew he wudn’t more’n a boy. So when he passed, I saw grown, hardened soldiers weep. They gave him a real military funeral and buried him in a nice spot in a row with others who had died recently.

Back home, it was like Johnny had seen the future. His brother swore revenge against all the vandals and made to go to War. I couldn’t stop him, so I got some of the men in town to have him join with them in the 20th Texas. Mostly, they spent the War watchin Galveston Bay. I think they had one scrap, maybe two. I think Thomas fired his weapon in combat once.

Of course, the problem I got now is I ain’t got no idea where Johnny is. Those headboards didn’t last a rainy season, I’m told. Worse, when the vandals came through, they desecrated our men’s graves. Sometimes, they even dug em up and put em in big mass graves so they could make room for they own dead.

So my boy ain’t got a marker nowhere. Didn’t have no funeral with his own kin. Didn’t get buried with our own neither. Never set foot in Texas again. And now, all these years later, y’all all remember the Alamo, but you don’t know nothin about my boy … unless you read Nurse Cumming’s book and you believe he lost a leg, then lived happily ever after.

When you hear this song,
Remember Johnny Sloan;
Grab your gun and run,
Stand up tall for your home!

When the War was over, none of us really felt we done right by him. And as time goes on, it gets worse. The black folk all moved on. The ole timers remember him a bit, but they is fewer and fewer. That’s why I wrote this here song. Maybe y’all can sing it. Maybe y’all can remember the sure shot boy who gave his leg, then his life for Texas and his country.

Maybe y’all can remember too what some ole feller said to me once. That ole guy says to me, “You know, if all they say about Jesus is true, I feel badly about it. I do. Shouldn’t no man have to take my whippin for me. But He chose it, know what I mean? His Pa, though. He just had to watch it. Prolly wished he could take His place but He couldn’t. I think that’s the worst thing of all.”

***

If you’ve made it to the end of this fine piece of emotional manipulation, faux hagiography, and Confederate apologetics, I congratulate you and thank you for your patience. I also ask you to consider what precisely you now know from this “story.” When you start to search for John Mather Sloan, you see him prominently mentioned in a number of sources as one of the youngest soldiers to experience amputation. No less than the National Park Service has backed this up. If we search enough, we get this nugget from what appears to be a primary source:

Among the incidents of the late battle of Farmington, which was fought on the 9th inst., was, that a young lad of thirteen years of age, named John Mather Sloan, of the 9th Texas Regiment, who had been regularly mustered into service, had his leg shot off during the battle. The gallant little fellow, as he looked down at his shattered limb, exclaimed: “Well, I don’t mind the loss of one leg much, but I can’t get over the thought that I won’t be able again to stand before the enemy, and get another shot!”

I learn that General Beauregard intends conferring on the young hero the order of the Southern Cross of Honor, who will be the first to receive this much coveted badge of distinction.

Winston [N.C.] Western Sentinel, 6 June 1862, p. 4, c. 2:

Did anyone ever meet this Sloan? On May 5, 1862, Kate Cumming recorded the following:

We have a boy here, named Sloan, from Texas, and a member of the Texas Rangers. He is only thirteen years of age, and lost a leg in a skirmish. He is as happy as if nothing was the matter, and he was at home playing with his brothers and sisters. His father is with him and is quite proud that his young son has distinguished himself to such a degree, and is very grateful to the ladies for the kind attention which they bestow upon him.

Harwell, Kate: Diary of a Confederate Nurse, Louisiana State University Press, 1998, p. 31.

So here we appear to have an eyewitness. If you’re reading closely, though, you may have already noted a problem. The Winston Western Sentinel has Sloan losing his leg in The Battle of Farmington on May 9. Indeed, the 9th Texas Cavalry fought at that battle, which was really more of a skirmish. But of course, by the time the 9th fought that skirmish, Kate had already met the one-legged Sloan–her diary entry is May 5. Well, okay, this was all part of the Siege of Corinth. That siege involved numerous unnamed skirmishes as the Union cautiously approached the city. So maybe the Sentinel got the skirmish wrong. Just to be sure, let’s confirm Sloan’s service record and see if we can find out what happened to him.

When we search the NPS’s service records, we get this: a J. M. Sloan. Aha! We have him! Or do we? When we trace this Sloan, we eventually wind our way to a cemetery in Grayson County, Texas–a hot spot for recruiting the 9th Texas Cavalry, and we find a headstone for a John Monroe Sloan, Jr., Company C, 9th Texas Cavalry. I don’t see any other J. M. Sloan, though we find a F. M. Sloan. Misreading of a J? Maybe so. Let’s see if we can find him pre-war.

There are no clear fits. I cannot find any census records of a John M. Sloan, age 12, in northeastern Texas in 1860. However, we do see John J. Sloan in the 1860 Census in Grimes County, Texas. Even more interesting, by 1870, he appears in no records thereafter, and in the 1870 Census, he’s simply gone from the family. A W. H. Sloan in the 9th Texas suggests that his father might possibly have served with him (though I haven’t written it as such in the story), but then again, John Monroe Sloan named one of his sons William H. Sloan, probably after his father who was likely serving with him.

Can we find what happened to our young John Mather Sloan? A message board member noted the following:

And what happened to Sloan?

Lee, the following appears under Remarks in one of his service cards.

Died at Oxford, Miss. May 28, 1862 from a wound received at the battle of Farmington.
J.M. Sloan a boy thirteen years old was wounded in the thigh and his leg was amputated.

More than likely his burial site is among the other unmarked graves in the Ole Miss Confederate Cemetery.

Mitchell

I haven’t seen the record Mitchell refers to. As well, Kate Cumming ran into Sloan at Corinth not Oxford. And as we noted earlier, Kate saw him a full four days before the Farmington skirmish. Actually, we should be careful in saying that. Kate didn’t actually state that she saw Sloan. She only noted that he was there.

For argument’s sake, let’s agree that Sloan existed, that he fought at age 13, lost his leg, then eventually died from it, only to be buried in an unmarked grave and basically lost to history except as an example of a child who had an amputation. Let’s ignore the historical problems and agree that the main parts probably happened, even if not exactly on the same dates and at the same places as the records now show. Let’s restate those facts: a 13-year-old boy fought for the Confederacy, had his leg shot off, succumbed to his wounds, and was buried in an unmarked grave. For what precisely? This is a point of pride for his father. For Texas. For Kate Cumming. For what, again, precisely?

Reading from Texas’s own history of Grimes County makes this question very uncomfortable. I’ve pulled out some of the toughest parts:

Most immigrants at this time were from the slaveholding southern United States–with Alabamians perhaps preponderant among them–and brought with them slaves and a culture shaped by the “peculiar institution” of slavery. The phenomenon of chain migration was conspicuous in this phase of the area’s history.

Handbook of Texas

The county’s adoption of the Old South pattern of plantation agriculture was evident in the census of 1850, which found 1,680 slaves and two free Blacks residing amidst a White population of 2,326.

Handbook of Texas

There was virtually no voice in Grimes County raised in opposition to the secessionist movement during the crisis of 1860 and 1861. The referendum of February 1861 returned a majority of 907 to 9 in favor of secession. Hundreds of county residents volunteered for service in Confederate and state military units.

Handbook of Texas

The postwar period might have been just as bad. The area was so toxic that federal troops were deployed in the county to keep the peace.

[M]ost of the violent crime in this period was committed by Whites against Blacks. Twenty-nine such incidents, including twelve homicides, were reported in the county in 1867 alone. The authorities seemed helpless to administer the laws, and few offenders were ever prosecuted. As the anarchy deepened, armed bands of Whites meted out vigilante justice; the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the county at Navasota in April 1868. In self-defense, local Blacks formed their own “militias.” The secret activities of the county’s Loyal Leagues (see UNION LEAGUE), organized among the freedmen by Republicans as an agency of political indoctrination, inflamed White fears of Black conspiracies against White lives and property.

Handbook of Texas

And finally, we have this miserable note about the county:

The Populists courted Black voters by raising the inadequate salaries of Black schoolteachers and by hiring Black deputies in the sheriff’s department. Many of the county’s Black Republicans promptly joined the new insurgent movement, which was assailed by the local Democratic press as a species of “radical Negroism.” After smashing victories by the People’s party in the county elections of 1896 and 1898, Grimes County Democrats retaliated by forming the White Man’s Union (see WHITE MAN’S UNION ASSOCIATIONS), an initially secret, oath-bound society designed to end electoral “corruption” by excluding Blacks from participation in county politics. The White Man’s Union launched a campaign of night-riding and intimidation of Populist voters and orchestrated the murder of several Black Populist leaders. The local White Populist sheriff, wounded by an armed mob on the streets of Anderson, was evacuated to Houston by an escort of state militia. With terrorized Populists avoiding the polls, the White Man’s Union swept the elections of 1900, and Blacks began a mass migration from the county. The White Man’s Union proceeded to select every officer of the county government until 1958. By 1910 the Black exodus had reduced the Grimes County Black population by more than 30 percent, to 9,858.

Handbook of Texas

Again, the source of all this is the Texas State Historical Association.

In the story, did you note this line from the Texas Declaration of Independence: our arms … are essential to our defense, the rightful property of freemen, and formidable only to tyrannical governments? You might ask yourself, what was the definition of freemen in 1836?

In fact, you might reread the story and look for the vast array of internal inconsistencies, instances of casual racism (just read the history of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to start), self-deceiving commentary, wistful and hagiographic memory making, misapplications of scripture, and straight up myth-making. If it tugged at your heart strings somehow, it might be worth asking why. And it might be worth asking what other similar traps we fall into.

***

A further note. This record from FamilySearch suggests that John J. Sloan is not a great candidate for John Mather Sloan, either. This begs the question: Did John Mather Sloan actually exist?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: