Wednesday, April 5, 2017

“Cactus and Sage Brush, Fleas and Ants” October-December 1916

by Captain William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Bound for the Border
On October 22, 1916, ten trainloads of Georgia Guardsmen departed Camp Harris bound for El Paso, Texas and service along the Mexican border. To the chagrin of Monroe’s Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry, Corporal Robert G. Burton recalled that no one from Monroe was present to see them off as the train steamed away from the Macon, Ga. train depot at 1:00 pm.

Burton, and the Soldiers of the Georgia Brigade made the tiresome trip to El Paso in five days. Along the route, the train column expanded and contracted, at times exceeding 150 miles in length. For many of the Georgians witnessing the passing landscape it was the first time they had been outside of their home state. Far different from the familiar green terrain and humidity was the gradual transition to brown, sandy vistas, sandy mountains and dry air.

The first of the Georgia trains pulled into the El Paso train depot on the morning of October 27, 1916. After multiple track changes, the Georgians clacked their way south crossing Paisano Drive to the flat parade ground of Camp Cotton which would be their home for the next several months.

Camp Cotton
The tents of the 2nd Georgia Infantry at Camp Cotton, 1916.
Georgia National Guard Archives

Camp Cotton was located along the Texas / Mexico border with the intersection of Paisano Drive and Cotton Avenue forming the northwest intersection of the camp boundary. The camp extended south to the banks of the Rio Grande River. The eastern border of Camp Cotton was formed by Cordova Island which marked the former location of the Rio Grande before the river’s course changed. Due to the presence of Cordova Island, and its attendant territorial disputes, the south and east borders of Camp Cotton looked out over Mexican territory.

After surveying the landscape of Camp Cotton, the Georgia regiments unloaded the trains and began setting up camp, displacing Guardsmen from Massachusetts who were returning home. The Georgia Brigade, consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Georgia Infantry Regiments established company streets running east from the rail spur. The first tent established on the street of Company H, 2nd Ga. was Captain Aycock’s followed by the kitchen tent. First Sgt. Aralton D. Whitney’s tent was next followed by the supply stores tent of Quartermaster Sgt. Augustus Williams. Squad tents followed with eight men assigned to each tent.

The site of camp cotton in 1917 and 2017
Left: Georgia National Guard Archives. Right: Captain William Carraway
Writing to his mother on October 27, 1916, Burton noted that he had enjoyed the travel west, particularly Louisiana and Texas and that he was settling in to his new environment.

“I like this country just fine and believe that the longer I stay, the better I will like it.”
Company H, 2nd Georgia Infantry Regiment on the border,
October, 1916
Georgia National Guard Archives
Shortly thereafter, Burton sent a postcard of himself with six members of Company H. A handwritten note on the front of the postcard notes that the photo was taken within 100 yards of the Rio Grande and the border. Quartermaster Sgt. Augustus Williamson is the first Soldier visible. To his left is Corporal Robert G. Burton. Burton admonished his mother to put this card in his Kodak book. It was the first of many such images Burton would thus save.

As he got used to his new surroundings, Burton found that he liked the camp rather well. Despite the endless blowing dust and early hacking coughs that seemed to afflict everyone in camp, Burton found camp life to be pleasant enough. He reported that food was good but that the water tasted of rotten eggs. Second Lt. Albion Smith, an officer in the 5th Georgia Infantry Regiment reported that the water in Camp Cotton was piped in from town and that each company street was provided with a water tap, a convenience not present at Camp Harris in Macon.

Burton was pleased to discover Camp Cotton had a Young Men’s Christian Association. His letter of October 31, 1917 was the first of many to appear on YMCA stationery.

“The days are warm bordering on hot and the nights are cold or cool,” wrote Burton. “The air is dry and fresh. The camps are well located and all in all we are having a pretty good time.”

Burton recalled the YMCA supplied Soldiers with pens, ink and paper and showed movies at least four times a week.

Danger and Drudgery
Just days after arrival, Burton described his first experience on guard duty.

“Last night we went on guard on one side (our side) of the river. An American Soldier was walking, while just across the river, not more than a hundred yards away, a Mexican Soldier, or ‘Amigo’, was walking... Sometimes we hear a shot from across the river, but they have become so common that we do not pay attention to them.”
Writing to his aunt four days later, Burton reported that the sniping had all but stopped.

“Only sometimes a shot is fired across the river and when one is, it hardly ever does any damage.”
In his November 4, 1916 letter, Burton also made his first prediction about when the 2nd Georgia would return.

“We hope to be back home by Xmas,” wrote Burton. “I think that we will.”

As days passed, Burton’s descriptions of Camp Cotton remained warm.

“I like this camp very much better than the one we had in Macon,” wrote Burton November 6, 1916. “In this camp, we have electric lights and frames for our tents. They are planked half way up and have wooden floors in them.”

Cpl. Robert Gober Burton paints "Villa Georgia" on the side of his tent.
Georgia National Guard Archives
After a month, camp life had settled into a routine. The Georgians availed themselves of the YMCA writing material and wrote of experiences in town. Burton reported that El Paso was a town of 126 saloons but that he had not partaken of them and had instead remained a regular attendee of prayer meetings at the YMCA. During one of these prayer meetings, the chaplain of the 2nd Georgia remarked “God made this country and then forgot it.” Burton agreed with the sentiment finding El Paso to be:

“…the most God forsaken place in the world… There is not very much to this country. Out here it grows nothing but cactus and sage brush, fleas and ants.”
As November wore on, temperatures dropped. Burton’s letters revealed an increasing sense of homesickness, though he assured his mother that

“I am not homesick but just want to be at home with you and papa as I think that I am needed more there than on the border at present.”
Snow fell November 21, but Burton assured his family that he was warm.

Thanksgiving on the Border
The Monroe Guardsmen got a special treat from home four days before Thanksgiving when packages arrived from family and well-wishers. Williamson and Burton enjoyed a feast of Georgia butter, cakes and homemade wine which they poured over the cakes and allowed to sink in.

By Thanksgiving Day, Burton and Williamson were still enjoying the cake, but as Burton writes on December 1, 1916, Thanksgiving Day was memorable not for dinner, but for duty.

“We certainly had a Thanksgiving dinner today. We missed ours Thursday but made up for it Friday. We missed it because we were on outpost duty. We had all the things that go with a Thanksgiving dinner: chicken, dressing, cranberries and everything… The big horseraces took place in Juarez Thursday. Would surely liked to have seen them. They are the biggest events of the year over there.
We are still eating on the cake that you and EB sent. We surely do think it was great of both of you to send it to us.
The news of what we do must travel the rounds in Monroe now. I hope that they don’t hear anything on me. I don’t see where they will tho.
Your devoted son,
Thanksgiving Day, 1916 Left to Right:  Jack Felker,  Burton, E. J. Moore, Jim Mathews.
Georgia National Guard Archives

As November passed into December, camp life remained unremarkable. The Georgians marched to rifle ranges for target practice where they camped overnight. Burton recalled the temperatures were cold, but not so cold as to be unpleasant.

Christmas and a New Year
As Christmas approached, the Georgians wrapped and sent gifts home to loved ones and wrote letters thanking family and friends for gifts received. One gift from home was particularly well received as Burton wrote:

“The Coca Cola that Mr. Bell sent came yesterday and was fully enjoyed by the whole (company). The taps out here taste different from those in Georgia.”

Christmas morning dawned gusty with winds swirling thick clouds of dust. Braving the wind, Cpl. Burton trudged to the post office and received a money order from home. To his horror, as he was making his way back to his tent, the money flew from his grasp and was lost in the dust.

The other Monroe men of Company H fared better, enjoying a feast provided by Capt. Aycock. After the dinner, the men presented Aycock, Lt. Launius and Lt. Dickinson with custom-made rings with the phrase “from Co H., 2nd Ga.” engraved inside.
Writing his mother, Burton related his Christmas experiences and told her that he would be away on a fifteen-day hike for the first part of January. Burton was optimistic about what the hike portended.

“Do not be worried about me. I will be OK. This is the last thing that the National Guard do before they leave the border so I think that we will be home before long.”

The company would soon leave El Paso, but not for Georgia as Burton imagined.

Next Chapter: Service in New Mexico.

1 comment:

  1. Would love to find a photo of Co.K of the 3rd Georgia Infantry volunteers