TEXAS HISTORY MINUTE: Gen. John George Walker, his role in the Civil War

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
Gen John George Walker

The Civil War was a time of great chaos and terrible destruction.  Hundreds of thousands of men fought on both sides.  In Texas, the commander of one of the most famous Confederate divisions was John George Walker.  Walker’s adventures, however, would take him far from Texas. 

Walker was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1821.  He grew up in St. Louis, where he also graduated from college.  In 1846, as the Mexican War erupted, Walker volunteered for the US Army, serving as first lieutenant in a mounted rifle division.  During the Mexican War, he fought bravely and earned the rank of captain.  In the 1850s, he served in West Texas in the continuing fights between the settlers and the Apaches. 

            When the Civil War came in 1861, Walker resigned from the US Army to join the Confederate forces.  He was made a lieutenant colonel and put in command of the 8th Texas Cavalry.  Although units were formed locally during the Civil War, the demands of the war pulled most units east of the Mississippi River early in the fighting.  As such, Walker and the 8th Texas saw fighting in 1862 in the Peninsular Campaign in Virginia and the bloody battle at Antietam. 

            In November 1862, Walker was promoted to general and put in command of a new division comprised of 12,000 troops from Texas.  Soon, his men became known as Walker’s Texas Division, or even Walker’s Greyhounds for their reputation to march long distances in a relatively short time.  In 1863, they failed to repel Union forces from Vicksburg, the South’s last stronghold on the Mississippi River.  In 1864, Union troops attempted an invasion of Shreveport and into East Texas known as the Red River Campaign.  Walker’s troops, however, successfully defeated Union troops on the Red River in northern Louisiana and quickly turned north to repel Union troops moving south from Arkansas.  Walker’s division took thousands of Union prisoners as a result of these battles. 

By 1865, Walker commanded the District of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, though the Arizona and New Mexico Territories had long since been retaken by Union forces.  Much of Texas and western Louisiana still held out, however.  Walker, like other Confederate officials, could see the writing on the wall with the increasing reports of losses and retreats and knew that a Confederate surrender had become inevitable.  After the surrender of Confederate forces in Virginia and the capture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in April, Walker prepared for the end.  Instead of a formal surrender to Union troops, Walker simply arranged for his troops to go home.  In May 1865, Walker’s Texas Division formally disbanded at Hemphill near the Sabine River. 

While Walker was satisfied his men were safe from reprisal, he and other senior officers and officials fled to Mexico to avoid possible treason charges by the United States government.  After a few years in Mexico and realizing that a treason charge and the gallows did not await him, Walker returned to the United States.  

In fact, in the years after Reconstruction, the federal government was impressed with Walker’s skills and put him to work for the reunited nation.  In the 1880s, he served as ambassador to Columbia.  In 1889, he was named special commissioner for the United States at the first Pan-American Conference in Washington, DC.  Shortly afterward in 1893, Walker died in Washington, DC. 

Ken Bridges

Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at drkenbridges@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.