WILLIAM ANDREW FLETCHER is one of the oldest citizens of Beaumont, a pioneer lumberman, now retired from a successful business career. He was born in St. Landry parish, Louisiana, in April, 1839. His father, Thomas, of North Carolina, died in 1867, and his mother. Eliza (Miller) Fletcher, of Tennessee, died in 1844. The father was a millwright.
Mr. Fletcher is one of the noted veterans of the Confederacy. His experiences in the war are told in his book “Rebel Private, Front and Rear,” describing his experiences and observations from the early fifties and through the Civil war. This reminiscent narrative has been well called “an honest tale, honestly told, by a private totally unaware of his own heroism.” From the standpoint of history, the book is especially valuable for its intimate descriptions of army life, told without striving for personal display, and equally apart from the rancor and sectionalism that characterize so many war narratives. The “Rebel Private” is a valuable contribution to the historical literature that will enable future generations to understand the real conditions and influences that were more potent factors in the Civil war than the artificial motives and causes that are more often accentuated.
A brief sketch cannot include sufficient matter from this book to indicate the value of its contents, but a brief outline of the experiences narrated is demanded to make this an accurate sketch of his life. The family had moved to Texas in 1856, and when he was about fourteen years old be began to notice, he says, “the trend of feeling in regard to slavery, between the North and the South.” His father was a close reader and a more farsighted reasoner than many of his neighbors. “His opinion was that the abuses by inhuman owners were such that an enlightened and humane people would sooner or later abolish it by some method, and he was fearful it would be by war, as both North and South seemed to be swayed by the demagogue, and it was evident the statesmen were largely in the minority, so if things did not take a different course soon the blood of the bone and sinew of the government would soon be flowing on a number of hard fought battlefields.” But this opinion was not popular and his father seldom expressed himself except to closest friends.
Thinking a densely settled negro district would be a poor place to have a family during the war which was sure to come, the father sold out and moved to Texas, settling at Wiess Bluff, Jasper county, in June, 1856, and in 1859 moved to Beaumont. Here little war agitation was heard, though the opinion was general as to the cowardice and inability of Yankees in coping with the southerners.
He thus describes the beginning of the war: “I was on the roof of a two-story house, putting on the finishing course of shingles, when Capt. William Rogers came by and reported war declared and the fall of Fort Sumter. The news was brought from Sabine Pass by an up-river steamer that had just landed, and it made me very nervous, thinking the delay of completing the roof might cause me to miss a chance to enlist, so I worked and talked and soon had the roof finished, and made an agreement with Rogers that I would take the train next day for Houston, and Galveston if necessary, and find some way of enlisting.”
The parting words of Mr. Fletcher's father were: “William, I have long years since seen this had to come, and it is a foolish undertaking, as there is no earthly Show for southern success as our ports will be blocked and the north will not only have advantage of men and means, but the world to draw from, and if you live to return you will see my predictions are right. While I have opposed it, but as it is here, I will say that you are doing the only honorable thing and that is defending your country.”
After some delay he and his fellow recruits set out for Richmond, Virginia, where he was formally enrolled as a member of Company F, Fifth Texas Infantry. He was held in camp a long while, suffering from measles and mumps, and from the vermin, unsanitary conditions and poor rations that characterized soldier life. He also had his first test as a soldier in some of the movements during the first winter of the war about Richmond, at Chickahominy, Seven Pines and elsewhere. In the early summer of 1862 he was part of General Jackson’s command in the Seven Days fighting around Richmond, and during the battle of Gaines Mill proved his efficiency as a scout in the immediate service of the commanding general. At the battle of Second Manassas, he was severely wounded while engaged in a sharp fight in the woods and thick brush. He was left uncared for, but managed to drag himself to a place of safety and finally reached the hospital. His cheerful courage was a large factor in his recovery, and when he left the hospital he went home on a sixty days’ furlough.
He returned to the front in time to take part in the battle of Fredericksburg, where he again proved his usefulness on detail service. But whatever his merits for promotion in rank, he insistently clung to the ranks, making as excuse that he could be a good soldier only as long as he could handle a gun. However, after Fredericksburg he was made a temporary corporal, while in winter quarters, which relieved him from guard duty.
In 1863 he was with the army of Lee in the invasion of Pennsylvania, and fought with Longstreet’s corps at the Roundtop and other noted points on the great field of Gettysburg. After Lee’s retreat to Virginia, Longstreet’s corps was detached and sent to the hard-pressed Johnston at Chickamauga, and in this terrific battle Mr. Fletcher was again wounded, in the foot. For several months he was in the hospital, at first at Augusta, Georgia. He refused to have his leg amputated, choosing rather to allow his foot to straighten so that he would have to walk on his toes, which the surgeons claimed would be the other alternative. Some time later, while on the street, on crutches, he fell in such a way as to break the ankle and cause the foot to assume its natural position. The doctors had asserted that this breakmg at the ankle would allow hardly a chance for saving the leg, but they worked at it and in the end not only spared him the necessity of amputation, but left him a sound foot.
Soon after returning to the command, in East Tennessee, he obtained a transfer to the Eighth Texas Cavalry, better know as Terry’s Rangers, being enrolled in Company E of that famous regiment in March, 1864. He was in the campaigns through Tennessee and Georgia, engaged in repelling the Sherman invasion, and in almost continuous scouting and skirmishing. On one occasion, becoming detached from his command, and while trying to get back, he was captured, and spent a number of weeks in the loathsome conditions of an army prison. The narrative of his capture and final escape is probably the most interesting and thrilling chapter of his book. He made his escape near Murfreesboro. Tennessee, and then followed an adventuresome experience in making his return to the army, which was then in the Carolinas, during the closing weeks of the war.
To quote: “On my way to my command I passed across the country that Sherman and Johnston went over on Sherman’s advance to Atlanta. The fences had mostly been burned and some of the houses abandoned. I struck their line of devastation, so I could ride across it in one day, as I expected nothing for man or beast. While the whole day was not occupied in the path of contention of the two armies, all the nearby country was closely foraged. I was told before entering that all I would see was women and children and a few old or crippled men; and that the mothers were walking long distances to get food for their children; which they brought in on sleds drawn by two or three year old beef, which they butchered. I was also told that the continuous noise of the contending armies had driven all winged creatures from the country. Hearing the reports caused me to notice particularly, and in my hard day’s ride I found things about as stated, for destitution was on every hand and to an extent one cannot well conceive, unless seen. But such is war, and yet at this stage of civilization and short period of emerging from the war, you will hear men talk of war as though it were but a matter of killing off a few men and the satisfying of a few others by pension. They seem to have no thought of the suffering many, and I have learned that those who agitate war are mere trumpets and not fighters.”
Joining his command in the Carolinas, he was with Johnston’s army in its slow retreat before Sherman, and the last time he was on the firing line was near Bentonville, North Carolina. Soon after the surrender of Lee and the armistice between Sherman and Johnston he started for Texas. Arriving at Beaumont, he found his father and two small half-sisters. His brother and step-mother had died of the yellow fever, and a younger half-brother had gone to other parts. He found industry and wages at a low ebb compared to what they had been before the war. “So I went home and gathered up father’s old carpenter tools and went on a job at $1.50 a day, about one hundred feet from the place where I left off work,” before the war.
In 1867 he opened a general repair shop, and in 1869 returned to the milling business in which he had been engaged before the war, taking charge of a planing machine. He became a partner in the business and continued it until he sold out to the Kirby interests in 1901. He owns and supervises a fine farm of about 1,000 acres in Orange county, and has large property interests, being a director of the Keith Lumber Company and of the Neches Iron works. In politics he is independent. He affiliates with Beaumont Lodge, B. P. O. E.
In 1866 Mr. Fletcher married Miss Julia Long, of Georgia. They have five children: Emmet A., who is mayor of Beaumont; Harvey D., of Beaumont; Marion K., in charge of the Beaumont water works; Valentine, a young woman who has demonstrated much talent as an artist; and Clyde, who is manager of the Neches Iron works.