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From Our Past XXI

A Curious Letter to Captain Frank Gurley

Frank B Gurley

My Great-grandfather James M. Mason by Charles S. Johnson, Jr.

There is no doubt the event and subsequent results of March 20, 1862 left an indelible mark on most of the members of Captain Gurley's young troopers of the Fourth Alabama Calvary. This event was the raid on General Robert L. McCook's Union Brigade in route from Athens, Alabama to Deeherd, Tennessee. The event took place when the Confederates heard that a herd of cattle had been taken from farmers in Madison and Limestone counties by Union soldiers. The Confederate company commander at the time, Captain Hambrick, felt the Calvary could overtake the Federals and recover the stolen herd. Hambrick knew the federals would pass along the Limestone and Winchester road and knew they could overtake them. Captains Hambrick's and Gurley's units mounted their horses and went after the Union column with haste. As the Confederate troopers approached through a wooded area, Gurley and some of his men went about a mile forward to scout out the road ahead. All of a sudden, Union cavalry attacked them from the front. The Confederates had no idea they had been chasing an entire Union Infantry Brigade with cavalry or they probably would not have been so bold to press forward.

Gurley and his men retreated and fled back toward Capt. Hambrick's troopers. Meanwhile, Hambrick, being aware of the situation, set up an ambush on both sides of the road. As Gurley passed and the Federals approached, the Confederates opened fire and turned the Union Calvary into a full retreat. This same Union cavalry fled right by their commander, General McCook, who was riding in a wagon with a case of dysentery, and in his undergarments. He had no insignia of rank on him. When the wagon was ordered to halt the wagon went into a full gallop. Capt. Frank Gurley's part in this event and the subsequent results of his ordeal with the Federal authorities is fully outlined in "From Our Past" Chapters 7 and 8.

The resulting capture, trial and imprisonment of Capt. Frank B. Gurley was widely publicized throughout the North and South. His case was reviewed by numerous Union and Confederate Generals and two U. S. Presidents. He was twice sentenced to be hanged and spent many miserable days and nights locked up in chains in solitary confinement. The fact he survrived this long, with the harsh treatment he received, is nothing short of a miracle. For a second time Captain Gurley was finally pardoned with the recommendations of General Grant to President Johnson. He was finally released in April 1866.

All of the troopers of the Fourth Alabama who were with Capt. Frank Gurley that fateful day of the General McCook raid carried remorse and guilt with them for several years. Capt. Gurley was wrongfully accused and imprisoned for something that was totally misrepresented by angry and revengeful Yankee politicians and military personnel. It made no difference whether Gurley was guilty or not, the Yankees wanted revenge.

After Gurley's release from prison, he returned to his hometown of Gurley, Alabama to recuperate. His family and the good neighbors fed him well and nursed him back to good health. This photo of Frank Gurley, taken soon after his release in 1866, shows the effects of long months of imprisonment and poor nourishment.

Gurley's troopers did not forget him. Many were to attend the reunions he held for the next several years. Others visited him in Gurley and still others corresponded through letters. One such letter was by an old comrade, James M. Mason, written on June 10, 1866. The letter is somewhat curious as it seems to share a secret with Capt, Gurley. It appears as if James Mason is sharing some of the guilt in the whole affair. Could trooper Mason have been riding with Gurley and actually fired shots at the McCook wagon along with Gurley? We can interpret this letter in different ways. The letter was sent by a "trusty hand". Does this mean Mason did not want this letter to fall in the wrong hands? If the "guilt were shifted to him" why did he think the affair would go much easier on him than Gurley. There are some secret messages in this letter that only Frank Gurley and James Mason would understand. We can speculate on the contents but the truth is that we will never know. History is very good at hiding its secrets. Frank B Gurley
Letter from James Mason to Captain Frank B Gurley Letter from James Mason to Captain Frank B Gurley
Letter from James Mason to Captain Frank B Gurley                                          Marion, Ala
                                         June 10th, 1866

Dear Friend,
        I heard with inexpressible pleasure of your release from confinement and I take this, the first available opportunity of expressing my hearty congratulations, on your triumphant acquittal. I was almost as much surprised as pleased that the prejudice of feeling was too strong against you. Since the affair has terminated, as it has, I am in hopes it will never be revived again. I have heard from various quarters that my own name had been used in the affair. I can appreciate the motive of making such a use of it, and if it was any manner an advantage to you, I am glad it was used. As for my self, I have never been vain enough to claim any such credit. Previous to your capture, I always denied it when spoken to on the subject and it was only when you were deprived of liberty, and your life endangered, that I would allow anyone to be deceived on this point. My motive then was your good for I believed that if the guilt could be shifted from yourself to me, the thing would go much easier with me than it would with you.

    I believe we understand each other in this matter. It is my will for the matter to stand as is for the present. But if the time ever comes when the thing can be looked on as it was years ago, then I renounce all claims to the praise.
    I could not have written as I have but that I send this by a trusty hand. If you can do so with prudence, you will do me a favor to preserve this letter.
    My best wishes are for your welfare. I hope you may recover from the many losses you have sustained and you may rest assured you have not a more disinterested friend than

Yours respectfully
James Mason

P.S. Please write me soon. I should like to know some of the particulars relating to your release, and also how you are now getting along.

James M. Mason This most curious letter stirs the imagination with unspoken secrets. Mason also mentions his "own name having been used in the affair". We don't know if his name was mentioned as an accomplice or an eye witness in Frank Gurley's trial defense. Apparently he denied any involvement during Gurley's confinement.

James Mason attended several of the reunions Frank Gurley held after the war. In any event it seems they remained friends well into their old age.

Note: Some of the information concerning the events preceding the McCook raid was taken from Hard Times, the Civil War in Huntsville and North Alabama by Charles Rice, published 1994. This is an excellent book and is highly recommended by this writer.

Further research into the James M. Mason letter to Captain Frank B. Gurley reveals some information that adds a little more light to the General McCook incident and the mystery of this letter of June 10, 1866. Apparently, James Mason and Frank Gurley were the only two of four Confederate eyewitnesses involved in the attack and who survived the war. After the war, Reverend James M. Mason wrote his war experiences in a dissertation called "An Account of Some of the Confederate Forces in and Around Huntsville, Alabama". In this narrative, Mason makes several specific references to the incident and all are quite revealing. In Col. Donald H, Steenburn's book "A Man Called Gurley", the author quotes several passages from Mason's journal that relate to either the incident itself or the desperate plight of Capt. Frank Gurley

James Mason states, "Of the four Confederates who were nearest General McCook when he fell, one was later killed in the cavalry attack on Fort Donelson February 3, 1863, another was killed in battle near Kennesaw Mountain, Ga, June 9th, 1864. The other two were Capt. Gurley and the writer (James Mason).

He further stated, "The reputation of a brave, skillful, and honorable officer of the Confederate Army demands that I, a participant in this affair, and witness of the fatal wounding of Gen. McCook, should so far depart from the thread of my narrative as to relate the resulting effects of this affair upon Capt. Frank. B. Gurley. The reports of this skirmish that reached the north caused great indignation. It was stated that Gen. McCook fell by the hand of Gurley himself, after he had surrendered. One report said that he was murdered while lying sick in an ambulance. Capt. Gurley was represented as a guerilla and a desperado".

In his dissertation James Mason also continues, "The question, 'Who killed Gen. McCook?' can never be answered, but this writer does not believe, nor does Capt. Gurley, that he (Gurley) fired the fatal shot. It is certain that the McCook fight was as great a surprise to us as it was to the enemy. We accidentally ran into the enemy. We fought without premeditation, deliberation, plan or purpose. Our success was wholly due to the fact that (to use one of Gen. Forrest's expressions) 'We got the bulge on them'. Had we known what lay before us, it is probable we would have retreated without firing a gun." James Mason is probably right in his assumption as the small Confederate cavalry command that made the charge that fateful day, had no idea that they were attacking a full Division of Federal Infantry.

In the wild melee that followed the Confederate charge, the command was scattered in all directions. When trooper James Mason finally linked up with some of his fellow Confederates, they said to him "Mason, you have killed General McCook". It was the first time he found out who the identity of the Union general was. He further wrote, "I knew then that no one could tell who had shot General McCook. Pistol fire is very inaccurate, even when men are afoot and near each other. When men are mounted and horses running at full speed and several firing in the same direction, no man can tell whose bullet finds the mark".

These narratives in Mason's dissertation leave no doubt that James Mason was one of the four Confederates (including Capt. Gurley) that charged upon Gen. McCook's retreating wagon that day. He would also be correct in his assumption that in the heat of the action, it would be impossible to tell who actually fired the shot that struck McCook. As the fortunes of war go, Captain Frank B. Gurley was still the commanding officer leading the charge. With the help of a revengeful and bitter northern press, it was Capt. Gurley who caught all the blame and received the subsequent harsh punishment for the incident. The fact that the Union Army and northern press treated Capt. Gurley as a common guerilla instead of a Confederate Army officer made the charges even more damning and harder for his Confederate troopers and southern supporters to accept. The outcome of the whole affair must have had a very hard impact on James Mason and the other troopers who had participated in the raid.

James Mason's letter of June 10,1866 to Capt. Gurley spills out four long years of guilt, frustrations, and pent up emotions while he watched his good friend and commander take the blame and suffer the hardships of imprisonment and abuse for an incident where he (Mason) was also involved. In Mason's mind, he felt it could have been his own bullet that struck McCook instead of Gurley's, yet his commander was wrongfully accused and forced to take all the punishment and mental anguish of facing the constant threat of execution. This had to be a very heavy load for Mason to bear. When Frank Gurley was finally acquitted and released from prison on April 28, 1866, James Mason wrote the letter as an outpouring of guilt, love and support for his former commander. The mysterious letter now seems to make more sense.

It is interesting to note that James Mason had a photo of Captain Frank Gurley in his possession he kept for the rest of his life. It was given to him by Gurley after his release from Federal prison. It was a smaller photo similar to the photo shown at the top of this Chapter. On the back Capt. Gurley wrote, "To J. M. Mason with the complements of your friend, F. B. Gurley.