Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948
Gurley Lions Club serving the Gurley community since 1948

From Our Past XXIV

A Comrade in Arms - James M. Mason
Also: My Great-grandfather James M. Mason by Charles S. Johnson, Jr.

Introduction: Chapter 21 gives a brief overview of the connection of James M. Mason to Captain Frank B. Gurley both during and after the Civil War. Both were raised in Madison County and both served in the Fourth Alabama Calvary, Company C under Nathan Bedford Forrest's command. Much of the following information is taken from the post-war memoirs of James Mason titled "The Account of Some of the Activities of Confederate Forces in and around Huntsville, Alabama". I wish to acknowledge and thank Clive Mason of Birmingham, James Mason's great grandson, who talked to me at length about his great grandfather and who provided most of the documents and photos of him. He also provided James Mason's medals and special United Confederate Veterans uniform that his great grandfather wore at UCV parades and some of the reunions he attended.

James Monroe Mason at sixteen

James Monroe Mason was born at old Spring Hill, Alabama in 1846, and following the death of his father, attended school at Huntsville, Alabama under the care of an uncle. After the Civil War, Mason attended the University of Kentucky for three and one half years then attended Howard College in Marion, Alabama, for a short period. He married Ellen O. Drake in 1870 and the same year he entered the Methodist ministry. He was a member of the Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South for a period of thirty-nine years, until his death at Opelika, Alabama in 1909.

Throughout his life, he maintained his interest in the activities of the United Confederate Veterans, and was appointed Lieutenant Colonel and Chaplain General of the Alabama Division of the UCV on the staff of Confederate Major General George P. Harrison.

The photo at left is a young James Mason at sixteen. This is how he looked when he enlisted in the Fourth Alabama Cavalry on June 20, 1862.

In his post war memoirs he writes, "Being only a soldier in the ranks, I shall attempt to recite only that which I saw and participated in from the date of my enlistment until my discharge by parole at the surrender of General Forrest on May 9, 1865."

In April 1862, Mason was a schoolboy in Huntsville. On the morning of April 11, 1862, the Federal Army, under the command of Gen. O. M. Mitchell, occupied Huntsville. Mason's school was disbanded and the building seized for military uses. Soon after this event, young Mason and a fellow schoolmate received permission and passed through Union lines to visit friends in Southern Alabama. His attempt to get back through enemy lines was in vain, as they were unable to evade the enemy picket lines and were afraid to return home due to the excessive time having been gone. A friend informed them of a small band of Confederate cavalry that was being formed in the mountains of Madison and Jackson Counties and they were further advised to place themselves under their protection.

At this time, there were many Confederate soldiers lurking in this section. A company of the Seventh Alabama Infantry, whose term of enlistment had expired, had been disbanded and just returned home only a few days before the Federal army had arrived. They were hiding about in order to avoid arrest. There were also other Confederate soldiers, from different units, who were at home on furlough recovering from wounds or sickness. There were a number of young men of military age, who had not yet joined the army, who were all compelled to conceal themselves to avoid imprisonment.

General Braxton Bragg, developing his plans for the march into Kentucky, commissioned Frank B. Gurley of Forrest's command as a Captain of Cavalry and ordered him to organize a Company of cavalry and operate behind enemy lines. Within ten days, Gurley had raised about sixty men. Young Mason and his friend, being under their protection, were compelled to move with this unit from place to place. Seeing no opportunity to get home through the Union lines, on June 20th, they entered their names on the company's rolls at the ages of 16 and 15 years of age. It is interesting to note, James Mason's brother, William H. Mason, is also listed on the muster of the Fourth Alabama Cavalry, Company C and apparently served with his brother in the same unit. This was not an uncommon occurrence since Civil War units were recruited from the same area and generally stayed together. No further details are available for Mason's brother, and for some reason, his name is not mentioned in the Mason document.

In Mason's memoirs, he says the service assigned to this company was both difficult and dangerous. The Tennessee River has an average width of about eight hundred yards. It enters Alabama near Bridgeport and pursues it's course about fifty miles to Guntersville then turns northwest and passes out of the state at the northwestern corner of the state. The northern bank of the river was in possession of the enemy, and was closely picketed by Federals. In the four Alabama counties lying north of the river bend, was a large federal army numbering about twenty thousand men, who occupied every town and hamlet of importance. A large portion of this force was cavalry who was constantly engaged in scouting activities. Ironically, the dangers of the Fourth Alabama Cavalry were increased by the few unauthorized bands of Southern guerrillas operating in the area that gave presumptive evidence to Union soldiers that all Southern soldiers in the area were connected to these unauthorized bands and were indiscriminately outlawed. The rendezvous of the company was in the safe havens of the mountains along the border of Madison and Jackson Counties.

Mason's memoirs continue to describe individual events and some specific action encountered by his unit. There were frequent skirmishes between small detachments of their company and Union scouting parties. One such first encounter involved a mission to strike the enemy near the river at Guntersville. There was a large body of the Union troops there so they made a night march to escape detection. Many of the men had never been under fire and as they approached the point of greatest danger, the unit stopped as the Union bugles sounded reveille. The Confederate officers tried to form the company to order but in an instant there was a panic and the men and horses came so possessed by fear as to be uncontrollable. Soon the unit was in headlong flight and became widely scattered throughout the countryside. Many days passed before all members of the unit was re-assembled. In the panic, many of the troopers had lost their weapons. Such were the green troopers of Company C.

Mason's memoirs continue to describe individual events and some specific action encountered by his unit.

On another occasion, they received information of a Union wagon train approaching Huntsville on the Fayetteville turnpike and accompanied by a small escort. With a night ride, they succeeded in surprising and dispersing the Union party and captured a quantity of supplies so sorely needed. Soon after, the unit was themselves surprised near New Market, in Madison County, and suffered the loss of one man badly wounded and several captured. Despite their surprise, they were able to retreat in good order and escape into the mountains.

While these events were taking place, Captain Hambrick, of Forrest's Regiment, succeeded in crossing the Tennessee River and joining up with them. Their entire force at this time consisted of two companies, mustering about one hundred fifty men. Reinforced, the Confederates were now able to act with greater boldness and to undertake some enterprises of greater magnitude than any previously attempted. The federals were using the Memphis and Charleston Railroad to move troops and supplies into North Alabama. The Confederates had several times interfered with their use of this railroad by removing rails at certain points so it became necessary for the Federals to station garrisons near each other, all along the railroad, from Huntsville to Stevenson. A Union garrison on the Flint River Bridge, located twelve miles east of Huntsville, occupied one of these stations. This covered, wooden bridge was converted into a blockhouse and furnished with bulletproof gates at each end.

General Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army had always been able turn the flanks of their enemy and with this plan in mind, he was on the march to Kentucky. The Fourth Alabama, Company C, under Captain Frank B. Gurley, combined with Captain Hambrick's Company, was now assigned the duty of protecting Bragg's movement from Federals in North Alabama and a plan was worked out to capture and burn the Flint River Bridge and garrison. Their scouts learned the doors were kept open during the daytime and many of the garrison amused themselves by bathing in the river. The Confederates were hoping they could get near enough to capture the bridge with a sudden dash. They dismounted and approached as near as they could under cover. Many of the Federals were bathing in the river and others were engaged in other pastimes to occupy themselves. The Confederates felt the prize almost in their grasp when a sentinel on duty saw them and fired his rifle. Those soldiers near the bridge rushed to their arms and the bathers grabbed their clothes and ran to the bridge, closing the heavy doors with a bang. After firing a few long shots, the Confederates withdrew, leaving their prize behind.

The movement of General Bragg's army into East Tennessee forced Union commanders to divert large numbers of Federal troops from Mississippi and West Tennessee and move them eastward to counter Bragg's movements. Their direct line of march led them along the Alabama and Tennessee state line. Learning of their passage, Captains Gurley and Hambrick moved in that direction in order to observe their movements and hamper their progress. Watching what was known as the Ginn Spring Road, the Confederates learned that a Federal general had passed their location earlier with four or five hundred cavalry. Although the general was just a few hours ahead, the prize was too alluring to pass up so they followed the general on side roads just parallel to his march. One night he camped at Rock Springs and the Confederates reached the general location of the camp just as night fell. Precious time was lost securing local guides to get the information they needed about the camp. It was the early hours of the morning when they decided to split their force and attack from two sides, hoping to capture the Union general.

James Monroe Mason

They approached the camp on horseback then dismounted and split the force into two groups. By the time they reached their positions and awaited the arranged signal to charge, the Union camp was stirring and the Federal troopers began mounting their horses and resumed their march. The general who came so near to falling into Confederate hands was none other than General George H. Thomas.

Confederate James Monroe Mason The Confederates followed the Federals as far as practical then turned and rode fast where they crossed again at Ginn Springs Road at a point about six miles north of New Market. They noticed that Federal troops had been passing along the road. Captain Frank Gurley, mounted on a large gray mare, turned down the road where the Federals had come and rode about three hundred yards when he wheeled and started back at a gallop. In a moment, they saw four federal cavalrymen in hot pursuit. When Gurley reached his own troops, he turned and ordered a charge. Gurley's troopers pursued the Federals about a quarter mile when they ran into a large body of Union Cavalry and discharged double barrel shotguns emptying several Federal saddles. Everything in front was panic stricken as the Confederates created a rout of the enemy. It was at this point that a wagon carrying the ill stricken General Robert McCook rushed by and the famous General McCook incident occurred.

"From Our Past" Chapters 7, 8, and 21 describe this event in detail as does the continuation of the James Mason memoirs. It is now been established that Frank Gurley, James Mason, and two other Confederate troopers pursued the wagon and subsequently fired the fatal shot that struck General McCook. It was first reported, in an early "Confederate Veterans" publication, that Gurley's command was in pursuit of a Federal Calvary unit that had stolen a herd of cattle from North Alabama farmers. It appears this information was somewhat erroneous. The unit had been assigned a mission to harass the enemy and to protect General's Bragg's flanks when it happened to stumble upon the McCook Brigade by chance.

The rest of Mason's memoirs are pretty well devoted to this affair and the events leading up to Captain Frank Gurley's eventual capture and Imprisonment. As divulged in Chapter 21, James Mason was anguished by the imprisonment and treatment of his friend and former commander Frank B. Gurley. One can only imagine Mason's relief when Gurley was finally released from a Federal prison and paroled in April 1866.

After the war, James M. Mason became a practicing Methodist preacher and continued this profession for the next thirty-nine years until his sudden death in 1909. Mason remained very active in civil affairs and was highly involved with the Talladega Home for the Blind. He was also one of the founders of Huntington College in Montgomery. A bronze plaque, bearing his name, stands at the entrance of the college. His son and grandson proudly carried on the Mason name by becoming well-known Alabama surgeons.

His youthful war years had left an indelible impression on him and he was to spend the rest of his life deeply involved in active membership of The United Confederate Veterans organization. He was appointed Lieutenant Colonel and Chaplain General and was assigned to the staff of Major General George P. Harrison, commanding the Alabama Division of the United Confederate Veterans.

United Confederate Veterans certificate

His United Confederate Veterans certificate was dated January 1, 1900 and was signed by the General Commanding, John B. Gordon who was the overall commander of the UCV. Like all other Civil War veterans, James Mason took pride in his part of the war and especially in his old unit. As outlined in Chapter 9 of this series, Captain Frank Gurley held several reunions of his old Company C and James Mason attended these up until his sudden death in 1909. He also attended various meetings and other special Confederate Veterans events and functions sponsored by the UCV organization.

James Mason received several post war metals that he wore at all the Confederate Veterans events. As pictured below, one was the Gen. Nathan B. Forrest Commemorative Medal and the other was a Unit Citation Medal for Company C, Fourth Alabama Volunteer Cavalry.

Medal Confederate James Monroe Mason

Confederate uniform James M. Mason For special events, Mason had made, a new Confederate uniform tailored by M. C. Lilley and Company of Columbus, Ohio, to wear in the parades and for other special veteran's events. His old war uniform had long been destroyed by wear and tear, and like most Confederate soldiers, by the end of the war they wore a mixture of any clothing they could find. Both of the commemorative metals are also displayed on the uniform.

At the beginning of the Civil War, most Confederate soldiers went off to war with an assortment of uniforms sewn by mothers, wives, or other relatives. Most were a rough weave of cotton flannel and did not possess a knack for rough wear. After a few weeks of campaigning in rain and mud, these uniforms would simply fall apart. Some lucky soldiers would get an occasional new uniform from home but most had to forage for clothes to wear. Officers usually fared better than the enlisted men and would usually carry one or two spare uniforms in their baggage. Many Confederates would often wear an assortment of mixed Union uniforms either stolen or captured from the enemy, especially in the winter when they would wear just about anything to escape the bitter cold. A special prize to Confederate soldiers was captured Union boots and shoes, always in high demand.

One of the big events that took place was a large United Confederate Veterans parade held in Birmingham around 1908. Confederate Veterans from the Alabama Division dressed up in their new uniforms and rode their horses through the middle of town. Accompanied by various bands, the veterans held their heads high as the enthusiastic crowds cheered them on. Below is a rare photo of this event.

United Confederate Veterans parade held in Birmingham around 1908

In the photo above, James Mason and Captain Frank Gurley are the second pair of riders partially concealed by the Confederate flag in the foreground. Gurley's horse is behind the flag and Mason stands out on the right of Gurley. Eleven of the thirteen riders in this group were identified by name written on the photo border and it is believed all were from Company C of the Fourth Alabama Cavalry. The group riding behind the second flag is probably from a different unit. The second photo shown below was another photo taken further up the street and converted into a postcard depicting General Evans and his staff.

 General Evans United Confederate Veterans parade with James Monroe Mason

These veterans all looked forward to these UCV gatherings and events with great anticipation. It was a chance to see old comrades and swap many stories of their hardships and ordeals in the war. These old veterans had endured and survived the deadliest and worst war our nation had ever fought. They had all lived through horrors we can only imagine. They were all young men at the time and thought they had the immortality of youth, but they all grew up much too fast. They had fought for their country and they were all comrades in arms and heroes of their time.