No Better Cavalry Officer
Colonel Marcellus Pointer (1841-1909)
Marcellus Pointer, a man who was described at the end of his life as “broke and friendless…too proud to beg…” and having “died of a broken heart,” was the youngest of eight children. Though he would later claim to have been born in 1844 in Virginia, his actual birthplace was Caswell County, North Carolina, on April 19, 1841. His father, David Pointer, graduated from Transylvania Medical College, Lexington, Kentucky, in 1822, marrying Obedience Torian two years later. Originally from Halifax County, Virginia, the Pointers moved to North Carolina, shortly before Marcellus’ birth.
By 1843 the family had relocated to Marshall County, Mississippi, where Dr. Pointer practiced medicine. The doctor was also a cotton planter, having inherited a few slaves. By the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, the number had grown to 64. In the late 1850s, Dr. Pointer hired architect Spires Boling to build a Greek Revival mansion on Salem road in Holly Springs.
Pointer’s resume, written in 1898, states that he was sixteen when he graduated from an unnamed military academy after attending for two years. When Mississippi seceded from the Union, young Marcellus joined what would become Old Company B, 9th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. His one-year enlistment in the 9th expired in March 1862, prior to the Battle of Shiloh. There is no documentation that Private Pointer fought there. However, his older brother, Monroe, was slightly wounded in that battle, serving as a corporal in the 154th Tennessee Infantry.
Whether Marcellus sat out the Battle of Shiloh or not, on July 20, 1862, while at Holly Springs, General Joseph Wheeler was given command of Chalmers’ cavalry brigade. Pointer’s appointment to serve as a volunteer aide-de-camp to Wheeler, with the rank of second lieutenant, is dated the same day.
Pointer served with Wheeler’s cavalry for the rest of the war, having been wounded five times, according to a letter Wheeler wrote long after the war. His first wound, received in a rearguard action on the retreat from Perryville, Kentucky, in October 1862 was serious enough to put him out of action for several months. A letter Wheeler wrote to Dr. Pointer details some of the circumstances. In it Wheeler tells the doctor that his son’s wound was not serious, then goes on to praise the young lieutenant for his bravery during the recent campaign.
The wound was apparently more serious than General Wheeler claimed, for Lieutenant Pointer did not return to duty until January 1863. That year saw a number of incidents which tested his mettle to the limit. At Shelbyville in late June, after a fight to hold the Duck River Bridge against ten times their number, Wheeler gave the order, “Every man for himself!” He then leapt his horse off a fifteen-foot embankment into the rushing river, followed by Pointer and a few others.
That autumn, about the time of the Battle of Chickamauga, Pointer captured a flag from a fleeing Federal trooper after shooting him off his horse. To quote Wheeler, his young aide then “dashed through the enemy camp” before returning with his trophy.
In November of that year, while operating near Maryville, Tennessee, Wheeler, Pointer, and other staff officers, supported by Dibrell’s regiment of Tennesseans, rode toward enemy lines on a predawn reconnaissance. Coming upon dismounted companies of the 11th Kentucky Cavalry (US), Wheeler ordered a charge. Caught off guard, the Kentuckians scattered, losing over 150 captured. Riding in pursuit of two escaping Federal officers, the general and his aide rounded a bend, only to be confronted by a second enemy cavalry regiment, drawn up in line of battle.
“Follow me!” shouted Pointer, who, without a moment’s hesitation, pistol blazing, rode straight into the stunned Federals. Wounded in the shoulder, the fearless lieutenant broke through, making his way back to Wheeler by way of a backroad. The general, who had turned his horse in time to avoid the melee, had given up Pointer for a goner.
However, not all such escapades were covered in glory. In late December Wheeler’s worn-out troopers attacked a Federal wagon train as it crossed the Hiawassee River Bridge at
Charleston, Tennessee. The odds against Wheeler were so one-sided that a reporter embedded with the Confederates questioned the general’s military judgement. The command was routed, but not before Pointer was confronted by two Federals demanding his surrender. At first Pointer agreed, but, having no intention of actually surrendering, he suddenly fired his pistol at one of his captors. Just as the wounded trooper fell from his horse, a second Federal returned fire, wounding Pointer in the chest. Yet, not only was he able to escape himself, but the intrepid lieutenant helped cover Wheeler’s escape from the same melee.
As if in a James Gang raid gone bad, plucky troopers picked up unhorsed comrades and hoisted them onto the backs of their own horses during the mad rush to the rear. Pointer’s wound would again put him out of action for months, while his return to duty was met with a completely different sort of war than the one he fought in Tennessee.
During the early months of 1864, Wheeler’s command was tasked with guarding the rugged mountain passes, known as gaps, which separated the Army of Tennessee, then commanded by General Joseph E. Johnston, from a growing Federal presence based at Chattanooga. A large Federal push through the gaps would threaten Johnston’s much smaller army, based at Dalton, Georgia, and open the campaign to capture Atlanta. Brutal skirmishing characterized the fighting for control of the gaps, and men who had volunteered for glory and honor now found themselves liable to summary execution simply for being on the wrong side.
On April 23, 1864, Confederate Col. Reuben R. Ross led a raid on the isolated pickets of the 92nd Illinois Mounted Infantry at Nickajack Gap, a raid controversial for being especially brutal. Lt. Horace Scovill, along with twelve of his men, were captured. Conducting them to the rear
was a detachment allegedly commanded by Lt. Pointer. Their hurried trek to Wheeler’s headquarters at Tunnel Hill would not be without incident.
Scovill would survive both the trek and the prison camps, but many of his men would not. In 1867 he sent a letter to a congressional committee investigating Confederate treatment of prisoners. In it he claimed that one Lt. Pointer of Wheeler’s staff had knocked him down with a revolver. He added that Pointer shot and killed one of the prisoners for “no reason at all.” At Tunnel Hill Wheeler interrogated Scovill for about an hour, “feigning” disbelief in his allegations.
Wheeler was ordered to file a report of the incident, in which six or seven Federal troopers were said to have been murdered while trying to surrender. That one-paragraph report is the only Confederate mention of murder at Nickajack Gap that has survived.
In charge of the ambush that captured Scovill and his men was Lt. Joe Vincent of the 1st Kentucky Cavalry. A contemporary newspaper account written by an eyewitness claimed that Vincent “shot ten of them dead in the lane,” and captured 43 prisoners, most of whom were wounded. “None went back to tell the story” the author gleefully remarked. Ten is the generally agreed on number of Federals who were killed in the fight, with thirteen captured. Wheeler’s report, filed a few days later, claims that his staff officers did not commit any “improper” acts in the raid. Wheeler gave no details, asking instead for the names of those involved.
In absence of any Confederate after action report, only the word of Lt. Scovill made its way into the historical record. Yet in 1909, speaking of Pointer’s death, Scovill told a markedly different story, leaving out all allegations of murder. Still, Lt. Pointer’s record has carried this blot ever since. In light of the Confederate eyewitness account, Lt. Vincent was far more likely
to have killed any Federals trying to surrender. Federal reports state that all the bodies but one were found near the scene of his ambush. The other was found a mile away but was not specifically stated to lie along the route to Tunnel Hill. Vincent’s 1899 biographical sketch mentions that “thirteen prisoners were taken,” along with several Federals killed, but at that point the narrative assumes passive voice.
Pointer’s records contain nothing of this raid, nor do they detail any of his 1864 experiences other than a dispatch he delivered during the fighting around Atlanta that summer.That November, Lt. Pointer was promoted to second in command of the 12th Alabama Cavalry, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. With its commander missing while bringing in stragglers, Pointer eventually led the regiment to South Carolina, arriving near Hardeeville on Christmas Eve.
Marcellus Pointer’s role in the Civil War ended in February1865 when he was severely wounded near Aiken during a cavalry charge. Wheeler’s final report, dated April 15, 1865, states that Pointer was still recovering from his wounds. Pointer, who had by this time been promoted to full colonel, surrendered on April 23. Family legend maintains that he traveled to Brazil to become a mercenary soldier in a country where slavery was still the norm. If, so, he did not remain long, for he married Willie Anna Mayer in Holly Springs on October 19, 1865. His obituary in the New York Times states that he later worked in Mexico as a railroad (civil?) engineer, presumably for the French invaders under Maximillian. In 1867, Mexican revolutionaries defeated the French, causing most of the “Confederados” to return home.
A letter written in September1867 from Arkansas by Pointer’s older brother Samuel, invites Dr. Pointer to move to that “country,” makes inquiries about Samuel’s brothers by name, but fails to mention Marcellus. Since Col. Pointer’s first child, Lily, was born in 1868, putting these
two facts together adds credence to the notion that Marcellus remained in Mexico until the French defeat. The 1870 census lists Marcellus at home with his parents in Como, Panola County, while at the same time his wife and (now) two daughters were staying with her parents in Holly Springs. Dr. Pointer died in Como that same year. Meanwhile, his youngest had set his eyes on Texas.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, many defeated Southerners moved west. Marcellus Pointer’s name appears in Dallas newspapers as early as 1873, showing that he was trading in real estate. He may have induced others to join him, for most accounts of the Pointer family state that they moved to Dallas about the winter of 1874-75. With them came relatives named Wynne, Starks, Watts and Falconer. Those who stayed in Mississippi were overwhelmed by the yellow fever outbreak of 1878.
That year saw a railroad war develop out of a feud over the management of the Dallas & Wichita Railroad, a failing commuter line plagued with graft and failed deadlines. Its stockholders were divided into two groups. Pointer, one of its officers, was a member of the pro-Confederate, Democrat faction, while its general manager, Dr. J.W. Calder, a Republican, saw little action as a Union cavalry officer in Arizona. The Calder faction was constantly involved in litigation with Pointer and his allies, leading eventually to the hijacking of the D&W’s only train. Calder, behind the hijacking, was ordered by a court to return the train to its owner, who had loaned it to the D&W. Undaunted, Calder then went to Federal court in Austin and had the line declared in danger of going bankrupt, naming him general manager under receivership.
Tempers boiled over in September of that year, culminating in a blaze of gunfire. At a confrontation in the streets of Dallas between representatives of the warring factions, accusations
of theft caused Capt. Ira Harris, Jr., a Union naval veteran with over ten years’ service, to slap Pointer in the face. Pointer responded by flogging Harris with his cane. To the rescue rushed a just-arrived Calder, waving a pistol. Before he could do any damage with it, Calder was hit by gunfire six times. He died in the street, firing harmlessly into the air, his wounds spanning the length of his body.
Three of the Confederate faction were arrested, and, a year later, Pointer stood trial for murder. Perhaps because Harris had testified at the coroner’s inquest that he never saw Pointer draw a pistol, let alone fire, the jury, after deliberating for twenty-five minutes, voted not guilty. Added to the Harris account was the damning testimony that Calder had once threated to kill any of the Confederates who got in his way. Though no one was ever convicted in Calder’s death, the railroad went bust and was ultimately sold in 1880.
Marcellus Pointer, now father of three girls, speculated in land and raised cattle. He even faced down another man with a gun in the streets of Dallas. Armed only with his cane, Pointer dared him to shoot, but the man turned and fled.
When Pointer’s daughter, Mary Cornelia, mother of a two month-old infant, died of tuberculosis in 1894, his life seemed to take a downward turn. He had been traveling around South America on business and had even sought employment as a mercenary, armed with recommendations written by General Wheeler. His land speculation brought him more debt than income. All the while in and out of court, sometimes being sued, other times initiating the suits, one of his cases went to the Texas Supreme Court, while another was eventually heard by the US Supreme Court. Pointer and his associates lost both cases, which involved real estate dealings.
At some point, the land speculator left his family behind and moved to New York City. In 1898 he tried to join up in the war with Spain, but his application, endorsed by Wheeler, went nowhere. He even called on President McKinley in Washington to urge his cause. The president didn’t see him, but a note Pointer wrote him has survived. In it Pointer told of having spent a year in Cuba, coming down with yellow fever while there.
When Pointer’s old friend and commander died in 1906, Wheeler was one of only a handful of Confederates ever buried at Arlington. Though named as an honorary pallbearer, Pointer could not be located. Three years later, the old colonel died “broke and friendless” in a Bowery hotel in New York, a place he had called home for some months. On July 10, 1909, a hotel employee found the body. Letters by his bedside identified him, and the sad circumstances of his death were written up in papers all over the country, including two obituaries in the New York Times. Local Confederate veterans were planning to bury him in New York until they received word from Pointer’s nephew to have the body shipped home.
Marcellus Pointer’s final resting place would be Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. Willie Mayer Pointer died in Los Angeles in 1924, and she and two of her daughters are buried there in the same cemetery. Some twenty years later, Pointer’s granddaughter, Mary Williams, donated some of his Civil War relics to what was then known as the Museum of the Confederacy. They included a saber and scabbard, a pair of binoculars, a drinking flask, a red sash, and the colonel’s Southern Cross of Honor.
No epitaph on his Veteran’s Administration grave marker, “died broke and friendless,” and “too proud to beg,” seem hardly adequate to sum up such a life. Perhaps the best epitaph of all
would be the compliment paid him long after the war, again from his obit, quoting General Wheeler; “a better cavalry officer could not be found in this country.”