"Forward, Rangers!" Civil War General Director, Waco Tap Railway Prominent Lawyer and Politican Proponent for African American Jurist Rights Representative of 4th Texas Legislature
Thomas Harrison was born in Jefferson County, Alabama on May 1, 1823. His father had been the first settler of that area and worked as a planter and preach until the family moved to Mississippi when Thomas was ten years old.
Harrison first moved to Texas in 1843 and studied law at the office of his brother-in-law William Jack who was then serving as a Texas Senator after having achieved fame as a leading figure in the Texas Revolution from its earliest days. Having prepared himself, Harrison returned to Mississippi where he was admitted to the bar in Columbia and opened a law practice in Aberdeen, Mississippi. During the Mexican War of 1846, he served as a member of the 1st Mississippi Rifles under Colonel Jefferson Davis. Harrison fought at the Battle of Monterrey.
Returning to Texas after the war in 1847, Harrison initially made a home of Houston and was elected to the Texas Legislature. In 1851, he moved to Marlin where he affiliated with Marlin Masonic Lodge 152 on January 18, 1855. This means that he became a Mason somewhere else at an earlier date but it is unclear where or when. Not long after joining Marlin Lodge, Harrison again moved, this time to Waco where he rapidly rose as a leading lawyer. In 1857, Wacoans nominated Harrison to run against Judge R.E.B. Baylor for district judge but Baylor was re-elected by a narrow margin. In 1860, Harrison was elected to serve as a Captain of a Texas Volunteer Militia Company with the Texas Rangers. In this capacity, he was sent by Sam Houston to the western frontier and served under William Dalrymple.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, he was elected to serve as Captain of a cavalry unit that was organized as part of the 8th Texas Cavalry, known as “Terry’s Texas Rangers.” During training in Kentucky, Harrison was promoted to Major and he began to exhibit extraordinary leadership skills on the battlefield in their first battle at Shiloh. Harrison gained fame for the entire regiment in Shiloh by leading a successful attack right into the heart of the Union’s infantry. As a result, he was made a Colonel just in time for the Battle of Murfreesboro. It was at Shiloh that Harrison first used the rallying cry for which he became somewhat famous during the war, “Forward, Rangers!” At Murfreesboro, Harrison again led a brigade behind enemy lines, at one point reaching a full mile ahead of any other Confederate brigade before returning with supplies he had taken from Union forces. Though he was shot in the hip during the charge, it was said that he hardly slowed down.
Harrison became commander of a cavalry regiment for the first time on November 8, 1862 and was re-attached, this time serving under Major General Joseph Wheeler in Tennessee. He led forces at the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga and during both the Atlanta and the Knoxville Campaigns. For his actions in Georgia and the Carolinas, he was appointed Brigadier General on January 14, 1865, having already commanded brigades for nearly two years. Finally, Harrison was with General Joseph Johnston serving as a cavalry escort when Johnston formally surrendered to U.S. General William Sherman on April 26, 1865. The War was over and Harrison was witness to one of its biggest closing moments after having played prominent roles across the country since its beginning. Perhaps most fitting was the fact that Harrison required the use of crutches the day of the surrender due to having suffered the last of his many injuries from the War just weeks earlier.
Being on the wrong side of the War was not Harrison’s only fault, it seems. Memoirs suggest he sometimes drank too much before battle and that it was the drink, not courage, that led his bold surges behind enemy lines. There are also stories of his soldiers hating him due to his harsh punishments. Nevertheless, Harrison was beloved by many and his successful legal and political careers after returning to Waco where most of his former soldiers lived is a strong testament to that.
After the war, he returned to Waco, Texas and received a special pardon for his Confederate career from President Andrew Johnson in 1866. That same year, Harrison resumed his legal practice and was elected a District Court Judge in 1866. Shortly after becoming judge, Harrison recognized that juries were not adhering to the federal mandate to include African Americans so as to accurately represent the citizenry. He demanded that the sheriff fix the problem and thereafter, the juries in Harrison’s counties were indeed more representative of the community by including black jurors.
Harrison was invested as a Director of the Waco Tap Railway which connected the city via the Northwestern to Houston and Galveston beginning on September 18, 1872 when the last piece was connected. In 1872, Harrison was selected to serve as a Democratic Presidential Elector. Also in 1872, Harrison bought a home from his recently widowed sister, Eliza Earle, and lived there for nearly 20 years. Today, the house can be toured by the public thanks to the efforts of Wacoans Nell Pape and Lavonia Barnes, who saved it from demolition in the 1960s. Check it out here: The Earle-Harrison House
On June 17, 1875, Harrison affiliated as a member of Waco Masonic Lodge.
On September 18, 1889, Harrison was a pall-bearer for fellow Waco Mason Shapley Ross.
On June 29, 1891, Thomas Harrison suffered some kind of tremendous fall which broke both of his legs and led to his a couple weeks later on July 14. Eulogies were printed throughout the country’s newspapers as former peers, subordinates, and even enemies remembered the gallant leadership of Harrison during his careers as a lawman and soldier.