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Athens family donates rare Civil War artifact to Texas Heritage Museum, Hill College

09.18.15

One of the rarest Civil War artifacts ever donated to the Texas Heritage Museum - Hill College will be unveiled at the museum’s Annual Membership Banquet on Nov. 19 during the open house.

Athens resident Pauline Knight Perkins traveled to Hillsboro in June to donate her legendary and coveted Texas Gold Star medal that her grand uncle, Private James Polk Knight, received while serving in the Texas First Infantry during the Civil War era.

“The Texas Gold Star medal is so rare that only nine were ever made,” Perkins said. “They were to be handed out to nine outstanding members of the famous Hood’s Texas Brigade in early February 1865 by Col. Frederick Bass at the request of Gen. Robert E. Lee.”

Although nine Texas Gold Star medals were crafted, no one knows what happened to the remaining eight which makes Perkins’ donation to the museum even more valuable.

“We are very thrilled and honored to be able to showcase the only remaining Texas Gold Star medal known to be in existence,” said John Versluis, Dean of the Texas Heritage Museum, Hill College.

Knight originally joined the 35th Texas Calvary in Tyler on April 7, 1863, before being transferred that same year to the 1st Texas Regiment, also know as Hood’s Texas Brigade, because of his skill as a master sharpshooter using a British-made Whitworth rifle with telescopic sights.

Knight also was one of seven brothers who served in the Confederate Army, and he was credited with killing over 200 Union soldiers in the Battle of Chickamauga and at the Battle of the Wilderness. He was later captured near Chancellorsville, Virginia in 1864 and escaped, despite a bayonet wound that had punctured one of his lungs.

Furthermore, Knight is also believed to have been the sharpshooter who killed Union Major Gen. John Sedgwick from 700 yards at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864. Major Gen. Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union casualty in the Civil War.

Although it is unclear who actually shot Major Gen. Sedgwick – about five Confederate soldiers were credited with the kill – it was believed that Knight had pulled the trigger since he was a recipient of one of the nine Texas Gold Star medals that were handed out just nine months later.

The story about how the Texas Gold Star medals were created is legendary in itself.

Gen. Lee received a small package from an unknown “young lady of Texas” in January 1865 which contained the nine gold stars. The young lady had the gold stars made after melting down one of her precious gold keepsakes, and she wished that they be bestowed as testimonials to the bravest men of the Texas Brigade.

In his letter to Bass, Lee requested that the brigade commander present the stars for he could “with more certainty than any other, bestow them in accordance with the wishes of the donor.” Therefore, it was decided that the recipients of the gold star awards would be selected by their fellow soldiers. Each regiment received two stars, except for the Fourth Texas, which received three.

According to The Civil War: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection, Bass presided over a ceremony in February 1865 in which gold stars for bravery were awarded to nine outstanding members of the brigade. Those stars were awarded to the following men: Private William Durham (Co. D., First Texas), Private James Knight (Co. H, First Texas), Cpl. James Burke (Co. B, Fourth Texas), Sgt. James Patterson (Co. D, Fourth Texas), Cpl. W.C. May (Co. H, Fourth Texas), Sgt. C. Welborn (Co. F, Fifth Texas), Sgt. Jacob Hemphill (Co. H, Fifth Texas), Private J.D. Staples (Co. E., Third Arkansas), and Private J.W. Cook (Co. H, Third Arkansas).

The Texas Heritage Museum has a large collection of Hood’s Texas Brigade memorabilia. It has letters, photos and military records of Knight as well as other members of his family.

Versluis said the Perkins family also donated artifacts of Robert M. Knight, Jr. – brother of Pauline Knight Perkins – to the museum. Robert received the Purple Heart posthumously after he was killed in action while serving in the U.S. Army at So Bang San, Korea on Sept. 7, 1951.

“I wanted this [Texas Gold Star medal] to be in in the Texas Heritage Museum because of the valor and contributions made by my grand uncle and my brother,” Perkins said. “I want their stories told.”

Pauline’s daughter, Nancy, agreed with her mother’s sentiments.

“In the past, Hill College has recognized Hood’s Texas Brigade – and that is where James Knight Polk served,” Nancy added. “We want students of history to see the star and recognize its historical value and appreciate the contributions that were made.”

Following the Annual Membership Banquet on Nov. 19, Versluis said the newly-acquired collection will be on exhibit on Nov. 20 for the public to view.

The Texas Heritage Museum at Hill College is located at 112 Lamar Drive in Hillsboro. For additional information, please call the museum office at 254-659-7750 or visit its website at www.hillcollege.edu/museum.

Most recently, the museum has a presence on Facebook at  www.facebook.com/texasheritagemuseum.

The Texas Heritage Museum, Hill College is the home of the official State Medal of Honor Memorial to Native-Born Texans. Its mission is to explore Texas and Texans during wartime and how those experiences affect us today.

About Hood’s Texas Brigade

The Texas Brigade had originally organized on Oct. 22, 1861, in Richmond, Virginia, and was comprised of three infantry units from Texas (First, Fourth and Fifth Texas Infantry regiments). Infantry units from Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas later joined the brigade, but only the Third Infantry from Arkansas remained until the end of the war.

Col. John Bell Hood, who had been in charge of the Fourth Texas Infantry unit, was promoted to brigadier general on March 7, 1862. From that point on, the group was known as Hood’s Texas Brigade – even though Hood only commanded the group for a total of six months.

Those serving in Hood’s Texas Brigade participated in some of the most well-known and bloodiest battles in the Civil War – 32 engagements in all – including major battles like Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862, Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), the Siege of Chattanooga (September-November 1863), the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6, 1864), and the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864)