Dr. Arrel Pye
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Dr. Edward Arrel Pye

A Texas Medical Hero

By W. T. Block

Whenever the virulent yellow fever plague came to town, the townsmen who were cautious packed up their families and belongings and fled elsewhere. Sometimes a town’s physician did not leave; they stayed to treat their patients and occasionally died. Two such medical heroes were Drs. Sylvester Mansfield and William Hawley of Beaumont, Texas, who remained behind and died with their patients in 1862.

Many Texans of today may not realize how dreadfully serious a yellow fever epidemic was. In 1867, about 3,000 people died in Galveston and Harris counties from that disease. On Oct. 2, 1867, when a giant hurricane and tidal wave washed ashore at Galveston, it doubled the pain of the seaport community because there were already 400 yellow fever victims in the morgues with no one to bury them, let alone to recover or succor the storm victims.

Dr. Edward Arrel Pye of Hearne, Texas was not one who remained behind. He actually sought out the pestilence-ridden cities and went there to treat and nurse the afflicted persons. Finally he went one too many times; he left his wife and 7 children in the safety of Hearne and went to Calvert, Texas to nurse the sick, and he died there.

Dr. Edward Arrel Pye was born in 1818 near LaPlata, Charles County, MD., his parents being wealthy plantation owners. After growing to adulthood among other well-to-do plantation families of his area, he graduated in sciences from Georgetown University. Then he matriculated from the University of Maryland Medical School in 1840, although a second source says in 1842.1

In 1845 he settled in Tallulah, Madison Parish, LA., opposite Vicksburg, where he met and married Matilda C. LeGrand, who was born in Maryland in 1823.2  Her father, Col. Claudius  F. LeGrand, had owned Claudius F. LeGrand and Sons, stone masons of Alexandria, VA., in 1797, when his company made the six 48-foot Corinthian columns that decorated the portico of the new Bank of the United States building in Philadelphia. It was the first building of that magnificence ever built in the nation.3 About 1815 LeGrand moved to a new plantation in Louisiana. Also Dr. Pye farmed and practiced medicine for about a year in Harrisonburg, Catahoula Parish, LA.4

By 1854 Dr. and Mrs. Pye were living in Breaux Bridge, LA., on the Bayou Teche in the Evangeline county of Lafayette Parish. Their first experience with a virulent disease was a small pox epidemic, wherein the victims were often abandoned and left to starve and die. And Dr. Pye provided both medical treatment and food. One writer wrote that his heroic wife: “…was of valuable assistance, preparing food to carry on horseback or by canoe…” It was during that period that most of Pye’s children were born. A year later Pye had his first experience with yellow fever in Lafayette Parish. Although Pye lived through the epidemic, perhaps falsely convinced that he was immune, two of his medical associates, Dr. Edward Heard and Dr. William Digges, died of the fever.5

In 1858 Pye moved his family briefly to Guadalupe County near Seguin, but an extended drought, coupled with a plague of grasshoppers, forced him to move once more to Anderson in Grimes County; and later to a nearby farm at Faraway. At that time he owned a slave named Clem, who grew their food, and his children had access to good schools.6

When the 1860 Grimes County census was taken, the Pye family was enumerated at residence 27. His real estate value of $850 represented principally his farm at Faraway; his $700 personal property listing was principally the value of his slave Clem. The family included Dr. Pye, age 42; wife Matilda, age 37; daughters Edith, age 14; Mary, age 8; Lizzie, age 6; Julia, age 4; and 3 sons, Edward, age 11; Charles, age 2; and Harry, age 1 month. The 3 oldest children were in school.7

For unknown reasons, Dr. Pye avoided conscription in the Confederate Army until Aug., 1863, when he enlisted as a private in Co. D., 4th Regiment, 17th Brigade of Texas State Troops in Grimes County.8 According to his letter to his wife of Dec. 17, 1863, he had been sent to the coast near Velasco in Brazoria County, and near the Confederate Forts Quintana and Velasco at the mouth of Brazos River. Often he reported the Union gunboats approaching the mouth of the river either to shell the forts or search for blockade-runners. On one occasion Pye accompanied others to the mouth of Oyster Creek and pried several barrels of oysters from the reef. At that time his company was stationed at “Fort Slaughter,” the exact location of which is unknown.

Equally disturbing was why Pye was only a “hospital steward,” dispensing prescriptions from the doctors, especially since Pye had a medical degree from a respected college, and some practicing physicians of that area were without degrees and had learned their vocation after serving apprenticeships to other physicians. Pye mentioned an “an angel visitant, a kind lady named Mrs. Herndon,” who came to the hospital and “brought us a bottle of milk and some eggs—old linens and rags—went from bed to bed—dressed blisters,” etc.9

By Feb. 1, 1864, Pye’s 6-months enlistment in the State Troops had expired, and he reported to Houston for examination before the Confederate Board of Medical Examiners; and he quickly qualified as a Confederate assistant surgeon on Feb. 5, 1864. As a result General Order No. 57 of Major General Magruder transferred Dr. Pye on Feb. 27th, to take charge of the hospital at Niblett’s Bluff, LA. His new assignment was about 12 miles north of Orange, Texas, and was a Confederate Quartermaster Depot for the movement of troops and supplies to General Richard Taylor’s army in Central Louisiana. The depot was principally supplied by steamboats moving from Orange, Sabine Pass, and Beaumont, Texas.10

Dr. Pye wrote of his trip to Niblett’s Bluff aboard the slow and very cold train to Beaumont which once ran off the track. Upon arrival at Beaumont, “where the streets are knee-deep in mud,” Pye could not arrange transportation to Niblett’s Bluff, so he borrowed an old mule from the quartermaster and rode him across Orange County.11

In the meantime the Commissioners Court at Beaumont leased the Jefferson County courthouse for use us as a Confederate hospital, and Dr. D. T. Inglehart arrived there as the Confederate surgeon.12 In June, 1864, when Dr. Inglehart was transferred to Hempstead, Dr. Pye applied for and was transferred to Beaumont.

From his earliest letter in 1863 to his first letter from Beaumont in 1864, Dr. Pye advised his wife to grow tobacco on their farm, as follows:

“…Tobacco is worth here (Beaumont) $30 Confederate money a pound in the leaf, or $100 silver.—Many are speculating in it—The Quartermaster bought a lot some time ago, sold it and made $1,000 profit—but the man he sold it to made $15,000…”13

In his letter of Aug. 21, Pye wrote: “…There has not been a death in the hospital since Dr. I(nglehart) left us, although we have generally had the house full…” However, conditions quickly changed during the next 10 days, when Dr. Pye wrote on Aug. 31st that: “…The sickness is becoming much more serious. I lost one case of congestion in the hospital, but there are several more on hand. They appear to be very intractable—I have had some practice outside too—one in the country some 10 miles away…”14

Pye wrote too that his family was more concerned about the outcome of the war than the people in Beaumont were, noting: “… We have several military people with us this evening—among the rest Col. Griffin—and they don’t seem to think anything is going amiss…”15 The Confederate victory at Mansfield, LA. in April, 1864, that sent a Union army en route back to New Orleans, was the cause of their optimism.

By Sept. 1, 1864, Pye was disappointed that he was passed over for a transfer to Hempstead, where he would have been close to his family. He was also tormented by the heat and insects when he wrote:  “…In the night and between the heat and mosquitoes, I am making a poor business of it. You have no idea of the mosquitoes we have here. Why, six of those big Sabine Pass gallinippers could take up Bud and Charley {his sons}, and fly away with them…”16

No doubt, with the fall of Mobile and Atlanta, Dr. Pye felt much less sure of the Confederacy’s success, and he commented much less about it. The fall of Mobile left Galveston and Sabine Pass as the only Gulf of Mexico seaports, where blockade runners were most often successful. Pye wrote in Nov. 1864 that: “…I got a splendid pair of English boots, also 8 yards of cotton for shirts… Tell Ma my coat is fine—rigged up in style—2 rows of brass buttons, velvet, gold lace and all…”17

By Dec., 1864, Pye’s silence indicated that he was resigned to wait out the impending fall of the Confederacy, but he continued to encourage his family. On Dec. 16, 1864, he wrote: “…All the officers I have seen lately have drawn full suits of gray clothes—over shirts of flannel—blankets and hats… What do you think we pay for a chicken? $10 and in flour at that. They don’t sell for money at any price. We have to buy flour and trade. I bought 2 sacks the other day for $1,200 to buy chickens and eggs for the sick… Yet it is said that there is plenty of flour in Houston, but all of it is in the hands of speculators…”18

In Aug. 1864, Beaumonters built a soldiers’ home, which came to be known as “Cottage House,” and Dr. Pye spent many of his off-duty moments there.19 On Christmas day he wrote: “…We have done the best… for the hospital. All hands had chicken pie and coffee today…” At the end of his letter, he added: “…This year (1865) will surely end the war, will it not?”…20 Also on Christmas Eve, Dr. Pye “…partook of an eggnog at Cottage House… some half dozen gentlemen… and two or three ladies… had a game of Whist and broke up about 10 PM…” By March, 1865, Pye had been transferred to the hospital in Houston, where he remained until the war ended.21

In 1865 Dr. Pye had to emancipate his slave Clem; in 1866 he moved his family from the farm in Faraway to the town of Hempstead. In 1872 he moved for the last time to Hearne, where his professional card read: “…after 30 years of service…”22

During the fall of 1867, Texas endured its worst yellow fever epidemic, which claimed 3,000 lives in Galveston and Harris counties; but history does not record whether or not Dr. Pye participated in treatment of the sick. As mentioned earlier, on Oct. 2, 1867, a large hurricane struck Galveston, adding insult to injury, for at the same time, 400 bodies lay neglected in the morgues, having no one to bury them.23

On Sept. 3, 1873, W. F. Hughes of Shreveport, a yellow fever carrier, stepped off the train in Calvert, 10 miles north of Hearne, for he was too ill to travel. He died 2 days later, but not before he had infected others. By Oct. 1, 1873, Calvert was enduring a full-blown plague, that would infect 600 people in a town of 1,500 persons, and 150 of them died.24

About Oct. 1, 1873, Dr. Pye decided to go to Calvert to help alleviate the sickness as much as he could. He soon wrote to his wife: “…Mrs. T. P. Terrell seems to be omnipresent in nursing the sick, burying the dead, and helping in every way possible…”25

Also in Oct., 1873, a Galveston newspaper published of Dr. Pye as follows:

“…One of the most successful and useful physicians we have (in Calvert) is Dr. E. A. Pye. He is working for the good of the people, without pay and is doing excellent service. He is well-known along the (Houston and Texas) Central Railroad from Houston to Red River City…”26

However Dr. Pye’s luck soon played out, and when he went to bed with a bad case of the fever, a telegram was sent to Mrs. Pye in Hearne. She left her children with her oldest daughter and nursed her husband until he died on Nov. 7; and then she nursed others until she too took sick and died on Nov. 20th, along with her 18-year-old son Edward. Thus were orphaned 2 sons and 4 daughters at their home in Hearne.27

It is difficult, using simple language, to adequately memorialize such a courageous person as Dr. Pye. And yet one might question his medical ethics of exposing himself to such a fatal disease, and risk leaving a houseful of orphans to be raised by others. Perhaps Mrs. S. C. Red said it best as follows: “…Thus was closed the heroic and sacrifice to God and man, crowned by a great love of family, and the appreciation of all who knew him…”28

As of 1930, only the 4 daughters of Dr. Pye—namely Edith, who became Mrs. Frederick T. Weeden; Elizabeth (Lizzie), who became Mrs. John B. Young; Julia, and Mary—were still alive. The Pye letters were passed down to his granddaughter, Mrs. Eugene C. Barker, whose husband, the eminent Austin historian and professor, published them in 1952 in Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

Endnotes

1 Mrs. S. C. Red, The Medicine Man in Texas (Houston: 1930), 232; “Letters from The Confederate Medical Service in Texas, 1863-1865, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LV (Jan. 1952), 318.

2 Ibid.

3 A description of the Bank of the United States building in The U. S. Constitution: A National Historic Landmark Theme Study, online.

4 “Letters from the Confederate Medical Service,” 379.

5 Medicine Man in Texas, 233.

6 Ibid.

7 Eighth Census of the United States, 1860, Sch I, Population, Grimes County, TX, res. 27.

8 “Letters from the Confederate Medical Service,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LV (Jan. 1952), 378.

9 Ibid, 379-380.

10 Ibid, 391-392.

11 Ibid, 392-393.

12 Vol. D, p. 120, April 30, 1863, Commissioners Court Minutes, Beaumont, Texas.

13 “Letters from the Confederate Medical Service,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LV (April, 1952), 459.

14 Ibid, letter of April 31, 1864, p. 463.

15 Ibid, 462.

16 Ibid, 464.

17 “Letters from the Confederate Medical Service,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LV (April, 1952), 466.

18 Ibid, Letter of Dec. 16, 1864, p. 469.

19 Galveston Weekly News, Aug. 8, 1864

20 “Letters From the Confederate Medical Service,” , 470-471.

21 Ibid, 478-479.

22 “Letters from the Confederate Medical Service,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, LV (Jan. 1852), 378.

23 Livingston Lindsay to Gov. E. M. Pease, Oct. 9, 1867, Governors Records, Texas State Library, online.

24 R. D. Parker, Historical Recollections of Robertson County (Anson Jones Press, 1955) 85-88.

25 Red, Medicine Man in Texas, 234.

26 Galveston Weekly News, Oct. 27, 1873, p. 1.

27 Red, 234; also a list of the Calvert yellow fever victims buried in the old Calvert Cemetery is online.

28 Red, Medicine Man in Texas, 234.

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