Great Hanging at Gainesville

newsletter_headerjpg - 2Typewriter and lampLast month, I started work on a new book. A new book means new research. Lots and lots of research. I wanted to create a fictional town set in the Texas panhandle, an area that I haven’t used as a setting before. And I needed to give my heroine backstory, which entailed a different setting, in a city that would have been settled from the time she was a child. Thanks to all the Indian trouble on the west Texas frontier, this was a challenge. But I found my city for her childhood – Gainesville. It had hosted settlers from the 1840’s, old enough not only for my heroine to have grown up there, but for the aunts who raised her to have grown up there as well.

But what I didn’t expect to find as I dug into the history of this town, was a grisly case of a mass hanging back in 1862.

During the Civil War, Texas was a Confederate state. Yet not all of its citizens sided with the confederate cause. Many were more concerned with the Indian threat and the danger of leaving their families unprotected to fight a war far from home.

By 1860 fewer than 10 percent of landowners in Gainesville owned slaves. Yet the large slaveholders were the ones in positions of military power, and thanks to the Butterfield Overland Mail Route opening up and people moving in from abolitionist states, they feared an uprising.

Confederate Flag“Actual opposition to the Confederacy in Cooke County began with the Conscription Acts of April 1862. Thirty men signed a petition protesting the exemption of large slaveholders from the draft and sent it to the Congress at Richmond. Brig. Gen. William Hudson, commander of the militia district around Gainesville, exiled their leader, but others who remained used the petition to enlist a nucleus for a Union League in Cooke and nearby counties. The members were not highly unified, and their purposes differed with each clique. Most joined to resist the draft and provide common defense against roving Indians and renegades. Rumors began to circulate, however, of a membership of over 1,700 and of plans for an assault when the group had recruited enough men. Fearing that the stories of Unionist plots to storm the militia arsenals at Gainesville and Sherman might prove to be true, Hudson activated the state troops in North Texas in late September 1862 and ordered the arrest of all able-bodied men who did not report for duty.” (Handbook of Texas Online)

Texas state troops led by Col. James G. Bourland arrested more than 150 men on the morning of October 1, 1862. In Gainesville, he and Col. William C. Young of the Eleventh Texas Cavalry supervised the collection of a “citizen’s court” of twelve jurors. Bourland and Young together owned nearly a fourth of the slaves in Cooke County, and seven of the jurors chosen were also slaveholders. The prisoners, none of whom owned slaves, were accused of insurrection or treason. The jury condemned seven influential Unionists, but an angry mob took matters into its own hands and lynched fourteen more before the jurors recessed. In retaliation, assassins killed Young and James Dickson. The decision already made to release the rest of the prisoners was reversed, and many were tried again. Nineteen more men were convicted and hanged. Their execution was supervised by Capt. Jim Young, Colonel Young’s son. Forty men in all were hanged, many of whom were innocent of Union sympathies, but were lumped into the group because of their lack of slaves and their desire to avoid the draft. The Great Hanging of Gainesville entered infamy as the largest act of mob violence in American history.

This depiction, from the Feb. 20, 1864, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, is metaphorical—the victims were actually hanged one or two at a time.
This depiction, from the Feb. 20, 1864, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, is metaphorical—the victims were actually hanged one or two at a time.

It’s hard to fathom such an atrocity taking place, but it brings to mind the dangers of paranoia and mob mentality. How many good men got caught up in the lynching frenzy only to be plagued with regrets for the rest of their days?

And yet, history unfortunately repeats itself. The riots in Ferguson come to mind. I pray that as we start a new year, that we will remember the dangers of assuming to know the minds of others and standing in harsh judgment, of letting the voice of the many drown out the quieter inner voice that calls for compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. May this be a year of peace.

  • Do you have a goal (resolution) for 2015? I’m still working on the losing weight one that I have every year. Sigh. Maybe this will be the year I finally break through.
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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at:

23 thoughts on “Great Hanging at Gainesville”

  1. I don’t like going anywhere when there’s large crowds because of that kind of mentality to not want to see the truth.

  2. Very interesting post today. I have become more aware of the people around me because I fear you never know what is going through their minds.

    • So true. I find myself constantly battling between taking too cynical a view of people and wanting to believe the best of people. I fluctuate between the two. I want to assume the best about people, but I don’t want to be naive and open myself to hurt. Yet when I take too cynical a view, I worry that I’m assuming guilt until proven innocent which is not fair, either. Somewhere in the middle there’s a perfect balance. As Christ said – “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

  3. What a very sad part of our history and yes, even sadder that this type of mentality has repeated itself so many times.
    I am anxious to read this newest book of yours to see how you bring about a good ending from a disastrous beginning.
    I know, I know, I have to wait. 🙁

    • Hi, Rosie.

      I don’t really feature this hanging in my book. It was just part of the history of the town where I decided to set part of my story. As I did my research on the town, I turned up this horrific tale. It’s possible one of my heroine’s aunts might mention it in passing at some point, but I plan to stay well away from this event.

      My story has a crusading heroine who believes she’s been called to rescue destitute women and create a place where females can practice their trades without men telling them they can’t. So she sets up a women’s colony at a deserted stage coach station. Unfortunately, the women are attacked by a vicious outlaw who wants to drive them all away. In order to make a stand she’s going to need a man’s help – and there’s only one man she trusts with the lives of her ladies – Malachi Shaw. 🙂

  4. Karen,the Civil War produced violence on and off the battlefield. The mass hangings in Gainesville stand as a particularly shameful example of the off-battlefield ugliness.

    Then, as now, politicians with their own agendas and an overabundance of inflammatory rhetoric played a large role in a seminal event that changed the U.S forever. I, too, pray people will learn to listen to their hearts instead of allowing outside influences to drive their behavior.

    • Amen, Kathleen. It’s a vivid reminder of the importance of thinking for oneself and having the courage to stand against the crowd when necessary. Hard to do. When blood flows hot, common sense often goes out the window.

  5. So sad and scary. I still remember the L.A. riots in 1992, mob mentality is so scary. As for new year resolutions, I have the same one as you…which is the same one as last year’s too 🙂

    • I remember the LA riots, too. Definitely scary.

      Wishing you well on your New Year’s goals, Lis! So far, I’ve been exercising well. Still eating too many leftover Christmas goodies, but one step at a time, right? 🙂

  6. An atrocity indeed. I have never understood violence and killing just because someone has a different path or ideology. Sheesh. My NY resolution echoes yours but I am always a failure at it LOL. The one I think I can achieve is delving back into I started a while back but kinda put it on the back burner. Best wishes to you and yours in 2015, Karen.

    • Have fun digging out more branches in your family tree, Tanya. I’ve always thought it would be great to know more about my ancestors. My Grandad on my father’s side has traced his side back at least a hundred years, maybe 150. Back to England. Very cool.

  7. Thanks for sharing! Don’t know that I had ever heard that information before.

    I just finished A Tailor Made Bride. I loved every minute of it!!

  8. Thank you for the most interesting post. It is sad when people get caught up in the moment and either commit an act they will later regret or suffer punishment they do not deserve.
    My resolutions are the same as always: lose weight, get in shape, and get organized. Never seem to have enough luck with any of them.
    I enjoy your books and look forward to the next one.

    • Thanks, Patricia. And I feel you with those same resolutions. I’m doing better so far with the get in shape part, but I have yet to see the scale register much difference. *Sigh*

  9. My goals for this year are to
    ~Publish at least two novels and one short story.
    ~Not get stressed out trying to accomplish goal #1.
    ~Have fun helping my friends with their weddings.
    ~Crochet lots of doilies for the wedding in March.
    ~Be more purposeful in my study of God’s Word and in prayer.
    ~Learn how to format my own books and get better at marketing.
    ~Read more non-fiction books than fiction books. I’m really bad at this.
    ~Be more diligent about practicing piano.
    ~Survive tax season (I work at an accountants office, but am not an accountant).
    ~Be more thankful.

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