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.