Featured Book Reviewer
- Feb 23, 2013
- East Texas
Brush Men and Vigilantes
by David Pickering and Judy Falls
Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas 2000
223 pp., Including Notes, Bibliography, and Index
Brush Men and Vigilantes is an outstanding example of local history that illuminates what diarist Emma Stone in her memoir Brokenburn (previously reviewed here: https://civilwartalk.com/threads/brokenburn-the-journal-of-kate-stone-1861-1868.158364/) termed "a dark corner of the Confederacy". Stone plays little part here, but is mentioned as being the most famous - though temporary - resident of the area involved, and when she arrived in 1863 was made fully aware of these previous goings-on. (Stone had accompanied her mother Amanda and other family members from the area of beleaguered Vicksburg, Mississippi, along with over 100 of their slaves, making the Stones among the largest slaveholders of the region.) This book chiefly deals with an almost frontier population deeply divided by the coming of the war and several interrelated incidents growing out of this lack of unity. The book also shares a dual authorship, with the late Texas journalist David Pickering handling the writing and local teacher and librarian Judy Falls having done most of the research. As is demonstrated, the information had to be almost literally unearthed because the understandably unpopular subject had largely been forgotten and put aside long ago by the remaining participants in these unfortunate episodes.
The first two chapters discuss the early settlement of this portion of Northeast Texas - which I incidentally now call home - and its baneful effect on subsequent happenings during the war and lingering well into Reconstruction. At the time of settlement in the 1830's and 1840's there were essentially two routes into Texas: one via the Red River and the so-called Military Road coming from Little Rock and Fort Smith, Arkansas; the other generally following the El Camino Real or old Spanish colonial King's Highway linking Natchitoches, Louisiana with Nacogdoches, Texas. Along this latter route most of the early Anglo settlers came from Deep South states farther to the East: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina; whereas the other route introduced migrants that though also Southern, came largely from states farther to the north such as Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and even Virginia where slavery held less sway, especially among those poor whites most likely to immigrate. These newcomers tended to settle in the top tier of Texas counties along the Red River, in this section Red River, Lamar, Fannin, and Grayson Counties where slaves were relatively few and secessionist sentiment almost nonexistent. Merely in crossing the Sulphur River or one of its tributaries to the second tier of counties one entered an area containing a much larger slave population, resulting in a strong secessionist sentiment. The chapters which follow detail the tribulations that already existed to a degree but were strongly exacerbated by the coming of the war.
Three related incidents are examined in detail: the disaffection of some members of the communities who openly criticized secession and the Confederacy, even going so far as to travel North to join Union forces; and the subsequent trials and execution of two groups of these dissenters. (The most famous incident such as this, the so-called Great Hanging of over thirty condemned men at Gainesville, Texas in 1862 is not examined, likely because it occurred farther to the west of the counties in question here.) An ongoing irritant for this part of Texas was its nearness to neighboring Indian Territory and the possibility of invasion by the hated abolitionist Kansas Redlegs, creating an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and distrust among settlers here, regardless of their political views. Any criticism of secession or the Confederacy was likely to be seen as encouragement and support for these unwelcome "visitors" and was increasingly met with violence. The first of these events occurred when a group of vocal dissenters, members of the Howard and Hemby families were seized and tried for treason by a group of vigilantes in second-tier Hopkins County in 1862. At the time, the county seat was the now-vanished community of Tarrant, but rather than take the accused there for trial, a spot on the south bank of White Oak Creek nearer the local secessionist hotbed Bright Star (modern Sulphur Springs) was chosen, following which five men were summarily strung up for the crime of criticizing secession and the Confederacy!
The next and much more serious threat also grew out of the differences brought on by the war. Also in second tier of counties and adjacent to Hopkins which had proven fatal to the Hembys and Howards is Hunt and its county seat Greenville, home to a local frontier lawyer named Martin Hart. Hart and a group of adherents received permission to travel north through Indian Territory to Fort Smith, where he was to offer his services to the local Confederate commander; however, once there he asked and again received permission to travel even farther to Fayetteville in Northwestern Arkansas for the purpose. Instead, he continued even farther into Missouri to Springfield where he tended his services to the local Federal commander! Promised that he would become colonel of what was to become the 1st Texas (Union) Cavalry, Hart sent some of his followers back to Northeast Texas for additional recruits. There, a number of them hid out in what were known as the thickets, a tangled mass of Sulphur and Sabine River tributaries, creeks, bayous, and overgrown swamps that was rapidly becoming home for a host of thieves, deserters, and draft dodgers. From Jernigan's Thicket (modern day Delta County) the new arrivals ventured to their old homes to visit relatives but also alerting the authorities to their presence. A large posse surrounded their hideout, forcing those trapped inside to negotiate a surrender. This time four (or possibly five) were apprehended and four taken to Sulphur Springs for trial, resulting unsurprisingly in conviction and their subsequent executions at the edge of town overlooking the creek bottoms. Three other unfortunates similarly met their ends at Greenville, and two more were lynched while supposedly enroute for the State capital, Austin.
A thorough description and examination of the varying and sometimes contradictory accounts surrounding these events pieces together these otherwise "lost" episodes in Texas Civil War history. The outcomes lingered into Reconstruction in the so-called Lee-Peacock Feud and activities of outlaws like Ben Bickerstaff and Cullen Baker but are outside consideration in this volume. This might be seen as a strictly local series of events but with increasing attention on the subject of dissent within the Confederacy should further illuminate not only this dark corner of the Confederacy but probably others like it as well.
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