Note that the Mayor Pro Tem Ray Nichols of Gainesville goes on record calling the Great Hanging, "That other thing?" and stating, "I don't think that's important to anybody." Nichols' comment was insensitive, rude, arrogant, and unbecoming of a public official. He owes an apology to those of us with an ancestor who died in the hanging!
After 150 years, a dark chapter of Gainesville's past still stirs passions
BY STEVE CAMPBELLsfcampbell@star-telegram.com
GAINESVILLE -- Rand McNally recently named this North Texas town America's Most Patriotic City, but that red, white and blue slogan has collided with a grisly episode from 150 years ago: the Great Hanging of 1862, when vigilantes hanged 40 Union sympathizers and shot two more who tried to escape.The Civil War incident that pitted neighbors against neighbors in a paroxysm of suspicion and retaliation remains a touchy subject here, particularly for families whose ancestors were strung up from an elm tree not far from the courthouse.
They say the city of 16,000 has always tried to duck the dark episode that at the time sparked outrage in the North and drew applause across the South."People damn well try to whitewash it," said 89-year-old L.D. Clark, a retired English professor whose great-grandfather Nathaniel M. Clark was hanged on Oct. 13, 1862, leaving behind a wife and seven children, including a son in the Rebel army.
Mayor Jim Goldsworthy says Gainesville isn't "running away from the horrible event."The city would rather "hang our moniker on being the most patriotic town in America and drive our tourism that way."
The latest contretemps flared when a local museum planning an Oct. 12-13 event to mark the 150th anniversary put up a billboard in late August off Interstate 35 promoting it as "October's Reign of Terror, Commemorating the Great Hanging of 1862."It quickly came down when Cooke County Heritage Society directors bailed on the event after Mayor Pro Tem Ray Nichols voiced his disapproval with the "sensational" marketing to the director of the Morton Museum, which the society manages.
"We received some information that intimidated the executive board, and we decided to cancel," said Steve Gordon, a retired engineer and former president of the society who organized the event. "We got scared because the city gives the museum money. I'm very bitter about it. Gainesville has been hiding from the Great Hanging since it happened."
Nichols, a retired banker, said he wasn't acting in his official capacity but as a private individual and contributor to the museum who felt the billboard "put the city in a bad light."He also didn't appreciate that the event was scheduled on the weekend of the city's Depot Days, an annual celebration of the area's railroad history.
"Gainesville was voted most patriotic city in America this year, and we are very excited about it and our Medal of Honor Host City program. I think those are important. That other thing? I don't think that's important to anybody," he said.Don't tell that to Colleen Carri, Clark's niece and a heritage society board member who decided to keep the commemoration alive by pairing it with the annual Clark family reunion Oct. 13.
Carri expects 220 attendees, including descendants of six other hanging victims, at the event called Remembering Our Past, Embracing Our Future.With cities across the country commemorating Civil War anniversaries, she said, Gainesville is missing out.
"I don't get their mentality except they are afraid it's going to tarnish this most patriotic thing. They didn't know how to spin it; they didn't know what to do with it."But this might be one where spin couldn't win.
"Having a celebration of a time when they hanged people being loyal to the United States would not go well with the most patriotic town label," said University of North Texas professor Richard B. McCaslin, one of the event's speakers and the author of Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862.
The Rebel line
There's another skirmish line on this old battlefront, and it is cloaked in gray. Some North Texans with the Sons of Confederate Veterans believe the Unionists were traitors, and they've produced a movie to tell the "complete history" based on two controversial accounts by men involved in the hangings.David Moore of Weatherford has two ancestors who were ringleaders of the Unionists -- Henry Childs, a doctor, and his brother, Ephraim, who were the first to be hanged.
"If I was living back then and I knew what those brothers did, I would have hung them, too. It was treason," said Moore, the director of Black October 1862, which will be screened Oct. 13 at the Masonic Lodge in Gainesville.
"Were there innocent people hung? Yes. We're saying there is more to it than what has been presented in the literature out there," Moore said.
Most people only know the victims' stories, said Joe White of Gainesville, the First Lieutenant Commander of the Lee-Bourland Camp 1848 of the SCV. (Col. James Bourland, a "good fighter and good hater," led the troops that rounded up the Unionists.)
"It was the Confederate States of America. They were under military law," White said. "If you have people feeding information to the enemy, what are they?"
The lingering schism between Gainesville's link to the Confederacy and the mass hanging is "strikingly illustrated" by two monuments, McCaslin said.On the front lawn of the Cooke County Courthouse, a monolith topped with a Rebel soldier stands watch over the square.
Part of the 1911 monument's flowery inscription reads "no nation rose so white and fair none fell so pure of crime," which makes Clark grimace."So pure of crime?" growls Clark, who 30 minutes before had read an inscription on his great-grandfather's grave at the Clark Cemetery that said he was "Murdered by a Mob."
A few blocks away, the town's lone marker for the Great Hanging stands forlornly among piles of construction debris from a flood control project.
"What's fascinating is that this account on this marker is the only evidence of the Great Hanging in Cooke County. There's not a marker with any of the victims' names on it," Carri said.Goldsworthy says the site will be restored when the construction is done.
The marker was once located across I-35 "as far away as you could get from the town center," said McCaslin, who added that now-deceased former Mayor Margaret Hayes pushed for a Great Hanging park and got the monument moved."She saw it as a tourism possibility. People like that sort of ghoulish stuff," he said. "Some places have turned their dark days into big tourist attractions, like the Salem witch trials in New England. They've managed to flip it over. Maybe we're not far enough away yet."
"A pressure cooker"
In 1862, Cooke County was a remote outpost of the Confederacy. Only 10 percent of the households had slaves, and it had voted 2-to-1 against secession while Texas as a whole was 3-to-1 in favor of it.Located just south of the Red River, Gainesville was a frontier town beset by threats. Just north was Indian Territory. Deserters and outlaws roamed the border lands. To the west, Comanche Indians ruled.
"These people were living in a pressure cooker," McCaslin said.When the war started in 1861, many Union supporters volunteered for frontier guard units in hope of avoiding fighting in the East. But the Confederate Conscription Act of April 1862 changed everything, McCaslin said.
A loose affiliation of men formed a secretive Union League with a primary aim of avoiding the draft, he said.But rumors were soon rampant that the group had grown to 1,700 and had John Brown-style plans to storm militia arsenals in Gainesville and Sherman and then aid an invasion.
Bourland's troops arrested more than 150 men on Oct. 1, and Confederate Col. William C. Young formed a citizen's court of 12 jurors of mostly slaveholders. Seven Unionist leaders were hanged, and then a mob lynched 14 more, McCaslin said.The rest of the suspects were to be released, but "the real killing started" the next week after unknown assailants murdered Young and another man, he said.
Nineteen more men were then convicted and hanged. Over the course of the day, two prisoners at a time were hanged from the back of a wagon.
But Gainesville wasn't alone in its fear and retaliation. In Decatur, five Unionist suspects were hanged, and a prisoner was shot in Denton. Earlier, in August, 19 Unionist German settlers fleeing from the Hill Country to Mexico had been killed in the Battle of Nueces, and nine prisoners were executed.
Neighbors torn apart
McCaslin has never found evidence of communication between people in North Texas and Union authorities."I think it was just talk. That infuriates some people; they want me to tell them these were horrible traitors that deserved to be killed. But traitors to what? They were actually loyal to the country they had been raised in all their lives."
What remains most fascinating for McCaslin is how quickly neighbors turned on one another."But it is not the first time and it's not the last time. We see it today. Under pressure people can do very unreasonable things.
"When you bring something like this to light, smelling to high heaven, it undermines the idea of a united South. To me, it makes it a more human story because we always divide. It's what we do; it's what we are. It's the nature of a democracy. Sometimes we handle it well, and sometimes we don't handle it well at all."That upsets people; they don't want to hear that Great-Great-Grandpa made a mistake."
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981Read more here: http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/10/07/4318432/after-150-years-a-dark-chapter.html#storylink=cpy