It was the place I had been seeking. After visiting his grave, I was searching for the site where Nathaniel Miles Clark had died on October 13, 1862. His life ended as he swung from a massive elm tree that once stood on this unprepossessing spot. During a span of several days of mass hysteria in 1862, at least forty men were hung from the same tree — hung by their neighbors. Their crime? Simply put, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were Union sympathizers living on Confederate lands while the Civil War was raging.
It was called The Great Hanging, and men were being lynched by vigilante mobs in neighboring Texas counties as well, but Gainesville had the most victims. They were accused of conspiring to commit treason and foment insurrection. Most of the men were innocent, but that made little difference once the mob hysteria began.
This is a difficult post to write for several reasons. First, I don’t want the reader to judge Gainesville, Texas by an incident that happened over 150 years ago. Gainesville is a beautiful town with a rich history that goes far beyond this one event. Please keep in mind that during the Civil War similar incidents were happening all over the nation.
Second, I am struggling to make sense of a tragedy that happened during a time when there was no “normal.” I don’t want to any of us to judge either side too harshly. We weren’t alive back then, so we can never know the fear citizens really felt. The closest analogy that I can make is to consider how our nation reacted after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
We were. indeed, terrified. “Will it happen again?” we wondered. “Who did it?” Collectively, Americans looked askance at anyone with brown skin … especially if they were from the Middle East … and thought, “Is that the enemy?”
Now consider the early settlers, and multiply the fear we felt. They lived at the edge of civilization under hardships that were frightening enough, but they also had to worry about attacks from righteously angry Native Americans. When the Civil War broke out, and the settlers wondered. “Is that the enemy,” the “enemy” looked just like them! In fact, the enemy could be their own blood kin.The men who were hung in Gainesville, like Nathaniel Clark, were respected members of the community, although none of them were particularly wealthy; they were not slave owners. Clark was a farmer living east of town. Members of his family had donated the land upon which the town of Gainesville was built. As Nathaniel Clark was “tried” by a Citizen’s Court, found guilty, and hanged for being a Unionist, his oldest son, James Lemuel, was fighting for the Confederacy!
In fact, many of the men who were lynched in the Great Hanging had family members who were fighting for the Southern Cause. Most of them admitted that they were part of the “Peace Party,” although some were found guilty by association. Their goals were “to provide for the families of those at war, to protect members from Confederate authority, and to restore the Union.” Yes, that sounds like treason, which is punishable by death, but the story is a complicated one.
To understand why these men chose to side with the Union, you have to know that when Texas voters went to the polls on February 23, 1861 to decide if Texas should secede from the Union, and become a part of the Confederacy, the issue was about slavery. If you believe that it was about “state’s rights,” go read the full “DECLARATION OF CAUSES: February 2, 1861 A declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.” Pay special attention to the following words:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.
By the secession of six of the slave-holding States, and the certainty that others will speedily do likewise, Texas has no alternative but to remain in an isolated connection with the North, or unite her destinies with the South.
Since most families in Cooke County did NOT own slaves, it is not surprising that Cooke County was one of only 18 out of 122 counties to vote against disunion (with 61% of the voters against secession).[https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mgs02] I’m not naive enough to think that the majority of residents of Cooke County were abolitionists. In fact, most of them would probably have owned slaves — if they could have afforded them. They couldn’t. Slavery was an institution that benefited the rich, so why would a poor man vote to risk going to war for it?
On top of that, secession was almost certain to mean war and chaos. Especially for communities on the frontier, a break with the Union would be disastrous. The area was under constant attack by Native tribes, such as the Comanche and Kiowa. The best defense those communities had was from nearby forts staffed with Union soldiers … who would be removed if war ensued, leaving the settlers at risk.
The Confederate Conscription Act of April, 1862 was enacted, and it only fanned the flames of dissent. It required that men between the ages of 18-35 enlist in the military, although wealthy men could hire a substitute (or send a slave) to fight for them, and there was an exemption from the draft for the men who owned a large number of slaves … the very men whose cause was being fought. And, if all of the able bodied men were fighting in a far away war, who was left to protect their homes? Only the women, children, and the elderly.
Now consider the mindset of the people in the communities who sided with the Confederacy. In 1862, rumors abounded that bloodthirsty abolitionists from Kansas intended to invade the state; free the slaves, and murder every man, woman, and child who was loyal to the Confederate cause. It’s easy to understand why people were suspicious of anyone who sided with the Union; their fear churned and bubbled until at last the pot boiled over.
Neighboring farmers and friends were accused of being a part of this murderous plot. “Can we trust them?” they whispered. “Are they the enemy?” No one knew.
One hundred and fifty men in Cooke County were rounded up and brought to town for trial by a citizen’s court. Keep in mind that this wasn’t an established legal court … it was just twelve citizens (all of whom were well-to-do, and seven of whom were slave holders) who held court and passed judgement on these men.
In a dramatic exhibition of vigilante action during the Civil War, authorities in Cooke County in October 1862 arrested about 150 men who allegedly belonged to a “Peace Party” thought to be conspiring to reestablish Union control in Texas. Curious residents, families of prisoners, militiamen, and volunteers crowded into the square where many called for hanging all the prisoners. Then a church bell rang, calling a town meeting. Chaired by William C. Young, it proceeded to create a “Citizen’s Court” and to pass resolutions legitimizing its actions.
With Daniel Montague presiding and Young interrogating, the court met in a store on the square and convicted seven prisoners of conspiracy to commit treason. They were promptly hanged from a giant elm at the site of this park. Two others were shot and killed when they tried to escape. Dissension among the jurors led to an agreement that any further convictions would require a two-thirds vote. By that standard, all the accused were acquitted, to be released a week later. But a mob demanded and the jury surrendered fourteen men to be lynched.
The jurors scattered on Monday, October 13, planning to reconvene the next Saturday and release all remaining prisoners. However, during the week, James Dickson, member of a prominent family and William C. Young were shot and killed from ambush on Hickory Creek north of Gainesville. Fear swept the countryside. Hysterical demonstrators in Gainesville urged the hanging of all prisoners. When the court reconvened on the 18th, it sent nineteen more men to the gallows tree.
The words above are from a marker that was placed at the site, in the Georgia Bass Memorial Park, on Saturday, October 18, 2014. It’s a tiny park, and not terribly photogenic, but I’ll show you a picture, so you will recognize it if you go to see it.
I warned you that it wasn’t terribly eye-catching! As opposed to looking at it, I preferred to stand under a large tree that stands on the site and imagine the events of the month. I thought about the fear in the community, and the shame the citizens might have felt that it got so out of hand.
I also thought about the men who died, whose bodies were stacked in a warehouse at the edge of town, because their families were too afraid of the mob to claim them. Only about eleven men got a proper burial. The rest were put into a mass grave at the edge of the creek. Their bodies got ravaged by feral hogs, and some were washed down the creek.
I thought about the families that were torn asunder, and the division in the community that lasted for many years. Before Nathaniel Clark was hanged, he asked that no one seek vengeance for his death. No one was punished for the mob riot, and the community tried to move on as best it could.
The actual hanging tree was cut down long ago; its stump was ground down to nothingness in an attempt, I suppose, to erase the evidence of that horrible month in 1862. Below is a portion an artist’s depiction of the event from the Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 20 Feb 1864. The memories linger, as well they should, for one would hope that such terrible actions would never occur again.
If you would like to read more about the Great Hanging, I suggest reading Tainted Breeze by Richard McCaslin. You can also find much historical information about the men who died that October on Gainesville, Texas 1862. As for me, my pilgrimage is at an end.