It was a cool morning in Gainesville on October 4, 1862. A hushed silence fell as witnesses gazed at the man at the lonely tree. They saw the rope tighten and the man fall to his death. He was accused of treason, but there was no evidence that the crime had even occurred. Six more were hanged that day on the same charges. It was the beginning of 42 such deaths in October 1862 that would haunt Cooke County for years afterward. And it was the largest mass hanging in American history.
The roots of the Gainesville Hangings stretched back to secession. In the chaotic push for disunion in early 1861, the counties along the Red River voted heavily against secession, including Cooke, Grayson, Collin, Lamar and Red River. Once the statewide vote pulled Texas from the Union, most of the remaining Unionists across the state resigned themselves to the new political reality. Gainesville was a small community of only a few hundred people at the time, and less than 10 percent of county residents even owned slaves.
In April 1862, with the Confederacy facing manpower shortages and a frustrating lack of progress on the battlefield, a draft law was passed. Under the law, all able-bodied southern men between the ages of 18 and 35 were declared members of the military for three years. The only exceptions would be for teachers with 20 or more students, legislators, men who were willing to pay $500 to be exempted, and slaveholders who owned 20 or more slaves. Upset that men of means could exempt themselves from the fighting, a petition of 30 Cooke County men protested the exemption of slaveholders.
As the months progressed, more men concerned with the draft, the security of the community, and the direction of the Confederacy began meeting periodically in a peace society. The aim of the group was never specific and only sought to peacefully discuss their grievances. As one southern city after another fell in 1862, a number of North Texans believed their area would be struck next. In addition, troops who had been fighting Native American tribes nearby had been pulled back east to fight Union forces. Panic bloomed and rumors ran wild, ranging from an imminent attack by Kansas abolitionists to an uprising of Unionists.
At the end of September, after one alleged spy to these peace society meetings told officials that an uprising was imminent, Gen. William Hudson ordered the arrest of any man who had not reported for the draft. On October 1, Col. James Bourland, a former state senator, arrested 150 men in the area. They were all charged with insurrection or treason and none were slaveholders. Col. William Young, a Cooke County resident, former U. S. Marshal, and slaveholder, organized a citizen’s court – a 12-man jury of mostly slaveholders, hand-picked by Young, to hear the cases and decide guilt or innocence on a majority vote instead of a unanimous vote.
Seven men were quickly hanged in Gainesville over the course of a week with barely a trial. A mob gathered to demand all be hanged, but dozens were acquitted when the jury decided that only a two-thirds vote would convict. With pressures mounting, jurors unleashed a wave of 14 more convictions, all men being hanged over the next two days.
Young was then murdered, though the culprits were never found. When the jury reconvened, several members refused to appear, only to be replaced with hardliners determined to find guilt no matter what. Twenty-one more men were convicted on only the flimsiest of evidence. They were all hanged except for two men shot trying to escape. By October 20, it was over.
While many Texas politicians and newspapers praised the hangings, others met the news with unease or anger. Confederate President Jefferson Davis fired Gen. Paul Hebert, the military commander for Texas, for improper use of martial law in response. After the hanging of Nathaniel Clark, his son, James, deserted his Confederate unit and joined the Union Army in protest. Several North Texas men fighting in other theaters of the Confederacy allegedly threatened a mass desertion or even an assault on Gainesville in retaliation.
Gainesville itself has struggled with the memory of the events. A federal effort for a historical marker was made by a Massachusetts congressman in 1916 but failed. Court records were lost in the 1920s. The State of Texas placed a marker in 1964, but the entire episode continued to be downplayed by many in the area. Interest in the incident grew in the 1990s, pushed by descendants of hanging victims and historian Richard McCaslin’s 1994 book on the incident, “Tainted Breeze.” In 2014, the city completed a memorial to those who died on those bloody days in 1862.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.