Saturday, October 27, 2007
Other Voices---The Memory of the Gainesville, Texas Hangings: Lost, Stolen, Strayed and Finally Remembered By Some But Not the SCV
The Great Hanging, Long Ignored, Now Immorialized, Bud Kennedy, Star-Telegram (Tarrant County and North Texas),Saturday, Oct 27, 2007.
They called it the Great Hanging.
And for 145 years, Gainesville has tried to forget the largest mass lynching in American history. Now, it is remembering those 14 deaths plus 28 other men executed amid the political tension of the Civil War.
A city park filled with 42 tiny crosses was dedicated Friday to remember the 1862 deaths. Most of the men were convicted and hanged as Union sympathizers. Fourteen were hunted down and lynched outright by a renegade mob angered by anti-war dissent.
"For the first time in nearly 150 years, we are remembering the sacrifice here," said Leon Russell, 78, of Keller, a Cooke County native opposing the "cult of secrecy" around the hangings.
The lynchings -- and, depending on your political point of view, the trials -- are considered among the most shameful abuses in the Confederate States. Yet they are rarely taught in local history lessons. "People have kept this a well-guarded secret," said Russell, a retired Dallas insurance executive, talking by phone from Gainesville's Morton Museum before the park dedication. "Some people here wanted it to stay secret." The Great Hanging has been no secret to historians. University of North Texas history professor Richard McCaslin wrote about it in a 1994 book, Tainted Breeze. McCaslin emphasized Friday that the memorial does not take either the Confederate or Union side, or blame anyone. Some local families are descendants of the 40 widows and 120 children left fatherless. One leader who lobbied for the memorial was the granddaughter of a juror.
The 14 lynchings alone make it the largest vigilante-style mass killing in American history. "The only message is that this event is worth remembering," McCaslin said. Then he said something that might apply today. "In wartime, when there is so much emphasis on national unity, the very idea of free speech can be seen as threatening and divisive," he said. "The reaction can have an impact on a nation and a region."
Cooke County and most of the counties north of Dallas and Fort Worth had voted against Texas joining the Confederacy. By 1862, Confederate leaders were criticized because wealthy landowners weren't getting drafted, and dissenters were organizing a Peace Party political faction. "Southerners did not agree on the war," McCaslin said. "In particular, North Texans did not agree on the war. ... All we want is for Gainesville to have a window on the past, to see that it's OK to discuss these issues even though we don't always agree." The Gainesville City Council approved the memorial Tuesday. The vote was unanimous.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a history and heritage organization, has a chapter in nearby Lindsay. The chapter is named in part for Confederate Col. James G. Bourland, who led the arrests of those convicted and hanged. Kenneth Blair, the local SCV commander, said his group did not know about the memorial proposal. The Sons meet monthly and discuss history, but nobody has ever discussed the hangings, he said. "The facts seem unclear," he said. "Were these lawful trials, or not? Were these people spies, or was this renegade Southerners going crazy? I don't know, and I've got dear friends whose ancestors were hanged. I don't necessarily condone what happened."
The idea of a memorial has been around since 1916, when a Massachusetts congressman proposed spending $100,000 for a federal monument. A Texas lawmaker opposed it, saying that some of the men were executed by a military tribunal. Russell, the man behind the memorial, said he never learned about the lynchings and hangings growing up in Woodbine, east of Gainesville. He didn't even know about the incident until a few years ago, when an acquaintance from New York asked.
Russell went home to Gainesville and started asking educators and leaders. "I know it's not something for Gainesville to be proud of," he said. "But it's not something they should hide." It's not hidden anymore.
CWL Reflects: It's difficult to dwell on violence that reflects badly on your region's heritage. In much of Pittsburgh's (the center of my Southwestern Pennsylvania) industrial heritage there is little talk of labor heritage and only a fraction of that is the public recognition of anti-labor violence. For a leader of a SCV chapter to say in so many words, "Well, I am generally confused about what happened" is an honest dodge, but regretable, especially with a fine scholarly work written in an accessible style, like McCaslin's, is available on the topic.