The trouble began when reports of a plot…

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It is true that a great majority of southern whites expressed no doubts whatsoever about the morality of slavery. Any white who did so—particularly if he lived in the Lower South—invited the scorn of, and perhaps physical assaults by, his fellow citizens. (Pg.3)

The slave insurrection panic in July 1860 was but the climactic event in a long series of lesser scares in the Lone Star State. The half decade leading up to that fateful summer witnessed a significant number of alleged insurrectionary incidents that marked an increased anxiety among the Texans over the future of the Union. The most dramatic of these early scares occurred in 1856, which, like 1860, was a presidential election year. As would be the case with Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy four years later, southern rights fearmongers depicted John C. Frémont, the first candidate of the new Republican party, as an anti-slavery zealot who would encourage abolitionists to assault slavery in the South.42

The trouble began when reports of an abolitionist plot to free the slaves in Colorado County, located in southeastern Texas, caused a sensation throughout the state. A vigilance committee of Columbus reported that more than two hundred slaves in the county had planned to slay all the whites—except the young ladies, who were to be made the wives of the “diabolical murderers.” The black insurrectionists were to be abetted in their efforts by the Mexicans of the county, who allegedly had supplied the bondsmen with weapons and who, after the plot had been carried out, would help them make their way to freedom in Mexico. Having nipped the plot in the bud, the committee whipped two blacks to death and hanged three others. It then passed a resolution ordering all Mexicans to leave the county within five days on pain of death. Still not content with ridding their community of those Hispanics who were deemed guilty of supporting the alleged insurrection, the committee passed a resolution “forever forbidding any Mexican from coming within the limits of the county.”43

Other communities that had not experienced “plots” nevertheless followed Colorado County’s example. Matagorda County evicted its Mexican population, and San Antonio expelled a portion of its Tejanos. The next year, Uvalde’s citizens resolved that Mexicans could not even pass through the county unless they had previously obtained a pass from local officials. (Pg.14)

Texas continued to experience occasional “abolitionist” incidents after the panic of 1856 had subsided. For example, Wood County expelled John E. Lemon in March 1857 for allegedly publishing anti-slavery comments in the Quitman Free Press under the pen name “Orange.” Lemon went to Danville, Illinois, where he reportedly began publishing an “abolition paper.”47 In September of the same year, citizens of Limestone County, east of Waco, discovered an alleged plot involving some ten or twelve slaves and an unspecified number of Mexicans. The slaves were punished, but the Mexicans escaped before they could be tried.48 The next month, in Ellis County, a committee charged a preacher named Thomas Dougan with receiving letters expressing anti-slavery opinions and “abolitionist” newspapers in the mail. This was enough to convict him in the eyes of the local citizens, who decreed that he receive five hundred lashes by the hand of a slave. The committee then expelled him, forbidding him ever to return. Reporting the story, the Marshall Texas Republican said that Dougan “expected death, but came off simply the best whipped man who ever went through the ordeal in Texas.”49 Other isolated incidents occurred in 1858. In Gonzales, two Mexicans were killed after being accused of aiding slaves to escape, and in West Liberty a citizens’ committee charged one Herman Harlan with “slave tampering” and advocating “free-soil doctrines” and ordered him to leave Liberty County.50

A general meeting of the Northern Methodists in North Texas was the cause of the most significant confrontation of 1859. On March 11, the Arkansas Conference of that denomination convened its annual meeting at Timber Creek, in Collin County. Alarmed citizens in nearby Bonham met the next day at the courthouse to register their indignation. The local populace believed that even though the Methodists were meeting peacefully, their ultimate goal was to act as an abolitionist vanguard, preparing the way for those who would come later and foment insurrection. At the protest meeting in Bonham, L. C. DeLisle, editor of the Bonham Era, called those attending the Timber Creek conference “wolves, dressed in sheep’s clothing,” who professed to preach only the gospel but who, in reality, were intent upon spreading abolitionist ideas and documents among the people. They were, in DeLisle’s opinion, “but spies and forerunners of the invading army of abolitionism.”51

Other speakers at the meeting voiced similar views, and the citizens passed a resolution declaring that “a secret foe lurks in our midst, known as the Northern Methodist Church, entertaining sentiments antagonistic to the institution of slavery, and the manifest intention of whose Northern coadjutors is to do away with slavery in these United States.” The citizens chose a committee to “wait upon” the conference and warn its members to end their meeting immediately, “as its continuance will be well calculated to endanger the peace of this community.” The resolution made clear the citizens’ intention to rid the area of its unwanted guests by any means necessary when it declared that their motto would be: “Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.”52 Robert H. Taylor, one of the committee’s leaders, echoed editor DeLisle’s opinion when he alleged that the conference’s delegates had been sent “to blaze the way for the host of abolitionists that were to follow.” It therefore behooved the citizenry to use any means—whether legal or not—to suppress them, said Taylor, who warned that even though there was no law to prevent the Methodists from meeting, “there is something above all law—self-preservation.”53 (Pg.16)

Things only worsened in July, when temperatures peaked and the parched land became even more arid. Existing water supplies evaporated at an alarming rate in the blistering sun. C. B. Moore, of Collin County, noted in his diary that the water level in his cistern had fallen a full five inches in the second week of July alone.94 The persistent dearth of moisture caused a sense of desperation, as food supplies ran low and the shortages sent prices soaring. In late July, the San Augustine Red Land Express wrote that the crops in East Texas were “ruinously bad, and destitution and want seem to stare the people in the face…. Distressing accounts reach us from all quarters, and it really seems that we are on the verge of a ‘breadless crisis.’”95 Conditions had become so bad by mid-July that some farmers considered giving up and going elsewhere. The San Antonio Ledger and Texan said, “We regret to learn through a letter from San Saba that there is no hope of a crop in that section this season…. The farmers are quite dispirited and many of them speak of leaving.”96

El Paso 1860

The drought peaked in July, but its economic effects would be felt long after the rains had returned in late August. In November, a resident of Newton County wrote, “Many of us are on Starvation. Notwithstanding, provisions are high and the poor have no money to buy with. Many of us are actually suffering.”97 Writing about the same time, another farmer from the same region of Texas took a more stoic approach: “Jasper County had one of Daniel Webster’s blasts put on it this summer and how we are to live or work through for another year god only knows, but if we cant live we can die.”98

Adding to the misery caused by a lack of rain was a scorching heat wave that accompanied and intensified the drought. The lack of rain, unrelenting heat, and high southwesterly winds off the Mexican desert threatened to make the entire state a dust bowl. The temperature continued to climb as spring gave way to summer, and by early July many found it almost impossible to carry on their normal activities. Years later, those who had lived through the summer of 1860 still held vivid recollections of the experience. S. B. Barron, a resident of Rusk, wrote, “It was the hottest summer ever known in Texas, the temperature in July running up to 112 degrees in the shade.”99 Z. N. Morrell said that anyone who had lived in Texas in the summer of 1860 would never forget the drought and heat: “The atmosphere, at one time, felt very much as though it issued from an oven.” In retrospect, Morrell, a minister, thought the awful drought and heat wave was God’s way of preparing Texans for the fiery hell of the war.100

The oppressive heat reached a peak at the beginning of the second week of July, and the whole state remained distressingly hot for the remainder of that month. Reports indicated that Saturday and Sunday, July 7 and 8, was the hottest two-day period of the summer. Writing on that Saturday from Mound City, east of Waco, a man said that even as he was writing his wife was cooking eggs on the stones of his front porch, and he compared the effect of the blistering south wind to “heat… from a burning building.”101 Writing on the same day from Fort Scott, west of Austin, another correspondent said that the birds were trying to fly into houses to escape a wind that was “more like flames from a burning prairie than any comparison that now serves me.”102 A resident of Long Point, east of Austin, later wrote to the New Orleans Picayune that he had kept a record of the high temperatures during the summer, and he confirmed that July was the hottest month, exceeding 100 degrees or higher on nineteen days, with highs for the thirty-one days averaging 101. The hottest day in Long Point was July 7, when the temperature reached 108.103

As hot as it was in Central Texas. it was even worse in North Texas. On July 12 a resident of Honey Grove, a small town northeast of Dallas, wrote that during the previous week the wind “has been the hottest I ever saw.” He went on to say that the temperature had risen as high as 110 degrees, and the conditions had been so debilitating “even the Negroes” had been unable to work.104 The Clarksville Northern Standard confirmed the Honey Grove resident’s report, stating that the first week in July saw temperatures rise to unprecedented levels in North Texas. “The breeze which has passed over us from the South has been hot—like a Sirocco, and seemed to wilt the leaves of garden vegetation, and dry up the leaves of trees.”105

Brownsville, TX 1860

Not surprisingly, the excruciating heat affected dispositions. This was true not only in Texas, and one historian has suggested that hardships caused by the high heat and drought in Alabama and Mississippi added to the tension caused by politics in those states.106 This was probably true of the rest of the Lower South as well; a distinguished historian of the Civil War wrote: “Even the weather during the summer of 1860 became a part of the political climate: a severe drought and prolonged heat wave withered southern crops and drove nerves beyond the point of endurance.”107

There are indications that the extreme weather conditions added to the edginess that Texans were feeling. Wiley Donathan, of Fayetteville, Texas, admitted to his brother that the blistering south winds had put him in “bad spirits.”108 The San Augustine Red Land Express noted that everyone in its community had been put in a bad mood by the continuing hot, dry spell, and added, “If it was not for the occasional surprise parties and balls, and the election excitement, we very much fear our people would die of ennui.”109 (Pg. 27)

Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South (Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War) 1st Edition, Kindle Edition

by Donald E. Reynolds (Author)

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