Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Remembrance: The American Civil War and The Great Gainesville Hanging

It is difficult, and painful to imagine what life must have been like during the American Civil War. The example often used is "brother fighting brother," but it was more than that, it was neighbors fighting neighbors, friends killing friends, children lying about their ages and rushing off to join their older siblings only to die, anonymously, beneath trees or in ditches. War is painful for everyone, and the memories last beyond the lifetimes of those involved, spreading through the generations, changing families forever.

My ancestor, David Miller Leffel, died during the American Civil War. He was killed in a mob hanging in Texas. He was not a soldier. He was a farmer, and a family man. In 1858, on the brink of the American Civil War, he packed up his household and with his wife and eight children, headed south from Ohio to claim his wife's inheritance in Grayson County, Texas.

The Leffels would soon be embroiled in one of the hottest debates that Texas had ever known: Should Texas revert back to its original status as a separate country, remain loyal to the Union, or join the other Confederate states in seceding?

The question was highly debated in Texas. In the late 1850s, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route was completed, allowing for a mass migration into north Texas. It is estimated that fewer than 10% of north Texas households owned slaves at the start of the Civil War. The increasing population of northerners and abolitionists made slave owners nervous. In fact, in 1860, all of the counties above Dallas actually voted against secession.

The Confederate Conscription Act of 1862 increased tensions when thirty men from north Texas signed a petition arguing that large plantation owners should not be exempt from the Confederate draft. Brig. General William Hudson, commander of the militia district around Gainesville, ordered the arrest of all men who refused to report for duty with the Confederate Army. Soon, more than 150 men were arrested by the militia.

A “Peace Party” was formed of men who objected to these arrests. These men used a special handshake for identification and took vows of secrecy. Doctor Henry Chiles was one of the leaders of the Peace Party. In September of 1862, Dr. Chiles’ brother, Ephraim Chiles, had a bit too much whiskey at the local bar and revealed the details of the secret society to an acquaintance. Soon, the members of the Peace Party faced a far more sadistic end than conscription into the Confederate Army.

In October of 1862, residents of north Texas were forced to face the brutal realities of the American Civil War when forty men were dragged from their homes by a Confederate mob and transported to Gainesville. Two other men were shot and killed while trying to escape. One of the men dragged from his home was my ancestor, David Leffel.

The accusers held a mock trial. The men were charged with conspiracy and insurrection against the Confederacy by a jury of slave owners and owners of large plantations. Someone claimed the Peace Party intended to rise up against all Southerners and kill women and children. This claim, of course, was picked up by the newspapers, adding to the hysteria.

An angry mob formed in Gainesville. A mock trial was held and most of the men were found innocent, but a decision was made to release some of the men to the mob to appease their anger. At least three of the men hanged were elderly and arthritic, could not mount horses and were taken to their own hangings in a wagon. David Miller Leffel, referred to as "old man Leffel," my great+grandfather, was among the men who were fed to the crowds, along with four of his immediate family members, and Dr. Henry Chiles, along with his brother, Ephraim.

The bodies of most of the hanging victims were never found. It is believed they were buried in a mass grave. Surviving family members were harassed and abused for many years following the hangings. Many of the surviving family members sold their property and left Texas forever. My ancestors, David Leffel's oldest son, moved back to Ohio.

Shortly after the Civil War was brought to an end, David Leffel’s wife, Susan, wrote a letter to Edmund Davis who was Governor of Texas at that time. She begged Davis for assistance against further harassment and protection for her children.

Southern newspapers applauded the hangings, which they referred to as “The Great Hanging at Gainesville.” However, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, expressed his embarrassment over the situation and fired General Paul Octave H├ębert as military commander of Texas for improper use of martial law.

Northern newspapers used the incident as an example of the barbaric nature of the Rebels. Unionist and former Texas congressman Andrew Jackson Hamilton later made use of the hangings to lend support to his campaign for Governor of Texas.

There are a few books detailing this incident, including Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862, and many newspaper articles detailing the events in a very biased manner. Most of the information known about this incident has been passed down through the generations in heart-wrenching stories.

And strangely, the incident is still referred to as "The Great Gainesville Hanging," though there was nothing great, admirable, or noble about anything that took place during this time.

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