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LONE STAR LEGENDS
Mass Hanging at Gainesville,
Cooke County and
the city of Gainesville became an area of building tension prior to and
during the Civil War. Geographically located closer to “Free-State”
than to the capitol of Austin, they were a diverse set of people. Having
extremely mixed origins, about half the emigrants came from the Deep South
and wanted to continue their traditions of an Old South planter lifestyle,
though very few of them were wealthy enough to own slaves. The other half
came primarily from the Upper South, and principally made their livings as
ranchers. In September, 1858, when the Butterfield Stage Line made its way
to the area, it brought with it an even more diverse group from all areas of
Forty men were executed in the Great
Gainesville Hanging in
1862, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1864.
Over the next several
years, tensions began to mount between slave-owners and abolitionists and in the
summer of 1860, several slaves and a northern Methodist minister were lynched in
North Texas. The next year, the statewide vote on Secession was held in
February, 1861, Cooke County’s population was comprised of only about 11% slaves
and by a margin of 61%, the county, along with others in north
Texas, voted it
However, with only 19 of the 122 counties voting against succession, they were
resoundly defeated. Almost immediately, the editor of the Sherman Patriot, E. Junius Foster, called for North
Texas to secede from
Texas and stay in the Union
as a free state. This along with rumors of Unionist alliances with
Jayhawkers and Indians along the Red River, brought the tension to a fever
pitch. Despite the protests of the Unionists, secession soon became a reality
and many of those that had opposed secession, realizing that their opinions put
them in danger, fled to Kansas or
California. Others; however, chose to stay,
which placed them in a vulnerable position.
After Texas seceded, the Confederacy promised that the citizens living in
would be of the greatest value by defending the state from within its boarders,
and no one would be drafted to fight the United States outside of the state.
However, the Conscription Act of 1862, changed this, making only landholders
with large numbers of slaves exempt from the draft.
This upset a number of men who did not “fit” within the exemption status and 30
of them responded with a signed Petition of Protest, which was sent to the
Confederate Congress in Richmond, Virginia. Brigadier General William R. Hudson,
who commanded the militia district in the area, responded by exiling newspaper
editor and leader of the petition, E. Junius Foster, from the area. However, a
few months later, the petitioners who remained began to enlist people into a
group called the Union League in Cooke and nearby counties. Before long,
Gainesville became the focal point of protests.
This early “Union League” was loosely organized and though some were Unionists,
others simply joined to resist the draft. Others joined to provide a common
defense against roving Indians and renegades. However, rumors began to circulate
that the group had grown to some 1,700 men who had plans to assault the militia
arsenals at Gainesville and Sherman. The Confederates soon got worried that the
rumors were true and in late September, 1862, Brigadier General William R.
Hudson ordered the arrest of all able-bodied men who had not reported for duty.
On the morning of
October 1, 1862, Hudson sent Colonel James G. Bourland, who was one of the
largest slaveholders in a county, to arrest those who had not reported for duty.
Bourland along with the Texas state troops soon rounded up more than 150 men who
were accused of insurrection or treason. Bourland, along with Colonel William C.
Young of the Eleventh Texas Cavalry, then handpicked 12 jurors to serve on a
“citizen’s court.” Seven of the jurors were slaveholders and Bourland mandated
that a conviction did not require a unanimous vote, only a majority vote. Seven
of those accused men were sentenced to hang, but before the “court” was
finished, 14 more were lynched by an angry mob.
very next week, Colonel William C. Young was assassinated. This enraged the
Confederates and several of the previous defendants were tried again. This time,
19 more were condemned to be hanged, taking the death toll to 40 in Gainesville.
Two others were shot as they tried to escape. However, the man suspected of
killing William C. Young, was not among these men, and the Colonel’s son,
Captain Jim Young, personally tracked him down and ordered his slaves to hang
him. Jim Young also killed E. Junius Foster, the editor of the Sherman Patriot,
who had applauded the assassination of Colonel William Young. Five more men were
killed in Decatur and one in Denton before the madness ran its course.
The mass executions became known as the Great Hanging at Gainesville and was
generally applauded by the
Texas newspapers, insisting that the Unionists were
terrorists, common thieves, and conspiring with
Kansas abolitionists. The
actions were also condoned by the state government. However, when Confederate
President Jefferson Davis learned of the affair, he dismissed General Paul
Octave Hebert as military commander of
Texas for his improper use of martial
The unrest continued when Confederate Brigadier General Albert Pike, who was in
charge of Indian Territory, was implicated as a Unionist and arrested. Although
he was later released, he continued to be regarded with suspicion and served the
rest of the war in civilian offices.
Arkansas, a North
Texas company of Confederates almost mutinied when they
heard about the mass hangings. Though the situation was calmed down by Brigadier
General Joseph O. Shelby, several men later deserted.
Powerless to exact revenge, many members of the Union League fled the state.
Civil War had ended there was a half-hearted prosecution of those who
were responsible for the mass execution; however, it resulted in the conviction
of only one man.
The Great Hanging of Gainesville is commemorated only by a small monument
just west of the intersection of California Street and U.S. Highway I-35 in
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