Why So Many Union Troops in Jefferson?
Having no combat fought on its soil, Texas was lucky to escape the battlefield horrors of the American Civil War. It wasn’t until after the War’s close that Texas and its inland port of Jefferson were occupied by Federal troops. By June 18, 1865, the Eighth Illinois Infantry had crossed the border and occupied Marshall. Ten days later Union Forces, including two black regiments, were at Tyler and in the surrounding area. (Richter, 1987). Military government replaced local civilian authority, and the community was informed that slavery had been destroyed (Campbell, 2016).
Two privates from the Eightieth United States Colored Infantry had gone for a drink of water near Jefferson. Along the path they met the deputy town marshal, Jack Phillips. As they passed, Phillips swung his double-barreled shot gun into position, and blasted the two soldiers at point-blank range. He then drew his revolver and, as the dying black infantrymen writhed in pain on the now bloody ground, calmly blew their brains out. Unbelievably, Marshal Philips remained in office months after the murders (Richter, 1987).
One of the earliest records of a Freedmen’s Bureau in Jefferson is a letter from Major James Curtis on September 19, 1868, a mere nine days after he first arrived as military commander of the union post in Jefferson. Writing to his commanding officer, Fifth Military District Brevet Major General Joseph J. Reynolds, he said, “The amount of unblushing fraud and outrage perpetrated upon the negroes is hardly to be believed. Black enfranchisement is a farce. Ku Klux organizations openly attack freedmen who vote Republican. The civil authorities are helpless.
I would say that I apprehend no trouble in Jefferson, but my force is so small, only twenty-six men available, that it is utterly out of my power to attend to Bureau business except near the city (Hawthorne, 2012).”
His small force got plenty of trouble a couple of weeks later when remnants of the local Knights of the Rising Sun accidentally encountered George W. Smith and several Freedmen at Grant’s store on North Market Street. A gunfight broke out with two Knights and one of their horses being wounded. Smith and four of his black friends from the Mother Church, called the African Church at the time, were taken into protective custody. Twenty-four hours later, Smith and two of his captured companions are dead and the Mother Church lays burned to the ground.
Seeing this escalation of violence, General Reynolds decided to pull troops from the frontier to reinforce the post at Jefferson. He believed that Smith’s murder was proof that the interior needed more protection than the frontier. On November 6, the Times and Republican reported that General Reynolds had sent four companies to Jefferson: one company of cavalry from Ft. McKavett, one company of cavalry from Fort Concho, one company of infantry from Dallas, and one company of infantry from San Antonio. In December, nine companies of the 29th Infantry arrived, bringing the total number of companies in Jefferson to thirteen, or about 1,100 men.
All these companies were under the command of General George P. Buell who arrive December 11 and assumed command of the post (Hawthorne, 2012). At this time the post was moved to the Sandtown area right in front of the site of the Mother Church. The encampment included the site of the Mother Church. Archaeological evidence at the site supports this hypothesis.
George W. Smith, a key figure of the Republican Party and a local unionist hero, held rallies at the Mother Church in 1868. Though Smith is now best known as the catalyst for the Stockade Trials in Jefferson, he should first be remembered as an important ally to the African Americans in Marion County. A majority of them elected Smith to the Constitutional Convention, and he had a large African American following, making him a threat to the Democrats, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Knights of the Rising Sun (Bean, 2009). After many threats against his life, including a fire that devastated the city’s business district, an armed mob of an estimated 70 to 100 hooded men murdered Smith (Bean, 2009). Smith’s murder, and the lawlessness that enabled such violence, impacted the Mother Church, which was the core of African American community, solidarity, and strength in the county. Its burning on the night of the murders was an attempt to punish Smith and his supporters. This was not an accidental fire, but a deliberate arson, an incendiary threat lit against the Reconstruction.
Bean, C. B. (2009). “Death of a Carpetbagger: The George W. Smith Murder and Stackade Trial in Jefferson, Texas, 1868-1869.”. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 112.3, 262-292.
Campbell, R. B. (2016). A Southern Community in Crisis: Harrison County, Texas, 1850-1880. Austin: Texas State Historical Association.
Hawthorne, A. S. (2012). Murder in Jefferson: The 1868 Stockade Case. United States of America: 23 House Publishing.
Richter, W. L. (1987). The Army in Texas During Reconstruction 1865-1870. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.