Great Hanging at Gainesville

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Illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 20 February 1864. In the events, men were hanged one or two at a time.

The Great Hanging at Gainesville was the execution by hanging of forty-one suspected Unionists in Gainesville, Texas, in October 1862 during the American Civil War. Two additional suspects were shot by Confederate troops while trying to escape, some 150-200 men were captured and arrested by state Confederate troops in and near Cooke County at a time when numerous citizens of North Texas were opposed to the new law on conscription. Many suspects were tried by a "Citizens' Court" organized by a Confederate officer, it made up its own rules for conviction and had no status under state law. Although only 11% of county households owned slaves, seven of the 12 men on the jury were slaveholders, determined to suppress dissent.

The suspects were executed one or two at a time, after several men had been convicted and executed, mob pressure built against remaining suspects. The jury gave the mob fourteen names and these men were lynched without trial, after having been acquitted, another nineteen men were returned to court and convicted, with no new evidence; they were hanged, all largely because of mob pressure. Most of the men executed were residents of Cooke County, but residents of neighboring counties were killed as well; in total, this is claimed to be the largest mass hanging in the history of the United States.[1] The Confederate and state courts ended the Citizens Court activities; President Davis had already dismissed General Paul Octave Hébert as military commander of the state, but Confederate military abuses continued in North Texas.

In the 21st century, Gainesville struggles to accept its history. There has been a privately organized, annual commemoration of the hangings since 2007, the Cooke County Heritage Society planned a formal commemoration in 2012 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Hanging. They cancelled it when the mayor objected, but a private event brought together descendants of several victims at a family reunion organized with speakers to discuss the event; in 2014 a memorial was installed near the execution site that commemorates the event and its victims.


The North Texas region was settled by many migrants from the Upper South who were not slaveholders. Many identified as Unionists as sectional tensions rose.

By 1860 only 10.9% of free Cooke County households owned slaves. Likely due to the distance of many residents from the slave economy, 61% of the county electorate voted against secession.[2] Editor E. Junius Foster of the Sherman Patriot newspaper petitioned to have North Texas establish itself as an independent free state. Texas during the war had considerable internal dissent, and Confederate troops threatened residents. Confederate General Paul Octave Hébert, with only five years experience, imposed martial law over the entire state, dividing it into military districts and appointing commanders answerable to him, such officials, especially local provosts, often had little military experience and began to use their powers to settle old scores.[3]

Already in 1862, "Confederate troops had ambushed a party of German immigrants on the Nueces River, killing 19, executing 9 more and then hunting down still more on the Rio Grande, the ambush and executions far exceeded the legal authority of the Confederate commanders, who should have arrested the Germans for attempting to flee conscription. The following year nine more men, Confederate troops on leave, were hanged near Bandera in the Hill Country – by other Confederate troops on patrol."[3] But although the Confederacy passed conscription acts in April 1862, it did not establish any punishment for men who failed to report for the draft.

In April thirty Cooke County men formed a Union League and signed a petition to Richmond objecting to the government's policy of exempting large slaveholders from the draft. A "Peace Party" was still active, although the state had joined the Confederacy by this time, its members pledged to resist Confederate conscription.[3] Area slaveholders claimed to fear that the group was colluding with pro-Union forces from out of state and notified local authorities about the incidents.

The area commander, Brig. Gen. William Hudson, feared agitation among Kansas Jayhawkers could affect North Texas, he ordered men who failed to report for conscription to be arrested.[3]

On the morning of October 1, 1862, state troops led by the local provost, Colonel James G. Bourland, a major planter in the county,[3] began arresting suspected Unionists in the area. Some 150 men were arrested in thirteen days.[4] A total of nearly 200 were ultimately arrested.[3]

Trials, executions, and lynchings[edit]

Bourland appointed Col. William Young, also a major slaveholder, to appoint a jury, he formed a "Citizens Court" of twelve jurors (seven were slaveholders) in Gainesville, the county seat.[3]This "court" had no legal status in Texas law. Bourland and Young together had reason to want to suppress dissent, as they owned more than one-quarter[5][6] of all slaves in the county.[3]

The jury began trying the suspects for insurrection and treason, with conviction by a simple majority vote,[7] after eight convictions, the jury decided to require a 2/3 majority vote for conviction. This resulted in reversal of the last conviction,[8] those convicted were sentenced to be hanged within two days. Some were executed within hours.[9]

After the jury acquitted several men, a mob threatened to lynch all of the remaining prisoners, the head of the jury gave them fourteen names. These men were taken from jail and, without benefit of any trial, were lynched on October 12 and 13, the court adjourned.[10]

On October 16, Colonel William C. Young, who some say had attempted to moderate the proceedings, was killed while pursuing a group who had killed another man along a creek. Young's death resulted in public outrage, as some feared abolitionists had killed him. Two jurors who had left were replaced on the jury by hard-line Confederates,[5] the jury reversed the acquittals of nineteen prisoners, although hearing no new evidence.[5] They convicted the men and sentenced them to death, these nineteen were hanged, with their executions supervised by Capt. Jim Young, the son of the colonel, the court released fifty to sixty men before Confederate and state courts finally halted its activities altogether.[11] A total of 41 men had been hanged in Gainesville in October 1862, and at least three others were shot to death,[12] they left "42 widows and about 300 children."[5]


Texas newspapers and Governor Francis Richard Lubbock praised the hangings.[6][13] Pressure increased on dissenters in the state and the military was responsible for more deaths. Northern newspapers treated the events at Gainesville as an outrage when they learned of them later.

President Jefferson Davis remained silent, having already dismissed General Paul Octave Hébert on October 10 as military commander of Texas for his imposition of martial law and harsh measures in enforcing conscription. Confederate law had no punishment for men who failed to report for the draft.[14][6] Davis felt Hébert did not sufficiently control local commanders and provosts, and had allowed military atrocities to take place,[3] he appointed General John Bankhead Magruder to try to bring the state under control.[13]

But troubles continued for a time in North Texas, with hundreds of families fleeing the state to escape the violence and chaos. "Military commanders alternately helped lynch mobs or tried to quell them."[3] In Decatur, Capt. John Hill supervised the hanging of five men. A group of men were arrested in Sherman, Texas, but Brig. Gen. James W. Throckmorton intervened and was able to save all but five who had already been lynched.[6] Separately in Sherman, E. Junius Foster, the editor of the Sherman Patriot, was murdered by Capt. Jim Young, the son of the late Col. Young, for publicly "applauding the death of his father."[6] In Denton, another partisan shot a prisoner dead.[3]


A state historical marker erected by the Texas Historical Commission in 1964, during the Civil War centennial commemorations, defends the arrest and execution of these forty-two men, it claims the "Peace Party" had "sworn to destroy their government, kill their leaders, and bring in Federal troops." The speediness of the trial is defended as necessary due to "fears of rescue."[1] This narrative is known to have been based on incomplete material, as records had been lost or misplaced.[5]

Controversy about the event has continued in the 21st century. Gainesville, a city of 16,000, was named in 2012 by Rand McNally as "the most patriotic small town in America", that year the Cooke County Heritage Society planned an October event in Gainesville to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Hanging, as part of Civil War history. It was cancelled after the mayor objected to marketing about it, the city provides funding to the society's museum, and directors feared losing support. The mayor wanted to emphasize the city's new "patriotic" status and the annual Depot Days instead.[15]

Descendants of the victims of the hanging were angry that the event would not be acknowledged. A member of the Cooke County Heritage Society said that, "Gainesville has been hiding from the Great Hanging since it happened."[15]

Colleen Carri, a heritage society board member, decided to combine the commemoration with the annual Clark family reunion already planned for Oct. 13. She expected 220 attendees, including descendants of six other hanging victims, they called the event "Remembering Our Past, Embracing Our Future." Richard B. McCaslin, a history professor at University of North Texas, was scheduled as a speaker at the event,[15] he wrote Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862 (1994), considered the "first comprehensive study" of this event.[5]

At the same time, members of the local chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans, who include some descendants of hanged men, had created a video, Black October 1862. They said some of the victims were not innocent but "traitors" for passing information to the enemy. McCaslin says there is no evidence of such activities, the SCV planned to screen their film October 13, 2012 at the Masonic Lodge in Gainesville.[15]

Some people in the city have led annual commemorations since 2007. A memorial for the victims of the Great Hangings was privately constructed in 2014. Consisting of two 5' x 6' granite slabs, it was installed at a small park which had been donated to the city near the site of the hangings. One slab is inscribed with the names of the 42 victims; the other gives a full account of events, based on documented history.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Loewen, James (1999). Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. New York: New Press. pp. 177–182. 
  2. ^ Tainted Breeze p. 15 & 34
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Parker, Richard; Emily Boyd (16 October 2012). "The Great Hanging at Gainesville". New York Times. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  4. ^ Tainted Breeze, p. 73
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Abby Rapaport (17 November 2014). "Gainesville, Texas, Grapples with The Great Hanging". Texas Observer. 
  6. ^ a b c d e McCaslin, Richard B. "Great Hanging of Texas". Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  7. ^ Tainted Breeze p. 74
  8. ^ Tainted Breeze p. 76
  9. ^ Tainted Breeze pp. 81-3
  10. ^ Tainted Breeze pp. 81-3
  11. ^ Tainted Breeze pp. 84-6
  12. ^ Tainted Breeze p. 94
  13. ^ a b "Exhibit: Under the Rebel Flag: Life in Texas During the Civil War". Texas Library and Archives Commission. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  14. ^ Tainted Breeze p. 113
  15. ^ a b c d Campbell, Steve (October 8, 2012). "After 150 years, a dark chapter of Gainesville's past still stirs passions". Star-Telegram. Archived from the original on October 29, 2012. Retrieved October 9, 2012. 


  • McCaslin, Richard B. Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862, Louisiana State University Press, 1994

External links[edit]