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Texas Terror

The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South

Donald Reynolds

Publication Year: 2007

Winner of the Texas State Historical Association Kate Broocks Bates Award On July 8, 1860, fire destroyed the entire business section of Dallas, Texas. At about the same time, two other fires damaged towns near Dallas. Early reports indicated that spontaneous combustion was the cause of the blazes, but four days later, Charles Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald, wrote letters to editors of pro-Democratic newspapers, alleging that the fires were the result of a vast abolitionist conspiracy, the purpose of which was to devastate northern Texas and free the region's slaves. White preachers from the North, he asserted, had recruited local slaves to set the fires, murder the white men of their region, and rape their wives and daughters. These sensational allegations set off an unprecedented panic that extended throughout the Lone Star State and beyond. In Texas Terror, Donald E. Reynolds offers a deft analysis of these events and illuminates the ways in which this fictionalized conspiracy determined the course of southern secession immediately before the Civil War. As Reynolds explains, all three fires probably resulted from a combination of extreme heat and the presence of new, and highly volatile, phosphorous matches in local stores. But from July until mid-September, vigilantes from the Red River to the Gulf of Mexico charged numerous whites and blacks with involvement in the alleged conspiracy and summarily hanged many of them. Southern newspapers reprinted lurid stories of the alleged abolitionist plot in Texas, and a spate of similar panics occurred in other states. States-rights Democrats asserted that the Republican Party had given tacit approval, if not active support, to the abolitionist scheme, and they repeatedly cited the "Texas Troubles" as an example of what would happen throughout the South if Lincoln were elected president. After Lincoln's election, secessionists charged that all who opposed immediate secession were inviting abolitionists to commit unspeakable depredations. Secessionists used this argument, as Reynolds clearly shows, with great effectiveness, particularly where there was significant opposition to immediate secession. Mining a rich vein of primary sources, Reynolds demonstrates that secessionists throughout the Lower South created public panic for a purpose: preparing a traditionally nationalistic region for withdrawal from the Union. Their exploitation of the "Texas Troubles," Reynolds asserts, was a critical and possibly decisive factor in the Lower South's decision to leave the Union of their fathers and form the Confederacy.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

The seed for this book was planted more than thirty years ago, while I was doing research for the dissertation that would later become Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis. As I read scores of southern newspapers for the year 1860 in libraries and courthouses all over the South, I was...

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1. What Is in the Wind?

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pp. 1-28

Although slave insurrections were rare in the antebellum South, slave insurrection panics were not. Indeed, periodic scares over possible uprisings were about as familiar to most white southerners as grits and redeye gravy. Virtually from slavery’s inception in North America there were frequent reports of rebellious...

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2. Red Torch over Our Land

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pp. 29-53

Sunday, July 8, 1860, dawned especially hot on the dusty prairies and rolling hills of northern and eastern Texas. By noon the temperature already stood at the century mark in many communities. Perhaps the hottest spot in the state was Marshall, where before the sun would spend itself the mercury would...

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3. Better to Hang Ninety-nine Innocent Men

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pp. 54-77

Although all of the panic-stricken communities possessed regularly constituted law enforcement machinery in 1860, virtually none was willing to entrust to it the investigation of the alleged insurrectionary activity. Instead, they almost exclusively resorted to the use of vigilance committees to carry out the investigations...

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4. Savage Deeds of Blood and Carnage

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pp. 78-97

Having taken measures to protect their homes from the incendiary’s torch and their families from the assassin’s hand, the vigilance committees proceeded apace with the grim business of discovering and punishing the conspirators. Obtaining evidence against the enemies of slavery, however, was by no means an easy task. With few exceptions, those whites charged with having caused the...

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5. Great News from Texas

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pp. 98-118

Ollinger Crenshaw has written: “During the summer of 1789, a vague feeling of unrest swept the rural provinces of France, where it was said that ‘the brigands are coming.’ It seems that some kind of similar feeling existed in the states of the old South in the summer and fall of 1860, a feeling of tenseness which led...


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pp. PS1-PS8

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6. A Thousand Rumors

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pp. 119-147

By late August and early September 1860, the withering heat that seared Texas during July had moderated, and with this welcome respite also came a corresponding cooling of the panic, as it became apparent that most of the reports of fires and insurrection were false. But “heat” of another kind developed even as...

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7. Who Is William H. Bailey?

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pp. 148-167

Late in the evening of September 3, four men accompanied a stagecoach into the town of Fort Worth, Texas. The gray-haired, fifty-six-year-old man they re-moved in chains was none other than the notorious Anthony Bewley, a minis-ter of the Methodist Episcopal Church accused of complicity in the plot to dev-astate Texas by fire and poison. Although he was a native southerner, Bewley’s ...

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8. The Mortal Enemy of the South

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pp. 168-196

Southern rights editors and politicians largely ignored the mounting evidence that the Texas Troubles had been greatly exaggerated by false rumors of arson and poisonings, which had been enhanced and made more believable by the fraudulent Bailey letter. As the presidential election loomed nearer, those who...

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Epilogue: Conclusions of a Mad People

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pp. 197-214

On a July weekend in 1981 some two hundred descendants of Cato Miller, one of the three blacks hanged for allegedly setting the Dallas fire of 1860, met to commemorate the 121st anniversary of their ancestor’s death. The object, according to the organizer of the meeting, was to keep alive awareness of the...


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pp. 215-230


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pp. 231-237

E-ISBN-13: 9780807135341
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807132838

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War