- Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South
Over the past four decades historians have produced a number of excellent studies on secessionism within individual states. In Crisis of Fear [End Page 558] (New York, 1970), Stephen A. Channing argues that the hysteria and fear that swept South Carolina in the wake of John Brown's raid were pivotal in pushing that state toward secession. James M. Woods's Rebellion and Realignment (Fayetteville, AR, 1987) takes a different approach, examining political parties, leaders, and the effect of interest groups and geography on the politics of secession, while Christopher J. Olsen's Political Culture and Secession in Mississippi (New York, 2000) argues that secession stemmed from the culture of honor that developed on the Mississippi frontier in the thirty years before the Civil War. Donald Reynolds's Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South differs from these works in the singular impact Reynolds attributes to threats of insurrection within Texas on the secession movement throughout the entire Lower South. While Channing's work does not place the secession movement in South Carolina into the larger context of secessionism, Reynolds begins his work with a broader focus on the South and the increasing fear of servile revolt, and he ends the book with an analysis of how the Texas Troubles influenced the debate over secession in states such as Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Arkansas. When people in these states heard reports of the fires and alleged conspiracies in Texas, and then experienced similar plots closer to home, they were much more likely to distrust all northerners and discredit Unionists as traitors to southern principles.
In Texas Terror, Reynolds tells us that from the time of Nat Turner's 1831 rebellion, scarcely a year passed without a slave panic somewhere in the South. The "periodic scares over possible uprisings were about as familiar to most white southerners as grits and redeye gravy," he writes (1). Turner's rebellion, periodic slave panics, the memory of the Haitian Revolution, and finally John Brown's raid of 1859 pushed many white southerners into a siege mentality, whereby they believed northerners were constantly working to undermine cherished southern values and institutions. Add to this equation reports of twelve fires that broke out in the Dallas area on July 8–9, 1860, and you get a much strengthened movement for a separate southern confederacy, according to Reynolds.
Reynolds shows that this movement began locally, with newspapers around Texas stirring up fears of rebellion and invasion from northern "abolitionists." Papers such as the Austin Texas State Gazette, the Houston Weekly Telegraph, and the Marshall Texas Republican argued that so many fires within such a short period of time were no coincidence, but a northern-inspired abolitionist plot to destroy the South. In addition to [End Page 559] fire, according to the papers, abolitionists meant to destroy slavery by poisoning wells and inciting slaves to kill their masters and other whites. Texans responded to these fears by creating vigilance committees across the state to guard against possible uprisings. Entrusted with broad powers, the vigilantes dispensed "justice" to would-be conspirators through whippings, banishment, and executions. Reynolds argues that fire-eating editors and politicians in the state, those people pushing for secession, used the fear of servile revolt to strengthen their arguments against the Union, often to great effect. Elsewhere in the South, fire-eaters such as William Lowndes Yancey and Robert Barnwell Rhett similarly used what Reynolds calls the "Texas Troubles" to argue for the creation of a southern nation. They claimed that if Lincoln was elected, a situation that began to appear more likely as election day approached, then the entire South awaited a fate similar to that of Texas.
Reynolds does an excellent job of demonstrating the importance of the Texas Troubles to political debates over secession within Texas and elsewhere in the South. He draws...