Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Historians Observe 'Great Hanging'

Last Saturday was the fifth annual Gainesville Hanging Commemoration. The following newspaper article is from the GAINESVILLE DAILY REGISTER, Gainesville Texas. October 18, 2011.

Gainesville Daily Register
October 18, 2011
Historians observe ‘Great Hanging’
By GREG RUSSELL, Register Staff Writer
Gainesville Daily Register

Gainesville — Saturday’s observance of Gainesville’s famed “Great Hanging” of 1862 was intended as more than a memory of troubled times.

Members of the North Central Texas College honors program, Cooke County Historical Commission and Morton Museum Heritage Society hosted a guest lecture on campus by Dr. Richard McCaslin, a historian whose research and renowned publications employ the lesson that “Then is today.”

He said during a phone interview Monday that helping the local public understand factors prompting the Texas Militia to execute more than 40 Civil War-era county residents — innocent of their insurrection charges, by many accounts — can help enhance our modern and more civilized order.

“When troublesome issues arise, it’s really not helpful to look back and say, ‘We’ve always been unified, and have always been together,’” McCaslin said. “We’re as argumentative and indecisive as we’ve always been. Once we understand our pasts better, we understand ourselves now.”

The historian is a faculty member of the University of North Texas history department. His works include The Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, which won prizes from the Texas State Historical Association and the American Association for State and Local History. McCaslin is also a Pulitzer Prize nominee for his book Lee in the Shadow of Washington, and he specializes in examining the warfare of historical Texas, and Southern states.

He proposed Monday that the famed hanging was driven by fear. A group of men were suspected of treason against the South, and civilization had far fewer “stop-gaps” in place to help maintain a nonviolent order.

Among them, he listed policing departments and other law enforcement agencies as we regard them today.

“Homeland Security,” McCaslin cited. “I’m not a big fan of Homeland Security, but it beats the hell outta nothing. Texas Rangers. We have all these structures that we can turn to, to help keep our baser natures in check.”

But, he said, with no such structure to lay a buffer between wartime fear and an unruly public, Cooke County militiamen of 1862 took direct action.

“And I guess the insinuation is, we’d all be capable of doing the same thing at the same time,” McCaslin said. “The flip side is, they didn’t do that in Sherman. They rounded the folks up and tried to send them to Confederate district court, which didn’t work. A lot of them fled. So over in Sherman, they took a different course.”

Annual observance of the Great Hanging became a Cooke County staple in 2006. McCaslin said these observances, plus the historical research that supplies their foundation, can help put old divisions to rest and more clearly inform what actually happened nearly 150 years ago.

“I’m amazed what people come up and tell me they were told happened,” he said Monday. “To bring the event out, and discuss it, and realize what did happen brings a kind of closure. Not for all people. But for most people.”

McCaslin added that in more recent times of war, it can be easy for officials and policymakers to view their actions and motivations as new and original to mankind. They virtually never are; similar decisions occurred in the past and were driven by similar ideas, and horrific consequences often followed.

He also said he’s observed a growing argument among Southern heritage organizations that Southerners, and the Confederacy, owe no apologies as per the Civil War.

“That they did nothing wrong and that everything was perfect,” he said. “That’s not functional, that makes no sense and it creates a kind of dysfunction.”

The Great Hanging remembrance of 2012 will mark the event’s 150th anniversary. McCaslin said he and historian authors L.D. Clark and Thomas Barrett have collaborated on a new book about the hanging while Heritage Society member Steve Gordon organizes activities for a sesquicentennial observance.

Next year’s event may prove more elaborate than the previous have been. But intentions of the organizers remain the same, just as views about the Great Hanging of 1862 continue to vary.

“I think that remembering clearly what happened is the step toward making sure that the same things don’t happen again,” McCaslin said. “This book, and the commemoration, are not meant to chastise anyone.
“But if someone takes a corrective as a chastisement? That can be something that happens. And I’m not sure what you can do about it.”