Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reconstruction and John Wesley Hardin

The area I spend a lot of time reading about is the time period right after the U.S. Civil War. The Reconstruction period where the former rebel states come back into the Union I find even more interesting than the Civil War itself. Part of the reason for this is that in some ways the war was still going on. Some people refer to this period that started in 1865-1877 has the Second Civil War.

In any war there really are two main phases. There is the invasion phase where one side tries to conquer and occupy the other. If the side that is being attacked defends itself then the invasion side is defeated and the war may stop. Or, the defensive side can continue the war by then becoming the invasion side, and the roles then reverse.

The second phase is the occupation phase. This may or may not be a peaceful time. If the victorious side intends to keep the land conquered, it tries to assimilate the conquered people into society. This is typical of the days of empires. On the other hand, if the goal is just to get a country working again under new conditions then the occupation phase is meant to be temporary. In a sense, it really is not a war compared to the first phase because the major war operations have stopped. However, guerrilla warfare consisting of ambushes might take place by groups of conquered people at this time.

A lot of the issues we face today have patterns seen in the past. It is one of those reasons history is studied because history tends to repeat itself. We know that after WWI, Germany was really punished and left to start itself up from scratch. The country was not helped build itself back up and went through a depression. Part of the reason Hitler rose to power was because of this. This is a part of the reason that there is major concern about how the situation in Iraq is handed.

A lot of the same issues that are going on in Iraq occurred during Reconstruction. I can not speak for everyone’s education in this area, but I suspect so much emphasis is put on the actual leading to and actual fighting of the U.S. Civil War that Reconstruction tends not to be seen as important. The idea may be that southern states just had to ratify a few new amendments and approve a new state constitution and they were back in. The areas I spend the most time reading about show that it was really a bloody mess. When it was all said and done, the south ending up winning the war of reconstruction.

The U.S. Civil War, the war itself, and Reconstruction are probably the most controversial issues in U.S. History. Issues of the authority of the federal government vs. the state’s rights, issues regarding race rights and relations were still strong issues up to the 1960’s. Of course, some would say those are still major issues today.

I do read the governmental history of the time period starting with Lincoln, to Johnson, to Grant, and then to Hayes. As an aside, it turns out Rutherford B. Hayes is my fourth cousin. What I like to do when I read history is read about the real top down history which usually deals with the government policies, but I also like to read stuff during the same period that is from the bottom up. The grassroot perspective. This is looking at the common persons issues on the field and not in some committee.

My favorite person to read about during this period is outlaw John Wesley Hardin. I have mentioned him before in a prior entry, but during his time in El Paso he was really on the downside of his life. In the overall study of history he is not that important, but what I find is that studying his life and relating it to the big picture of Reconstruction history it actually makes a lot of sense.

I am just going to abbreviate here how things worked out, but his life is fun to follow from the years 1865-1877. In my view, the first of three phases starts when Hardin was a young boy through the Civil War, but more importantly through the next few years after the war when he started killing. In Texas there was a lot of resentment over losing the war. Some guys, like Bob Lee in the north eastern part of Texas claimed they never surrendered creating what was known at the Lee-Peacock feud. From 1865-1870 the military occupied Texas. They were to keep the peace, but also allow elections to be held to get the state government going again.

Hardin started killing by shooting a former slave called Mage. In his autobiography he claims to have killed some military soldiers not too long after. He claims to have done this in the name of the lost cause which was the way of justifying the loss of the Civil War, but at the same time resisting the abusive north.

Once Republican Edmund Davis became governor in 1870 and Texas became part of the union again, the military left the state. This started the next phase of Hardin’s life. Gov. Davis introduced the state police which were to take care of all the crime in Texas. Under captains, like Jack Helm, the state police started sweeping the state looking for outlaws. An important point to make is that a good percentage of the new policemen were black. This was quite a shock since many of them were former slaves which had a new superior authority. The state police was obviously controversial. A lot of Texans saw them as abusive, undisciplined, and corrupt.

During this phase with Gov. Davis in power Hardin not only fought against and killed many state policemen, but he was introduced to the Sutton-Taylor Feud or the Dewitt County War. I mentioned this some blog entries back when I was talking about opposing viewpoints, but James Smallwood argues in his new book that what was really happening here was the Taylor’s were really criminal gang that were continuing the fight against the Union, in other words, the second civil war. In any case, the Hardin-Taylor gang became well known as is the high point of Hardin’s outlaw career.

Gov. Davis and the State Police only lasted a few years. Like most republicans that were put into power in the south, their reign as leaders was quite short. Once the democrats were put back into power, things for the outlaws changed. For quite some time many Texans put up with and encouraged crime and outlaws since it was against the dreaded rule of the north. A lot of the outlaws were looked at as the good guys and the northern Yankees were the bad guys. With the Yankees and republicans out of the way this would change.

So, by the end of 1873, Hardin did not realize this, and he had no way of knowing this, his reign of power, so to speak, was coming to and end. A great victory took place in the feud where Bill Sutton was killed by Jim Taylor in the early months of 1874. Then in May of 1874, Hardin ended up killing the wrong man on his 21st birthday. This killing was his major downfall and created the biggest manhunt for Texas at that time. My next entry will cover this event. In my view, the killing of Webb began the third phase of his life during Reconstruction.

After leaving Texas he went to Florida, and during the presidency of Hayes, he was caught and sent to prison. This was in August of 1877 right as Reconstruction had really ended with the compromise that put Hayes into power as president.

As I said, even with all of this, I had to abbreviate a lot because it is a very complicated area. I like it because it really goes into that area of the old west I like, but is important in understanding U.S. history from the top down and the bottom up. I will continue with the crucial gunfight next time.