History & Research

Texas Panic of 1860

By on February 17, 2015

For these next few posts I want to share a little of the historical backdrop in which the events of my novel take place, both in the north and south.

My idea to write about the Civil War–and the notion of a southern abolitionist–came many years ago. But it wasn’t until a more recent draft that I decided to place my protagonist in Texas. North Texas, to be precise, where I’m from. And while researching the extent of abolitionist thought and influence here in this area before the war, I stumbled across an article from The Texas Handbook Online about the “Texas Troubles” of 1860.

I was immediately fascinated and horrified by this bit of local history. And shocked–I was born, raised, and educated here, and not once in thirty years had I heard anything about this.

In the time before the American Civil War, southerners lived in constant fear of their slaves, afraid that the people they beat daily and stripped of their humanity might one day fight back. In the summer of 1860, Texans in particular were also struggling with drought, hunger, and scorching heat. Memories of the attack on Harper’s Ferry by abolitionist John Brown that past December were likely fresh on their minds.

Then one Sunday afternoon (July 8, 1860), multiple fires sprang up across the northern portion of the state. Dallas’ business district was destroyed, most of Denton’s town square turned to ash. Buildings and homes in a half-dozen towns were damaged. At first the intense heat, combined with new unstable ‘prairie’ matches in the inventory of local general stores, seemed to be the blame.

But when over the course of the next week, more towns begin reporting similar fires, a more sinister theory emerged: Slaves, in league with secret abolitionists, were preparing for a violent uprising.

There was no real evidence to support this theory, of course. Just fear. By the end of July, there was a full-blown panic across the state. Rumors spiraled out ofTexas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South control, vigilante committees were formed, and suddenly anyone who was remotely suspected of having any anti-slavery sympathies were either whipped and run out of town, or lynched. One man was killed for simply having a conversation with his slave behind a closed door. A preacher (Anthony Bewely) who managed to flee Texas early on was dragged back months later from Missouri and hanged in Fort Worth, with no evidence to show he had anything to do with the fires. And the slaves themselves fared far worse.

To this day, historians aren’t certain how the fires started. Was it an accident, an uprising, or even a plot by southerners themselves who wished to create a panic to force Texans to vote in favor of leaving the Union? Before the Troubles, Texas was divided on the issue of secession, though Governor Sam Houston was a staunch Unionist. By the time the vote came around in February, many counties changed their positions in favor, and Houston resigned from office a month later.

These are the events that surround Saoirse’s portion of the story in Firebrand.

If you’d like to read more about the Troubles, I highly recommend Donald E. Reynold’s book Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South, or checking out the links above to the Texas Handbook Online.

I’ve also found a few newspaper clippings  that paint a very chilling image of the anti-abolitionist sentiment in this area of Texas at the time, I’ll post about them next week.


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