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Death at Cross Plains: An Alabama Reconstruction Tragedy

Death at Cross Plains: An Alabama Reconstruction Tragedy

by Gene L. Howard, Gary B. Mills (Foreword by)

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Reconstruction in the South is a much studies and yet little understood dark epoch in the region’s history; in many areas it was marked by such violence as to have been in all but name guerrilla warfare. Death and Cross Plains is the history of one such clash, and the story of one of its casualties – William Luke. 


Reconstruction in the South is a much studies and yet little understood dark epoch in the region’s history; in many areas it was marked by such violence as to have been in all but name guerrilla warfare. Death and Cross Plains is the history of one such clash, and the story of one of its casualties – William Luke. 
            Luke, born in Ireland, was a former Canadian minister fleeing a checkered past and perhaps seeking to redeem himself by service to the black freedmen of northern Alabama. In 1869 he took a teaching post at Talladega College, the only school for blacks in the area. Later taking the position of schoolteacher to the black railroad workers near Talladega, Luke found himself enmeshed in the web of racial antagonisms, xenophobia, and partisan conflict rampant in much of the South.
            Death at Cross Plains follows the tragic course of William Luke’s life and death and vividly depicts the hatreds and failures that plunged the South into its darkest days.

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University of Alabama Press
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Death At Cross Plains

An Alabama Reconstruction Tragedy

By Gene L. Howard

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1984 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8937-6


Cross Plains in 1870

THE VILLAGE OF Cross Plains was set in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where the plateaus diminish in northeastern Alabama and the Appalachian Valley opens into the coastal plains. The Weisner Ridges bounded the village on the north and south. The southern ridge was known as Duggar Mountain, twenty-one hundred feet of timber and rock adjoining Rattlesnake Mountain.

The village was in the borderlands, between the mountains and the lowland plains—between the mountain people and the cotton planters. The country was divided into natural gateways, small ridges, rolling hills, and crossroads. Fifty inches of annual rainfall washed millions of tons of native topsoil into the Gulf of Mexico each year. In many places around the village, the loss of soil exposed barren, red hills.

Calhoun County was surveyed from a Creek land cession. The Creeks (Muskogees) ceded the territory in March 1832; the county was organized the following December. The Indians that formerly occupied the land traveled the infamous Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, leaving their natural heritage to the white man. These civilizedtribes left behind only the names of towns, streams, and other landmarks in the county.

Gold was discovered along the southernmost border of the old county line in the 1830s. Arbacoochee and Chulafinnee flourished as booming gold towns until news of the California bonanza drew the adventurous miners westward.

The old boundary line that divided the Cherokee Indian nation in the upland fields of northeastern Alabama from the Creeks, who had inhabited the waterways in the central part of the state, crossed the county below the village. West of Cross Plains the Choccolocco Mountains began; the most prominent elevation, Chimney Peak, rose sharply, clearly visible eleven miles from the village. Georgia was fourteen miles to the east.

Jacksonville, the county seat, was built on a square atop one of the long, rolling hills so common to the area. The courthouse was in the middle of the hilltop square. Strategically located in the center of the county, Jacksonville, with 958 citizens in 1870, led the political and economic affairs of the area.

Several tall-columned mansions had been built along the main roads of the town, reflecting the wealth of its leading citizens. Following the Civil War, Jacksonville was the home for many former Confederate officers. The Forney family sent five of its sons to fight in the army, two of them serving as generals. Gallant John Pelham was buried in the local cemetery after a short, heroic career as a gunnery officer.

The people of Calhoun County, like most southerners, were democratic by nature. They maintained a proud independence, considering themselves equal to all other men. Eighteen hundred voted for the Democratic party in the 1870 elections while four hundred cast Republican ballots.

The road between Cross Plains and Jacksonville lay through open plantation fields and unbroken pine forests. At times it paralleled the new railroad bed. During the wet season the road was little more than a width of mud in which the wheels of wagons and buggies sank halfway up to the axles.

Cross Plains was a scattered and loosely organized village in 1870. The essential feature that gave it some semblance of a municipality was the intersection of two main roads that crossed, forming the heart of the community.

From the north a road from Kentucky and Tennessee passed through the village to southern Alabama and southern Georgia. From the Appalachian Valley to the northeast another important road from Knoxville and Rome crossed the northern route to Montgomery and Mobile. On the south side of the crossroads was a public well, a benevolent gesture to the travelers who plied the thoroughfares.

About the distance of a city block north of the crossroads, a railroad ran west to east through the village. The Selma, Rome, and Dalton Railroad Company had completed laying the track two years earlier, building a loading dock to accommodate freight but only a crude office for the agent and passengers. The facilities were built on private property because of the company's haste to finish the line.

Across the road from the depot, a new hotel had been erected after the railroad was completed to the Georgia line. Called the Cross Plains House, it was three stories high with a broad porch, known as a gallery in the South, across the front and part of the way down the left side of the building next to the railroad tracks.

Just north of these two primary structures was the only school in the village; it was named Cross Plains Institute. Its advertisements promised, "Cross Plains is healthy. The society is first class, consequently all moral restraint will be thrown around the pupils." Major Andrew D. Bailey, a Confederate army veteran, headed the staff of teachers that included his younger sister, who taught music.

The village had several general stores, one drugstore, two barrooms, one wagon and buggy shop, two steam cotton gins, a shoe shop, a blacksmith shop, and a Masonic lodge. Most of the more valuable property was around the crossroads. The post office was in a two-story brick building shaded by several large oaks on a corner west of the crossroads. In May 1870, railroad officials in nearby Patona had the name of the post office changed from Cross Plains to Patona, and Henry Barney was named postmaster. But in June the name was changed back, and Rufus Penny became the new postmaster.

The new Methodist church, completed the previous year, was built on the public road that forked north of the village and paralleled the main road toward Nancey's Creek.

The nearest river was thirty miles north of Cross Plains. It was the Coosa that came from Rome, Georgia, coursing its way through Alabama for more than three hundred miles. Two streams were nearby: the Terrapin in the Ladiga community to the east and Nancey's Creek four miles below the village. Once there was discussion around the countryside about digging a canal from the Tennessee River, which ran through Guntersville, to Gadsden, to connect the two rivers for commercial traffic. It was only fifty miles between them, but the $9 million estimated proved to be more than the state could afford.

Most of the people around Cross Plains farmed. They were resourceful, fully adapted to the art of self-preservation. Every man was part blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, cobbler, miller, and tinkerer. A neighbor's skills often rounded out the services that were needed on the family farm. The small stores around the village were the center of commerce, where people traded by barter on occasion and held an account for long credit against their crops.

Cotton brought twelve cents a pound, high enough for a family to survive with dignity in spite of the less than a half-bale per acre yield throughout the Coosa Valley. There were three sawmills at various locations near the village, each employing a small crew of men. The few jobs with the sawmills and the railroad exhausted the range of employment available in the area. An adequate number of merchants and tradesmen offered the services needed for a basic agricultural economy.

Two medical doctors and an assortment of ministers, a daguerreotype artist, and the faculty of teachers at the Cross Plains Institute were the only professional people in the village. Most of the county's legal and professional business was conducted in Jacksonville thirteen miles away, leaving little need for these services in the smaller towns.

Human drama was unknown to the people of Cross Plains. The rural environment was routine and uneventful. The family worked, hunted, went to church and parties, and expected to be buried in a small family cemetery and come to the Judgment Day to receive their reward together. Even when the Civil War raged about, no important battles were fought in Cross Plains. General John Croxton's raiders burned the railroad depot and iron works at Oxford and occupied Jacksonville long enough to release the prisoners in the county jail. Part of Sherman's army fought minor skirmishes in the Ladiga and Goshen communities near the village. But the townspeople never directly felt the wrath of the Union army.

Though little of humanity's bane and color surfaced in the hamlet of Cross Plains, 350 people lived there. Most of them wanted to forget a war that had disrupted their lives.


The Morning After

THE THREE MEN who came to Cross Plains to recover the body of William Luke were apprehensive of the stillness in the hamlet. None of them felt fear of the community, but they expected a more restive and hostile atmosphere. On the morning of 12 July 1870, the town was as quiet as if a storm had passed violently through, leaving the people silenced by a supernatural fury. The streets were vacant except for an occasional white man. The heat and humidity of midsummer were unrelenting. The bright, torrid sun made the deserted, parched streets as uncomfortable as they were still.

Henry Brown, Charles Pelham, and William Savery were surprised by the quiet and calm of the village. Earlier that morning in Talladega, when the three men were notified of the hangings, and later on the train to Cross Plains, they had envisioned scenes of bedlam and human devastation. Aware of the Ku Klux Klan and its wanton disregard for northern men and blacks, they were prepared for the worst. The trio felt conscious of their notoriety as they made their way around the edge of the village. Since being deposited near Cross Plains by the driver of a hired buckboard, they had moved cautiously.

Early that morning, Henry Edwards Brown and his family were preparing for a new week at Talladega College fifty miles south of Cross Plains when a messenger from the railroad depot brought them the news of Luke's murder. The young school president hurriedly assembled his traveling companions and caught the next train north. Their concern that they might be in danger in Calhoun County was well founded. After the three men boarded the train, they passed through a smoking car where they overheard a man say: "Yes, we got Luke, Brown's satellite. We'd rather have had Brown—couldn't get him."

It was near noon when they arrived on the outskirts of Cross Plains. They rode the train as near the town as they dared before hiring a buckboard to take them the rest of the way. By the time they arrived in town, the driver had told them what he knew about the hangings.

The men realized that the outward calm was deceptive when they tried to talk with some of the townspeople. They were told where the hangings took place but little else. Their questions were met with silence or, sometimes, the person queried simply hurried away.

Once the buckboard driver turned back toward Jacksonville, the men faced the problem of reaching the site of the hangings. Upon learning who they were and what they wanted, no one would lend or rent them a vehicle to claim William Luke's corpse. They walked on in the heat, sensing the scorn in the glaring silence of the townspeople who watched them from the secrecy of their shops and homes. The town was tense with rumors. People were unsure of what had happened the previous night, unsure of whom to trust.

Henry Edwards Brown knew he and his companions represented all that the South had come to loathe and despise in recent years. He knew southern whites called the northern people at the Talladega school "NT's—nigger teachers." The members of his staff were unable to rent rooms from any of the white families in town, and the food for the school was shipped into Talladega by friends or relatives from other parts of the country.

The dark-bearded Brown had been in Calhoun County before. In November 1869 he had visited Patona, a small railroad town near Cross Plains. Invited by the railroad officials to discuss a relationship between the school at Talladega and the Selma, Rome, and Dalton Railroad, Brown had enjoyed a pleasant visit. The superintendent of the railroad had cleared out one of the warehouses at the headquarters and sent out announcements in Patona for a religious service that night at which Henry Brown preached.

Brown was from Ohio, a graduate of Oberlin College and an ordained Congregational minister. He came South after the war in the rush of politicians, teachers, and preachers whom the southerners eventually called carpetbaggers. His decision to help educate the newly freed slaves following the Union army's victory was not an impetuous adventure. Brown had been a student at Oberlin at the time of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. When the funeral train passed through town the president of the college, evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, prayed an impassioned prayer on behalf of the Negro race. Overcome, young Henry went back to his room, fell on his knees, and dedicated himself to a life of service helping blacks overcome their disadvantaged past.

During the war he had traveled through the Union lines with the Christian Commission, an organization that offered spiritual help and encouragement to the troops. After the surrender, when the American Missionary Association began to establish schools for freedmen throughout the South, Brown joined them in founding the school at Talladega. When Brown became president of the new school and moved his small family to Alabama, it was with the attitude of a missionary, not a conqueror.

The tall man with Brown was accustomed to the noonday heat. He was a native southerner, a former resident of Calhoun County. Judge Charles Pelham was well known to the people of Cross Plains. Blond and graceful, Charles bore the family resemblance that made all of Dr. Atkinson Pelham's sons recognizable in the county. Charles's younger brother John, called "the gallant Pelham" by General Robert E. Lee, was the county's most revered Civil War hero.

Charles Pelham also had served in the Confederate army. After the surrender he returned to his law practice in Talladega and brooded in the bitterness of defeat about the state of affairs in Alabama. One day, after weighing all of the possible risks, he announced a fateful decision to his family: he would join the Republican party. Not content to let the Yankees and the blacks control all aspects of local life, Pelham was determined to influence state politics. The Pelham family was indignant. Charles was violating an unwritten southern code of scorn by linking his political fortunes with the hated Republicans. His brothers were so infuriated that they turned their backs on Charles, vowing they would not even attend his funeral.

Changing his political alignment was a bold move for Pelham. When he signed the compulsory statement of allegiance to the Republican party, he knew he faced a barrage of scornful slurs. He knew too, that his familywould have to suffer personal abuse because of him. He was a traitor to the South—a scalawag.

In spite of the loss of esteem and the continuing pain of public ridicule by his fellow southerners, Pelham benefited from the change of parties. Within a year he was appointed district judge for Talladega County. In time he was elected to the United States Congress. Judge Pelham also became the confidant of Lewis E. Parsons, another Talladega resident, who may have been a factor in Charles's party switch. Parsons was the provisional governor of Alabama in 1865. The two men became political allies in the Alabama Republican party and were involved in many struggles to free the state from corruption.

Charles Pelham's friendly attitude toward the new freedmen's school and his family's influence in Calhoun County prompted Henry Brown to appeal for his help early that morning. He thought Pelham would be useful in Cross Plains.

The third member of the trio symbolized the primary issue of the ongoing national crisis. He was William Savery, a black carpenter from the Talladega school. As a slave Savery had labored to help build the Baptist Male Institute, an elite high school for white boys. When the war ended he was one of a group of freedmen who organized the first school for blacks in the area. Two years later he realized a personal dream when the impressive three-story building that he had helped erect became the administration center and classrooms for the new Talladega College.

William Savery's presence on the streets of Cross Plains, braving an atmosphere of racial tension, was the final gesture of loyalty to a new friend. When the Reverend Brown returned from vacation in Ohio the previous summer, an angular stranger in foreign, heavy clothingaccompanied him. He was William Luke. The new arrival taught at the school until the president decided he was needed to help finish the construction of Foster Hall, the first dormitory to be built at the college. The cornerstone had been laid a few weeks before he arrived on the campus. While Luke was working on the building, the two men became friends. Luke's work on the dormitory daily brought together the two men from very different cultures who were to discover a common motive for their labor. Their friendship grew when Luke joined the Congregational church that Henry Brown organized after he founded the school. Luke quickly adjusted to the methods of worship and became an earnest and valued member of the integrated congregation.


Excerpted from Death At Cross Plains by Gene L. Howard. Copyright © 1984 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gene L. Howard is a native of Rome, Georgia, and now makes his home in Wellington, Alabama. He is a graduate of The University of Alabama, and this is his first book.

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