Who Killed John Clayton?: Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861-1893by Kenneth C. Barnes
A narrative history of vote-rigging and lynching, the murder of a congressional candidate, and other crimes committed by white Democrats in Arkansas at the end of the last century.
A narrative history of vote-rigging and lynching, the murder of a congressional candidate, and other crimes committed by white Democrats in Arkansas at the end of the last century.
“This is a gem of a monograph, well-researched, written in plain English, and a work whose broad import extends beyond one county or one state.” - George B. Tindall, Journal of American History
“[T]his fascinating study . . . is much more than simply an examination of murder. Barnes uses this incident as the entry into the world of a post-Civil War Southern community, scrutinizing Conway County’s social drama, discovering the tensions that made possible the murder of a highly visible public figure. . . . Barnes’s close-up look at this community is a jarring reminder of the fragility of life in the postwar South. . . . Anyone interested in the development of the South from the years of the Civil War to the end of the nineteenth century will find this study worth examining.” - Civil War History
“This superb book is a model of what local history can and ought to be. . . . [It] is essential reading for all those interested in the history of Arkansas and the South. It not only reveals who killed Clayton and why but also explains the consequences of this premeditated act and reveals much about the role of violence in the nation’s political process.” - Willard B. Gatewood, Arkansas Historical Quarterly
“The circumvention of democracy in Conway County, Arkansas, in the late 1880s is a sad and sordid tale, well-told in this elegantly crafted book.” - Randy Finley, The Journal of Southern History
“Barnes has written a vivid, powerful, and full narrative about material few historians have encountered.”—Ted Ownby, University of Mississippi
“Kenneth Barnes manages to explore and illuminate some of the most significant and vexing questions related to the emergence of the ‘Solid South’ at the close of the nineteenth century. This fascinating book makes an original contribution to our understanding of the New South’s political culture.”—Raymond Arsenault, University of South Florida
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Who Killed John Clayton?
Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861â"1893
By Kenneth C. Barnes
Duke University PressCopyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Local Divisions and Lasting Grudges
Civil War and Reconstruction
Not long after John Clayton's assassination, the sheriff of Conway County received a letter purporting to be from Clayton's murderer. Signed "Jack the Ripper," the letter suggested that John Clayton had been killed to atone for crimes committed in the county twenty years before by his brother, Powell Clayton, the Republican governor of Arkansas during Reconstruction. Former rebels had regarded Governor Clayton as the worst sort of carpetbagger. They never forgave him for declaring martial law in Conway County and for arming and organizing freedmen into a black militia to keep order during Reconstruction's most tumultuous days. When John Clayton was murdered in 1889, local folks in Conway County, like the writer of the Jack trie Ripper letter, suggested that the crime culminated a cycle of violence that had begun in the 1860s. Four years of warfare indeed had ruptured community and life in the county. Distinctions regarding where and how people lived and worked suddenly became matters to fight about. The war ended in 1865; the fighting did not. Thus to solve the murder of John Clayton, one must go back thirty years to understand the setting and background of Conway County.
As virtually a microcosm of the state of Arkansas, Conway County was divided by Mother Nature into distinctly different landscapes. And in nineteenth-century Arkansas, like the South in general, geographic divisions meant political divisions. One of the oldest counties in the state, Conway County was settled from each end, north and south. On the county's southern border, the shallow and shifting Arkansas River served as the highway for early Arkansans. In the three decades before the Civil War, settlers arrived by boat to exploit the rich bottomlands alongside the river. However, in the northern two-thirds of the county, rolling hills formed the prelude to the most rugged area of the Ozarks, the Boston Mountains, just to the north. In the 1840s and 1850s, many of the ridge runners, settlers who came to the mountains in search of healthy air, filtered south to settle the northern hills of Conway County. Here, like elsewhere in the Ozarks, subsistence farmers scraped together a meager living on small plots of hilly land.
In the early 1850s, the area constituted the true frontier of the South. But with rapid migration and the arrival of the cotton economy in Arkansas, the county entered the mainstream of southern life and culture. The county's white population almost doubled, growing from 3,339 in 1850 to 5,895 in 1860, and the number of slaves grew twice as fast as that of white residents. But perhaps more telling, the production of cotton grew almost sixfold, from 516 450-pound bales in 1850 to 3,170 in 1860. In the early 1850s, Conway County cotton sold for more than forty dollars a bale, providing ample incentive for new settlers to stake out farms in the rich bottomlands. By the mid-1850s, land in the bottoms was selling for twenty dollars per acre, and settlers with their slaves were pouring in. King Cotton and black slavery had clearly arrived.
The impact of the cotton economy, however, was not evenly distributed through the county. Wellborn and Cadron, the two townships that lay beside the Arkansas River, produced 82 percent of the county's cotton in 1860, whereas the remaining eight townships together accounted for only 18 percent. Similarly, almost all of the slaves in Conway County (707 of 762) were in these two townships. In Wellborn township, where the river valley fans out into a wide alluvial plain, several families farmed plantations larger than one thousand acres. One planter, George W. Carroll, alone possessed 125 slaves. By 1860 Wellborn township contained slightly more than one-quarter of the county's improved farmland but produced nearly three-quarters of the cotton (2,339 bales).
In contrast, Lick Mountain township, in the extreme northern part of the county, contained only five slaves and produced just twenty-five and one-half bales of cotton in the reported year. On their small plots of land, the hill farmers primarily grew corn to become the corn pone, hominy, and cornmeal mush that graced their tables, and to feed their livestock, which provided some animal protein. The average wealth per head of household in Lick Mountain was only one-fifth of that in Wellborn. The settlers hailed from small farms of the hilly upper-south states; 60 percent came from Tennessee alone. Although Tennessee provided the largest number of settlers to Wellborn township (19.8 percent), settlers there came from a wider arc of states stretching from Virginia to the south and west.
Anchoring these widely varying landscapes were the county's only two incorporated towns in 1860. Lewisburg, on the Arkansas River near present-day Morrilton, had the reputation in the 1840s as a hard-drinking and violent frontier outpost that served as a stopping point for steamers passing between Little Rock and Fort Smith, on the edge of Indian Territory. Lewisburg became a market town and port for the cotton trade as it grew in the 1850s. On the eve of the Civil War, Lewisburg had seven stores (one constructed of brick, a first for the county), two hotels, a school, regular mail delivery, a temperance society, and a thin veneer of civilization. Near the geographic center of the county, the county seat, Springfield, served as the trading post for farmers in the northern hills. In 1860 it was little more than a clearing in the forest, with one combination store and hotel and a two-story frame courthouse. Rustic Springfield and bustling Lewisburg symbolized the different characters of Conway County.
On a casual thirty-minute drive today, one can pass from the mountainous Ozark National Forest in the northwest corner of the county to the fields of row crops alongside the Arkansas River, now mostly soybeans instead of cotton. Many residents make this trip daily to work in the factories in Morrilton. But by the beginning of the Civil War, this upland and lowland division in the county, as in Arkansas and the South in general, had produced two cultures that had little in common: the cotton planters along the Arkansas River and the poor but proud mountain farmers in their log cabins and dogtrot houses in the northern townships. The tension between the commercially oriented elite and the poor farmers that emerged in the earliest days of the county's history would ignite into violence periodically until the end of the century.
The gulf between planters and subsistence farmers became politicized in the secession crisis of 1860. Sectional conflict had only begun to emerge in Arkansas politics in the 1850s. As a frontier state, Arkansas had been dominated by a clique of prominent and interrelated Democratic families who held almost every elected state office before the Civil War. Most powerful of them all was the extended Conway family, for whom Conway County was named in 1826. Opposing the Conway-led Democratic Party were the rival Whigs, who drew their strength from the small market towns across the state and planter counties of the Mississippi Delta. Whig leaders on average were actually better educated and wealthier than Democratic ones. Before 1850, Arkansas politics were the politics of personalities, the personal rivalries between the aristocrats, rather than sectional or ideological battles.
That suddenly changed in 1850 with the national debate about the extension of slavery into the newly acquired Mexican territories. Arkansas's congressman, Robert W. Johnson, who had married into the Conway family, threatened the secession of Arkansas if slavery was not allowed in the new territories. Johnson's secessionist threats alienated Democrats in mountainous northern and western Arkansas, who had few economic ties to the slave system. His harsh rhetoric propelled the small farmers to defect from the Democratic Party and ally with the Whigs, who presented themselves as the party of the Union. The Democrats usually carried Conway County handily in the elections of the 1840s, but in the congressional vote in 1851, Johnson just barely defeated his Whig opponent, John Preston.
After the election, the secession issue quickly evaporated, and the old politics of family and personality returned. On the national level, the Whig Party died. Many former Whigs lent their support to the new American Party, better known as the Know Nothing Party, which organized in Arkansas in 1855. Nationally the Know Nothings held to an antiforeigner, anti-Catholic platform, but in Arkansas, where few citizens fell into either category, the party functioned as a continuation of the old Whig opposition to the Democratic Party. Whereas several national Know Nothing leaders took an antislavery position, in Conway County, the party was led by wealthy planters such as Henry Benedict and Robert H. Standlee, who each owned thousands of acres along the Arkansas River. The only political issue the county party singled out in its 1856 platform concerned the upholding of southern rights, hardly an issue of sectionalist opposition to the Democrats.
After the presidential election of November 6, 1860, sectionalism quickly emerged again, and in Conway County this meant the divergence of interests between planters and subsistence farmers. The race in Arkansas boiled down to a choice between the southern Democrat candidate from Kentucky, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell of Tennessee, who ran on the ticket of the Constitutional Union Party, a party of old-line Whigs who could not stomach the antislavery position of Lincoln's Republican Party. Lincoln did not even appear on the ballot in Arkansas. Breckinridge carried the state with 53 percent of the vote to Bell's 37 percent (with Stephen Douglas trailing a poor third with 10 percent).
The vote divided along the usual lines: Bell did well in the counties where Whigs formerly had their greatest strength, southern and eastern Arkansas planter counties, and Whiggish commercial centers such as Little Rock, Fort Smith, and Van Buren. Poor farmers in Arkansas voted for Breckinridge apparently out of traditional party loyalty rather than sectional or ideological interest. Breckinridge, the prosecession candidate, carried Conway County (by 549 to 326 over Bell) as well as most of the mountainous counties of northwest Arkansas.
But with the talk of secession that followed Lincoln's election, the upland and lowland interests quickly polarized into opposing camps, replacing the old Whig-Democrat division. By December the newly elected Democratic governor, Henry Rector, first cousin of former governor Elias Conway, and Robert Johnson, formerly the prosecession congressman who had now become a senator, led the calls for southern loyalty should secession come. The lowland counties of eastern Arkansas, which traditionally had held the core of Whig strength, began clamoring for a state convention to discuss secession. The hilly and largely slaveless counties of the northwest, which generally had gone for Breckinridge in November, emerged now as the center of antisecession sentiment.
Witli both lowland and upland regions, Conway County began to divide into competing secessionist and Unionist factions almost immediately. On December 15, citizens gathered for a public meeting at the courthouse in Springfield to discuss the secession crisis. Led by a committee of yeoman farmers and a lawyer, the meeting produced a set of pro-Union resolutions that were sent on to the state government in Little Rock and published in the Whiggish Arkansas Gazette. The resolutions deplored that "a sectional party" had elected Lincoln but held that the election was nonetheless constitutional. The leaders took a clear stand opposing secession and condemned fanaticism and the inflammatory speeches that were so arousing the public mind in both North and South. At least the majority of the citizens of Conway County at this public meeting resolved their support for the Union and their rights under the Constitution. However, one of these rights, their report concluded, was the right to own slaves.
Five days after the meeting, South Carolina seceded from the Union. In early January, a second meeting to discuss secession was held at the county seat. This meeting was dominated by planters, who held a different view. William L. Menifee, a wealthy planter who owned over 3,500 acres in the bottomlands, gave an eloquent address against northern aggression. While he spoke, an elected committee prepared a statement, which the meeting adopted and sent on to Little Rock's secessionist newspaper, the True Democrat. Declaring Lincoln's election an outrage to the South, the meeting resolved to support the sovereignty of the state and its right to secede from the Union and called for a state convention to elect delegates to a general convention of southern states. Should this convention fail to secure southern rights, the resolutions concluded, Arkansas should follow the other southern states in seceding from the Union.
The public meetings of December 15 and January 7, with two completely different sets of leaders, producing two contradictory sets of resolutions, indicate the political division that had taken place among the residents of Conway County in the wake of the 1860 election. At this point, opposing parties were still discussing their differences; for the next three decades, they would use force to settle their disagreements.
In a referendum in February, Arkansas voters showed similar ambivalence by calling for a convention to discuss secession but at the same time electing a majority of Unionist delegates to that convention. To become Conway County's delegate, the secessionist planter William Menifee ran against Samuel J. Stallings, a young Lewisburg physician who had been one of the leaders of the Unionist meeting in December. According to Stallings family lore, the two candidates met while campaigning in the countryside, had a "cussing fight," and hit each other with their walking sticks. Stallings won the election over Menifee by a three hundred vote majority. When the state convention assembled on March 4, 1861, the very day of Lincoln's inauguration, Unionists from hilly northern and western Arkansas stood practically united against secessionist delegates from the lowlands of eastern and southern Arkansas. With Stallings voting with the upland block, Unionists defeated the ordinance for secession. The convention made only one concession to secessionists before delegates returned home: a clause strongly opposing northern aggression against the six southern states that had already left the Union.
The firing at Fort Sumter and Lincoln's call to arms of all remaining states in the Union ran counter to the sense of the nonaggression clause just enacted in Arkansas. But after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Samuel Stallings, Conway County's representative, still privately opposed secession and even the recall of a convention to consider the issue. He did feel, however, that Arkansas should fight in self-defense if northern states committed acts of aggression. Like many other Arkansas Unionists, Stallings supported action in concert with the other border states. When the convention reassembled on May 6, the mood in Arkansas, as in most of the border states, had swung toward secession. By an overwhelming majority, secessionists defeated a motion supported by Stallings and Unionist delegates from nine other mountain counties to refer secession to the people, a last-ditch effort to delay the inevitable. Giving up, Stallings voted with the majority as the convention hastily took Arkansas out of the Union and into the Confederate States of America.
Even before Arkansas's secession became formalized, planters in Conway County began preparations for war. Under the leadership of George Carroll, the wealthiest plantation owner in the county, citizens of Wellborn township formed a vigilance committee in early May, perhaps anticipating conflict with their neighbors in the northern hills of the county, who obviously disagreed with them. Immediately after secession, a rebel army unit numbering 128 men and calling itself the Conway Mounted Rifles organized at Lewisburg, the center of Confederate support. Residents of the town and neighboring plantations gathered in Lewisburg for a rally at the Masonic hall to honor their men before they left for war. After an emotional speech by state senator G. W. Lemoyne and the singing of "A Soldier's Response to Dixie,"one reporter said not a dry eye was left in the crowd. Women of Lewisburg hurriedly sewed uniforms for the volunteers.
The men marched to Fort Smith, where they became organized as Company J of the First Arkansas Regiment. In the following June and July, the Tenth Arkansas Infantry organized at Springfield, with nine companies drawn primarily from Conway, Perry, and Van Buren Counties. Soon after muster into Confederate service, the regiment was ordered east of the Mississippi River, where it eventually fought in the great battle at Shiloh in the spring of 1862.
The men who raised these rebel outfits and became the officers were the planters and their sons in the lowland townships. However, poor white farmers, also primarily from the lowland townships, formed the bulk of the troops. One of the great questions that still remains is why landless white farmers would go to war to defend a system that did not benefit them. Perhaps they fought out of a sense of loyalty to the "big men" of the community or to the state and region. In any case, many poor whites throughout the South and in Conway County showed their allegiance to the Confederacy by serving in the rebel army. However, in the county's northern townships, further removed from the influence of lowland planters, outside the cotton economy, and isolated from a substantial slave population, white farmers showed much greater reluctance to fight against the Union. Like the mountain men of Appalachia, it seems these common hill folk most of all just wanted to be left alone.
Excerpted from Who Killed John Clayton? by Kenneth C. Barnes. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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