Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Did the Match Help Cause the Civil War?

When I was in graduate school at the University of North Texas, one of my professors told us about the 1860 Texas “slave insurrections.” The event was one that I had never heard of before, and I have been curious about it ever since. Recently I read a book by Dr. Donald E. Reynolds titled Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic Of 1860 And The Secession Of The Lower South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007). It is a fascinating read that highlights the great fears that white southerners held in regard to the Republican Party in the months leading up to the 1860 presidential election.

On July 8, 1860, as the temperature soared above 100 degrees, a series of fires caused extensive business property damage in Dallas, Denton, Pilot Point, Milford and several other north Texas communities. Initially blamed on the combination of unstable phosphorous matches that were in many of the businesses and high temperatures, Texans soon developed another theory; slaves had intentionally set the fires as part of a revolt. Newspapers were soon full of stories chronicling the alleged plot as slaves were suspected of arson and attempted poisonings. Vigilante committees formed in a number of Texas communities as suspected abolitionists were questioned about their alleged role in the “conspiracy.” All of this led to many unfortunate consequences: at least thirty slaves and “abolitionists” were hanged, some northerners were run out of the state, and every slave in Dallas County was ordered to be whipped.

Against this backdrop, the 1860 presidential campaign, perhaps the most pivotal in American history, was unfolding. The Texas “slave insurrections” served to intensify fears of the Republican Party and provided important momentum for the secessionist movement following the election of Abraham Lincoln.

Was there really a slave insurrection in the summer of 1860? According to Reynolds, “the total absence of any convincing evidence that there was a plot, together with much circumstantial evidence and testimony indicating that none existed, strongly suggests that there was no conspiracy” (p. 214). Therefore, it is entirely possible that the incident was indeed started by the lowly “prairie match.”

Reynolds’ book is one of the most interesting that I have read in recent years and is full of many intriguing episodes. There is much food for thought about the role of journalism, the causes of mass hysteria, and many other topics in his extremely well researched book.

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