Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

A Beating in Fort Bend County

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on April 2, 2011

The other day a commenter dismissed my argument about the importance of interpreting the historical evidence, and making a critical assessment of each bit of documentation that bears on a particular subject. Practicing history, I had said, requires making careful judgments about the sources at hand. “I make no judgments on [sic.] way or the other. . . ,” my correspondent assured me, “I just present the historical fact.”

I thought about that little bit of self-deception this weekend when I came across two accounts of the beating of Captain William H. Rock (right), the Freedman’s Bureau Agent at Richmond, Texas, late on New Years’ Eve, 1868. Captain Rock was appointed to the bureau in June 1866, and in January 1867 was assigned to the office in Fort Bend County, west of Houston. Fort Bend lay at the heart of Anglo Texas, being part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony, and was later home to several of the state’s largest plantations. At the time of the 1860 U.S. Census, slaves outnumbered free persons in Fort Bend County, two-to-one. By 1870, the ratio of “colored” persons to all others in Fort Bend was more than three-to-one.

One of the particular difficulties in writing about the Texas and the South in the immediate postwar period is that much of the press at the time was highly partisan, with individual newspapers closely aligned with specific political parties and candidates. During Reconstruction, Texas papers were particularly divided over the threat, and even the actual existence, of the “Ku Kluxes.” Some, like the Houston Union and the Austin Republican, spoke out early and vehemently against the group, while others insisted they were a myth, and argued that the violence and intimidation attributed to them were actually the work of Radical Republican groups like the Loyal League.

So here’s your chance to wade into two very different accounts of the same incident, published in different newspapers. How would you assess these two accounts? What might make you question the reliability of one or the other, and why? What makes your Spidey Sense tingle? What questions do you have after reading these, and how would you address them?

From the Houston Union, January 8, 1869

OUTRAGE AT RICHMOND, TEXAS

The Ku Klux Rampant! They assault and attempt to assassinate Capt. Rock, Agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau. – They leave him for dead.

From Capt. W. H. Rock, who has been living at Richmond, Fort Bend County, and acting as agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau for that county, we learn the following particulars of a most cowardly and brutal assault upon him upon the night of the 1st of January. The Capt. was first attracted by a noise about his premises, and glancing out of the window of his private room discovered a number of white men about his house. He immediately went from his private room to his office adjoining.  On opening the door he was knocked down by an unprincipled negro [sic.] named Tom Sherrard, who he afterwards learned had been employed by the Ku Klux to do the deed. After knocking the Capt. down, a couple of the Klan filed into the room, and standing between a colored man who had come to the Capt.’s rescue and the prostrate Capt., permitted the black ruffian to kick and beat him until it was supposed life was extinct. The names of the white men so far as known to Capt. Rock, who participated in this brutal assault upon a representative of the United States Government, are James McGarvey, Joe Johnson, and the Sheriff of the county, one J. W. Miles. The two former, with drawn six shooters, prevented aid from Capt. Rock’s friends, while the latter was heard to remark as they left the house, “it was well done,” supposing, of course, that Capt. Rock was dead. Life, however, was not extinct, and after departure of the murderous crew, his friends succeeded in caring for, and restoring him. Knowing that if it was found out he was alive, they would return, Capt. Rock secreted himself in a neighboring hen-coop, where he remained until next morning, when he made complaint to the chief justice of the county, but perceiving the signs about him and the information brought to him by trusty colored men, that his life would pay the forfeit of an appearance against the parties, Capt. R. concluded to leave the place. Accordingly, Saturday night  he secreted himself in the cabin of a friendly colored man, where he remained until Sunday night. In the meantime, the country round about was scoured, and every negro cabin entered and searched, but in vain. His hiding place was secure. While this secreted, word came to him that Capt. Bass, the County Assessor and Collector had made threats to shoot him on sight. Sunday night the 3d., he started to get across the Brazos. Monday night found him across, but without means to getting to Houston some thirty miles away., as the colored people in the whole neighborhood had been visited and their lived threatened if they gave him any assistance in escaping. Monday and Tuesday thus passed away, and as good luck would have it, a horse was procured and after riding all night the Capt., arrived safely in Houston covered with mud and disfigured and sore by bruises.

We are assured by Capt. Rock that the above statement is a true narrative of this great outrage and that it can all be sustained in a court of justice, or before a military commission. The colored men who all know the facts of the case, would not dare to testify in any court at Richmond without the presence of troops. One of them, expressing sympathy for Capt. Rock, was most cruelly beaten, and subsequently, at night, taken from his cabin and beaten until he was supposed to be dead, after which, tieing [sic.] a rope about his neck, he was dragged to an out of the way corner and left for dead.

Other outrages have been committed recently in this delectable town. Last Sunday a band of young rowdies went to the church where the colored people were holding [a] religious meeting, and literally drove them out, and broke up the meeting.

The teacher of the colored school in Richmond, has been driven away, and violence and treason stalks abroad in all its hideous deformity.

This is a terrible picture, and we shall be denounced for exposing it to the public; but the truth is not half told. In truth, there is not a loyal man in the town of Richmond. As an example, a prominent merchant there, named Greenwood, and the express agent, one Albertson, openly avowed they would spend their money freely to prevent the hired ruffian, Sherrard, from being brought to justice. We call upon the managers of the Express Company in this city to remove this man, who thus, by his means and influence, encourages the commission of outrages upon representatives of the Government.

Capt. Rock has often signified to the commanding General the necessity of stationing troops at Richmond. He has for a long time been cognizant of the disloyal disposition of the people there, and knew that as soon as the Bureau was discontinued the rights of the colored people would be utterly ignored, which he now informs us is the case. They are intimidated, brow beaten and worried, and unless a stop is put to it, a fearful outbreak ere long will be the consequence.

An official report of the state of affairs in Fort Bend county will be made by Capt. Rock to Gen. Canby, and we hope and trust the latter will send sufficient troops there to bring all concerned in this affair to justice, as well as protect the loyal men of the county from the malignant persecutions of the Ku-Klux cut throats.

The town where public sentiment permits such outrages as narrated above, should be put under military government and kept there until its return to good behavior makes it safe to remove it.

A week later, on January 16, 1869, Flake’s Bulletin in Galveston published a rebuttal signed by prominent members of the Richmond community, including two men implicated in the previous article, Sheriff J. W. Miles and Express Agent William H. Albertson:

ATTACK ON THE FREEDMEN’S BUREAU AGENT AT RICHMOND.

Special to Flake’s Bulletin.

Houston, Jan. 7 – Capt. Rock, lately in charge of the Freedmen’s Bureau at Richmond, has just arrived in this city, having ridden from that place last night, in order to escape the pursuit of a band of desperadoes in that county. – He was attacked, badly beaten, and was left for dead. His present appearance is sufficient evidence of the treatment to which he was exposed. The outrage occurred on the night of the 31st ult. and the 1st. inst. The majority of citizens deplore the act, and assisted the Captain to escape.

Flake’s Bulletin, Jan. 8.

We desire to speak in defence of our county, and give a truthful account of the subject in the above extract.

Capt. Wm. H. Rock, Sub-Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, lived in this county for about two and a half years, and during that time was regarded with favor by nearly all the citizens. Several decisions of his bore heavily with some, but they, as well as the public, were charitable enough to attribute the same to the evil machinations of the “ardent,” instead of any ill feeling that the Captain possessed; and towards the close of his administration it was often remarked that he had made about as good an officer of the kind as we probably could have gotten. Many regretted that his office compelled one who seemed so much a gentleman to associate with freedmen to the exclusion of whites.

Well, the Bureau collapsed, and when Captain Rock became free – no longer obedient to his masters – it was expected that he would assert his rights, and fully justify the good opinion that had been formed of him; but his actions on the event proved most conclusively that his just, and even willing disposition to deal fairly with the whites was caused alone from fear, and that the “nigger” was in him from the first, but for that aforesaid fear. Now comes the cause for which this Sabraite was forced to flee the land, as alleged above. During Christmas week Capt. Rock, having no further use for an office, converted his establishment into a ball room, and darkey maidens, accompanied by African beaux, held nightly revels to sweet sounds of music. It was at one of these lovely affairs that Tom Sherrod, a very worthy freedman, attended – not, however, without an invitation from “Captain and Mrs. Rock,” in writing. This last personage, a dark and bony [bonny?] Venus, formerly the property of one of our citizens. Previous to the time, Capt. R. had insulted the wife of Tom, yet he (Tom) went to the ball, was ordered out, and it is reported that Capt. R. drew upon his a double-barreled gun, and that Tom was acting in self-defense.

This may be so or not; certes that Tom demolished the valiant captain in the presence of the whole party. Now we firmly believe that no jury in the United States would have convicted this boy Tom, or any other man, for chastising the brute who insulted his wife, even had the charge been murder instead of simply assault.

Upon the following day Captain R. made an affidavit that Tom had assaulted him with brass knuckles, and a warrant was issued for his arrest; in the mean time a distress warrant was issued, and Capt. Rock’s furniture, etc., was attached for house rent, and he left in charge of same – not being able to vacate on account of the wounds from which he was still suffering. That night, though, the attached articles were conveyed, under cover of darkness, to some unknown place, and the captain ditto, no one knows where, and few except his creditors care. He leaves many debts behind, due to both whites and blacks. The latter he deceived by telling them he was going to Austin after troops, while the former knew he was making tracks from the countless hundreds of dollars which were pressing him.

This is but a meagre account of all the acts of Captain Rock in this place, and we would have preferred his departure from our midst in silence, and would have done so except for the flagrant falsehoods contained in the above extract.

Since writing the above we learn that the freedman Tom was arrested and tried yesterday, and was fined ten dollars and costs.

C. H. Kendall, D. C. Hinkle, J. W. Miles, W. C. Hunter, Geo. O. Schley, E. Ryan, G. W. Pleasants, S. R. Walker, Ed. D. Ryan, W. Andrus, T. J. Smith, G. F’ Cook, J. P. Marshall, H. L. Somerville, R. F. Hill, B. W. Bell, G. M. Cathey, J. T. Holt, Chas. C. Bass, Alex Curr, Wm. Ryon, W. K. Davis, J. H. Hand, N. G. Davis, S. Mayblum, H. Jenkins, W. H. Albertson.

The statement of the foregoing extract is not true.

W. E. Kendall, B. F. Atkins

Why did not Captain Rock pay me his board bill, and settle with the Union League for money of theirs that he used for his own purposes?

W. P. Huff, Member Union League, Fort Bend Co.

______________

Image: The Freedmen’s Bureau at Memphis, c. 1868. William H. ROck CDV portrait via Cowan’s Auctions.

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16 Responses

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  1. corkingiron said, on April 3, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Question: What’s a Sabraite? The only use of Sabra with which I’m familiar refers to a native-born Israeli – post 1948. It’s clearly a pejorative – and its usage without explanation makes me assume the writers expected the readers to be familiar with it.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 3, 2011 at 10:08 am

      I couldn’t find it, either.

      • Nora Carrington said, on April 3, 2011 at 4:50 pm

        I’m guessing it’s a typo for “Satyrite;” first google definition is “a man with strong sexual desire.”

        • Andy Hall said, on April 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm

          Thanks. That completely fits the context.

        • Nora Carrington said, on April 3, 2011 at 4:52 pm

          slight correction: that’s the first google def for “satyr,” but adding “-ite” to a noun is a common enough way to emphasize, or emphasize the “noun-ness” of something.

  2. corkingiron said, on April 3, 2011 at 10:37 am

    You mention your correspondent’s claim to “just present the historical fact”. How one could claim to do that without a judicious assessment of the sources escapes me. With the examples you’ve provided, the only agreed-upon “fact” is that somebody got beaten up on New Year’s Eve in Texas. Hardly noteworthy, then or now.

    Given but two sources, my inclination would be to take the Houston Union’s account as the more reliable of the two – tho’ the jury is still out. Its sole source is Captain Rock himself – and that could be problematic. Its call for the stationing of more Federal troops would hardly have endeared it to most Texans – although in the immediate aftermath of the ACW, the presence of a Federal payroll may have been welcomed. Yet it does present certain “facts” that may well be verified from other sources; namely the driving out of the school-teacher, and the behaviour of the express agents. Its account of the terrorizing of the local black population also accords with numerous other sources about the efforts of white vigilantes to intimidate newly-freed blacks.

    Flake’s Bulletin (aren’t you tempted to steal that name for a blog name?) just has too many dog whistles to be relied upon. They make it clear that Rock is a “nigger-lover”; duskey maidens and African beaus! And with his wife present! Oh my! He is the race traitor, siding with the black population against his own. He’s also – apparently – a deadbeat. It has all the stink of a carefully contrived slander.

    Still, I have questions. Did Mrs. Rock (was there one?) leave an account? Did Captain Rock flee for his life and leave her behind? If so, did she have a place of refuge in Richmond?

    Can the claim that “freedman Tom” was tried and punished be verified from court records? Do we know who paid the fine? Was there any subsequent military investigation? And curiously, what was meant by the phrase “Well the Bureau collapsed and… Captain Rock became free”?

    Thanks Andy! I enjoy this stuff!

    • Andy Hall said, on April 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm

      I believe “Mrs. Rock” (note that it’s in quotes in the original news item) refers to the “dark and bony Venus,” and that she and Rock were not actually married, though they allegedly presented themselves that way.

      That is to say, the writer is alleging an arrangement of adulterous miscegenation.

      There is another short news item that I did not reproduce, claiming to be an affidavit from Tom Sherrard (a.k.a. Tom Ross), in which he repeats the same sequence of events in the Flake’s Bulletin story. It is accompanied by a an affidavit from the presiding judge, affirming Sherrard/Ross’ conviction and $10 fine. Given that the leading white citizens of Richmond signed the Flake’s Bulletin account, including the sheriff (whom Rock alleged was one of the organizers of the assault), it seems an open question to me how worthwhile such “independent” corroboration actually is.

      Flake’s Bulletin actually is a great name for a blog, and if I were to do one specifically focusing on Galveston, I’d be inclined to adopt it. 😉 Ferdinand Flake was a German immigrant who ran a German-language paper here before the war. He was a strong Unionist, before and during the conflict. After the war he published the Bulletin, which seems to have taken a more middling view of Klan activities than some other, rabidly-Democratic papers. Flake’s approach, as nearly as I can tell, was to condemn groups like the Klan in the abstract, but continually cast doubt on specific claims about their actual existence or activities and, as here, show a willingness to print refutations of allegations against them.

      I don’t know about some of your other questions, sorry. I only came across these accounts this weekend, and haven’t had a chance to follow up. They seemed a good illustration of the challenge of reconciling very different accounts.

  3. Dennis said, on April 3, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    Like all people with a totally misleading agenda (i.e. lie’s to uphold) the person making the claim that they only view the historical record with total neutrality because no one can judge which competing account the different reporters made are in fact, accurate, is impossible to know today – what a ludicrous and utterly false statement!

    First, there is a monstrous backlog of historical documents that provide vital context but lazy people (me!) need not apply, here. Liars know that 99%+ people would never have been well read enough on the subject to distinguish between sources. Next, they fully know that most historical accounts did have bias and often Southern – hence, their agenda has already been established and all they need to do is maintain the lies and mis-information as legit. Also, they must attack and undermine anyone known to seek facts that are supported – these are the true enemies (uh, people like you) of historical fiction (people like them.)

    Ignorance (common for layman on so much of the details) is their friend and at all cost they must preserve that state for general readers – for anyone to reexamine historical documents of first hand accounts and then cross-reference and certifying various sources in proper context using a board range of certified sources will lead to the average person agreeing with the correct interpretation rather than the false myth that they know has been carefully nourished over the decades by Southern sympathizer.

    These people are the enemies of truth, knowledge and education – that is, they are perfect confederate sympathizers in the classical sense of the word.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 3, 2011 at 7:15 pm

      Dennis, thanks for taking time to comment.

      What are your thoughts on the two accounts of the assault on Captain Rock? Just going by these two documents, do you see anything that leads you to give credence to one over the other, or something that’s unintentionally revealing about the author?

  4. Jim Schmidt said, on April 4, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Andy – thanks for a great post and to the commentors for a great follow-up thread…thanks esp. for the add’l info on Flake…my understanding was indeed that he had Unionist sentiment…weren;t his newspaper offices destroyed by a mob in late 1860/early 1861?

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2011 at 9:49 am

      Yes, Flake’s office was destroyed by a mob. I don’t know if he knew of those plans specifically, or just generally had a sense of the danger he was in, but he’d stashed a press and type at his home, and was able to continue printing in at least a limited way. The mob’s actions were widely condemned, even by newspapers that were pro-secession, and Flake managed to keep his skin by virtue of his long standing int he community and the many connections he had among prominent people in and out of public office.

      Though he was a Unionist, he was also reportedly a slaveholder, although I couldn’t confirm that in the 1860 slave schedules. (Anton Flake, his brother, I think, was a slaveowner for sure.) He published Flake’s Bulletin after the war, and it was a successful enterprise. Regarding his editorial treatment of the Klan and Reconstruction, I suspect he was caught in a bad spot, and tried walk a fine line between opposing public sentiment. He’s not exactly a profile in courage on the subject; while he condemns the idea of and reported tactics of the group, he also routinely discounts or casts doubts on specific claims about them. It’s easy (and cheap) to condemn something in the abstract, while taking a “who’s-to-say?” approach to the particular.

  5. Daniel R. Weinfeld said, on April 4, 2011 at 10:57 am

    This is fascinating. The “scenario” presented in Flake’s Bulletin conforms exactly with the same rationalizations/accusations made by Regulators at other times and places to justify assaults on Bureau officers and Republican officials in the South. For example, 140 years ago, yesterday, John Q. Dickinson, Freedmen’s Bureau officer and Republican-appointed clerk of court in Jackson Co, FL was assissinated in Marianna, FL (the panhandle). In the “investigation” conducted by the county judge, as reported by FL Democratic newspapers, allegations were made that (1) the assassin was a black man, who (2) was jealous over an alleged affair between Dickinson and a black woman and (3) that Dickinson had swindeled local land owners out of their property at tax auctions. Otherwise, the papers asserted, Dickinson had been respected by his white neighbors! All this slander was vigorously denied by Dickinson’s friends and the Republican press. My research shows that Dickinson was without a doubt assassinated by Regulators waiting in ambush. The black man involved was likely hired by the Regulators as a lookout. Dickinson’s “offense” was his political activity as a Republican and his defense of voting and civil rights for African Americans.

    It’s almost like the Regulators had a check list they passed around: implicate African American in committing the assault – check; accuse victim of sexually consorting with blacks – check; then allege financial improprieties by victim – check. In this context, my vote goes with account in the Houston Union. I’m also guessing that examination of the Democratic press over the previous two years would show that Capt. Rock was not so completely loved by local whites as Flake’s pretends, and that local whites had made insinuations about his conduct or partiality to blacks in the past. It would also be revealing to read Rock’s montly Bureau reports to get his impression of how he was received and treated in his district.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2011 at 11:11 am

      Thanks very much for this. Here’s the link:

      http://www.thejacksoncountywar.com/

      Even without the context of claims made in other assaults and murders, it’s immediately apparent that the account in Flake’s Bulletin goes far beyond presenting an alternative description of the assault on Captain Rock, and focuses heavily on condemning Rock’s character generally, hitting exactly the points that would inflame white opinion in that time and place.


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