Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

George Hatton’s Long Road

Posted in African Americans, Leadership, Memory by Andy Hall on March 9, 2011

(This material originally appeared in January as a guest post on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at The Atlantic. It originated with Coates posting a wartime letter of Hatton’s, and quickly became an exercise among followers of the blog in crowd-sourcing historical/genealogical research about Hatton himself. Special thanks goes to regular Golden Horde commenter KewHall, who found and shared critical mentions of Hatton that opened up the research on the latter parts of Hatton’s life. First installment here. Second installment here.)

St. Paul United Methodist Church in Paris, Kentucky. Lexington District, Kentucky Annual Conference, United Methodist Church

After the 1872 presidential election, in which he’d been one of Horace Greeley’s most prominent African American supporters, Hatton remained active in veterans affairs and as a speaker at reunions and gatherings. He was also rising in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Sometime in the 1870s he relocated with his family to Paris, Kentucky, where he led the St. Paul M. E. Church, a congregation that still exists. It is believed to be the oldest African American Methodist church in Kentucky, the building having been constructed sometime between 1870 and 1876. By the 1880 Census, George and Frances had a daughter Mary, age 11.

Though he was a long way from his old homes in Maryland and Washington, D.C., the old soldier remained a leader in his new community. A local black man, William Giles, was charged with shooting and attempting to kill another man. The case was heard and dismissed by the local court, but soon after Giles found himself re-indicted and put on the docket to be tried by the circuit court. A group of black citizens, led by George Hatton, protested this move on the grounds that the indicting grand jury contained no black members, saying this violated the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The circuit judge overruled their objection, but allowed the case to be transferred to federal court, where Giles and his supporters believed he would get a fairer hearing. This event led to the formation of one of Kentucky’s early civil rights organizations, the Bourbon County Protective Union of Color, with Reverend Hatton as its first president.

There is, however, evidence that late in the decade Rev. Hatton fell into a decline, possibly as a result of alcoholism. The Maysville, Kentucky Evening Bulletin noted in March 1892 that “Rev. G.W. Hatton, the colored preacher and politician who entertained Maysville Republicans several times during the campaign of 1888, is in custody at Louisville charged with grand larceny. He seems to have “fallen from grace.” He was fined $20 not long since for trying to kiss an old white woman, and the Courier-Journal says he has been in court on several occasions of late charged with drunkenness.” Hatton’s fall continued, as mentioned in another Evening Bulletin notice two years later, in the fall of 1894:

George W. Hatton, the colored preacher and politician, attempted suicide at Winchester this week by taking morphine. His church had dismissed him and he was despondent. The Republicans of this district ought to have given him a job to help Judge Pugh out. They had him here a few years ago, making speeches for Major Burchett.

The outcome of these court cases is not known. But despite his personal struggles, Hatton continued to campaign for candidates and important legislation, and his skills as an orator remained intact. An 1892 article from the Indianapolis, Indiana Freeman, under the title, “The Negro Tariff Reformers,” gives a glimpse of Hatton’s stump speech style:

George W. Hatton made the speech of the evening. He is from Paris, Ky, and has a voice that had no trouble being heard. His talk was spiced with humorous anecdotes and stories which frequently raised his audience to frantic applause. He drew a comparison for the two parties as follows: “The Republican party, if it never does another thing for our race, pulled us out of the cabin and said, ‘G’long up the road.’ The Democratic party yelled: ‘Stop that air, nigger,’ and they’ve been yelling it ever since.”

When he concluded the audience sang “John Brown’s Body Lies a-Mouldering in the Grave,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and others until the speaking resumed.

From the mid-1890s forward, there are very few references for George Hatton. In a July 1892 listing of employees of the Treasury Department, Hatton is listed as being employed at the Lousiville Customs House as a janitor, with an $800 annual salary.

It appears that George and Frances Hatton returned to Maryland sometime after 1894. George would have been well into his fifties by this time. But he still remained active in politics; an 1898 notice in the Washington Bee newspaper listed Hatton among the speakers at a Republican rally in Forestville, Maryland, which had been his home almost forty years previously.

There is a notation in a 1902 Daughters of the American Revolution magazine that one of that organization’s officers was approached by “an old colored man” named George W. Hatton, of Rosecroft on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, who donated to the group a small set of very old newspapers dating to the period around 1800. According the note, the man “had heard much of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and said he had had in his possession when a slave and for forty-nine years some old newspapers which he wished, out of patriotism, to present. Of course, your committee realized his sole dependence for support was his pension. Therefore, there was slight embarrassment in accepting his gift until Mrs. Jay Osborne Moss, of Sandusky. Ohio, by a most generous donation to the old soldier, made these papers our property.” (This quote is the only reference I’ve found to Hatton having been enslaved, and it may be an assumption on the part of the writer.) Perhaps as a result of this encounter, Hatton was granted an increase in his pension by Congress that same year, to $24 per month. A similar bill (HR13832) was introduced in Congress in 1914, although the final status of that bill is not clear. It appears that Hatton died that year, as Frances applied for a widow’s pension on June 15, 1914.

In George W. Hatton’s story, we can see something of the arc followed by many African Americans through the Civil War and the decades that followed. Certainly Hatton had exceptional qualities of physical courage, as when he dared the Washington police to shoot him in front of the recruiting office in 1863, along with moral courage, and a remarkable gift of language and rhetoric that few in his day had, regardless of their education or background. He had his weaknesses, as well. His years spanned violent and politically churning times — the most turbulent in our history, in fact — and made himself a a part of them. He didn’t just live through those days of secession, Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; in his own way, he helped shape them.

Solider. City councilman. Political campaigner. Clergyman. Civil rights leader. He lived a life.