This Day in Texas History: Stockade Case Trial Commences
This Day in Texas History:
Stockade Case Trial Commences
May 24, 1869
On this day in 1869, twenty-four defendants went on trial in the celebrated Stockade Case, which refers to the incarceration of thirty-five or thirty-six civilian defendants in a military prison at Jefferson in late 1868 and 1869 and the subsequent trial of twenty-four before a military commission. The case was the result of events that occurred on the night of October 4, 1868.
On the previous night, George W. Smith, the Marion County delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1868–69, and four black men were incarcerated in the Jefferson city jail after a Republican meeting, which ended in gunfire. Smith was shot at by four men, including Col. Richard P. Crump, a leading citizen of Jefferson, at a black cabin. Smith then fired his gun and injured two of the four men. He sought protection from the army post, but Maj. James Curtis allowed the civil authorities, including Crump, to take custody of Smith on the charge of assault after they promised he would be safe.
On October 4 an armed group of an estimated seventy to 100 hooded men overpowered the civilian and military guard, and, unable to dislodge Smith from his cell, shot him through the windows. The four black men were taken into the woods, where two of them, Lewis Grant and Richard Stewart, were killed, and the other two, Anderson Wright and Cornelius Turner, escaped. Although Wright had been wounded in the escape, he and the other man eluded recapture and left the county, but both were later found and brought back to testify at the trial.
The military began an investigation of the slaying and made the first four arrests on December 5, 1868. They had planned to arrest five men that day, but William P. Saufley, grand commander of the Knights of the Rising Sun, the white supremacy group thought responsible for the slayings, had left town. Although the Democratic newspapers claimed that Saufley had left on a business trip and knew nothing of the planned arrests, he traveled first to the Cherokee Indian Nation and then to New York, returning only after the trial had ended and federal authorities had given up their efforts to apprehend him.
By early April 1869 about thirty-five men had been arrested. Of these thirty-five, twenty-four were actually brought to trial. As preparations for the trial began, two of the men accused turned state’s evidence. Their testimony implicated Hinche P. Mabry, who was at the time serving as one of the defense attorneys. Mabry, learning of the testimony, fled to Canada, thereby avoiding arrest.
Conservative elements, which included most white citizens of Marion County, were outraged by the military’s activities. Two attorneys for the defendants, John Burke and Benjamin H. Epperson, went to Washington to request of John M. Schofield, the secretary of war, that the defendants be turned over to the civil courts for trial. Robert W. Loughery, editor of both the Jefferson Times and the Marshall Texas Republican, mounted an attack by circular to newspapers in both Texas and other states, complaining about the military’s refusal to turn the case over to civilian courts or to release the prisoners on bail. Loughery’s circular was sent to President Andrew Johnson, who sent it to the War Department and general-in-chief, asking for a full report.
Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds, commander of the troops in Texas, asked for and obtained permission to publish a circular containing both Loughery’s circular and his reply. His superiors endorsed his activities and approved his request to publish the materials. Reynolds gave a brief description of the events leading up to the murders and pointed out that the civilian authorities, who were now asking for the right to try the case, were the same ones who had assured the military that George W. Smith would be safe in their hands and receive a prompt and impartial trial in the civil courts. He also stated that one of the charges against the defendants arose from their overpowering of the United States soldiers who guarded the men, which was a federal offense that could not be tried in state courts. Finally, he wrote that he refused to release any of the defendants on bail because a number of those accused had fled the area to escape arrest, and those in custody were charged with murder. He cited in his defense the state law prohibiting bail in murder cases when “the proof is evident or the presumption is great.”
The trial finally began on May 24, 1869. A total of 176 witnesses were heard in what one historian has described as a tortuous session, during which one of the military judges was arrested and another was withdrawn from the bench for acting more as a prosecutor than as a judge. Testimony began on May 26 and lasted for seventy-one days, ending on August 9. The verdict was delivered on August 23, 1869.
The commission found three men, Ludwig P. Alford, George Gray, and Oscar Gray, guilty of murder and of overpowering a military guard and related Reconstruction violations. Alford and three others, Charles L. Pitcher, Mathew D. Taylor, and John A. Richardson, were found guilty of a lesser charge of threatening the life of Judge Colbert Caldwell. All the other prisoners were found not guilty and discharged. Richardson, Taylor, and Pitcher were pardoned by President Grant soon after the trial. All six men who were convicted may have served time briefly at the penitentiary.