Civil War guerrilla earns reputation for brutality

Published on Sunday, 15 December 2013 23:07 - Written by EMILY GUEVARA

Almost 150 years ago, a triple hanging took place in a small grove of trees off West Erwin Street near its intersection with Confederate Avenue.

Although largely forgotten, the incident shed light on the violence going on at the time and how the Civil War played out on the local landscape.

It was the 1860s and “Texas began to shape its image as a haven for outlaws, gunmen and desperadoes,” according to the book, “A Civil War Tragedy: Quantrill’s Guerillas and the 1864 Triple Hanging in Tyler, Texas.”

William Clarke Quantrill was a Civil War guerrilla leader who came to Texas in 1863 in part to winter here, but also to escape payback for several of his previous attacks, according to The Handbook of Texas online.

The man had earned quite a reputation for brutality. In August 1863, he and his posse looted Lawrence, Kan., shooting about 180 men and boys in the process, according to the online handbook.

While on their way to Texas, they attacked and killed 80 men and wounded 18 in the Baxter Springs (Kansas) Massacre. He and his men murdered many people after they surrendered, according to the handbook.

Still, the man managed to make friends when he came to this state, partly because he provided defense and protection for some communities. He and his men possibly acted as police against cattle thieves.

In addition, “with Confederate deserters, as well as conscription dodgers, hiding in the thickets of northern East Texas and often preying on people, Quantrill’s arrival was welcomed in some communities because they hoped his presence would bring peace to the region,” according to “A Civil War Tragedy.”

He is credited with preventing violence on some occasions, such as when he and his men ended a “near-riot of county ‘war widows’ who were convinced the Confederate commissary in Sherman was withholding” the good stuff from them, such as coffee, tea and sugar, according to the online handbook.

But where the story of Quantrill ties with Tyler starts with the murder of John Lackey.

Lackey was at home one day in 1863 when brothers from the Calhoun family, believed to be associates of Quantrill, came to his house in Millwood in Collin County and demanded his money.

When he said he had none, they tortured him. And when Lackey still denied having money, they ransacked his house, killed him in front of his wife and abused her, according to “A Civil War Tragedy.”

One of Lackey’s neighbors, James McReynolds, a former Collin County chief justice, convinced the county sheriff that the Calhoun brothers committed the crime.

Sheriff James Read investigated it, found it to be true and learned that the brothers planned to kill “old man McReynolds” next. So, instead of waiting for the killing to happen, Read acted first.

On Dec. 29, 1963, he and a group of trusted men followed the Calhoun brothers and killed two of them. A third one escaped and a fourth apparently wasn’t involved, according to “A Civil War Tragedy.”

More than a month later, Read was arrested on murder charges. However, at the trial he was found not guilty of killing David and James Calhoun.

That didn’t stop associates of the Calhouns from fighting back. A group of raiders came into McKinney and engaged in a half-day gun battle with Read, McReynolds and their allies, according to “A Civil War Tragedy.”

It was during this fight that Read and McReynolds escaped, and with Read’s family, fled to Four Mile Prairie, a settlement west of Canton, according to the book.

While there, they were seized by “enrollers,” Van Zandt County and Henderson County men who tracked down Confederate deserters, absentees from the war and “jayhawkers,” also described as “freebooting guerrillas,” according to the book.

The enrollers also took Joseph E. Holcomb, Read’s brother-in-law.

After being brought before several Confederate and county officials, the men were brought to enrolling official James M. Taylor in Tyler.

Taylor told them to take the men to Camp Ford for the night and come back in the morning so he could inspect their papers.

The next day, Taylor found that the men weren’t “subject to military arrest in the first place” nor to conscription as soldiers in the Confederate Army, according to “A Civil War Tragedy.”

He said if they were guilty of any civil offense, they should be handed over to civil authorities, according to the book.

A crowd reportedly stormed the enrollment office building that afternoon demanding the men.

When they got them, they tied them up, carried them downstairs and left the Tyler square headed west toward Canton.

They had four men — Read, McReynolds, Holcomb and Jeff Davis, who also had been arrested.

The mob stopped less than a mile down the road near the intersection of West Erwin Street and Confederate Avenue.

There, they conducted a mock trial where they asked the men to plead guilty or not guilty.

They then hung Read, McReynolds and Holcomb, but let Davis go after a man in the crowd vouched for his Army service and said he wasn’t associated with the other three.