The night Brenham went up in flames


On Sept. 26, 1866, a special joint committee of the Texas House and Senate submitted its official report on the recent tragedy in Brenham to the governor.

Brenham was spared the hard times that the Civil War brought to communities across the South. On the contrary, the town today best known for the Blue Bell creamery experienced an economic boom and population surge that transformed it into the largest and most prosperous in the Confederacy’s westernmost state.

In July 1866, three months after the Appomattox surrender marked the end of the North-South carnage, Gen. Philip Sheridan sent 300 troops to Washington County. The fact that every soldier was a freed slave made a bad situation even more volatile.

To be clear, conquered ex-Confederates would have resented any post-war occupation. To have it imposed by black troops was, however, more than they could be expected to bear. But with white veterans returning to civilian life, the Union army had no choice but to recruit untrained black replacements. That is why it is the white officers who must be held responsible for their actions.

In Brenham, that was Brevet Major George W. Smith, who delegated command of the Freedmen’s Bureau to Capt. Samuel A. Craig. These two “birds of a feather” were intent on punishing the white residents for their treason while protecting the new rights of their black neighbors.

As soon as he set up camp on the edge of town, Major Smith imposed a strict martial law and stripped his sullen subjects of most of their few remaining legal rights. Strangely, he did permit the local newspaper to continue publication with comparatively little censorship, which proved to be, at least from his point of view, a serious mistake.

The owner and editor of the Southern Banner was “Uncle Dan’l” McGary, an “unreconstructed Reb” who wore his old gray uniform wherever he went. Emblazoned on the masthead of his paper were the Stars and Bars and a Confederate soldier. The firebrand’s subscription rates were “$3 a year to loyal Southern whites and $6 a year to Yankees, carpetbaggers, scalawags and such ilk.”

Defiant “Uncle Dan’l” took immense pleasure in raking the uninvited visitors over the coals in each issue of the Southern Banner, and his readers loved him for it. They could not get enough of his scathing yet humorous criticism that declared in bold print what they dared only discuss in the privacy of their homes.

By early August 1866, Capt. Smith had had enough of the barrage of barbs from McGary. With Sheridan’s approval and the backing of Craig, he had the newspaperman arrested. After paying a small fine for “false accusations” and “persistent abuse” of the Freedmen’s Bureau, “Uncle Dan’l” was released from custody.

Capt. Craig returned from a trip on Aug. 20 to find he had been evicted from his office in the county courthouse, the Freedmen’s Bureau sign removed from the premises and the contents strewn in the street. Although he had no proof of McGary’s involvement, the infuriated officer threw him back in jail anyway.

And there “Uncle Dan’l” would have stayed if it had not been for the new governor, James W. Throckmorton. Rather than bother with “Little Phil,” the nickname Sheridan hated, he went straight to the White House with an appeal for the publisher’s freedom. President Andrew Johnson did not procrastinate and ordered Sheridan to cut him loose.

The townspeople rejoiced while Major Smith brooded over the loss of face and how to reassert his authority. Brenham was a powder keg with a short fuse needing just a spark to ignite it.

Four days later on Fri., Sept. 7, a group of drunken soldiers broke up a black charity ball and then barged into a whites-only dance. Punches were thrown followed by a short exchange of gunfire that wounded two soldiers.

Smith rushed into town with reinforcements searching for the shooters. The major and his junior officers watched from horseback as the troopers set fire to a suspected hiding place. The blaze spread swiftly to adjacent buildings and soon engulfed virtually the entire downtown district.

Gov. Throckmorton did not wait for the special legislative committee to complete its investigation before insisting that Gen. Sheridan turn over Smith and Craig to the civilian courts. Sheridan refused, saying in his brief and pointed response, “I have directed Major Smith that he must not permit himself nor any of his men to be arrested.”

Pressure from Pres. Johnson and Gen. Ulysses Grant compelled Sheridan to take a more conciliatory approach to the crisis. A visit to Brenham capped by a private chat with Smith convinced him the major had not been entirely truthful, to say the least.

The governor and the general negotiated a truce of sorts that brought an uneasy calm to Brenham that did not include the prosecution of anybody in or out of uniform. But the occupation troops had gotten a taste of wanton destruction and torched a smaller section of Brenham seven months later.