Sunday, May 20, 2012

Charles M. Hamilton: A Carpetbagger's Disingenuous Defense

Marianna in 1890 (22 years after the McKay Farm raid)
In the last article, I discussed the January 1868 raid on the McKay farm in Jackson County by the forces of Charles M. Hamilton. (Please see The Raid on the McKay Farm).

Hamilton was the Marianna Agent for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands. Commonly called the Freedmen's Bureau, the agency had been created by the Federal government at the end of the War Between the States to help the former slaves or "freedmen" make the transition from slavery to citizenship.

While in many places and in many cases the Bureau agents were honorable men who did their best to avoid tension between the races and help the freedmen achieve their new status in society, others - like Hamilton - were not. Hamilton had organized an armed band of freedmen to enforce his will on the people of Jackson County, he overruled the local courts in violation of Florida law and the standing orders of the U.S. Army and in January of 1868 he ordered the kidnapping and illegal detention of William McKay and John F.E. McKay.

Charles M. Hamilton
The McKay case led to the filing of two $10,000 lawsuits against Hamilton, accusing him of heading the unlawful detention of the men, during which they were beaten and injured.

Hamilton's attorneys supposedly responded to the allegations on February 25, 1868. I say supposedly because, as will be seen, there is some strangeness surrounding the dating of their pleading.

The remarkable document filed by them with the Circuit Court of Jackson County was discovered when boxes of old county records were found this spring at the old Jackson County Jail in Marianna. In it, Hamilton and his lawyers employed an unlikely and strange defense and asked that the lawsuits be dismissed:

...[B]ecause he says, at the time of the committing of the said supposed trespasses mentioned in plaintiffs said declaration, and long before that time had been and was at the said time an officer in the military service of the United States, and duly commissioned and accredited as such officer by the government of the United States of America, and as such officer as aforesaid, and that the said trespasses in the said declaration mentioned; whereof and for which the said plantiff hath brought his action in that behalf against the said defendant, in the due exercise of his said office under the said authority and power long before the time granted and issued to him, this deft. by the government of the United States aforesaid and unexpired....

1868 Constitution of Florida (Courtesy Florida State Archives)
In short, Hamilton claimed that because he had been an officer in the U.S. Army at the time of the raid, he could not be held accountable for any abuses done to the McKays. To support this position, he also pleaded the Sixth Section of the Fifteenth Article of the Florida Constitution of 1868:

  Section 6. All proceedings, decisions, or actions accomplished by civil or military officers acting under authority of the United States subsequent to the 10th day of January, A. D. 1861, and prior to the final restoration of the State to the government of the United States, are hereby declared valid, and shall not be subject to adjudication in the courts of this State, nor shall any person acting in the capacity of a soldier or officer of the United States, civil or military, be subject to arrest for any act performed by him pursuant to authorized instructions from his superior officers during the period of time above designated.

There were, as might be expected, some real problems with this defense. The first and biggest is that Charles M. Hamilton was NOT an officer in the U.S. Army at the time of the raid on the McKay farm. His service had ended and he had been discharged from the military on January 1, 1868, days BEFORE William and John McKay had been kidnapped, unlawfully detained and brutally beaten.

In other words, Hamilton committed perjury when he falsely claimed he should not be punished because he was acting as a U.S. officer at the time the civil rights of the McKay brothers were violated.

Nor was this the only problem with his defense. The second one involved his use of Article 15, Section 6 of the 1868 Florida Constitution. This document was not adopted until February 25, 1868, nearly two months after the raid on the McKay farm and weeks after the lawsuits against Hamilton were filed. What is especially curious is that the document filed by Hamilton and his attorneys was also dated February 25, 1868, the same day as the adoption of the state constitution.

John L. Finlayson in 1868
The third problem is that Hamilton's defense appears to have been postdated and not actually filed until months after the deadline given him by the court for responding to the lawsuits filed by the McKays. While the document bears a date of February 25, 1868, it was not actually filed with the court until September 8, 1868, five months AFTER the deadline ordered by the court. The date of filing was noted by John L. Finlayson, Clerk of Courts.

A former Confederate surgeon, Finlayson was a scalawag who received appointment to his office. (Note: "Scalawags" were Southerners who allied themselves with Northerners like Hamilton during the Reconstruction era). He was an ally of Hamilton during his reign in Jackson County.

Hamilton's defense leaves little doubt that his attack on the McKays was unlawful. Perhaps even more significantly, however, the manner in which he defended himself and the issues of date surrounding the document show that he and his associates operated with utter contempt for the courts of Jackson County.

Even on its own, the raid on the McKay farm was a horrible event. Unfortunately for the citizens of Jackson County, it was not the only such attack carried out by the Carpetbaggers and their allies during the winter and early spring of 1868. More on that in the next article!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Raid on the McKay Farm (January 1868)

Freedmen working a farm.
The Battle of the Flowers had ignited passions in Jackson County (see The Battle of the Flowers) and tensions between local white citizens and the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands intensified through the summer and fall of 1867.

The growing resistance to the Federal government and particularly to its agents, Charles M. Hamilton and William J. Purman, reached the boiling point in January of 1868 when news spread through the county of the kidnapping and beating of two farmers, William McKay and John F.E. McKay. On January 3, 1868, the two filed suit against the Carpetbagger Hamilton, each alleging that the agent:

Col. James F. McClellan
…With force and arms then & there assaulted the said plaintiff then and there beat, bruised & ill treated him, and then and there kept and detained him in prison there, without any reasonable or probable cause whatsoever, for a long time, to wit, for a space of four days….

The lawsuits each sought a minimum of $10,000 in damages and were filed on behalf of both of the farmers by attorneys James F. McClellan, W.D. Barnes, A.H. Bush and Samuel Hawkins. McClellan, Barnes and Bush had all fought on the Confederate side during the recent war.

They alleged that both of the McKays had suffered injury to their persons and businesses as a result of their confinement by Hamilton.

Charles M. Hamilton
The situation developed, in fact, because of an edict handed down by Hamilton himself. Cotton prices had collapsed that year and money was in short supply. Many of the freedmen (former slaves) had purchased things on credit that year, in anticipation of being able to pay their debts when the cotton crop came in. When prices collapsed, they found themselves unable to pay their debts.

The creditors to whom they owed money began to seize their portions of the corn crop in order to settle the debts. Food began to run short and Hamilton decided to deal with the situation by all but completing his takeover of Jackson County's economic system. He ordered planters to cease dividing crops and paying out the debts of their laborers. He and Purman would decide how much the laborers were due and who should be paid.

Carpetbaggers as seen by Southerners
Many of the farmers objected to the agent's order as illegal. Hamilton ordered troops to the Campbellton area to enforce his edict, but the soldiers arrived to find themselves faced with the possibility of armed rebellion. Wisely they avoided a bloody confrontation and returned to Marianna. 

Learning of the outcry from the farmers of Jackson County, one of Hamilton's military superiors - Lt. Col. F.F. Flint - protested to Gen. John Sprague, the military commander of Florida, that the agent was pushing the citizens of the county to the brink and that a serious disturbance might be the result. Governor David Walker joined with Flint in blaming Hamilton for the growing tension in Jackson County.

Hamilton, meanwhile, moved on John and William McKay. The two farmers had dismissed one of their laborers during the year for balking at his orders and refusing to carry out work assignments. He and his family had been evicted from the farm, but after being contacted by the Bureau, the McKays had paid him for the work he actually performed.

Carpetbaggers as seen by Northerners
Hamilton and Purman now demanded, however, that the two farmers pay the worker his share of the crop even though he had not worked through the entire season. They refused. Both men were seized, according to the Marianna Courier, and "ruthlessly incarcerated in a filthy old smokehouse to be made to succumb to an unfair and unjust disposition of their property that amounted to absolute robbery."

In the process of this "arrest," the McKays reported that they had been badly beaten, dragged away from their homes by a band of armed freedmen and held in horrendous conditions.

 A court date was set for April 4, 1868, and Hamilton was issued a summons to appear. According to a notation on the summons, it was "executed by handing a copy of the within to C.M. Hamilton" on January 15, 1868, by Deputy Sheriff R.J. Pittman.

It would take Hamilton nearly six weeks to respond to the filing against him. I will detail his response in the next article.