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!

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