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.

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