Friday, October 19, 2007

Hamilton's brawl in Walton County, Florida

Dale Cox, author of the authoritative "Battle of Marianna" brought to my attention John L. McKinnon's "History of Walton County." Published in 1912, "History of Walton County" is unabashedly sympathetic to the white southerners and critical of carpetbaggers and Republicans. Amazingly, McKinnon has a detailed account of Hamilton's the melee with Walton County whites while on a campaign to organize black voters prior to the election for delegates to the state constitutional convention. Emanuel Fortune describes this brawl in his testimony before the Congressional "Ku Klux Klan" committee that interviewed witnessed in Jacksonville in late 1871.

First is Fortune's account:
"I went with Colonel Hamilton to Walton County to inform the people there of the constitutional convention, and to get the republicans there to go in favor of the convention. He and I went into the court-house; the audience, of course, were generally back country people, very poor people. After the meeting, at which he and I both spoke, we were informed that while speaking there was some disposition for a disturbance. After the meeting we all dispersed, and in going to the hotel some colored men came to us, and we were advising them what to do on the day of election. After they came several more came, and there was a right good bunch around us, some eight or ten. The white fellows, who were off at a store not very far off, got very bitter about it, as they did not want us to communicate with them at all. They came hustling up toward us, and Colonel Hamilton, I suppose, got mad, for he spoke very abruptly to them. They pitched right in for a fight, and there was quite a scuffle. Men were going to cut him in the back, but I kept them off. One picked up a rail and it broke in two, and they turned and fled. It all ended by his tripping in the wild grass, and this fellow got on him and choked him. That ended the fight, because he considered that he had the best of it." [Source: Testimony Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquire Into the Conditions and Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States," House Report No. 22, pt. 13, 42nd Congress., 2d Sess (Washington 1972), 98-9.]

Next is McKinnon's version of the same event with some prefacing material:
[342] The carpetbaggers followed close behind us with their best speakers in negro precincts. W. J. Purman, Hamelton and Dickson, with their headquarters at Marianna, were the campaigners through Walton. They made extrava-
[343] gant, rash promises to the negroes, reminding themselves no doubt of the old rhyme:
“Much to promise and little to give Causes the fools in comfort in live.”
“The forty acres and the mule,” was their leading promise to the end. The whites attended all of their meetings when they knew of them, and would take them up on their rash, foolish promises; but they would hold secret, night meetings, and say things that they would not dare say in the presence of the whites. They were good speakers and educated as to books, but bankrupts as to character. They called an open advertised meeting at Euchee Anna in the open day time, pretty much every negro voter was there. This was called their “Grand Rally Meetings.” The white voters were there in force, the meeting was held in the old courthouse in the southern part of the town. They had to be checked up several times in their extravagant statements. They lead us to believe they wanted their opponents to reply when they were through. But when they finished, they had a tacit understanding with the negroes to meet them for private instructions, and they went out in a body in the direction of the hotel where they had stopped, not by the street way, but direct through a grove that intervened, and when they were well in the grove and near the hotel they stopped. Hamilton, a tall, stout, rawboney man of fair complexion, light hair and blue eyes weighing about two hundred pounds, 38 years old, a college athlete in appearance, stood talking to the negroes as they gathered around him in the grove. The white voters who moved on to the business part of town by the street way,
[344] saw that he had stopped and was talking with the negroes. Bill Bell, a farmer from Knox Hill, a full match in build, weight, and years, for Hamilton, with dark complexion, black hair and dark eagle piercing eyes, said, “Men we have had enough of this today, and those negroes have had enough, let’s go over there and send these rascals over the river and the negroes home, where they belong?” “All right” came from everybody. They walked up to the circle, Bell in the lead, while Hamilton was yet speaking. Bell with his right hand on the left shoulder of one negro, his left on the right of another, made a breach and enlarged at the circle, walked right up in front of Hamilton and said in loud unmistakable tones, using severe ugly adjectives, “See here, Hamilton, these negroes have had enough of this stuff today, you are fixing them up to be put under the ground. You were allowed to say too much in yonder building, you can’t sneak out here in these bushes and stir up the devil in them, and let me tell you right here, if you know what is best for you, you had better cross the river and crawl up in your hole.” Hamilton straightened himself up boastingly with an air of bravery, and he was brave with his big crowd of negroes around him and said, “I am a free born American citizen exercising the right of free speech and don’t want to be disturbed in this way.” “You are,” said Bell, “a free born American jackass risking the dangers of a free fight!” “You are more of a jackass than I am,” said Hamilton. As these words fell upon Bell’s ears, he dealt a blow with his right fist directly in Hamilton’s breast that staggered him. It was promptly returned and while these blows and fencings were flying swiftly there went up a cry from the white voters, “A fair fight, a fair fight!” They clenched each
[345) other then and went at it right. The negroes indiscriminately took to the woods, running pell-mell in every direction. Purman and their negro driver made for the hotel, got their horses and were ready on the ground a little while to go for the river. Bell proved more than his equal in a clenched wrestle. Hamilton realizing his situation cried out, “Am I left alone, have they all deserted me?” It was then the white voters laid hold on them, loosed their hold on each other, pulled them apart and there they stood unexhausted in front of each other with their faces scratched a little, the greatest damage done being to their Sunday clothes. Hamilton got into the carriage with Purman and the negro driver and they went down the Douglass Ferry road, the negro driving with such flying speed through the sand and dust that flew so thick and high above their heads, that they were hid from view. When they got to the ferry it was night. They urged Mr. Campbell to help them across that night, that they might be safe. When they had told him what had befallen them that day at Euchee Anna, he told them that it would not be safe to try crossing the river at night and that he knew all of those men and would guarantee their safety with him that night, that all they wanted was for them to let the negroes alone. They stopped until morning in security and passed over the river, and that was the last of carpetbaggerism in Walton. The most remarkable and creditable thing in this whole affair was, that there was neither knife or pistol drawn during the encounter, notwithstanding in these times, and on such occasions men went armed to the teeth. [Source: Florida Heritage Collection ]

The versions are generally similar but with some different details. Fortune's account is an eyewitness testimony recited almost four years after the incident. McKinnon is unclear about whether he was present at the event or is relating an account he heard from others. Either way, McKinnon, publishing his book in 1911, McKinnon was presumably remembering events that took place more than forty years earlier. The major differences are McKinnon's placement of Purman at the scene which Fortune does not mention. Considering that Fortune was, if anything, closer personally to Purman, and mentioned both men repeatedly in his testimony, it is unlikely that Fortune forgot Purman's presence. Hamilton and Purman were so closely associated, particularly in the disdain of white Floridians, that McKinnon probably naturally assumed that Purman was also in Walton County that day. Also, McKinnon does not mention Fortune's role in the fight and instead dismissively refers to the "negro driver." Fortune, conversely, was an able speaker and a candidate for the convention and, according to his son, a fierce and courageous fighter. Fortune, however, does not refer to the desperate scramble to get out of the county and "across the river" that McKinnon describes with obvious amusement. The accounts do agree in the general nature of the fight and that Hamilton got the worst of it. Hamilton, of course, despite his height and youth, suffered from a disabling leg injury and may have already had the chronic respiratory ailment that tormented him for years. McKinnon's physical description of Hamilton conforms with other contemporary accounts, except that McKinnon overestimates Hamilton's age by 11 years.

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