The Confederacy’s Collapse, Juneteenth, and Houston’s Reconstruction

by David A. Furlow

In The Second Coming, in the aftermath of the First World War, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote about the end of an age:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world....
Yeats’ lines describe Houston between June 1 and June 19, 1865, when Houstonians confronted the blood-dimmed tide of anarchy as the Confederacy collapsed around them.

By early 1865, it was clear to many Texans that the Confederacy was collapsing. The economy lurched toward barter exchange because the local elites knew slavery was about to end and Confederate money lacked any value. Wealthy planters faced the imminent loss of the slaves that were their principal form of wealth, while slaves faced the prospect of living lives without any savings to help them through the post-war era. See MICHAEL ARIENS, LONE STAR LAW: A LEGAL HISTORY OF TEXAS (2011), at 36-37. Confederate defeats in Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee during 1864, as well as President Abraham Lincoln’s re-election, convinced many that the Confederacy’s cause was lost.

General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Virginia on April 12, 1865, and General Joseph E. Johnston’s April 26, 1865 surrender of the Confederacy’s largest remaining army at Bennett Farm, North Carolina, convinced most Southerners that the war was coming to an end. See, e.g., JAY WINIK, APRIL 1865: THE MONTH THAT SAVED AMERICA (2006); Ralph A. Wooster, Civil War, HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qdc02 (accessed March 17, 2014).

Nevertheless, although Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, vowed to carry on the fight for Southern independence. On May 13, 1865, mounted Confederate forces under the command of Brigadier General James E. Slaughter, commander of the Western Sub-District of Texas, Colonel John Salmon “Rip” Ford, commander of the Seventh Texas Cavalry, and Lieutenant Colonel George H. Giddings, commander of the Texas Cavalry Battalion defeated an invading unit of Union infantry at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, near Brownsville, Texas, in the last land battle of the Civil War.

After the battle, Colonel Ford discovered that Confederate forces throughout the South were following Robert E. Lee’s example in surrendering to Union forces and going home. See Jeffrey William Hunt, Battle of Palmito Ranch, HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qfp01 (accessed March 17, 2014).

Texans could no longer deny that the Confederacy was collapsing around them. Like Iraqi soldiers in the aftermath of Baghdad’s fall, many Confederate officers and soldiers disbanded and headed for home. See EDWARD T. COTHAM, JR., BATTLE ON THE BAY: THE CIVIL WAR STRUGGLE FOR GALVESTON (1998), at 182. In late May and early June, 1865, most of the remaining Confederate soldiers in Houston abandoned their posts, seized any governmental property they could find, and divided it among themselves. See COLBERT NATHANIEL COLDWELL, COLBERT COLDWELL’S QUEST (unpub. ms., 2014). Law enforcement officers under the command of the Confederate Provost Marshall fled Houston for the countryside. See Ralph A. Wooster, Civil War, HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/qdc02 (accessed March 17, 2014).

Yet some Houstonians sought to preserve the force of law, as opposed to the law of force. James A. Baker, a veteran of the Confederate Army elected in 1862 to serve as a Harris County District Court Judge, aimed to make the transition from one era to another as orderly a succession of power as possible. See J. H. Freeman, Baker, James Addison [1821-97], HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbacs (accessed March 17, 2014).

Taking quill in hand, Judge Baker added one last entry in the Seventh Judicial District Court’s minutes during the twilight of the Confederacy:
At an early date of the present term, it was announced that an order would be made to call for trial at the next term all civil cases filed since January, 1862. But since then events in the history of the country have transpired which render it unnecessary to limit the call to any particular portion of the docket. It is therefore ordered that at the next term of this Court, the civil docket and the criminal, will be called for trial and disposition as in ordinary times.

See Mark Davidson, The Civil War and Reconstruction in Harris County’s Only District Court, 33 HOUSTON LAWYER 42 (Nov./Dec. 1995) (emphasis supplied), quoting MINUTES OF THE 11TH DISTRICT COURT, Vol. K, at 182. Judge Baker then left the bench and retired to private practice.

James A. Baker’s last minute entry as Judge of the 7th Judicial District Court, June 1, 1865. Photograph of the Minutes in the Eleventh Judicial District Court by David A. Furlow.

A native of Madison County, Alabama born near Huntsville on March 3, 1821, James A. Baker was the last district court judge in Harris County to serve under the Confederacy. The court’s docket had remained inactive from 1861 to the spring term of 1865 because of the war, so only five criminal cases and no civil ones were tried in Harris County. In Texas, the transition from the Confederacy to Reconstruction was anything but “ordinary.” Slavery was dead, federal troops occupied Texas, and an amended federal constitution protected the constitutional rights of former slaves for the first time.

Notified of his removal from office in June 1865 by Reconstruction Governor A. J. “Colossal Jack” Hamilton, a Unionist and Republican, Judge Baker passed on his court to Governor Hamilton’s appointee, Judge Colbert Coldwell. When Judge Baker turned over the Seventh Judicial District to his Reconstruction successor, Judge Colbert Coldwell, the jurisdiction of the Seventh Judicial District Court (later renumbered the Eleventh Judicial District Court) encompassed Galveston, Houston and Huntsville, as well as the rich bottomlands of the Brazos and Trinity Rivers in the original Stephen F. Austin Colony. See JAMES L. HALEY, THE TEXAS SUPREME COURT – A NARRATIVE HISTORY, 1836-1986 (2013), at 23.



Portraits of Harris County Judicial District Court Judges Peter W. Gray, James A. Baker, and Colbert Coldwell now hanging on the back wall of the Eleventh Judicial District Court of Harris County, photographed by David A. Furlow, March 2014.

Judge Baker’s successor, Harris County District Court Judge Colbert Coldwell, was not a Confederate but a stalwart Union Man. A native of Shelbyville, Tennessee, he went west with his uncle in southwestern Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail, following the path blazed by Kit Carson. See Colbert N. Coldwell, Setting the Record Straight: Colbert Coldwell’s Quest for Justice, 3(3) TEX. SUP. CT. HIST. SOC. J. 22 (Spring 2014), at 23-24, http://www.texascourthistory.org/documents/TSCHS_Journal_Spring_2014.pdf (accessed March 17, 2014); COLDWELL, COLBERT COLDWELL’S QUEST, at 32–55.

After the end of the Mexican War and further adventures in New Mexico, Coldwell “read” law, worked as a merchant, married, and served as a delegate to the 1856 Democratic Convention. Coldwell and his family to Mansfield, Texas, in 1859, and campaigned in the 1860 presidential election for Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democratic candidate. See Coldwell, Setting the Record Straight, at 23. When the Civil War divided Texas and the nation, Coldwell refused to join the Confederate Army and upheld his strong Unionist principles in the face of strident opposition. Id. at 23-24. Texans who brooked no support for the Union incarcerated him for nine months in 1864 and 1865. Id. at 23-24.

So it came to pass that Judge James A. Baker entered the last entry in the Minutes of the Seventh Judicial District Court on June 1, 1865, in anticipation of his Court’s return to “ordinary” times. Extraordinary times followed. Less than three weeks later, on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas’ largest city, and issued General Order Number 3. See HAILEY, THE TEXAS SUPREME COURT, at 75-76. General Granger’s proclamation read, in pertinent part, as follows:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

See Teresa Palomo Acosta, Juneteenth, HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/lkj01 (accessed March 17, 2014). Over a quarter million slaves celebrated their new-found freedom on a day later known in Galveston, Houston, and elsewhere as “Juneteenth.”

In August 1865, Governor Hamilton appointed Coldwell to replace Judge James Baker and serve as Judge of the Seventh Judicial District. Judge Coldwell discharged his responsibilities without rancor and assisted his predecessor judges, pro-Confederates James A. Baker and Peter W. Gray, to renew their law licenses, leading to their formation of the Baker Botts law firm. Id. at 24-25. See Thomas W. Cutrer, Gray, Peter W., HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fgr25 (accessed March 17, 2014).

On November 27, 1865, recently-appointed Judge Colbert Coldwell made the promise of Juneteenth a reality when he made it clear how the Civil War had changed Texas forever:
Gentlemen:

You have been duly elected, empanelled and sworn as grand jurors, to inquire within and for the county of Harris, and it is now incumbent upon me to give you in charge such matters as may come before you.

And here allow me to express the hope, that must be felt by every good citizen, that you enter upon the work assigned to you with a high appreciation of the solemn obligation you have just assumed, and an invincible determination to do your whole duty.

During the late unhappy strife, it may truly be said that vice and virtue were alike cut loose from their marriage; nor need this excite surprise with those who are at all acquainted with the workage of the human heart, for war ever develops the rudest passions of our nature, and without remorse stifles alike the voice of private and of public justice.

But now that the national authority is fully restored, and peace has again asserted her mild dominion---to Statesmen appropriately belong the duty of restoring our State to her rightful relations to the Federal Government. Yet we should not forget, but steadily bear in mind, that upon the juries of the country—grand and petit, devolves the not less arduous task of bringing order out of chaos, by a firm and impartial administration of the criminal laws of the land.

Individual acts of violence and injustice never fail to shake the just and generous mind. But when crime raises his brazen front and is passed over without punishment, it is a blow to the vitals of the State. From necessity our people derive their ideas of justice and of the law from the manner in which it is administered by legally constituted authorities of the land; and when any but the lawful tribunals interpose, and take the administration of law out of its regular channels, outrages, riots and murders will occur, at which an enlightened humanity recoils. “In the investigation of matters that may come before you, the question of who are amenable to punishment and who (are) competent witnesses, must necessarily arise. They must be met as we would any other question, in a manly, truth loving and truth seeking spirit.

The civil war which has recently terminated involved the destruction of the institution of slavery in this State, and swept away with it those distinctions, both as to protection and liability to punishment, which hitherto existed between whites and blacks. Hence the late slaves—now freedmen—and that class denominated “free persons of color,” stand upon terms of perfect equality with all other persons in the “penal code.”

This greatly enlarges the scope of your enquiries, which will now embrace all persons who may have violated the criminal laws of the State, and are in contemplation of the law capable of committing an offence. It is logical and necessarily follows that persons of African descent are competent witnesses where any of that race are parties. Though hardly deemed necessary, yet, to avoid misconstruction, it is added that you are, as in all other cases, the exclusive judges of the weight of evidence and the credibility of the witnesses.

The reason of their exclusion heretofore, it is now believed, has ceased to exist. It was because they were slaves, and descendants of slaves, that it was thought it would have been hazardous to the tenure by which they were as property, to permit them to testify where the whites were involved. And here an axiomatic principle, as old as our system of jurisprudence comes to our aid. “When the reason of the law fails, the law likewise fails.”

I have thus very briefly stated some of the logical consequences that have flowed from the abolition of slavery. As officers of this court, it does not become us to discuss the rightfulness or wrongfulness of the act. But simply to act upon the grand fact that is patent to all. The tree having been cut up, by the roots, it would be idle to suppose that its branches could still flourish.

See THE HOUSTON TELEGRAPH (Nov. 28, 1865); Coldwell, Setting the Record Straight, at 24-25. See also Carl H. Moneyhon, Reconstruction, HANDBOOK OF TEXAS ONLINE http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mzr01 (accessed March 17, 2014).

Judge Coldwell then devoted the extraordinary time, six days a week, from Monday through Saturday, to work through a docket of disputes that had arisen over the previous four years of the Civil War. He protected the rights of freedmen charged with criminal offenses and did his best to make a smooth transition from the Confederacy to Restoration Texas.

Judge Colbert Coldwell thus joined his predecessors, Judge Peter W. Gray and Judge James A. Baker, in striving to expand, as well as to preserve and protect, the rule of law in Texas. When it seemed that the center could not hold, and when things fell apart, a brave lawyer stepped forward to serve as judge and to join other Houston judges to ensure that mere anarchy was not loosed upon the City of Houston and Texas’ citizens.