This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
On Jan. 21, 1863, a turncoat Texan faced a jury of his jilted peers, Confederate officers who did not take kindly to one of their own switching sides in the middle of the Civil War.
Martin D. Hart was 12 years old, when his family moved from Indiana to provincial Texas in 1833. Three summers later, the strapping youth shouldered a weapon in defense of the new Republic as a member of Hart’s Mounted Men organized by his father.
Martin Hart made a name for himself as well as a comfortable living practicing law in Hunt County. Turning to politics like countless attorneys before and since, he served a single term in the state house of representatives before winning a seat in the senate.
The staunch Unionist used his high office as a pulpit for preaching against the evils of secession. After the Lone Star pullout, however, Hart seemed to submit to majority rule by enlisting in the Confederate Army. No one questioned his motives because thousands of like-minded Texans did the same rather than take up arms against their friends and kinfolk.
Any doubt about the convert’s commitment to the southern cause was dispelled in July 1862 by his formation of the Greenville Guards. The company of hometown cavalrymen chose the founder as their captain.
A year later, Hart and his hand-picked men were sent to Arkansas to reinforce hard-pressed Rebel forces. Taking advantage of this perfect opportunity to defect, the northern sympathizers reported to Union headquarters in Springfield, Missouri and swore allegiance to the United States.
Hart was given a captain’s commission and orders to recruit a regiment in North Texas, where the vote in eight counties had gone against secession. While backtracking through Arkansas, he was to harass the enemy and to eliminate several civilian supporters of the Confederacy.
Meanwhile, another northern-born Texan assumed command of the southern contingent in western Arkansas and the Indian Territory. Brig. Gen. William Steele soon alerted his superior to the fact that the renegade Hart was wreaking havoc in the countryside with a bloodthirsty band of Unionists and deserters.
In her account of an encounter with the “Federal bushwhackers,” Sophia Kannady described the notorious captain as a perfect gentleman. “Hart lifted me off my horse. He was a fine looking man, and while he robbed us of our team, provisions and everything else, he did not cause me to be searched nor did he take my horse.”
Noncombatants on Hart’s hit list were not accorded such courtesy. The ragtag irregulars beat Edward Richardson to a pulp before pumping him full of lead, and Lt. J.W. Hays shot Col. DeRosy Carroll to death on his front porch.
By this time, Steele believed the rampage was the prelude to a major offensive. “I am satisfied that communication is being kept up between Hart and Abolition sympathizers in Northern Texas, and he may attempt to push his raid into that section,” he said.
The 1st Texas Partisan Rangers left Fort Smith on Jan. 20, 1863 in search of Hart. Lt. Col. R.P. Crump instructed Capt. A.V. Reiff to go on ahead in the hope of picking up the traitors’ trail.
The resourceful subordinate did better than that. Posing as a northern officer anxious to link up with Hart so “we can together give the Rebs a good fight,” Reiff persuaded a gullible lad to show him the way to his hideout.
The Texas troops silently surrounded the mill and blacksmith shop, where the guerrillas evidently were sawing logs. Nine Arkansans inside the mill immediately gave up, but the Greenville gang refused to budge from the second structure until acceptable terms were negotiated.
“We surrender as prisoners of war!” hollered Hart.
“No!” Lt. Col. Crump shouted back. “Unconditional surrender within five minutes, or I shall fill the shop full of holes!”
Their bluff called, eight turncoats filed out of the flimsy fortress. A ninth forfeited his life in a short, suicidal stand.
Hart and his right-hand henchman were tried by court-martial the very next day at Fort Smith. Convicted on two counts of murder, they were sentenced to swing the following morning.
When the noose was slipped over his head, Hays began to bawl and to beg for mercy. In sharp contrast to his cringing comrade, Hart earned the grudging respect of the executioners with his calm demeanor and insistence that he alone was to blame for the crime wave. A moment later, the mobile gallows lurched forward, and the condemned dropped into oblivion.
Martin Hart could have avoided his grisly fate by casting his lot with the Union in the first place. But once the bullet began to fly, a change of heart was bound to be fatal.
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or firstname.lastname@example.org.