Howell County Election Conflict One Hundred Sixty Years Ago
Wed, 12/09/2020 - 12:26pm admin
Are we headed for another civil war? Are events today analogous to those one hundred sixty years ago, when a contentious election divided the population and ushered in the worst turmoil we have experienced as a nation? My purpose in this article isn't to render a political opinion or determine fault. I want to look at what happened and let the reader decide if the events described can be compared to what is happening now.
In a backwater of our nation's westward expansion, Howell County had been in existence less than three years at the time of the nineteenth United States presidential election of 1860. As rural as any county in the state, with most of the county described as a howling wilderness, it would seem unlikely that this election and its politics would bring about the county's destruction. It did, quickly, and with a severity, today hard to fathom. Almost all buildings, farm improvements, even our county courthouse were destroyed. The 1860 county population of 3,169 souls was reduced to around 100 by 1865. Every building and home in West Plains was burned to the ground, and fledgling communities from the north to the south end of Howell County blinked out of existence.
In his book "A History of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas," relating his antebellum, war, and post-war experiences, William Monks wrote of the months preceding the Civil War in the Ozarks. Monks' home was at South Fork, and his observances were made in Howell County. He wrote,
"Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States. Soon after the election, they began to discuss the question of seceding from the Government. The author (William Monks) again took the field in opposition to secession, and delivered a number of speeches."
"In a short time the people that had been the closest of friends and trusted a neighbor with the most sacred thing they possessed became bitter enemies and arrayed themselves against one another and as the discussion of the great question of war continued to grow more bitter, the people appeared to align themselves for and against secession. The people soon grew so bitter that they often talked of fighting each other."
The election held on November 6, 1860, was a four-way contest and quite bitter. The Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln, had recently replaced the dysfunctional old Whig Party. Lincoln personally found slavery distasteful, but elimination was not part of the party platform - preservation of the Union was.
John C. Breckenridge led the Southern Democratic Party, the most southern leaning pro-slavery candidate. He received 91 Howell County votes.
John Bell was the nominee of the Constitutional Party formed from former Whigs and members of the Know-Nothings (which we don't have room to discuss here.) This party sought to avoid secession by pushing aside slavery as an issue. Slavery would be allowed in all states. Bell received the majority of Howell County votes, 176.
Stephen A. Douglas was the leader of the Democratic Party, which advocated popular sovereignty, or each state's right to choose whether there would be slavery in their state, garnered 136 Howell County votes
Howell County voters totally rejected the Republican Party. Not a single vote was cast in the 1860 election for Abe Lincoln.
But, Lincoln won the electoral college nationwide. Immediately the "not my president" clamor arose. A movement by the southern states to defy the election results, led by the Democratic Party, also led them to secede from the Union. By April 1861, five months after the election, the United States was at war."
It took a few months for the war's effects to come to Howell County, but by the hot months of summer 1861, things finally reached a boiling point here. Monks wrote of this time,
"The Confederate authorities at once commenced recruiting for the Confederate service and the Confederate recruiting officers published a public meeting at West Plains about the first or tenth of July and while the Confederate authorities were moving, the union or loyal element of the country was not idle, but was watching every move, openly and secretly preparing for the conflict."
"A few days before the meeting was to be held at West Plains the Confederates sent to the pinery and procured a long pine pole, hoisted it at the corner of Durham's store at the northwest corner of the public square and swung to the breeze the stars and bars. At the same time, or near the same time, the Union men sent to the pinery and procured a pole. They hoisted it on the Northeast corner of East Main Street by the corner of McGinty's store where the S.J. Langston Mercantile Co., building now stands and swung to the breeze the stars and stripes."
"It was freely published throughout the county by the Rebels that if any Union man attempted to open his mouth on that day he would be shot as full of holes as a sifter bottom. There was a beautiful grove then growing just east of the branch on East Main street running from the town spring. Large preparations were made by the Rebels for the occasion. It was published that there would be leading Confederates from all over the state and different other states to speak on that day and one of the main features of the day would be recruiting for Confederate service. A big speaker's stand was erected with hundreds of seats. When the day arrived the town was crowded with people and the friends of both parties were armed and appeared to be ready for the conflict. The stars and bars attracted a great deal of attention, being the first flag that had ever been seen by the people that antagonized the stars and stripes and threatened to destroy the United States Government."
"There was soon a number of determined men gathered under each flag. A number of their prominent speakers were on hand, among them Judge Price, of Springfield, known as "Wild Bill" Price. They readily took in the situation and saw that a conflict was imminent, and as they were not ready for it they met together in council and agreed that their men should not bring on the conflict on that day. Quite a number of the parties prepared themselves at the speaker's stand. When different speakers were introduced to address the people, many of the men would sit, either with their guns in their hands or with their guns near to them, and the most fiery and extreme speeches were made that I ever heard."
"The author well remembers the speech of Judge William Price. He told them that the lopeared Dutch had reached Rolla, Missouri, the terminus of the railroad, and that they were complete heathens; that Abraham Lincoln had given the state of Missouri to them, if they would send enough lopeared Dutch to conquer the state, and that to his knowledge they had gone out into the country and taken men's wives and daughters and brought them into the camps, and that he saw them, in the presence of the mothers, run bayonets through their infant children and hoist them up and carry them around on their bayonets; that Abraham Lincoln had offered a reward for all of the preachers that were in favor of the South. He bursted (sic) into tears and asked the question. "I want to know who the man is, and the color of his hair, that won't enlist in the interest of his home, his wife, his children and everything that is sacred and good, to drive out lopeared Dutch, a certain class of Hessians, from our land." He urged them to come forward and place their names upon the rolls. Nearly all the preachers present placed their names on the recruiting list first."
"The excitement grew still more bitter. In the afternoon they began to threaten openly that the stars and stripes should be hauled down; that no flag should be allowed to float in West Plains that countenances and tolerates heathen in our land. The Union men declared that the stars and stripes should not be lowered unless it was done over their dead bodies. Quite a number of Union men had assembled under the flag. The Union men were led by a man named Captain Lyle. He had been warned and cautioned by his friends not to open his mouth, for the reason that he would be shot full of holes. Late in the evening there was a lull in the speaking. The author walked up into the speaker's stand, called the attention of the people, saw a number of rifles grasped in their hands, and announced to them that they had been sitting all day listening to Confederate speeches, but on the next Saturday, if they would meet him at Black's store, about ten miles west of West Plains, they could hear Union speeches and the constitution of the United States would be read; thanked the crowd and stepped down. Quite a number of guns were raised in the hands of parties and a shower of groans and hisses, and remarks openly from a number that "We ought to shoot his black heart out now."
"It appeared for a while that it would be impossible to evade a conflict of arms. A number of orders being sent to the Union men to draw down their flag or they would fire on it and the men who supported it, an answer was returned that the rebels were requested to draw down their flag as it was a stranger in the land and unless they lowered their flag the stars and stripes wouldn't be lowered an inch, unless it was done over their dead bodies. At last a proposition came that they would agree for the sake of averting bloodshed to commence lowering both flags at the same time which proposition was accepted; so wound up that day's proceedings."
Four days later, Monks was arrested at his home by a local group of pro-southern men and taken across the Missouri border into Arkansas for imprisonment or execution. Howell County was at war. Additional Unionists were arrested or killed and both sides recruited, drafted, conscripted in Howell County until every man of military age was engaged in the conflict. Neutrality was not an option and the best way to become a victim of both sides. Within two years, the town of West Plains was in ashes. The time for talking was over. Elections have consequences. Civil war does too.