Indianola was a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the broader cosmopolitan world of commerce, business
cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. The vast slave plantations thrived much further east and north in the rich bottomlands of East Texas. The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners. They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.
As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off. However, after a newly arrived gentleman was forced onto an outbound ship following accusations of being an abolitionist, the city appointed a “vigilance committee,” a patrol to maintain order in the town.
During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.
News trickling in of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas. Caution was thrown aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”
On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade. Sam McBride, who owned one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas. Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candle or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.
The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. Judge J.J. Holt gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action. Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens. While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution. After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood. The dye was cast.
Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.
Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede. First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor. Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores. Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered. But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.
Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual. The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition. The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic. Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.
Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.