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The Men Who Burned Brenham (CEC)

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Brenham, Texas, 1873, seven years after the fire.

On March 3, 1865, the US Congress passed a law creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to deal with the social upheaval wrought upon the South by the war. The Bureau’s powers also helped African Americans find family members from whom they had become separated during the war. It also arranged freedmen to read and write, considered critical by the freedmen themselves as well as the government. Bureau agents also served as legal advocates for African Americans in both local and national courts, mostly in cases dealing with family issues. The Bureau encouraged former major planters to rebuild their plantations, urged freed Blacks to gain employment and kept an eye on contracts between the newly free labor and planters, urging both whites and blacks to work together as employers and employees rather than as masters and as slaves.

When reconstruction arrived in Texas, its most visible face was that of the Freedmen’s Bureau. With commissioners located in many Texas towns, these Federal officials drew the ire of the locals who remained irreconcilable to their changed circumstances. US troops served as backup for these bureaucrats in case hard feelings turned to violence.

In late April, 1866, Samuel A. Craig, a veteran officer in the 105th Pennsylvania Infantry took over the office in Brenham, a small outpost of this large system spread across Texas. He encouraged the efforts of educators in the Bureau schools including a parade of the African-American students to mark the Fourth of July. His efforts served to rub salt in the wounds of die-hard Confederates, and Craig came under attack from the local newspaper editor. Although he did not have the authority, Craig demanded the journalist’s arrest, and drew two soldiers from Major George Smith’s nearby detachment to help with the chore. Despite facing a large fine, the editor submitted, merely continuing the attacks from behind bars, calling the Brenham jail his “American Bastille.” Eventually, intervention by Governor James W. Throckmorton, as well as the establishment of civilian control, defused the situation. Even so, relations between Federal officers and the locals remained tense.

Freedmen’s Bureau officials considered Craig’s presence in Brenham to be toxic to local order, and moved him to Seguin. Meanwhile, Major Smith’s men continued to draw the ire of Brenham’s citizens.

On September 5, some of these soldiers, drinking in a local saloon, ended up in a gunfight with the locals that ended with two of their men dead. The soldiers retaliated by looting the downtown business district and burning a block of the small town. Governor Throckmorton took advantage of this atrocity to discredit the Freedmen’s Bureau and military occupation in Texas, joining a number of voices across the South in a drumbeat that would eventually cause Congress to cancel the program four years later.