This Week in Texas Methodist History August 21
Methodist Church in Hempstead Hosts Political Meeting; Resolves to Secede if South Loses Presidential Election, August, 1860
By the summer of 1860 talk of Southern secession was in the air. Slave holding and free staters were already fighting in Kansas. In Texas there was a rash of fires and reported poisoning of wells in many parts of the state. African Americans under mere suspicion of participation in the events were executed. In late August a posse was already pursuing Anthony Bewley, a MEC preacher, through Indian Territory, Arkansas, and Missouri. Bewley was falsely accused of being the mastermind behind the incendiaries. He would be captured on Sept. 3 and lynched in Fort Worth on Sept. 13.
Meanwhile it was presidential election season. Southerners knew they hated Republicans but could not agree on a candidate. Eventually three nominees opposed the Republican Lincoln—Douglas, Bell, and Breckinridge.
The Austin County political elite met in the Methodist Church in Hempstead in August, 1860, to choose their representatives to the state convention. Hempstead was still in Austin County. Waller County was not created until 1873.
David Y. Portis chaired the meeting. Portis was a local attorney with considerable prominence and legislative experience. He had married Rebecca Cummings, who had been engaged to William B. Travis. A ring Travis gave to Cummings is in the collection of artifacts at the Alamo.
The most prominent speaker, though, was John Austin Wharton, a man steeped in the tradition of slaveholding as few other Texans were. Wharton was the nephew of Leonard Groce, a member of the family credited with bringing cotton plantations—and their slave system to Texas. When it was time for his formal education, Wharton was sent to South Carolina. While there, he met and married Eliza Johnson, daughter of the governor of South Carolina. Readers of this column will recognize South Carolina as the most radical of the states defending slavery.
Influenced by Wharton’s eloquence, the county convention passed a resolution that if the “Black Republicans” won the presidential election, Texas should secede from the Union.
Both Portis and Wharton were delegates to the Secession Convention in Austin. Since Hempstead had a railroad, it became both a mustering point for Confederate recruits and a major prisoner of war camp (Camp Groce).
Wharton fought throughout the Civil War including Shiloh, Chickamauga, the invasion of Kentucky, and the Red River Campaign. He rose to the rank of major general. He survived the battlefield only to be killed at General Magruder’s headquarters in the Fannin Hotel in Houston by fellow officer George W. Baylor in a personal quarrel. His death occurred on April 9, 1865, only days before the Confederate surrender.
Baylor’s murder trial in 1867 was sensational, and he avoided conviction.
Portis survived the war and died in 1883.