By Andrea Kurth
In the spring of 1867, six years after his escape to California and two years after the Confederacy’s surrender to Union troops, James P. Newcomb returned to San Antonio and reclaimed his position as an influential voice in Texas politics (Chabot 356). When he resumed his lifelong profession as newspaper writer and editor, it was apparent that during his absence the state had undergone an absolute change in its attitude towards the man.
Texas, in the early years of the Civil War, found itself controlled by a secret society of expansion-embracing secessionists who at times employed terrorist tactics. This society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, or KGC, played a instrumental role in Texas politics during the months preceding secession in February, 1861. Members of the assemblage from all over Texas participated in significant Civil War events through use of secret vigilante tactics as well as fighting alongside the Confederate Army in battle. Many Union sympathizers remained quiet for fear of the KGC. The San Antonio Castle of the Knights kept order in the town by means of the Mitchell-Childress committee—the self-proclaimed law enforcement of Civil War times. Any support for the North voiced in those times put the speaker at great risk for consequences from the mobocracy (Sturmberg 121).
Newcomb, who openly opposed secession, asserted his viewpoint in his newspaper, the Alamo Express. Unlike all other publishers in the state, including local adversaries such as the San Antonio Herald and Daily Ledger and Texan, Newcomb was not afraid to offer news from the Union point of view. The tri-weekly publication was a single, unwavering voice of Union sentiments in an era when cries were heard from much of the south to secede, and was strictly "for the Constitution, the Union and the enforcement of the laws" (Newcomb 2). Through this media, Newcomb gave satirical accounts of important events leading up to the Civil War, and he defended his support for the Union, saying he "could not see neither manliness nor patriotism" in deserting "the starry flag of the Union" (Fowler 20-21).
When delegates of the Texas Secession Convention approved secession on February 1, and later in March, approved annexation to the Confederate States of America, Newcomb responded with vehement outrage. In the March 30 edition, he called the ordinance of secession a "sham bill of wrongs," by which the people had been abused and "spit upon" (Fowler 20). He encouraged people to lay their allegiances with the Union, not with this naive new confederation of greedy cotton kings.
It was obvious that the views of the violently radical Knights and the dangerously outspoken Newcomb were polar opposites, and despite warnings to leave, the audacious Newcomb insisted on running page after page of attacks on the Confederacy, the secessionists, and the KGC. The tension between the two groups festered until the Express experienced a dilemma. Waning support for the publication's views along with growing cost of paper contributed to a lack of funds, and by May 3, 1861, representatives from the Express were appearing on the doorsteps of those who were indebted to it. Meanwhile, the unstoppable Newcomb left his readers with a promise that "any important news" would be "furnished to our readers in the way of extras"(Newcomb 3).
On May 9, 1861, Col. Reeve and his Union troops were stopped 15 miles west of San Antonio at Adams Hill by the commander of Confederate Troops in Texas (Young Battle). No shots were fired in this confrontation, but it did result in the unconditional surrender of Reeve's 320 Union men to Colonel Earl Van Dorn's large force consisting of Confederate soldiers, Texas Rangers, and Knights of the Golden Circle.
Four days later, Newcomb released a 13 by 20 inch extra about this exchange in the ominous last issue of the Alamo Express (Jacobina 112). The piece was a saucy retelling of the events that occurred at the meeting entitled, "Particulars of the Brilliant Expedition of CoL Van Dorn, against the U.S. Troops, and the Glorious Battle of Adams 'Hill'" (Harding 113). In this edition of his outspoken paper, Newcomb wrote of "this disagreeable page in the history of our State," as well as the flight of many other Unionists from his great city (Harding 113). While the article epitomized Union feeling in Texas, it was also the last article of the last remaining Union newspaper in Texas (Chabot 355).
Then that night, the Mitchell-Childress committee, including the most prominent Knights of the Golden Circle, stormed the newspaper, looking for Newcomb. Unable to find him, they destroyed his furniture, broke his printing press, and set fire to the adobe building (Sturmberg 121). At midnight, an alarm bell rang through the sleeping city of San Antonio. Men from around town mounted their horses and rode hastily to the site on Main Plaza, but could not see the extent of the damage beyond the dark and rain. At the light of dawn, through the clearing smoke, the destruction of arson came into view for the town (Bliss 83).
The attitude of most of Newcomb's peers was not one of sympathy. The Daily Ledger and Texan, described the event as "A nuisance abated," and claimed that the office "should have been destroyed long since," and conveyed a feeling of hatred towards Newcomb and his traitorous ideals, a feeling that the Ledger assumed the whole community shared (Ledger).
The next day, armed with a shotgun and two six-shooters, Newcomb rode his horse down Commerce street and out of town (Bliss 83). From Texas, he fled to Mexico and eventually California, not returning for six years (Chabot 357).
Bliss, Zenas R. "San Antonio and the Secessionists, 1861-1862: From the Reminiscences of Maj. Gen. Zenas R. Bliss." Thomas T. Smith, Ben E. Pingenot, Jerry D. Thompson, and Robert Wooster. Southwestern Historical Quarterly 110 (2006): 83. The Texas State Historical Association. 7 Jan. 2009.
Chabot, Frederick C. With the Makers of San Antonio. 1970.354-57.
Fowler, John. James P. Newcomb Texas Journalist and Political Leader. Austin, TX: Department of Journalism Development Program UT Austin. 16-21.
Harding, Jacobina B. "A History of the Early Newspapers of San Antonio." Thesis. Austin, TX, 1951. 112-16.
Newcomb, James P. Sketch of Secession Times in Texas and Journal of Travel from Texas through Mexico to California (1863).
Newcomb, James P. "To- the Reading Public." Compo Vicki Betts. Alamo Express [San Antonio, TX] Aug. 18 1860: 2. Civil War Newspapers. University of Texas at Tyler. Jan. 72009 <http://www.uttyler.edu/>.
Newcomb, James P. "To Our Subscribers." Compo Vicki Betts. Alamo Express [San Antonio, TX] 3 May 1861: 3. Civil War Newspapers. University of Texas at Tyler. 7 Jan. 2009 <http://www.uttyler.edu/>.
"A Nuisance Abated." Daily Ledger and Texan [San Antonio] 14 May 1861, 438th ed.: 1-2.
Sturrnberg, Robert, History of San Antonio and of the Early Days in Texas. San Antonio, TX: Press of the Standard Printing Co., 1920. 121-22.
Young, Kevin R. "Battle of Adams Hill." The Handbook of Texas Online. Jan. 8 2008. Texas State Historical Association. Dec. 102008 <https://www.tshaonline.org/home/>.