|"A TRAGICAL AFFAIR" IN OLD MONTGOMERY|
| William J. McGrew might have been a hero, but unfortunately he turned out to be a scalawag. Born in 1844, in either Claiborne or Copiah County, Mississippi, his roots were Old Alabama, but his destiny was a grave in unholy ground in Texas.
He joined the Porter's Guards, Co. H of the 4th Texas Infantry at the beginning of the Civil War in Montgomery, Texas, but was discharged in 1861 as being disabled. He was only seventeen at the time. He returned home to Montgomery in Montgomery County, Texas to eventually become a lieutenant of the home guard, Co. K, 20th Texas Regiment, a unit basically assigned to duty in Texas and the Indian Territory.
Remaining in the Porter's Guards of Hood's famous Texas Brigade, were the Cartwright brothers of Montgomery's Bear Bend. Unfortunately, E. W. "Ras" Cartwright became the first casualty of the company. As the group was being shipped to the Virginia battlefields, the train stopped at Holly Springs, MS. Ras, six feet six, borrowed a sword and was impersonating an officer in order to impress the Southern belles gathered on the platform. Evidently, he was enjoying himself so much that he was the last man to leap aboard the moving train. Somehow, the sword caused him to trip and fall beneath the train, severing both legs and resulting in his death. The Cartwrights' bad fortune continued when brother James G. W. Cartwright was killed in the bloody Wilderness Campaign in Virginia, and brother, Lemuel, the eldest, was wounded and lost an arm in the last major conflict before Apppomatox. Their unit was devastated, and of the 143 men of Porter's Guards, Hood's Texas Brigade, only nine remained to surrender with Lee in April of 1865. However, the survivors of the Cartwright family would soon cross paths with the McGrew-Oliver clan.
Following the war in 1867, William J. McGrew [sometimes spelled McGraw] was appointed county attorney during Reconstruction. His reputation among town folks was " a Republican appointee by day, a KKK by night and a horse thief in between," according to Montgomery County Historical Society's "Choir Invisible." Added to his list of misdeeds, were the actions of John P. and Robert O. Oliver, his younger half brothers, teenagers who maddened the town folks by riding their horses into business establishments, shooting up the town, robbing and stealing.
These boys had inherited a terrible legacy. Their father and William McGrew's stepfather, Egbert O. "Eg" Oliver, had been shot down in 1853 in old Montgomery when the boys were small children. From The Autauga Citizen, Prattville, Autauga County, Alabama, issue of Thursday, October 20, 1853:
"Death of an Outlaw: The Galveston Civilian has a letter dated October 1st, Montgomery, Texas, in which the writer says, "A sad occurrence took place in our [town] between seven and eight o'clock. A man, well known in this section of the country, if not in others, named Eg Oliver, was shot from his horse on the public square. He had been arrested by the sheriff of which was for an assault with intent to kill a fellow named Lang in this county. It being the greatest charge on which the sheriff was authorized to arrest him, he brought him to our town and delivered him to our sheriff, who committed him to jail in default of bail. About a week before court began here, he broke out and was then supposed left. But during court, he was seen several times in this vicinity, and one night went to the house of our sheriff and called him up, but would not let him approach near enough to arrest him.
Yesterday, while most of our citizens were at dinner, he rode into the square, galloped about it, and then rode off again, in defiance to all. He was pursued by the sheriff and several citiznes, but eluded the pursuit, and last night, just at dark, came into town again, threatening, as I am informed, to burn the jail. In attempting to arrest him for the purpose of recommitting him, he refused to surrender, and while in the act, as was supposed from his action [it was dark] of shooting upon those gathered around him, he was shot down, fell from his horse and died immediately. Who committed the deed, can never be known, as there were several shots fired at the same time. Thus perished a man, who, by his reckless and lawless course of life has been a horror to some and respected by but few. May the memory of his many errors be buried with him. He has left a wife and two small children who had been compelled to flee from him and seek protection under the roof of strangers."
To make matters worse, William's real father had been an outlaw in his own right. William "Red Bill" McGrew and his cousin, William "Black Bill" McGrew, in their early twenties, had killed two teenage boys in Sumter County, Alabama in 1835. In May, Alabama Governor John Gayle put out an $800 bounty for their apprehension. From the Commercial Register of Mobile:
"Wanted --- A Proclamation: On or about the first day of April of the present year , William McGrew and William P. McGrew, in the county of Sumpter [Alabama] murdered a couple of boys in the foulest manner, and under the most shocking and aggravated circumstances. The oldest of the lads was 16 or 17 years of age, and his little brother about 11 or 12. Their name was Kemp. They were peaceably at work, earning a subsistence for the indigent family to which they belonged, having given no offense or provocation whatsoever, when they were cruelly shot down at the same time, in a very wantonness of deliberate and cold blooded murder."
Notices of the reward appeared in Mobile, New Orleans and even in Texas. Soon another reward of three thousand dollars was raised by the citizens of Sumter and Marengo with this description of the culprits: "William P. McGrew (Black Bill) is about twenty-four yeaers of age, hair a little dark, fair skin and blue eyes; mild, and retiring look when sober; six feet high. William McGrew (Red Bill), the cousin of the other, is about 21 years old, red hair, fair skin, eyes between gray and blue, six feet high, down look and forbidding countenance. Both addicted to intemperance." This was published in Mobile, New Orleans and the Brazoria, Texas Republican October 24, 1835.
Black Bill McGrew fled to Texas, to a place "about 125 miles from Nacogdoches" where bounty hunters from Alabama "handed a letter, perhaps from some authority in Texas, to a man there by the name of Bowie, with the expectation of getting his assistance in the taking of McGrew; but he, being a friend of McGrew, showed him the letter. The party in pursuit of McGrew immediately became alarmed and fled," according to The Voice of Sumter paper, November 6, 1837. Eventually, McGrew was betrayed by a man posing as a friend and turned over to the three bounty hunters. He was returned to Alabama, where he escaped from the Mobile jail and was subsequently recaptured by the sheriff in Little Rock, Arkansas. As he was being returned to Alabama, he created such a commotion on board the steamboat trying to escape that the Captain was obliged to put him and the sheriff off at Vicksburg. He was then shackled and the sheriff and a contingent of men delivered him for trial in Sumter County. Tried for murder, he received a $500 fine and one year to manslaughter, since evidence proved the Kemp boys had readied guns in an ambush position. In addition, the Kemp boys' mother, who was the only eyewitness, told at least three different versions of the event to anyone who would listen and she did not fare well under cross-examination. Within the year, Black Bill died form his prison experience.
Ironically, his name, William, had once been an honorable one, passed down from Black Bill's father, Col. William McGrew, a hero of the Creek War, killed by Indians at Bashi Creek in Alabama, when Bill was a child. His mother, Nancy Hainsworth McGrew Phillips, did not have such an honorable reputation. In The Voice of Sumter, August 9, 1836, she was denounced by Regulators as a "Jezebel" for harboring mixed Indians and borderers among her clan, and for aiding and abetting the Kemp-McGrew feud. The article by Louis C. Gaines called for her to be driven from the country, but she said she would rather "die on the grit.". Evidently, she did choose to return to Texas. had been listed in the failed Wavell's colony in Texas in 1830, causing her to remain in Alabama. But in 1850, she was in Leon County, Texas, whether by choice or force in unknown.
Red Bill McGrew was arrested in St. Stephens, Washington County, Alabama, in June of 1836. He was arraigned, plead not guilty, but evidently was never tried, probably due to the inconsistencies brought out in his cousin's trial. The Voice of Sumter reported his court appearance:
"Thursday being a fair day, our town was crowded with persons anxious to witness the interesting trial of McGrew, which has received double interest from its notoriety. About 10 o'clock, the accused, a young man of fine personal appearance, was brought to the bar and a great rush was made for the Court house to secure an opportunity of witnessing the event. But a small number of the multitude could crowd in the house, and the yard was thronged with spectators on tiptoe to listen to the trial." Evidently, Red Bill could no longer remain in Alabama, so he sought a new home.
Economic depression occurred in Alabama beginning with the Specie Circular in the mid-1830's and, by the early 1840's, the cotton market was in shambles. the McGrews had once been very influential and wealthy planters. The patriarch of the family, John McGrew, had arrived on the tombigbee River above Mobile in 1779, settling in what would become old Washington and Clarke counties. He had survived the English, the Spanish, and the Indians, carving out the largest holdings in the area. The chiefs of the Choctaw Nation had deeded him 1,500 acres of the best river land because "in his kindness, he had saved them from famine." He ran more than 1,000 cattle on his plantation. The infamous "Bills" were his grandsons. With the economic crash, Caroline McGrew, Red Bill's mother, moved her family to Claiborne County, Mississippi, after seeing her once-fine Alabama plantation sold for taxes, after the death of her husband, John, Jr. in 1842, in Texas. Bill and family evidently accompanied her at this time, eventually succumbing to the greener and fresher pastures of Texas in the 1840's.
How Red Bill ended his days is uncertain, but McGrew cousins who lived in old Milam, Sabine County, Texas, passed down a story of two men who arrived some time in the mid-to-late 1840's at their home. One was a McGrew cousin they called "Red," and he was wounded. The men had saddlebags full of gold, which they were taking to Mississippi. During the night, Red crept out, buried the gold and returned to bed to die before morning. The gold was never found and McGrew was buried north of the house. His mother's estate papers in 1853, in Claiborne County, MS, revealed that Red Bill was dead in Texas, survived by several children, including a son, William. This was William J. McGrew, who would come to no good end in Montgomery in a few short years, at the hands of a group of vigilantes lead by the Cartwright family.
Ironically, the Cartwrights and McGrews knew each other back in old Washington County, Alabama. Thomas Peter Cartwright, the patriarch of the family, served on juries with the McGrews, while the area was still a part of the Mississippi Territory. He was a Methodist minister and he and his wife, Elizabeth Shaw, had eleven children, all born there. Old John McGrew and his sons, John Flood McGrew and Col. William McGrew, were judges and representatives of that area, to the territorial legislature. Flood McGrew had been appointed by President John Adams as a member of the Territorial Council, five men who served as a virtual Senate of the Mississippi Territory. So, the families certainly knew each other. When they moved to Texas, the Cartwrights, also, became influential in county government, with old Peter Cartwright becoming a Justice of the Peace in 1836 and Samuel Cartwright becoming sheriff of Montgomery County. For an unknown reason, Samuel resigned in 1866. Records do not show how or when William J. McGrew became the county attorney, but they do indicate he was in office in 1867.
About this time, according to Robin Montgomery's "History of Montgomery County," Jesse James had camped at McGraw's crossing of the San Jacinto River for a few weeks. When the gang departed, they left behind Charles "Tex" Brown, a Yankee sympathizer, of whom Jesse had grown weary. Tex, also, believed to be a murderer and deserter from Wheeler's Cavalry, then fell in with the McGrew-Oliver clan. He was described by J. W. DeForest in Harper's Weekly, December, 1868, as "Twenty-three or twenty-five years of age, of medium height, slender, sinewy and agile, with a dark complexion, piercing black eyes, and a jaw disfigured by a pistol shot, and an expression of brutal ferocity."
What caused the shootout in late December of 1868 is not recorded, but two old citizens of Montgomery County, Mrs. W. c. Cameron and Mr. Buck Martin, recounted the following, according to Narcissa Boulware, of the Montgomery County Times: "When they stole a fine horse from the Cartwrights and came into town to rob the stores and head out on 'a scout' for Mexico, a mob was formed at Bear Bend, where the Gaffords, Cartwrights and others who came in after the men, lived." According to Montgomery's History, "Finally, the citizenry had had enough and, led by the old family of Cartwrights from Bear Bend, they engaged in a bloody shootout with the outlaws in Montgomery, which ranged over several blocks. At the end of the battle, all four desperadoes were dead and placed on Mrs. Oliver's porch." Sadly, Cameron and Martin, recounted the deaths of one of the boys, "Bob Oliver, the youngest, was scarecely 16 years old at the time. When the shooting started, he ran to Mrs. Chilton's house. The mob followed, promised not to shoot him if he would come out. Someone killed him with a Bowie knife. He ran back into the house before he died. Here he died under the bed. The blood stains can still be seen on the floor."
Another citizen and local judge, Nathaniel Hart Davis, recorded the bloody event on page 33 of his journal, "McGrew-Oliver Killing of December 28, 1868: On the 28th of December in the forenoon, four men, William McGrew, Esq., County Attorney for the last two years, and his two half-brothers, John and Bob Oliver, of this town and "Charles Brown" of Cokesbury, South Carolina, alias "Texas Brown" of whom an account is given in Harper's Monthly of December, 1868, were shot to death here (Montgomery) by some ten to twenty, or thereabouts, men of this town and vicinity. If the people or society can be said to act in necessary self defense in the destruction of lawless desperados, then I am of the opinion that this was such a case, a few others hereabouts may be nearly as bad as they, or some of them. One, May, made a narrow escape. McGrew, for a young man, was a moral disgrace to the legal profession, as to the office he filled. I did not recommend him to the Police Court, the appointing tribunal. After I started for Mississippi and Tennessee in January, I learned that he was in the crowd that took the Negro at court and that he and others had disguised themselves in the Post Office that night. On my return, I found quite a change for the better in Montgomery. It is now rather an orderly quiet place. And the general expression is that much good was done in the killing of December 28. There may be some, for reasons best known to themselves, who regret the death of McGrew. One white single female to whom he paid marked attention both before and since his marriage, mainfests a fondness for his memory and a sorrow at his loss and continues to talk long after, with a silly sentimentality, so says gossip. I heard not talk but believe it true --- Miss E. A."
The desperadoes were not buried in the consecrated ground of the old cemetery, but rather outside the gates, in what would become Montgomery's "New Cemetery." There is a CSA marker on Lt. William McGraw's grave, but his young Oliver stepbrothers, buried near him, lie unmarked. The only good thing said of William McGrew was recorded in the Houston Times, picked up by the Texas News, dateline, January 23, 1869, "Tragical affair at Montgomery County. Death of William McGraw, county attorney. Mr. Brown of San Antonio and two brothers named Oliver. William McGraw was in no way connected with the difficulty. He was trying to prevent the parties from using their pistols."
|This article was written by Sue Moore. We appreciate her generosity in sharing it with us, as well as the photographs below!
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|Montgomery's "New" Cemetery,
created because the local citizens didn't want the outlaws to be buried in a consecrated cemetery.
Photo courtesy of R. L. "Dan" McGrew
|Tombstone of William J. McGrew
Photo courtesy of R. L. "Dan" McGrew