A Race Gets Nasty       

While doing some research in an archive some time back, I came across a letter regarding the 1857 attempt by Louis Wigfall to unseat Senator Thomas J. Rusk.The letter was written by Samuel E. “Doc” Asbury to Dr. Milledge L. Bonham, Jr.

Asbury (1872-1962) was a professor of chemistry at Texas A&M, who in his spare time conducted extensive research on the Texas Revolution.

Bonham was a historian and great-nephew of Alamo defender James Butler Bonham.

This letter proves once again, there is always something more to learn about our historical figures.

Dear Dr. Bonham –

Now that we have exhausted the Travis legend, I wish to take up another with you. Your reference to Mr. Slayton’s writing you about Thomas J. Rusk’s early history in South Carolina has been on my mind ever since reading it.

The orthodox version of Thos. J. Rusk’s appearance in Texas is that he followed some stolen slaves into Texas, lost sight of them here, but liked the country so well, he decided to stay.

Now in 1920, Congressman Rufus Handy told me the following story:

He heard it directly from Governor Coke of Texas, who was living in Corsicana when the incident occurred.

It seems Louis T. Wigfall was a candidate against Thos. J. Rusk in 1856, or whenever it was Rusk went before the people last for re-election. (Note: it was 1857. Though US senators were chosen by the state legislatures at that time, candidates still campaigned and sought the support of the people.)

Louis T. Wigfall was from South Carolina also, and in the opinion of your humble correspondent, a scoundrel. In some way he got hold of the real scandal which drove Rusk out of South Carolina, and in his canvas he gave it out that in his Corsicana speech he would expose Rusk’s record back there.
The real facts seem to be that Rusk’s step-father had been very fond of him, and given him authority to sign his (the step-father’s) name to notes, checks, etc.

Rusk signed one for his own use for five hundred dollars. By the time it matured, a terrible quarrel had risen between step-father and step-son. The step-father, when faced with the five hundred dollar note with his signature, denounced it as a forgery by his hated step-son, and actually took steps to prosecute the charge in the courts. Thos. J. Rusk, realizing that the cards were all stacked for his ruin, left South Carolina.

I don’t think he came direct to Texas, probably tarried a while in Alabama, Mississippi, etc. But anyhow, Louis T. Wigfall in private conversation had put the worst construction on it, and gave it out he would denounce Rusk as a forger on the stump at Corsicana.

Wigfall was in the log hotel at Corsicana writing his speech the night before. But in the meantime, some true friend of Rusk’s had told him of Wigfall’s threats and intentions. Rusk rode horseback alone over open country from Nagcogdoches to Corsicana, arriving about nine o’clock the night before the day of the speech.

He immediately asked to be taken to see Louis T. Wigfall. Rusk went into Wigfall’s room alone, and closed the door behind him. But he was recognized and a number of local Corsicana men listened through the log cracks.

Rusk walked to the table where Wigfall was writing and said, “Wigfall, I understand you have a story of my life in South Carolina you intend telling on the stump here tomorrow.”

Wigfall said, “Yes, that is true.”

“Then,” Rusk said, “if you do not promise not to tell that story tomorrow, I will cut your heart out of your body this minute!” and Rusk drew a ten inch Bowie knife ready for action.

Wigfall never told the story then or ever. He promised Rusk, and he kept his word, even after Rusk died. For Thos. J. Rusk was a desperate man in anger, and he meant every word he said. He would most certainly have killed him.

Now, I can’t vouch for every detail as I tell it being exactly as Judge Hardy told it to me, but I think in essentials it is much as the Judge gave it to me. Now, pass this on to your father. If you know any of Wigfall’s folks, you might get Wigfall’s side of it.

I am sure Governor Coke would not fabricate. Besides, he was , I think, on the secession side with Wigfall, rather than with Houston or Rusk; tho’ Rusk was much nearer the South Carolina idea than Houston. Still he was not an idiot, like Louis T. Wigfall.

Now, Rusk’s suicide is indissolubly bound up in my mind with this story….Many old men, wise old men, have told me that Rusk’s death was a national disaster. (Rusk was despondent after the death of his wife and shot himself)

Not Houston, but Rusk, could have been a successful compromise candidate (for President) at the Convention of 1860. He was, I think, president pro temp of the senate when he died. In the senate he was universally loved. And at the time, the battle was in the senate rather than in the house. There was no hope for moderation after his death

Now write me your reactions to this letter, and pass on to your father the carbon of it I enclose. It is one of those stories that has never yet seen print, and so as it is Judge Hardy’s story, and his right to publish, I hope you and your father will hold it under the rose. In Texas, veneration for Rusk’s life and devotion to the state has kept the story, I think, from ever seeing print.

Yours very truly,
Sam’l E. Asbury

It should be noted that Louis T. Wigfall was no coward. He had a reputation for violence. While Fort Sumter was was under bombardment, he rowed out alone to dictate surrender terms to the commander.

In a strange twist if fate, it was Wigfall who was elected to fill the remainder of Rusk’s senate term after his suicide.

Carnival of Death

If Rusk had been elected President in 1860, the events of this book would never have happened.

Click here to read all about it.