James P. Newcomb




James P. Newcomb has been an important part of the history of San Antonio and Texas, especially during the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Newcomb was at the very least a complex man.  Newcomb was a journalist, either as an owner, part owner, editor, or writer for 24 newspapers.  He had been a “scout, guide, and interpreter for a Union contingent during the war.  During Reconstruction, he was an influential Radical Republican politician.  He has been called an “adventurer,” a “Bexaranian gladiator whose arenas were politics and journalism,” and “a small fry.”[1]  He was also identified as a “scalawag” by many of those who opposed his views.  James Newcomb was involved in much of what occurred during this period that involved the divisions within the Republican Party and how this division affected the white and Afro American constituencies.  An understanding of the events that surrounded Mr. Newcomb, detailed to us through his personal letters and his newspapers, helps us better understand many of the key events of Texas during these critical periods.


James Newcomb was a staunch Unionist (also see “Constitutional Union Party”) prior to and through much of the Civil War.  His support for the Union began as a young editor for an early San Antonio newspaper, The San Antonio Herald.  The following details some of his early opinions as a member of the Know-Nothings as quoted by Dale Somers in an article for the Southwestern Review.  “Newcomb’s support for the Know-Nothings rested on the conviction that only the American Party could protect the country from the subversive forces that threatened the Union:  immigration, Roman Catholicism, and abolitionism.  Like most southern Know-Nothings, the young editor (Newcomb when he was editor of the San Antonio Herald in 1855) hoped to silence the abolitionists by convincing them that ‘the anti-slavery fanaticism of the North’ would produce nothing but sectional dissension and perhaps even the dissolution of the Union.”  Somer’s describes Newcomb’s view of slavery in the article.  Newcomb believes that slavery is “... one of those evils that must be left to root itself out, which it will do, as soon as free labor becomes cheap and reliable, and not until then.”  With this in mind, “According to Newcomb … the Know-Nothings wished to end all discussion of the South’s peculiar institution as rapidly as possible.”[2]


In 1860, he published the Alamo Express.  This was the predecessor to the San Antonio Express, the newspaper that continues to be the major newspaper read in most homes within San Antonio and the surrounding area.  The Express was a Unionist paper and Newcomb used it to fight the fight the policy of session that was overtaking the South and to support Governor Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto and the Texas Revolution, who was also a Unionist.  However, when Texas did vote to secede in 1961, following in line with the other Southern slave states, Newcomb was looked upon as being unpatriotic and a negative influence for San Antonio and Texas.  As a result of his not supporting the Confederacy, the Alamo Express was destroyed.  As Newcomb described it, “a mob of ‘Knights of the Golden Circle’ and (Confederate) rangers, broke into my office, destroyed the press and material and then set fire to the building . . . the last Union paper in Texas.”[3]


Because of his anti-secession beliefs and his use of the local newspapers to support his views, Newcomb was one of 150 Unionist who were the targeted for either hanging or banishment.  As a result, Newcomb fled San Antonio and Texas.  He led a party of people, also fleeing Texas, on a trek across Mexico, arriving in Mazatlan and from there to San Francisco.  He would accompany a group of California volunteers overland to the Rio Grande, operating as a guide in his determination to aid the Union.  It is during this period that Newcomb begins to move from a Unionist towards a Republican.  His writings and editorials become more lenient towards the ‘Black Republicans,” although he still held many of his original views concerning slavery in the south.[4]


Newcomb would remain outside of Texas until 1867.  He would return then to become active in the reconstruction of the state.  It was through Newcomb’s support of Radical Republican policies that he would result in his rise within the Republican Party.  He was actively involved as a Radical Republican and supporter of Edmund Davis during the Constitutional Convention of 1868-69.  He would serve as Secretary of State under Governor Edmund J. Davis in 1870.[5]  Newcomb was actively involved with the formation of voting clubs (Union League) and organizing the formation of a Radical Republican voting block.[6]

[1] John Fowler, James P. Newcomb:  Texas Journalist and Political Leader (Austin, TX:  The University of Texas Press), iii.

[2] Dale Somers, “James P. Newcomb:  The Making of a Radical”, Southwestern Historical Quarterly1969 72(4):  449-469.

[3] James P. Newcomb, Sketch of Secession Times in Texas and Journal of Travel from Texas through Mexico to California, and a History of the “Box Colony” (2 vol.; San Francisco, 1863),  I, 12.

[4] Dale Somers, James P. Newcomb, 460-461.

[5] Dale Somers, James P. Newcomb, 464-465.

[6] John Fowler, James P. Newcomb, 45.